The Left Declares Its Independence


From TODD GITLIN
NYT

If some aspects of the Occupy Wall Street protest feel predictable — the drum circles, the signs, including “Tax Wall Street Transactions” and “End the FED” — so does the right-wing response. Is it any surprise that Fox News and its allied bloggers consider the protesters “deluded” and “dirty smelly hippies”?

Then again, maybe it is surprising. As more than a few observers have noted, the Occupy Wall Street chant, “We Are the 99 Percent” — a shot across the bow of the wealthiest 1 percent of the country, which includes the financial predators and confidence gamers who crashed the global economy with impunity — seems synonymous with the Tea Party’s “Take Back America” ethos.

Those similarities, though, mask profound differences. The two movements both loathe the elite, but their goals, and the passions that drive them forward, could not be more at odds.

The Tea Party, for all its apparent populism, revolves around a vision of power and how to attain it. Tea Partiers tend to be white, male, Republican, graying, married and comfortable; the political system once worked for them, and they think it can be made to do so again. They revile government, but they adore hierarchy and order. Not for them the tents and untucked shirts, the tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks that are eye candy for lazy journalists. (“Am I dressed too nice so the media doesn’t interview me?” read one Occupy Wall Street demonstrator’s sign.)

In contrast, what should we make of Occupy Wall Street? The movement is, of course, nascent, and growing: on Oct. 5, it picked up thousands of marching supporters of all ages, many from unions, professions and universities, and crowded Foley Square. Its equivalents rallied in 50 cities. Deep anger at grotesque inequities extends far beyond this one encampment; after all, a few handfuls of young activists do not have a monopoly on the fight against plutocracy. Revulsion in the face of a perverse economy is felt by many respectable people: unemployed, not yet unemployed, shakily employed and plain disgusted. A month from now, this movement, still busy being born, could look quite different.

And yet it remains true that the core of the movement, the (mostly young and white, skilled but jobless) people who started the “occupation” three weeks ago, consists of what right-wing critics call anarchists. Indeed, some occupiers take the point as a compliment — because that is precisely the quality that sets them apart from the Tea Party. Anarchism has been the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements for nearly the past half century, as it is in Zuccotti Park.

IN this recent incarnation, anarchism, for the most part, is not so much a theory of the absence of government, but a theory of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government. The idea is that you do not need institutions because the people, properly assembled, properly deliberating, even in one square block of Lower Manhattan, can regulate themselves. Those with the time and patience can frolic and practice direct democracy at the same time — at least until the first frost.

The anarchist impulse is nothing new in America. There were strong anarchist streaks in the New Left of the 1960s — stronger than the socialist streak, in fact, despite all the work Marxists did to define proper class categories for the student movement. “Let the people decide,” one of the early rallying cries of Students for a Democratic Society (of which I was president from 1963 to 1964), meant, in practice, “Let’s have long meetings where everyone gets to talk.” De facto, this meant that politics was for people who, in a sense, talked for a living — in other words, college types.

It was a revolutionary idea, at least for its time and in certain places: in the Deep South, for civil rights workers and black farm workers just to meet and talk was a dangerously radical, and radically dangerous, proposition.

But the left’s distrust of outside authority reached, and still reaches, much further. The bumper sticker of the 1960s New Left could have been Bob Dylan’s lyric “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters,” cheekily pairing hierarchy with overregulation. By 1967, its membership soaring, the S.D.S. was so suspicious of leadership, so disdainful of the formal structures of its first five years, as to abolish its own presidential and vice-presidential offices.

As the S.D.S. discovered in 1969, when quarreling Maoist-Guevarist and Stalinist factions tore it apart, chaotic meetings and suspicion of formal procedures didn’t keep tiny hierarchies from exercising decisive control. Radical feminists came to similar conclusions. Nevertheless, hostility to elitism remained all the rage. From the early ’70s on, activists went into revolt against just about anybody’s authority, even their own. Vertical authority had a foul odor: it smacked of colonialism, patriarchy, bad white men lording themselves over voiceless minions. In left-wing activist circles, establishments of all sorts were the immoral equivalents of The Establishment.

Disgruntled by big-talking leaders, turned off by celebrity media, the left of the ’70s developed a horizontal style, according limited authority to their own leaders, who were frequently at pains to deny that they were leaders at all. “Affinity groups” and “working groups” replaced organized factions and parties. Even movements that seemed to require some level of verticality — those with concrete goals, like banning nuclear power and weapons, or opposing apartheid — were mostly leaderless.

That explains why, to the bafflement of their ideological opponents, such movements barely paused at the fall of Communism. When Leninist regimes collapsed, and their self-confident social democratic rivals crumpled as well, anarchism’s major competitors for a theory of organization imploded.

This new protest style is more Rousseau than Marx. What the Zuccotti Park encampment calls horizontal democracy is spunky, polymorphic, energetic, theatrical, scattered and droll. An early poster showed a ballerina poised gingerly on the back of Wall Street’s bull sculpture, bearing the words: “Occupy Wall Street. September 17th. Bring Tent.” It likes government more than corporations, but its own style is hardly governmental. It tends to care about process more than results.

And oh, how it loves to talk. It is no surprise that it makes fervent use of the technologies of horizontal communication, of Facebook and Twitter, though the instinct predated — perhaps prefigured — those tools. Not coincidentally, this was also the spirit of the more or less leaderless, partyless revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt that are claimed as inspiration in Lower Manhattan. An “American Autumn” is their shot at an echo of the “Arab Spring.”

OCCUPY Wall Street, then, emanates from a culture — strictly speaking, a counterculture — that is diametrically opposed to Tea Party discipline.

So where do these romantics go from here? The Zuccotti Park core doesn’t seem to have a plan, or even to take kindly to the idea of consolidating a list of demands. And yet, by taking the initiative, they have aroused, as with the Oct. 5 march, less romantic and more conventionally organized allies who do not disdain political demands. Such is the cunning of political history. Having set out to be expressive, the anarchists have found themselves playing, willy-nilly, a most strategic role.

Such movements hope to remain forever under construction, fluid, unfixed. They slip laughingly through the nets of journalism, which prefers hard-and-fast answers to the question “What do you people want?”

But the interesting, difficult, even decisive moment in the career of such a movement comes when allies arrive, especially allies not so enamored of horizontal democracy and more taken by the idea of getting results. These forces showed up on Oct. 5. De facto, there is an alliance in the cards.

It makes sense. Here, finally, is what labor and the activist left have been waiting for. For two years, Barack Obama got the benefit of the doubt from fervent supporters — I’d bet that many of those in Lower Manhattan during these weeks went door-to-door for him in 2008 — and that support explains why no one occupied Wall Street in 2009. Now, as Jeremy Varon, a historian at the New School, said of Zuccotti Park: “This is the Obama generation declaring their independence from his administration.”

By allying itself with the protest, the left at large is telling the president that a campaign slogan that essentially says “We’re better than Eric Cantor” won’t cut it in 2012. “We are the 99 percent” would be more like it. If President Obama takes this direction, the movement’s energy may be able to power a motor of significant reform.

That raises the question, though, of whether the inchoate quality of the Occupy Wall Street movement can continue. Probably not, since an evolving alliance demands concrete goals, strategies and compromises. But perhaps something of the initial free spirit can flourish. There is plenty of public sentiment to nourish it. It doesn’t take public opinion polls to detect American anger at the plutocracy and the impunity with which it lords it over the country.

The culture of anarchy is right about this: The corporate rich — those ostensible “job creators” who somehow haven’t gotten around to creating jobs — rule the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party as well, having artfully arranged a mutual back-scratching society to enrich themselves. A refusal to compromise with this system, defined by its hierarchies of power and money, would be the current moment of anarchy’s great, lasting contribution.

Until now, fury at the plutocracy and the political class had found no channel to run in but the antigovernment fantasies of the Tea Party. Now it has dug a new channel. Anger does not move countries, but it moves movements — and movements, in turn, can move countries. To do that, movements need leverage. Even Archimedes needed a lever and a place to stand to move the world. When Zuccotti Park meets an aroused liberalism, the odd couple may not live happily ever after. But they can make a serious run at American dreams of “liberty and justice for all.”

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and communications at Columbia and co-author of “The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.”
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One Comment

Todd Gitlin’s article is quite fine. The choice of the heading cartoon is also appropriate. Socialism spells bureaucracy, bureaucrats wanting to tell us what milk to drink and what other small farm foods to eat, to buckle our seatbelts, to not beg or engage in petty theft when we’re wanting or “camp” when we have no home, to get approval for adding a shed, and generally to protect us and others from ourselves – but, never from the big guys. Oh, bureaucracies are always willing to do things for us, but ever to their benefit. By the way, this is true for corporate bureaucracies as well. The old KISS, keep it simple stupid, is always the best.

Incidentally, I thought the OWS effort might have little effect simply because of the power of government to suppress. The mass rebellions in Syria and in Greece are other such situations – Greece is increasing its military budget. It was pointed out to me, however, that the resonance arising from such efforts and other similar ones around the globe might actually start crumpling these supposedly untouchable edifices. May it be.

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