Some Observations on Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street reminds me an awful lot of the anti-globalization movement that arose in the 1990s. The people are roughly the same, much of their critique of the world is the same (though more deeply rooted this time), and I’m afraid much of what they want is the same too.

My closest encounter with the anti-globalization folks was in 2000, when I was working for BridgeNews in Washington covering one of the annual World Bank-IMF summits. (Such are the privileges of being a financial journalist.) I was Bridge’s “outside” man, covering the demonstrators, who had stated they wanted to blockade the summit and shut it down. In response, the DC police — who seemed to recruit several legions of auxiliaries out of nowhere — showed up in their armed and armored finest. It was a week of continuing stand-offs, the entire center of the District of Columbia shut down. I got pepper sprayed several times by the police (because as a reporter, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time) and because I was a reporter with IMF credentials, none of the protestors would talk to me. I have a bunch of photos from the demonstration. 
As I think about that time, I am reminded of something John Payne wrote recently in The American Conservative about Occupy Wall Street:

As I interviewed some of the protesters that night, I discovered that many of them were not driven by a blind rage against capitalism but were simply trying to assert some modicum of control over institutions they believe are running over them roughshod.

A lot of what the anti-globalization movement was trying to do, I think, was to take the international institutions central to the “world order” — the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization — make them somehow accountable to people other than the global elites who run them. And to better serve the needs of the world’s poor. And it’s not that I think either of these things are on their face bad ideas, but they are impossible ones. The only thing worse than sclerotic, pretend nation-state democracy would be sclerotic, pretend global democracy. There is simply no way to create global institutions that would in any form be accountable to people other than those who run them. The Left’s idea of democracy — deliberations that lead to consensus — combined with the ideological desire to achieve certain kinds of outcomes is a recipe for endless committee meetings (trust me, I’ve been there) combined with a bullying of those who refuse to agree with the “desired” outcome. This can barely get done by a dozen people. (Seen that too.) You cannot do this in a world of (now) 7 billion people. Nothing else would ever get done.

But the protestors weren’t wrong about the global institutions that were the focus of their ire. When I worked in DC, the World Bank had just acquired a brand new headquarters, a building of steel and glass that would have looked wonderful after a thorough pelting by rocks and bricks. (Though I do fondly remember the Bank as the place where I actually ran into Yasser Arafat!) The most I can say for the IMF is that it has an amazing cafeteria in the basement. And don’t get me started on the folly of trade managed by treaty and international regulation….

That week of protests, NPR ran a piece about some of the protestors in DC, and what they sought. One bit of audio included a young man rather sloppily strumming a guitar singing

Why do we have to pay for food?
Why do we have to pay for rent?

I think that more or less encapsulates the economics of what calls itself “The Left” (for lack of a better term) in the West, or at least North America, these days. To call it Marxist would be unfair, because there’s almost no intellectual substance to their economic aspirations. I suspect real Marxists — and I know there have to be a few out there, somewhere in San Francisco and Berkeley and New York — would on the one hand consider this a teachable moment and on the other deride all this as tawdry sentimentality. It’s the sort of primitive communism that animated the likes of the Diggers (look it up). John Derbyshire put it this way in a review of Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind when he describes the economic and social outlook of the Left as:

a shallow and jejune utopianism. Corey Robin wants to cast down the mighty from their seats of power and exalt the meek and humble. He seems to think that the meek and humble, thus exalted, will conduct themselves with heroic restraint. History offers whole Himalayas of corpses as evidence to the contrary.

This is the whole of the Left that I have experienced since sometime in the mid-1990s. No one reads Capital anymore. No one even bothers to read Horkheimer, Adorno and Gramsci anymore (with the exception of Matt Frost). They have read third- and fourth-hand distillations of cultural Marxism penned by third-rate intellects, they’ve read about Derrida and Foucault, and they’ve absorbed the pointlessness of identity politics, and seem to think that the reason the world is the way it is is because cruel and greedy people are in charge instead of kind, decent, compassionate and selfless ones. That fairness and kindness and sharing — their understanding of socialism — would just work if it’s actually tried.

Like so many people educated in the West anymore, they have a critique of power without any real understanding of power because they aren’t really educated in the ideas and methods of power. No one, not even young white men from prominent families, are formally educated in the ways and ideas of power unless they pick those books up themselves. Because universities in the West no longer teach about power (and its too-often tragic outcomes), about the nature of power and the character of those who wield it, they simply teach the critique of power. And learning a critique without learning the thing itself is building a house without a foundation. It will crumble at some point. (I got this foundation-less education at both Georgetown and LSTC.)

And so they critique a world they don’t really understand, and believe their sheer earnestness will fix things.

That, I think, is the whole of this movement. It does reflect an honest frustration with the world — there is moral hazard for those who borrow thousands to go to school but not for those who leverage billions trillions in speculative credit default swaps. The rules are rigged in favor of those with more against those who have less. That allegedly liberal or progressive politicians do little to further real progressive goals once in power. To the extent that Occupy Wall Street (and the anti-globalization movement that came before) shine a light and ask some good questions, then I support them. I won’t join them, but I can sort-of support them.

But to the extent that they want to enact sentimental and unrealistic goals, that they want to attempt to rearrange the world toward utopia, well, the 20th century tells us how that ends. Thankfully, they are so muddled in their thinking that action — real action — will likely not be possible. Since they will all be too busy in meetings trying to find consensus to act.

One thought on “Some Observations on Occupy Wall Street

  1. The sin of reading the sons against the fathers … without knowing the fathers. Anhistorical, absolutely universalizable parables that make no bloody sense. Oh, but we look smart quoting them. Opening bottles with screwdrivers, driving nails with handsaws…Thanks for the credit — at least some of it belongs to Vitor, who shoved me in the right direction without telling me why or what it meant.Utopianism baffles me, except in allegorical fiction and apocalyptic frameworks. And yet what I see, even with the utopian fringe hanging around them, is mikrotopoi: small places, but real ones, being made in the margins of big places. This has much to do with the democratic ideal of deliberative community. Very classically New England, but it only works up to the point that formal organization requires stratification, and bureaucracy takes hold. Which simply means that that form of power doesn’t scale past a certain point — you have to keep it small enough to remain viable. And any such small and broadly democratic microsociety works not in terms of achieving goals, but in terms of simply being. The notional movement has notional goals — but each Occupy Wherever turns into exactly what it is: an occupation.The joy I find in Occupy occupations is mostly in contrast to Tea Party meetings. Observe how the basis for community shapes the existence of community. The Tea Party, as Libertarianism tends towards, is a bureaucratic working group of individuals under a common leadership whose ideology they espouse. (Ironic, yes?) The occupations, on the other hand, have a diffuse ideology, and beyond the umbrella of correcting economic disparity, don’t have a “politically viable proposition” to drive through the government. They are absolutely horrible at “staying on message.” When you break the assumption that this is a unified, politically ideological movement, which it isn’t, the whole thing doesn’t fall apart — like the Tea Party will. And I think that has to do, not with utopianism, but with community formation. At the risk of oversimplification, there is a polity in one, and only politics in the other.

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