"They don't hate capitalism, they hate what's been done to it” - Bill Maher
“Death to Capitalism” - Banner displayed at Occupy Wall Street Protests
"It's always best on these occasions to do what the mob do'
'But suppose there are two mobs?' suggested Mr. Snodgrass.
'Shout with the largest.' replied Mr. Pickwick"
- Charles Dickens
Liberals still don’t know what to make of OccupyWall Street.
Maybe that’s the point. I sometimes think that the amorphous quality of the Occupy Wall Street movement is precisely the source of its appeal. Got a grievance about the status quo? Grab a banner and come on down. Whatever it is that’s pissing you off about the powers that be - injustice, unemployment, wealth disparity - Occupy Wall Street has something to offer.
What enthusiasts describe as a “broad coalition,” others would call an incoherent mess. Occupy Wall Street isn’t a big tent as much as it is an untidy confederation of sleeping bags. They insist that their goals are clear and just. But ask any two Occupiers what their goals are and you won’t get the same response – unless it’s an answer that is so general (“A fair society!”) as to be practically meaningless. What's the practical result that you seek? World revolution? Banking reform? Political reform? Tax reform? Job creation? A general condemnation of corporate greed? Support for organized labor? Criticism of U.S. foreign policy? All of the above?
Any fair minded person can find something they agree with in the cacophony of populist outrage. But there’s much about Occupy Wall Street that seems useless, if not troubling and counterproductive. The most positive thing I can say about Occupy Wall Street is this: It’s better than apathy. When citizens come together to express outrage over a broken system, they are serving an essential function of democracy. But is Occupy Wall Street bringing us closer to fixing any particular problem ailing us? The movement’s more measured defenders remind us that real change takes a long time to materialize. This is just the beginning of a conversation. Conversation? If I seem skeptical, it might be because of the experience I had when I stumbled upon an Occupy rally in downtown Boston last October. The masked protesters blocking traffic, surrounding our car and marching with their “Death to Capitalism” banner didn't seem much interested in conversation.
Now I realize that it’s unfair to judge a demonstration by the most outrageous demonstrators or the most extreme slogans. That’s a game that the media and political spin doctors play all the time. They show us the photograph of the idiot displaying hateful slogans scrawled in bad grammar to create the impression that the knucklehead is actually representative of the movement. It works for the left as well as the right.
In the interest of offering a more balanced take on the views of the Occupiers, I reviewed a collection of photos posted on Facebook. Here’s a random sampling of banners from last week’s May Day event:
- “Healthcare is a Human Right”
- “Stop the Greed”
- “Free Alkawaja – Support Democracy in Bahrain”
- “Stop Raising Interest Rates for College Loans”
- “Dear 1%, its Over. We’d Like Our Stuff Back.”
- “The USA & CIA are the #1 Terrorists in the World”
- “Long Live Communism”
- “Restore Glass Steagell”
- “NYU, the Debtors College”
- “Somos el nu se 99%”
- “Fuck Your Unpaid Internships”
- “Imagine World Peace”
- “Monsanto Herbicide Gets Sprayed on Your Food”
- “Why Work? Make History! Celebrate May Day. Join Workers, Immigrants and the 99% at Union Square."
There are many possible answers: Because of my own day job. Because the stated goal of the event, “to block the flow of capital,” doesn’t seem productive to me. Because I don’t feel comfortable marching alongside masked demonstrators who would be just at home at a Hamas rally. Because the “us versus them” mentality driving this protest strikes me as divisive and simplistic. Because I don’t agree with much of what is being expressed. And because the sentiments that I DO agree with are little more than that – sentiments, rather than solutions. An exception is “Restore Glass-Steagell.” Now THAT is some sensible legislation that I can get behind. But protests aren’t about sensible legislation. They are about emotion and attention and demagoguery. ( Paul Berman writes that "it is not the job of festivals to be articulate...it is the job of magazines to be articulate.")
Occupy Wall Street also appeals to those baby boomers who are nostalgic for the protests of the 1960s. I missed out on all of that. (I was two years old when the Kent State shootings occurred). But I can’t help but wonder if younger Occupiers are trying to recreate the sense of purpose and social consciousness that they imagine the 1960s were about. They want to take part in a historical moment and are fueled by the intoxicating belief that their own generation's activism can make a real difference. If you can get past the herd mentality thing, there’s something romantic, almost noble in the sentiment. There is the promise of community within the carnival.
But the 60s were quite different. For all of the turbulence and counterculture, the essence of the political protest could be distilled to two concrete goals: 1) End the war in Vietnam, and 2) Promote equality by means of Civil Rights legislation. The primary targets of Occupy Wall Street, Corporate Greed and Income Inequality, are shapeless by comparison. To be sure, the protests of the 1960s were not only about politics. There was sex, drugs and music and the blossoming of a youth culture that would not be restrained. The rallies and gatherings themselves served a different purpose. There was no Facebook or social media then – the rallies WERE the social media. Quite simply, these are different times.
It is possible to think of Occupy Wall Street as the left’s version of the Tea Party. Both movements are driven by populist outrage, grassroots organization and us-versus-them rhetoric. The Tea Partiers emphasize “liberty” and take aim at government and "special interests". The Occupiers emphasize “justice” and take aim at corporate influence in government. But they are largely warring against the same system although they come at it from a different place in our culture and with a different social agenda. Some see Occupy Wall Street as part of a larger global movement but it’s far from clear how much traction or influence it will have on U.S. politics. The Tea Party on the other hand has already influenced the outcome of dozens of congressional elections and there is an official Tea party congressional caucus chaired by Michele Bachmann. There are 66 republicans in Congress who are members. There is nothing like that for Occupy Wall Street.
The comparative lack of coherence and organization on the part of the Occupiers reminds me of a point made by Antony Beevor in his excellent history of the Spanish Civil War. Beevor's Introduction explains that the war was not simply a battle between left and right – there were other axes of conflict: state centralism against regional independence and authoritarianism against the freedom of the individual.
"The nationalist forces of the right were much more coherent because, with only minor exceptions, they combined three cohesive extremes. They were right wing, centralist, and authoritarian at the same time. The Republic, on the other hand, represented a cauldron of incompatibilities and mutual suspicions, with centralists and authoritarians, especially the communists, opposed by regionalists and libertarians."
I am not remotely suggesting that a civil war is brewing. But a “cauldron of incompatibilities” similar to the one that doomed the republic's forces in Spain also threatens to undermine Occupy Wall Street. Does the movement seek to fix capitalism or tear it down? At its heart, is it an expression of liberalism or radicalism? If the movement really does have staying power, time will tell.
As legitimate as the grievances are, Occupy Wall Street does not speak for most Americans. Neither does the Tea Party. But it’s usually the loudest and most radical elements that get the most attention (and raise most of the money). Political moderates hope to steer such movements to the center where consensus can be reached and practical solutions may be realized. But radicalism has a mind of its own. In Europe, for example, the influence of extremist political groups is on the rise.
I’m reminded of the banner which was displayed in 2010 at Jon Stewart’s semi-satirical Rally to Restore Sanity:
What Do We Want?
When Do We Want It?
After Peer Review!
Now THAT’s the stuff that gets the blood pumping.