19 October 2011


This blog has been largely dormant this year. There are a few reasons for that, the largest one being that I have started to see myself more as a tool for disseminating agitprop rather than a creator of it, and social media largely gives me a better vehicle to do that to whatever small world where I happen to be. There are plenty of people with more intelligent things to say than me, and I figure it's more of a service to do not as much exhaling as inhaling.

Nevertheless I think it would be abdicating some responsibility not to write a few words about what we can loosely call the "Occupy" movement, which is certainly the most significant left movement in my lifetime in the United States and likely the biggest moment for radical politics in the US since 1968.

It was not supposed to be so. The idea of a permanent encampment "occupying" Wall Street was initially conceived by the small radical magazine Adbusters and amplified around the internet by the hacktivist collective Anonymous, claiming inspiration from the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignants. Few liberal pundits were prepared to take it seriously, foreseeing another small forgettable gathering of unintelligible hippies. Then something quite remarkable happened: A commune of protestors planted themselves in the media capital of the world armed with a simple class-war message, embodied by the ever-present slogan "We are the 99 percent," and began rapidly and inexorably gaining a mass base of popular sympathy completely unaided by the usual partisan Democratic "activist" groups. Copycat "occupations' have sprung up in dozens of cities around the world.

The mainstream press has of course been professing ignorance from the outset about what the "message" or "demands" were, and what they plan to use in place of the current system of power. This is purely posturing which is easily answered by spending any time in the occupied space, which in New York has been redubbed "Liberty Plaza." They are there to fight the war against the ruling class, and have set up a small self-governing city with a decentralized, leaderless consensus democracy of the sort enjoying wide popularity in contemporary anarchist circles. I am reminded of the old IWW notion of "building the new world in the shell of the old," there are numerous other influences as well.

 There are considerable challenges ahead, however. The first will come from the political class and its liberal enforcers, who, after a period of scrambling to take stock of the moment, are now lustily eying the protests as a kind of Democratic answer to the Tea Party, an attempt to rescue a party's sagging image with a re-branding. There is no small risk that trained political managers will step into the leadership vacuum, strip the movement of any radical elements (one already hears the usual cowering of liberals from being associated with "anarchists" and other riff-raff) and utilize the branding of the popular occupation to flak for some tepid, ineffectual reform that is more bark than bite. There will likely be considerable resistance to this; much of the core of the movement, beyond the radicals, is made up of disaffected young Obama voters who have seen the deceptiveness of electoral politics in the Democrats' utter failure to deliver barely modest reform in the wake of historically smashing victories.

This would be a disaster on many fronts. The Occupiers have deliberately chosen to rally around the all-encompassing banner of "the 99 percent" rather than the middle-class reformism which Democratic politicians and liberal pundits blather ceaselessly. They have proven, contra the establishment of both parties and their media flacks, that an explicit class war message resonates with the public imagination, even if they are shrewd enough not to use those poisoned words exactly. Becoming an Obama campaign front would ruin much of the goodwill the Occupation currently enjoys, both in its association with establishment politics and the inevitable dilution of its message into a meaningless muddle by the liberal wing of the finance party. 

I should also note as an aside that they have produced a popular non-partisan movement which is not enamoured of technocratic centrist billionaires. Old Mike Bloomberg has become something of the Scrooge of this story, in fact. I point this out just because it's fun to think of which hole Thomas Friedman has gone to hide in to console himself.

It is, however, entirely fair to wonder what the protests can accomplish. The electoral arena is dry, but, as of now, the occupiers lack the sheer critical mass to enforce change by presenting a direct threat to the well being of the ruling class. So far, marches have numbered in the thousands; that will have to increase to the millions for something like that to be achieved. Perhaps the most we can hope for at this point is the old left idea of "raising consciousness;" if the occupation continues to preach its beautifully simple, easily understood message, the great inert mass of Americans may yet shed their skepticism for a revolution.