Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why the Occupy Wall Street movement is doomed to failure

Occupy Wall Streeters have tents to sleep in but it's not home. Photo by a c o r n/Flickr
I would like to say something about the occupy movement. Namely, I suspect that it is doomed to fail, and moreover, it is something well lost. The reason for my suspicion is simple: like a number of other arguably failed movements, it lacks purpose and leadership.
The occupy movement has been called a new paradigm in activism, but that isn’t true. In a Common Dreams article [], Heather Gautney shows that Occupy Wall Street is based on the same organizational principles as the feminist, anti-globalization and gay rights movements. These movements all have two things in common. First, they are “leaderless” movements “without an official set of demands. There are no projected outcomes, no bottom lines and no talking heads.” Second, none of them have achieved their objectives. The second point should be obvious, since none of them ever had any clear objectives to achieve.
The anti-globalization movement has been a manifest failure, so I will focus on feminism and gay rights, in whose cases my second point might seem controversial. Gautney claims, “Gay rights liberated our sexuality, and feminism fundamentally changed the way we relate to each other as men and women. All this, without a centralized leadership.” This conforms to a popular understanding of both movements, but it’s not accurate.
Sexism and homophobia are as prevalent today as they were 50 years ago.
While the social landscape has certainly changed in the last half century, women and homosexuals are still fiercely stigmatized. The success of the porn industry alone speaks to how deeply entrenched the objectification of women is in our culture.
Even if sexism were removed from the public sphere — and it clearly isn’t — that would not prevent immense numbers of individuals from privately holding oppressive sexual attitudes and acting on them when they could get away with it. Short of a dystopian panoptic state, there is no public answer to sexism. The same is true of homophobia, and every homosexual in the English-speaking world has to deal with the pejorative use of the adjective “gay” as a daily reality, even if it isn’t so used to his face.
These are the kind of problems that not even a well-organized movement with inspired leadership can hope to ameliorate. The civil rights movement ended Jim Crow laws but it didn’t even put a dent into racism.
Will affirmative action ever prevent cops from pulling over drivers because they are black? The answer is clearly no.
Will they ever stop gross acts of racially motivated police brutality? Again, no.
Will they end the use of the word “nigger?” A thousand times no.
But these things were never the specific demands of the movement. Had they been these rather than what they were, the movement would have been pronounced an unequivocal failure and there would be no progress in the field of race relations to speak of.
The women’s suffrage movement had a specific demand and it achieved that demand. The natural right of women to participate in government as equals to men was acknowledged by the law of the land.
Sexism was not eliminated or diminished, and it will not be eliminated or diminished until the end of history. To claim otherwise is merely to give sexists too little credit for their convictions.
A sexist believes in the inferiority of one sex to the other in the same sense in which we believe in their equality, and a sexist will likewise pass his own ideas and attitudes to the next generation. This has no bearing on the lawful obligation of every sexist to respect a woman’s right to vote. However, it has a significant bearing on the persistence of domestic violence in our culture.
Gay marriage has been made legal in several states. Homophobia has not been outlawed. To outlaw homophobia would be unconstitutional and unenforceable. I hope I have made myself clear by this point.
What complicates matters is that in three of the aforementioned movements there is the presumption that some connection exists between what is perceived as an institutional form of oppression and dominant social attitudes. But unless this connection is demonstrated, the movement fails.
States that are predominantly conservative Christian have no hope of passing gay marriage laws, not because these states are full of homophobes, but because Christians will see nothing homophobic about the existing marriage laws. By contrast, it was decisively argued in the case of Jim Crow that separate could never be equal; and the very existence of the women’s suffrage movement demonstrated its own assertion that women could in fact participate in politics.
The positions of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements are now incontrovertible. But their positions were not, “racism (or sexism) is wrong and should be outlawed.” Even though undoubtedly the backers of both movements shared in the belief that the relevant -ism was wrong, their actual demands pertained to specific laws, and they got specific results.
This is not something that we can expect about a genus such as racism, sexism, homophobia, globalism or greed. In the case of gay marriage, a specific demand accompanies a generic spirit, but the attempt to connect the two has been less successful.
In the case of feminism, anti-globalism and the occupy movement there is a generic spirit responding to a bigoted social attitude. But there is no specific demand.
Feminists want us to see the two sexes as equal. This is noble, but they can’t force anyone to do that. No amount of repeating the same arguments in public will change anyone’s heart. Sexism is something that one holds as deeply inside oneself as one would hold an authentic feminism.
For one person to be rid of sexism would require a radical reorientation of his whole life. This cannot be accomplished from the outside. You cannot credit the movement for converting even a single individual from sexism. The individual who converted deserves that credit.
The anti-globalism movement is even more ambiguous in its spirit than feminism. It may be called a “movement of movements.” For there are many different, conflicting reasons to be against globalization.
No one can agree on why globalization is wrong and therefore there is no prevailing reason to believe that globalization is wrong.
Suppose that a globalist were to convert from globalism to a species of anti-globalism. Which would he choose? Anarcho-syndicalism? Communism? Libertarianism? These responses are not motivated by one and the same recognition, whereas feminism is motivated by a recognition of one’s own humanity in the other sex.
Finally, we come to the occupy movement, which is in an even worse position than anti-globalism. For the occupy movement is not even clear on what it rejects.
Gautney writes, “Most of these activists have a particular issue, problem or political idea that is meaningful to them, on which they have developed an expert knowledge. Occupy is both a concrete and virtual space for connecting these issues and expertise without any one position or issue taking precedence.”
The occupy movement is a movement not only of movements, but of anti-movements also. Protesters do not even agree on what issue they are protesting. Although there is a general sense of dissatisfaction with the economy and with political corruption, it is impossible to articulate. Culprits are identified before problems. Protesters know that the rich and powerful are to blame, but for what, none agree.
What, then, is motivating the occupation?
It seems clear that this thing is actually self-organized; no one party is responsible for it. A lack of leadership doesn’t mean that a movement can’t get started, but we have seen that it usually frustrates the desire for results by making it impossible to argue the case for a specific demand.
On the other hand, unlike the other movements we have considered, the occupation seems to lack any kind of guiding purpose whatsoever. If there is a generic spirit to the movement, it consists in a rejection of greed. But it is necessarily an equivocal rejection of greed, in virtue of the sheer diversity of perspectives involved. So the lowest common denominator that can be identified as motivating the protesters is envy. It’s the greed of the 1% versus the envy of the 99%. Which is greater?
I’ll begin to answer that question with a story.
In 2008, a movement of protests against the Church of Scientology was started by members of anonymous Internet message boards. In order to give the protests an ironic air of pseudo-legitimacy, the group “Anonymous” was invented to serve as the nominal source of the movement, with the ominous slogan “We are legion.”
In truth, Anonymous was no one. The entire movement was conceived as a joke. Anyone who happened upon the right message board was invited to participate by showing up at a local Scientologist facility at an appointed date and time, wearing a suitably humorous disguise and bearing some kind of anti-Scientologist slogan on a sign.
The Church of Scientology, which took itself far more seriously than the outside world did, saw its own inflated sense of self-importance in the crowds gathering outside their buildings. They vainly attempted to intimidate the protesters, whose identities were protected by their Guy Fawkes masks and their lack of any link to a real organization. For the “members” of Anonymous, it was great fun, and provoking the reaction that they actually got from the Church of Scientology was the whole point of the effort.
However, not everyone who participated in the protests understood that it was an elaborate joke, and when the jokers lost interest in protesting, these carried the flame. Scientology, they reasoned, was really a dangerous cult, and somebody should bloody well do something about it!
Of course, the protests did not accomplish anything. They were designed to fail. The characteristic Guy Fawkes disguise was an allusion, not to V for Vendetta, but to an Internet meme appropriately called Epic Fail Guy.
Those who did not understand the facetious nature of the protests, but supported them in earnest, appropriated the symbolism of the movement according to their own ignorant interpretations of their meanings without any awareness of their actual origins. So among some people, the Guy Fawkes mask, as well as the Anonymous logo and other motifs of the protests, became symbols of a certain kind of struggle against oppression. This struggle had no clear agenda, no demands, and no constituency. It wasn’t even limited in principle to protests against Scientology. “Anonymous” reappeared in the midst of the Wikileaks scandals of 2010, organizing denial-of-service attacks against the websites of companies that opposed Wikileaks. Again, this accomplished nothing. Anonymous did not even define an issue about which to make a demand.
The organizational model of Anonymous, which was radically horizontal and — well — anonymous, made anything like a meaningful mission statement impossible. But that didn’t prevent people from feeling like they were collectively making history as their vain efforts made headlines, just like the lives of the rich and powerful.
This Guy Fawkes mask is the very same symbol now present en masse upon Wall Street. You can trace it back to without difficulty. My guess, however, is that few protesters associate the mask with anything but V for Vendetta. That’s what they want to feel like they’re a part of. The masses are rising up in anger to demand that their voices be heard. But what do they have to say? They haven’t thought it that far through because that isn’t the point. The real point is that these protesters all want to feel like they matter to someone who matters.
Of course, each and every one of them really does matter. But they don’t realize that relatively few would take to the streets to claim their rights to meaning and understanding. 99% of us take to the libraries, to the classrooms, to friends and family, to churches, synagogues and mosques. We take to our own households, buried in debt, unable to make payments on loans that we should not have applied for and the banks should not have approved. Finally, we take to our own souls, as each of us struggles with his or her own vices, prejudices,and obsessions.
We struggle to open up to one another, to achieve a deeper level of intimacy with the people who love us and share with them our secret fears; to give selflessly to those in need,and to live an abiding faith that good will prevail in the world if only we let it.
We the 99% who occupy Main Street make this demand: Go home. Home is where the heart is, and the heart is the site of our revolution.

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