A Critical Look at the Occupy Movement

In the few months of the Occupy movement, an enormous amount of commentary has erupted, from all sectors, right and left, Left and Right. Already there are books about it, collections of documents and the like. Clearly, it aimed to change the debate, to take the momentum away from the Tea Party, and to some extent it has succeeded. However, the marked enthusiasm of aging Leftists, often amounting to prayerful gratitude that Someone Is Doing Something at Last, should prompt scrutiny instead of hosannas. One anonymous observer on the Right quipped that their chants amounted to: “What do we want? Nothing. When do we want it? Now.” Ouch.

To be fair, the motivations of many Occupiers were clear. They had gone heavily into debt in their college education, had even graduated, only to find there were no jobs, and there weren’t going to be any jobs. Wise pundits reflected the “recession” might go on for years and years, or decades. It was an outrageous situation, and found expression in broadly felt outrage from those thus discarded from society.

But as the movement unfolded, with tent communities (a key word, to which we will return in a moment), remaining determinedly in all kinds of rain and storms, I kept thinking: I have seen this before, but where? At last it struck me one day: these young people are replicating the meme of Reality TV. A small but courageous band goes into the wilderness, paints their faces, contrives to shape some form of social group, beats drums until late at night, fends off all kinds of feral challenges, speaks in tongues, discards its weak members and rewards those who endure, and finally a saving remant prevails.

I have to admit I’ve never even watched one of these appalling TV shows. A minute or two with the sound off suffices. Like everything else on network TV, the very name of the thing is its opposite. They are anything but Real.

In the 1960s, the radicals of Students for Democratic Society, many of them “red diaper babies,” i.e. the children of parents who had been in or close to the Communist Party and similar organizations, at least knew there had been some kind of history back there. They didn’t feel they had to know anything about it, it just wasn’t necessary to study anything, and of course they subsequently reverted to archaic forms of revolt, similar to the terrorist activities of the Narodniks in 19th century Russia. Aiming to escape history, they became atavistic, and finally collapsed. Recently I forced myself to watch a documentary film on the Weather Underground. One after another, now old veterans of that period, some still in prison, others released after decades of incarceration, said that their devolution into terrorism had been erroneous and futile. Then they all firmly declared they would do it all over again. This is what passes for learning in present-day America.

Now the Occupy people do not even know that there was a history, of anything. At the encampment in Kansas City, near the Federal Reserve building, and ironically, tents cluster around a monument to the U.S. soldiers in the Spanish-American War. There was a Day of Learning, so I went to check it out. I was impressed at how young people could squat in the dusty grass and listen to hour after hour of repetitive harangues about the Evil Corporations. But there were no perspectives from the past. One group heard an incoherent lecture about Aristotle, followed by an ecstatic lesson in Dance.

There seems to be some new mode of communication, a ritualistic twiddling of massed hands, approving or disapproving what is being said. Lacking amplification (forbidden by the police), they repeat short sentences in cadences, giving the effect of an incantation.

The whole affair is clearly a crude and juvenile effort to start building some kind of community, any kind of community. Many participants have testified they have felt a part of a living group for the first time in their lives. This is no small matter: as in the 1950s, alienation in 2010s America has become deep and severe. The labor unions are but a shadow of their former selves. Schools are merely custodial and punitive. The mass media are full of palpable imbecility. It’s a real mess, and these young people have tried to begin to straighten it out.

The central “authority” in the Occupy sites is the General Assembly. But in practice they lapse into interminable and inconclusive chaos. Participatory democracy: good. Democratic centralism: bad.

The difference between the 1930s and now is that the Hoovervilles were populated by people who literally had no homes. Though the Occupy sites have attracted some homeless people, they are often viewed as nuisances by their supposed comrades, who are only fleeing suburbia.

Lest it seem that I am resorting to mocking dismissal, let me again grant that the grievances of the Occupy movement are real. The 1% have indeed ripped off the 99%, though I’d have to note that there are a sizeable part of the 99%, say 40% who still defend capitalism in spite of everything. That would be the Tea Party, unaware as they are that their organizations are being secretly funded by the 1%. America, I would argue, is the World Center of False Consciousness.

So, what to do? It’s difficult, because adolescence has been artificially extended in this society, far beyond what it biologically should be. It’s a trend of long-standing. Peter Pan and the kids around him never want to grow up. Grayheaded rock stars still strut their stuff before mass audiences, though lately the giant raves of yore have not been so successful.

The Occupy movement, like the society, needs to grow up, as St. Paul said, when he became a man, he put away childish things. A revolutionary movement would be active on all fronts, including electoral politics, because like it or not, that is where power in this society is lodged. No matter if you pound drums all night, the gates of the Federal Reserve will not swing open in the morning, and bankers will not issue forth to admit they have plundered us, and say: “Here is all our money.” We have to take their money, either peacefully through sufficient taxation to unseat their power, or through other means.


Written by Fred Whitehead; reprinted from The Sandbur #3 [email newsletter], December 11, 2011.


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Photo credit: Eric Bowers