They make you miss Marx, these Occupy Wall Streeters. Though even the New York Times first treated them as a slightly comical affair, the major media now give them the same extensive, sober, even deferential treatment they give a major movement of which they approve.
But not, I think, because the “Occupiers” are really going anywhere with their protest or doing anything very useful, no matter to how many cities the occupations spread, but because others—the Paul Krugmans and Nicholas Kristofs of the world, for example—can project upon the Occupiers what meaning they want and appropriate their “anger” and “passion” and “outrage” for their own purposes.
I walked through Zuccotti Park a couple of weeks ago with a friend, and there saw a world I recognize from my youth, one I had known somewhat well. I hope my description will not seem too jaundiced, but I think it accurate.
In the park were the activists, of course, mostly young and mostly affluent. They had the time and money to live in the park for a while, and lives to go back to whenever they wanted, and an idealistic vision of a spontaneous, decentralized, passion-driven politics which comes to them from the sixties. They provide the winsome face of the movement.
Also in the park were people who would be sleeping in another park if they were not sleeping in this one; and the unrooted, directionless young people who by choice live in crowded apartments in the poorer neighborhoods (though not the poorest) of major cities, getting by on low paid jobs and feeling that “the system” has failed them; and the related class of “artists” and “playwrights” who work part-time jobs because “society” will not recognize, which means fund, their “art”; and the leftwing political opportunists who flock to such events and who are not likely to be found actually sleeping in the park.
Some are genuinely marginalized, some just feel they are. They are all angry, or claim to be, because things have gone badly for most of us and well for a few. Some, we are safe in saying, have attached their free-floating anger onto a target, that evil 1 percent.
That romantic name “Occupy Wall Street” offers an illusion of revolutionary power, as if they were manning the barricades in Paris in 1968, or protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (at least till a true 1% sent in the tanks), or gathering to oppose tyrannical regimes in the public squares of Arab capitals.
In reality, Occupy Wall Street only describes a small public park appropriated by a group of fairly harmless people, who spend all day drumming and talking and hanging out, and once in a while organizing protests. A nuisance, especially if you live or work in the area, and a drain upon public services, and now a bit of a tourist attraction, but not a threat. Something to be watched, because crowds can become mobs, but not a threat to the established order.
The banker and the hedge fund manager do not need to fear Occupy Wall Street, and I’m fairly sure they don’t. The Occupiers do not threaten them. If anything (from the bankers’ point of view), they may divert attention from people and movements that might actually threaten them. At worst they offer New York Times editors, Democratic politicians clapped out for new ideas, and union leaders who find their movements dying—all one percenters as measured by social status and power—an excuse for doing what they wanted to do anyway.
The problem, I think, is that the nearly everyone has accepted the Occupiers’ anger as validating their movement, but an anger so general has no political value. It gets you nowhere. It offers no critique of, no challenge nor any alternative to the vague abstract thing at which you are angry. “We are the 99 percent” angry at the remaining 1% doesn’t tell anyone who the 1 percent are, and what they’ve done wrong, and what they should have done, and how the system itself encouraged them to do some things and not others, and what the nation should do now.
They make you, as I say, miss Marx. Or not Marx, exactly, but the kind of coherent and thought-out leftism he represents, ideas you can engage and challenge, and be challenged by, which is very different from the establishment liberalism of (to mention them again) the editors of the New York Times.
The loss of a left worth engaging hurts the country, not because that left will answer the questions of the moment, but because the country needs the challenges only the left will (at the moment) provide. The mainstream right will not challenge those who’ll exploit the system for their own ends, and exploit others for their own profit, because so many have off-loaded their moral thinking to the market. Nor, not in a million years, will the Republican Party.
That may be one of the worst results of the sixties, that the politics of gesture and emotion have been privileged, as the academics put it, which means a politics with no actual political content will drive a publicly successful movement like Occupy Wall Street—even though it is not going anywhere in particular.
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things and the author of Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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