One of the most striking aspects of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon is its failure to get any traction among the elite political strata, especially among elected officials with an eye on the upcoming elections. Sure, there have been numerous Democrats and even some Republicans who have, with an earnest, but patronizing tone, suggested that OWS is an understandable response to the pain inflicted by a sinking economy. But there has been no real attempt to harness the visible anger and outrage to the forthcoming political campaigns of 2012.
This is especially noteworthy in light of the Republican stance regarding the so-called Tea Party movement. They, unlike the Democrats and the OWS movement, early and often endorsed, embraced, and amplified the views of the nascent Tea Party formation. They funded it and encouraged the already friendly media to exaggerate its size and importance. They rode the movement’s anger into the 2010 elections and welcomed its “heroes” into the Republican fold. No such embrace of OWS seems imminent on the part of the Democratic Party.
Recent poll results add to this observation: an AP/GfK poll conducted between October 13 and 17 shows that 37% of the public supports the OWS protests.
Compare this to the overblown Tea Partiers. At its peak at the time of the 2010 interim elections, the Tea Party drew 31% of the public’s support, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. That same polling source places Tea Party support at only 18% in August of this year. As I have argued and continue to argue, the Tea Party movement represents nothing more than the same 15-25% of the population that have always plagued US politics: the “Know Nothings,” the Klan, the Liberty Leaguers, the Black Legions, the Coughlinites, the Segregationists, the McCarthyites, the Goldwaterites, and now the Tea Partiers. They crawl out from under the rocks in times of crisis and, thanks to powerful funding and media hype, they enjoy undue prominence.
So with substantial and hopefully growing public support, why hasn’t the Democratic Party hitched its wagon to this popular movement? With the President’s popularity sinking, would not this be an unexpected boost to Democratic Party fortunes?
It’s not happening and it won’t happen because the Democratic Party is a corrupted and bankrupt organization owned by the very targets of the OWS movement. Of course I don’t discount the Democrats' enormous resources that are at play to co-opt, distort, and re-shape this movement; they have a sterling record of doing so with past potentially radical movements.
But the current message of OWS is substantially at odds with the values and material interests of all but a few fringe Democratic Party elected officials. The slogan touted by OWS supporters that “We are the 99 percenters” conveys a sense of class division and emerging class unity that sends shivers down the spines of the operatives from both political parties. Nothing violates the quaint rules of political engagement in our two-party contests like the recognition that the US is a class-divided society.
Similarly, the movement has focused on banks, investment houses, and Wall Street as symbols of the inequities and injustices of US society. Given the enormous material support for the Democratic Party proffered by these OWS targets, Democratic officials are more than a little uncomfortable acquiring a taint from this movement.
They don’t want it, and OWS shouldn’t want them.
While commentators ranging from old lefties to media nabobs have scored OWS for having neither a single issue nor a common program, the truth is that their central and primary slogans do capture the mood and anger of many if not most US citizens. In fact, given the shallow ideological depth of the US public conversation, stunted by swift suppression of diverse ideas, and a media that crowds out all but the most superficial thinking, the slogans, placards, and banners are well suited to the moment. With the left demoralized and ineffectual from the long bout with Obama flu and splintered by multiple, parochial issues, the OWS movement has marshaled a timely focus on economic issues to afford the left yet another opportunity to grow and participate in a real oppositional formation. The fact that a substantial body of the labor movement has spoken and acted in support of OWS shows the potential of this movement.
It goes without saying that OWS is as yet only a spontaneous and loosely organized beginning. Where it goes from here is decisive. Already the security services have begun harassment and repressive actions in Chicago, Oakland, and many other cities. Mindful of how the arrests and violent actions on the part of the police helped to energize the OWS in New York City, they have yet to bring the full weight of the state security forces into play. They are, however, challenging the depth of public support for the OWS movement by testing the public’s tolerance of police intervention. Consequently, public demonstrations of solidarity are essential at this time.
Today, OWS is largely only an emotional reaction to social inequality and the rapidly deteriorating standards of living in the US. Emotional responses, through acts of civil disobedience, acts of “witnessing,” and other attention-getting activities, may well be necessary for building effective movements for change, but hardly sufficient. Needed are organizational forms that can sustain and grow the movement. These forms can formulate and correct tactical and strategic action and organically develop goals and demands. These demands can be further pressed into advanced forms of struggle, achievable as reforms in the electoral arena or through revolutionary direct action. Each step is a challenge requiring organizing skills, a deepening understanding and the deft touch of capable leadership. In any case, spontaneity must evolve into concerted, focused collective action.
While many are hailing the “spontaneity” of this movement, they confuse a spark with a bonfire. Bonfires are carefully prepared, fed, and maintained. They require attention and effort or they will die or burn, to no good purpose.
The flip side of the spontaneity coin is the OWS obsession with “horizontal” structure and allergy to any kind of hierarchical organization. To many of us, this is strongly reminiscent of the 1960’s new left’s fixation on “participatory democracy.” Coming after the Cold War demonizing and destruction of labor militancy and Communist influence, many young leftists in the US saw the failure of radical ideas as a failure to incorporate democratic values. The then ubiquitous and popular anti-Communist and anti-labor stereotypes of Communist “dupes,” labor bureaucrats, and robotic thugs reinforced this view. Moreover, the fetish of bourgeois democracy, the notion that process trumps all other values, that how things are decided is more important than what is decided, has profoundly deep roots in US history. Coupled with the cult of the individual associated with US social development, this tendency fosters contempt for organization and structure. It also accounts for the popularity of anarchism on the left and libertarianism on the right: two radical expressions of a near-paranoid distrust of organized and structured collective action.
The pressing question for OWS is not simply a matter of a platform or set of demands – as many critics put it – but of a commitment to develop the struggle to reach broad masses and deepen popular understanding.
We do not know where this will go. It is too early to either dismiss the movement or herald it as the beginning of something that will leave a lasting imprint on our politics. US history is filled with movements which
started by capturing broad support but collapsed when faced with the resources, organization, and subversion of our ruling class. The few, but significant, victories were won by developing solid, unshakable leadership with organizational skills and with a clear, firm vision of a better way.
We can all play a role in propelling this movement forward by engaging those activists militantly confronting the heart of the beast: capitalism. And it wouldn’t hurt to bring along a copy of V. I. Lenin’s What is to be Done.