Who Occupies the Occupiers?
I’m glad Mike Drew wrote a guest post. Mike’s comments are consistently the ones I meditate over most (which explains why I rarely respond to them while the thread is still active.), and Mike’s guest post is like the king of Mike Drew Comments. I have lots of things to say in response to his post, which ties into my chosen blogging theme here of unemployment and poverty in America.
Mike writes of Occupy Wall Street:
“It’s an occupation designed to disrupt the working status quo of cities because of lingering social and economic issues that the group feels are being neglected.”
I agree, somewhat, and this is what disturbs me most about the Occupy movement. Now, the standard old man retort to Drew’s point is: ‘what if everyone started disrupting shit because they didn’t like what’s going on? The whole world would be covered with unproductive whiners.’ Ultimately this idea finds its most cogent expression in the phrase: the perfect is the enemy of the good. I think this species of criticism is a fair critique of the Occupy movement. Moreover, I’m curious to what degree the movement’s leadership believes that if it can create a big enough, an obtrusive enough, problem, well, we would just have to put our full civilizational capacity towards solving it, wouldn’t we? (Mattathias Schwartz’s exhaustive New Yorker piece that came out today touches on this a little bit.)
On top of this, people who are working at the margins (i.e the people who get hired after months of searching for a job only to get laid off again due to budget cuts) might resent the Occupy movement for disrupting the status quo, since the occupiers apparently already have the luxury to live in tents, while the most likely to be affected negatively by corporate retreat and the most likely to gain from a return to stability are the most marginalized. Meanwhile, the enemies the Occupy movement truly targets are still firmly enshrined within their citadels of well-intentioned liberal legislation and old boy networks, immune to even the most disruptive of left-wing civil disobedience.
Mike’s post is a response to James Hanley, and Mike also writes:
“I get the sense that what (Hanley) is calling for is for them to abandon the confrontational, obnoxious, disruptive approach that they have used up to this point.”
I don’t know if Hanley’d call for that, but I’d definitely call for that, from a purely tactical perspective, and it’s because I support the core principles behind the Occupy movement. I had an interesting experience the other night, right after the NYPD ejaculated pure hatred onto the face of OWS: I hopped off the fence and felt my rusty pseudo-emotions almost stirred in support of the movement. I realized: no one sides with overly-obnoxious behavior, least of all indifferent-yet-still-one-person-one-vote-voting citizens of wealthy, bourgeois democracies whose most significant concern in life is whether to serve brie or camembert at the next meeting of the local gourmet group. Not that I’m sitting here vacillating over cheese, but I have more pressing concerns in my life than whether or not to support Occupy Wall Street, and this hypothetical I is inclined or conditioned to make crude, emotional or intuitive, one-off judgments about whatever irrelevant national political nontroversies are recursively force-fed to my senses by the all-seeing eye of our stultifying media-political-establishment-complex.
The first wave of anti-Iraq War protesters should have grasped the essential fact that no one is willing to overlook their methods for their cause unless that person is already behind their cause (i.e. being unpleasant will not win you friends, no matter how legitimate your grievances): in multiple calls for attention, anti-war protesters stuck coffee stirrers in parking meters throughout Boston, thereby disabling them and forcing municipal authorities to close down vast swathes of street parking for maintenance, annoying people who use parking meters (i.e. people who cannot afford a regular spot); a different group of anti-war protestors pretended to be dead at the bus stop of my university, affecting people waiting for the bus (i.e. poorer students and people who can’t afford cars); and finally they made a human chain across the bus route one day so no one could go to class, affecting students who go to class (i.e. students who are not majoring in binge drinking, Daddy’s trust fund, or cultural anthropology).
You bet your ass, most people who were inconvenienced by protesters did not think: “Hold on a tick! What are these people so upset about? Perhaps they have a legitimate grievance. The Iraq War? Even though that honest-seeming Colin Powell fella said that Saddam was dangerous and helping the al Qaedas? Well, my awareness has been raised! My duties as a citizen of this fragile democracy dictate that I shall have to go a-dispassionately a-researching… …Hey hey! That Bush sure is a foolish and reckless gent! And Cheney and Halliburton as well! I shall join the protesters in disabling parking meters and constructing human chains forthwith.” No, most people said, “Hey, What are these assholes doing? I fucking hate them. Why are they standing in my way?” Really, it shouldn’t be difficult to win a pr war against police brutality or the destruction of another country. Yet, the 99% has far less than 99% support.
“I have yet to see anyone from the outside offer them a single piece of what I consider to be good strategic advice, taking their interests and aims seriously, which is to say taking the time to try to understand what those are from their perspective.”
I’m pretty sure I did this above. To summarize: if you have a legitimate grievance, be respectful, be honest, don’t put your cause above other people’s livelihoods, especially in hard economic times, wait for the police or the authorities to disgrace themselves, rinse, lather, repeat. Slow, steady activism always wins the race. If you fail to do these things, don’t dehumanize those who do not support you. The problem isn’t (only) the class warfare; it’s the class on class crime.
“When more unruly avenues are being explored, suddenly our creaky institutions become beacons of the public will, and the only legitimate vein for expression of democratic impulses, as if the people relinquished the prerogative to take more direct democratic action when these wonderfully representative institutions were established.”
I consider this passage especially well-written, and the judicious use of the English language – more than anything else – is why I’m here and continue to hang around. The well-written sentence is something that, in our recent history, the left has owned, which is telling in a certain sense. One side has superior knowledge of theatrics, even if it consistently fails to see the full implications of its actions.
Mike gets it I think:
“It seems obvious to me that this movement was from the start a statement about the demonstrated unresponsiveness, corruption, and brokenness of those institutions and the prevailing procedural arrangements of our politics and their resulting inability to address the issues the movement is concerned with.”
If we look at the grand and obvious villains in the saga that stretches from the bank failures and the bailouts on down to Occupy Wall Street, what really obvious thing do they have in common with regard to Mike’s point above?
Most certainly, I agree that our institutions are broken – very little if any extralegal behavior led to the dire straights we now find ourselves in – but I don’t have any easy solutions to offer, and neither does AdBusters, I suspect. Reforming our governmental and economic institutions is a perpetual struggle, and one we – free citizens of a wealthy democracy – are lucky to have.