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Abstraction, Rage and Constructive Change

    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His latest book, 'Conservatism', was published in May 2011 by Reaktion Books.

    There is a fine view of St Paul’s from the 4th level of Tate Modern across the Thames. Not a matter of great political import, perhaps, but a pregnant juxtaposition for the visitor to the Tate’s magnificent retrospective of Gerhard Richter’s career.

    The unifying theme of Richter’s incredibly diverse output is the nature of representation, and how the classical tradition can continue in the modern world where we find mechanised violence, the appropriation of image for commercial rather than spiritual purposes, and naïve assumptions of realism that have accompanied the development of photographic technology. Apologies for the art bollocks, but the main thing for our purposes is how this informs Richter’s response to political events.

    He is most famous for his cycle of paintings of the leaders of the Baader Meinhof group in life and death, but a couple of recent works bring us back to St Paul’s. Demo, from 1997, is a blurry painting taken from a photograph of a demonstration in the streets of a German city. The demonstrators are spectres, their placards and flags plain red, while the details of other signs are clear. The demonstrators – to whom Richter is sympathetic – seem to be saying nothing in particular, compared to the road signs, which inform and direct, and the shop signs, which attract the consumer.

    Another interesting piece is Richter’s book War Cut from 2004, represented at the Tate by the layouts for each of the pages; they fill a wall. War Cut juxtaposes texts about the Iraq War from the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung with close-up photographs of sections of one of Richter’s own abstract paintings. The texts are precise discussions of violence and death, while the abstract images are merely suggestive. Some look like expressions of inchoate rage; others seem to illustrate certain aspects of the story – the desert, or the night, or an explosion. All of these interpretations, however, are necessarily subjective.

    How to protest when our representational forms seem inadequate: such is Richter’s dilemma, exquisitely illustrated. Which brings us onto the Occupy movement, and its presence at St Paul’s.

    The Occupiers have certainly brought a latent sense of anger, disbelief and impotence to the surface, affecting politics the world over to a degree that demonstrations rarely do (even those who dismiss the movement have been discussing it in depth). The initial statement of the Stock Exchange occupiers combines perfectly reasonable suggestions (“We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate”) with ho-hum slogans (“We want structural change towards authentic global equality”). Some of their aims (“We support the strike on the 30th November and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing”) bring together the most parochial politicking at the beginning of the sentence with giant ambitions at the end. They have their earnest side, with teach-ins, general assemblies and radical poetry workshops (zzz), and their media-savvy side, running rings around the Church of England, which is supposed to know something about real-world morality.

    The issues they raise are the nature of capitalism and its relation with wider society, and it goes without saying that these are timely. Yet they have nothing to say. They are proud of this, with one commentator arguing that “if the occupations can be maintained without ceding to external or internal pressures to clarify, they have the potential to gain a cultural foothold and evolve into something much bigger than a protest”.

    Well, maybe. The Occupiers’ problem is precisely that with which Richter has been wrestling for 50 years or more – how to change things without a positive vision. Richter’s suspicion, surely correct, is that a positive vision has the potential to turn into something just as oppressive as what it replaced. The Occupiers announce that “We need alternatives” and “This is what democracy looks like”, but do not tell us what those alternatives are, or how their democracy will furnish them.

    This has been the object of criticism, even scorn, but I think the Occupiers, with Richter, are correct. Protest is an inchoate response to a recognised ill. It is a poor testing ground for genuine policy – but it is no less valid for that. The protestors seem to have little idea of how the financial world works – they want to reverse the government’s cuts, and berate the banks, but without the financial sector we would not have had New Labour’s spending splurge, which is all that is being cut. And how are we to provide pensions without a financial sector?

    Capitalism needs to be saved, from itself and from its enemies. Its moral and social purpose, so clear in the writings of Adam Smith and Hayek, has become obscured in the search for paper value. No-one is innocent – the financial sector created instruments whose risks were unknown and hard to locate; governments across the globe neglected to remove the burdens to business while living off the bond markets; citizens voted for unaffordable benefits; consumers overspent the money they had borrowed on inflated assets.

    Nothing the Occupiers have said shows that they have grasped the deep seated nature of the problem, which is caused by the 1% with the connivance of a goodly chunk of the 99% they claim to represent. Reforms of systems and institutions can only be part of the solution. A new realism is also needed, a realism that to my mind will be more evident in the pages of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments than in Gramsci or Chomsky (let alone the complex differential equations of Black, Scholes and the financial whizz-kids).

    We should be grateful that the Occupiers have given voice to a genuine anger, as even the Economist’s business columnist Schumpeter agrees. We should be grateful too that they have forborn, so far, to give us their concrete solutions.

    Their cry is an abstract howl of rage, paint splattered randomly across a political canvas. It can be interpreted in a range of ways. It may bring good, or ill, or have no lasting effect. But personally, I hope it will be listened to by those with capitalism’s interests at heart.

    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His research interests are:
    the politics and philosophy of technology, particularly the World Wide Web; transparency and open data; privacy; memory; and conservative philosophy.

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