Saturday, November 26, 2011

Guest Post: OWS and its Discontents

This is a guest post from The New Centrist in response to my previous piece on the Occupy movement. 

Like most political events of the 21st century—the George W. Bush presidency, the War in Iraq, the electoral victory and presidency of President Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and most recently Occupy Wall Street (OWS)—all provide a Rorschach Test of political sensibilities. What you think about the Tea Party (grassroots movement or “astroturf”) is highly indicative of whether you are conservative or liberal. The same holds true for OWS. I realize this is a broad generalization. There are elements of the liberal establishment that are critical of OWS just as Tea Party conservatives face opposition from elements of the Republican establishment. However I think the generalization holds true in both cases.

Populism of the Left and Right

Another generalization that can be made of both groups is their populism, a notion that the country is governed not by the citizens but an unaccountable and out of touch elite. In the case of the Tea Party, the elites are the political class while OWS rails against the wealthy (the 1%). Both decry the increasing role of “special interests” although different ones and often for different reasons.

Spencer Sunshine’s recent article (linked here) on this populist aspect of OWS is worth reading. He displays a solid understanding of Marxism and anarchism but his analysis of the conservative right is far less developed and verges on caricature. To be specific, lumping supporters of the Tea Party movement with neo-Nazis and noting they have “no clear focus” shows the author has not taken the time to pay attention to the development of the movement.

One does not have to be a Tea Partier to know their focus has always been on Constitutionalism, lowering taxes (Tea stands for Taxed Enough Already), and shrinking the size of the federal government.. The movement started out small and was generally conservative, populist and to a lesser extent libertarian. Of course there was a fairly sizable percentage of political kooks (Paulistas, La Rouche supporters) in the ranks--setting aside the colonial revival clowns with their tricorn hats--as the movement grew and the political potential was clear, the movement was co-opted and the kooks were largely pushed to the margins.

Manufacturing Consent?

One thing that has been evident to most conservatives (and I suspect many independents) is the stark difference in the way the Tea Party was presented in the mainstream media and the way #OWS has been presented. In the case of the Tea Party, the emphasis was placed on racist images and slogans carried by some of the protestors as well as the calls for taking up arms against the "tyrannical government." These were the views of a small segment of the Tea Party but the entire movement was painted as being a bunch of violent white racists.

With #OWS, the role of radical groups and organizations has generally been downplayed, the movement is presented as mostly spontaneous, and largely harmless. But when we compare the number of violent incidents or crimes at Tea Party rallies versus the Occupy movement here in the U.S., the difference is stark. I am not aware of any violence or property damage at the Tea Party rallies held across the country. With Occupy, there have been reports of burglary, theft, at least one rape, and a young teen being pimped in one of the camps. The final straw was the murder in Oakland. A murder.

OWS, Anarchism and the Scourge of Consensus

Some including Paul Berman and Michael Kazin identify anarchist elements of OWS such as presenting a living, breathing, counter-model to capitalism and the utilization of consensus decision-making.

The notion that you can create a rival community, a new world "within the shell of the old", a counter-culture, is intrinsic to anarchism. That this must be consensus-driven is much more recent. It is not evident among the various groups that considered themselves anarchist--anarcho-mutualists/collectivists/syndicalists/communists—from the mid-nineteenth century until the Spanish Revolution. All of them felt that voting within their own organizations and groups was just fine.

By the 1960s, elements within the New Left including Students for a Democratic Society and others were experimenting with styles of decision-making that were viewed as more inclusive, participatory and democratic. These themes were also taken up by the Radical Feminist Movement in the 1970s. Certainly by the 1990s consensus organizing was gaining steam primarily though the work of Food Not Bombs (FNB), Earth First! and a few other groups. FNB in particular was effective at distributing inexpensively reproduced literature, including their Handbook, promoting consensus as the only way to order a local chapter:

We make decisions by consensus rather than voting. Voting is a win or lose model in which people are more concerned about the numbers it takes to win a majority than they are in the issue itself. Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesis, bringing together diverse elements and blending them into a decision which is acceptable to the entire group. In essence, it is a qualitative rather than quantitative method of decision-making.

From my experience on the radical left, the influence of consensus decision-making was incredibly negative. The long, drawn-out meetings with no discernable outcome eventually take their toll. People start to drop out.

While Michael Kazin, Paul Berman and others note the attempt by the OWS movement to create a counter society (some have termed the encampments “micro societies”) an important difference between OWS and the classical anarchists is an emphasis on what form the future society would take. All of the utopian socialists going back to St. Simon and Fourier had a model in mind. Never mind how wacky the model was, at least they had something to refer to. This is completely missing from OWS. They say this is “all part of the process” but it is not enough for most of us. We want to know what you want, especially if you claim to represent us (as part of the 99%).

What Is Next?

None, including the Occupiers themselves, can cogently answer: what is the goal? I understand the whole "We are 99%" but what else? What sort of specific policies flow from this besides tax the rich?

If this is all the Occupiers have to offer, you should be concerned. Tax increases might start with the rich but eventually will trickle down to the middle-class because that is where the real money is:

It serves the interest of both parties to argue about taxes on corporations and the wealthy because neither wants to discuss the alternative, which is where things get touchy. To solve our debt problems, we have to go to where the money is — the middle class. People who earn between $30,000 and $200,000 a year make a total of around $5 trillion and pay less than 10 percent of that in taxes (owing mostly to tax incentives and the fact that most families make less than $68,000, where larger tax rates begin).

This is an NPR reporter in the New York Times, not a mouthpiece for the “right-wing conspiracy”. Whatever side of the aisle you place yourself, get prepared for American austerity. Unless you are there already...


Anonymous said...

Amazing! A rational post on OWS on a liberal blog. Must be a first.

Marcus said...

There is some stuff i don'nt agree with, but this 'new centrist' clearly gets it and sees why the occupy movement is so limited.

TNC said...

Thanks for the kind comments.

Marcus, what do you disagree with?


Anonymous said...

The money is higher up. The "middle class" (really the better off elements of the working class plus some petite-bourgeoisie professionals/small business owners) may take home $5T, but the US economy is $15T. Most of the wealth and income really is concentrated at the top. The bottom 90% of households in the US have less than 7% of the financial wealth. You can't squeeze blood from a stone.

Also remember that most Americans make less than $30K. Only about half of all working age adults in the US have full time jobs, and sizable portions of the population are underage, incarcerated (possibly the largest % in the world), retired, or disabled.