Who Are the Occupiers?
The Occupy Wall Street protesters have prided themselves on being hard to pin down. Plainly anti-capitalist in spirit, OWS sometimes seems a dust ball of a movement, gathering into itself all sorts of stray ideas and activists in a loose conglomeration. If you approach the movement by talking to individual participants, you encounter such a random collection of malcontents that the word "movement" itself seems overblown. I've talked to protesters in New York who thirst for Marxist revolution, others who want student debt canceled, some intent on sustainatopian designs, and others just hanging out. When I talked to Occupy Anchorage protesters (all three of them), one wanted to abolish the Fed, one was a clueless young man who agreed to stand in the cold and hold a sign because an older friend had asked him to, and the third was friendly but noncommittal.
But, of course, Occupy really is a movement. When I gave a talk about it at the University of Anchorage, supporters were sufficiently organized to show up, interrupt, dispute with me, and applaud each other's insights. That's movement behavior, not the actions of random individuals. Incidentally, they assured me that despite the low attendance at the park, Occupy Anchorage has at least 2,000 supporters. But so far, no property crimes, sexual violence, murders, or suicides. It is several steps behind Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland, Salt Lake City, and other venues in the lower 48.
The absence of a really clear self-definition of the Occupy movement has led observers to proceed by analogy. The most frequent of these until recently has been the comparison of Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party. But as time has gone on, the image of the Occupiers as a fairly sunny, non-violent collection of folks distressed by the excesses of bankers and brokers has pretty much collapsed. Tea Party protesters were law-abiding, orderly, and among other things, clean. They also went home at the end of the day and didn't drive the neighbors batty by beating on drums all the time.
The right-left symmetry story didn't stand for long, despite a call in October by a Harvard ethics professor, Lawrence Lessig, for the movement to find "the common ground between the populists on the Right and the populists on the Left." Lessig also co-chaired a conference at Harvard with Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea party Patriots, and Glenn Reynolds as keynote speaker. But it seems clear to most people that while the Occupiers and Tea Party protesters agree that crony capitalism is to be deplored, the agreement pretty much ends there.
I want to take up a different analogy that I've heard much more often from Occupiers themselves, as well as from their admirers in the academy: the notion that the Occupy movement is a rebirth of the great protest movements of the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement gets a moment's notice in this analogy, but the analogy quickly settles on the anti-Vietnam War protests. Is the analogy apt? Is the Occupy movement best seen as an extension in spirit of the '60s antiwar movement?
I'm not one to deny historical links, but to weigh this analogy, we have to get past a good deal of mythologizing, both by former participants in the sixties protests and by people who have grown up since hearing stories of heroic baby-boomers facing down bayonets with bouquets. Some older people want to relive their youth; some younger people want to claim the mantle. But claiming a connection doesn't necessarily make it real.
At a deeper level, I see several threads of continuity:
- Both movements are dominated by the relatively affluent sons and daughters of the upper-middle class. They are disproportionately white, college-educated, and used to getting their way.
- Both movements aim at mobilizing popular resentment. They aren't aimed merely at rallying their own. They make a claim (the "99 percent") to speak for the many.
- Both movements are "performative" -- i.e., they rely on stunts, street theater, and bravado in the place of arguments.
- Both movements are more oppositional than constructive. They say easily what they are against but are tongue-tied in saying what they are for.
- Both movements use the rhetoric of "democracy" (see #2) but are profoundly elitist in spirit and undemocratic. They want to impose their views, not persuade people.
- Both movements have attracted and to some extent been organized by a radical vanguard.
- Both movements use as part of their public identity low standards of personal hygiene. This may sound like a slur, but it is a social fact of considerable anthropological interest -- and I'm an anthropologist. "Dirt" is never just dirt. It is a way of evoking disgust and revulsion, setting aside social norms, and signifying defiance of social order.
That adds up to a pretty strong parallel. So what's different about the Occupy movement?
- The New Left in the sixties was genuinely new. The idea of mobilizing the children of the upper-middle class, as opposed to the proletariat, was a heresy to the Marxists. Now it has become the Marxist orthodoxy.
- In the sixties, the universities were politically liberal and technocratic; today, they are radical and technically incompetent.
- The students who participated in the sixties protests were, by virtue of their educations, fairly well-informed about history; today's protesters grew up on Howard Zinn and are an amazingly ignorant bunch.
- One aspect of the sixties antiwar protests was the clarity of their agenda. Their manifestos became more and more extreme, culminating in the Weather Underground's craziness, but there was no mistake about what they wanted. The current movement is amorphous and self-contradictory. You get the sense that none of them passed Rhetoric 101, let alone "Constitutional Government."
- Not only did the sixties protesters have a clear agenda, but they were focused on what was plainly a real phenomenon: a war, with actual bullets and real casualties. Part of the mysteriousness of the Occupy movement is that its "external" target is an abstraction: "corporate greed." A war can be ended. "Greed" is a sin, or if we are going to be entirely secular, an unpleasant aspect of human nature. It cannot be ended. It can only be denounced, or used as a reason for passing more restrictive laws aimed at curtailing some of its manifestations.
- "Greed" is as much a quality within the protesters themselves as it is a quality of their supposed targets. Vietnam war protesters had little of this internal contradiction. They opposed a war that they believed was imposed on them.
- The antiwar protests were anti-establishment and took on the policies of both a Democratic and a Republican president. President Obama is not universally popular with the Occupiers, but he has endorsed the movement, and the Democratic Party has allied itself with the Occupiers. It is, in an odd way, an establishment movement itself, though dressed up as anti-establishment.
The sixties antiwar protests do provide a useful benchmark for making sense of the Occupy movement, but as much by contrast as by similarity.
Peter W. Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.