Occupy’s Expressive Impulse

Matthew Noah Smith has written a most cogent critique of Occupy’s current direction—its prime direction, anyway. I agree with almost everything he says, not least his pithy summary: “Occupy is all play but no power.” But how did Occupy get here? And what’s the alternative?

As I show in Occupy Nation, the movement’s core has been more expressive than strategic from the beginning. This core, those who clustered around Zuccotti Park and other such hubs, and remain the reliables who make up the so-called Working Groups, are not the majority of the demonstrators who turn out on major occasions (Oct. 5, Oct. 15, Nov. 17, May 1)—far from it—but they are the movement’s beating heart. They take the initiative. They make plans. They act. They are not 99 percent of the 99 percent.

Much of the initiative that surfaced so volcanically last fall came from a sort of counterculture, an anarchist post-punk core—often of anarcho-syndicalist and Situationist inspiration—that proclaimed itself “horizontalist” and “anti-capitalist” and “revolutionary” and had no qualms about doing so. Its theatrical elements were not incidental; they were central. The General Assemblies, with their “human mic” rituals, were the way in which the movement’s core displayed itself to itself. What it created was, as Matthew Smith says, an aesthetic. The statement they made was: We’re here, horizontal, improvising. We want to secede, more or less, from the market economy. We abhor the capitalist organization of work. We want to pool our skills. We ourselves, the way we relate to each other, constitute our demand, our agenda, our program.

The movement, well aware of its theatrical potential, was superficially visible to outsiders, bystanders, and the media, but those forms of its visibility weren’t its central point—the movement’s most binding transaction, let’s say—and bystanders and mainstream media were not its primary audience. The movement’s primary audience was itself. It gave birth to itself as a phenomenon. It was a creation. What did it want? It wanted itself. It wanted the euphoria of its existence. It wanted to be. It wanted to be what it was.

Miraculously, for all the apparent parochialism of this desire, the movement for a while overcame—or seemed to overcome—the limits of its collective narcissism. The condition of the country (whether you measure it by the collapse of the middle class, vast inequality, unemployment, foreclosure, or the incapacity of the governing elites) was such that, during the fall, the movement, however outré its style, however exotic its rituals, “took off,” “gained traction,” won national support, intruded into popular culture (“1 percent,” “99 percent”) because its theatrics engaged a latent strain in popular sentiment—disgust with the plutocracy and with an enabling government, distrust of the political classes, and eagerness to see something happen.

Something happened. The disorder of what happened confronted the order of the authorities, who saw only disorder. And then, when the police cracked down, they became a most vivid, if secondary, enemy. The mayors, disdainful of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, called in the armed force that was their substitute for creativity. They answered the casting call for Blue Meanies. Over time, what was secondary became primary. Pepper-spraying cops were good for headlines and YouTube videos. The symbolism of police confrontations was vivid and galvanizing. The movement had been anointed by its enemies. Nonetheless, it remained more playful than not.

The playfulness manifest on May Day extended the prime Occupy vein. The day was indeed more carnival—much more—than strike. It felt good, to those who joined in, not because it stopped work, shopping, traffic, or anything else. It felt good because it was a restart, not a new start. It proclaimed: The movement was back. This was, in a way, a sort of victory. But it was not a victory on the field that the world recognizes as the place where politics takes place—the field of power.

Occupy, in other words, is primarily an identity movement, and identity movements face inward. They aspire to be cultures, self-sufficient and gorgeous. People don’t join Occupy, they do it. It’s a way of life, a transvaluation of values. Joining in such a life is, to a few tens of thousands of people nationwide, an intense form of disaffiliating from the main currents of American society and culture. It means not only disaffection from plutocratic control but making oneself at home with the movement’s own solidarity.

All social movements that claim a political rationale exhibit an expressive face and a strategic one. Over the course of time, one or another looms larger. The expressive wing of the movement may convince itself that there’s a strategic payoff to its theatrics, just as plutocrats under the spell of Adam Smith (but not his care for the unemployed) convince themselves that their wealth serves the common good. There continue to be actions in many metropolitan areas to resist and disrupt bank foreclosures, foreclosure auctions, and evictions. There are many nonviolent direct actions aimed at the banks that brought down the economy and escaped with impunity. But overall, Occupy’s expressive face is in the ascendancy.

Not surprisingly, then, Occupy is more than anything else a youth movement. This was true in Zuccotti Park and remains true by inspection. It was the case on May 1 in New York and it’s evident in all the footage I’ve seen of the May 9 demonstration at the Bank of America shareholder meeting in Charlotte and the demonstrations this weekend in Chicago. Accordingly, the movement’s rambunctious spirit reverberates most strongly among the population least attached to institutions, least married, most debt-ridden, most unemployed and most likely to stay so—and also most likely to have supported Barack Obama in 2008. For what it’s worth, the only poll I can find that breaks down the demographics of Occupy support, taken by Gallup/USA Today in February, displays the youth appeal clearly. Overall, Gallup found 19 percent of its sample “supporting” Occupy and 32 percent “opposing.” The only sub-populations that numbered more supporters than opponents were liberals (38 percent to 15 percent), Democrats (26 percent to 16 percent), those who earn less than $30,000 a year (21 percent to 20 percent—really a tie), and 18-29 year olds (29 percent to 26 percent—hardly a significant difference). Gallup didn’t ask about race.

For a social movement, public support of the sort elicited by telephone surveys is not everything. Revolutionaries (especially those “of the deed”) have long argued that the deeds make for popularity. Be that as it may, popularity is something, if for no other reason than that activists burn out and have to recruit. And what should be plain by now is that Occupy’s initial burst of popularity last fall has popped.

Considering that the establishment media describe movements as if they were crime scenes, leading with the bleeding, this isn’t surprising. Popularity is a matter of aura, and auras fluctuate. When the public feels inconvenienced or shocked by violent or confrontational incidents, it is most likely to associate the movement with an outcome they don’t like, and withdraw support. But even then, the movement sees mainly itself. Its euphorias are its own. Its utilities are ready at hand. Its fires are stoked. It plunges on, from action to action. The result is not a change in the ways institutions operate. The result is the movement itself.

What, then, does such a movement have to do with a reality principle? Toward what end is it a means? This question it disdains. That is a question for somebody else, not for them. But for whom, then? To quote Matthew Smith: “A central goal of most forms of contemporary democratic organizing is the development of astute, disciplined political actors who understand what it takes to make changes in an unjust political order.” Astuteness and discipline are not in short order in Occupy. The problem is that they operate in the service of the expressive impulse. This movement does not want to think in any way other than the way it already thinks. Preaching to it, much as I share in the impulse, is doomed.

Strategic clarity is more likely to come from the groups who make up the outer movement; the members of unions, MoveOn, and other groups; those who not only fill out the ranks of Occupy’s big turnouts but also turned out, with remarkable militancy, in Wisconsin, first in December, when Governor Scott Walker set out to roll back collective bargaining rights, and then in subsequent recall fights. These are people who are not especially interested in transfiguring their way of life but want reforms. They distinguish readily between ends and means. They want progressive taxation—steeper rates, a “Robin Hood” tax on Wall Street transactions (the National Nurses United have been fierce and consistent about this), taxing capital gains at the same rate as salaries, and so on. They are for job growth and against austerity budgets. They want to curb a plutocracy that has taken possession of the commanding political-economic heights ever since Ronald Reagan galloped into Washington three decades ago to deregulate big capital, gut labor unions, and roll back as many sixties reforms as possible. The unions and other groups have come to the aid of Occupy in myriad ways, mainly out of the spotlight, most recently training tens of thousands of activists in nonviolent techniques. But they, as an ensemble, as a unified political force with a unified program, have not stepped up.

All homage to the 1946 strikes, including Oakland’s, but without retreating from the requisite homage, let’s acknowledge some underpinnings. Union density in 1946 in the United States at large was something like one-third, and higher in California—compared to today’s 11 percent in the country as a whole. Unions had grown immensely during the wartime years, but had mainly adhered to a no-strike pledge. Lots of grievances had piled up.

Lord knows that is not the situation today. Unions are preoccupied with their own problems. Some are stodgy; some, bedraggled; some, the more prosperous, are in the grip of an election year, with its urgency and its narrowing. They feel, overall, defeated. Nevertheless, Wisconsin’s public sector unions have been exemplary. If they succeed in defeating Scott Walker in the recall election, they will have set out a potent line of action. We’ll know soon.

But succeed or fail, it’s foolhardy to demand of Occupy that it evolve, at least quickly, into something other than what it is. Why wait for someone else to do what needs to be done? It’s incumbent upon those of us who think like Matthew Noah Smith and myself to formulate a reform agenda; to win support for it among groups so inclined; to splice together the coalition that can work for them beyond this election year; and not to expect anyone else to do what needs to be done.

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  1. David Berger says:

    This piece is about as superficial as they come and sad when it comes from the author of what is still the best book on the 1960s. However, his understanding of the Occupy movement is about as profound as someone looking at the outside of a human being and trying to guess what’s inside.

    Briefly, the truth is that the Occupy movement as it existed 6 months ago no longer exists. In city after city, and New York, where Todd Gitlin and I live, is the example I know best. Local Occupies have either ceased to exist or have been transformed into a network of more-or-less autonomous committees, each carrying out its own vision of Occupy and trying to keep contact with the other committees and take action in the world around them. In New York, Zuccotti Park was lost over six months ago. The General Assembly, that raucous exercise in horizontalism that so enthralled people, dissolved itself several months ago, and its intended substitute, the Spokescouncil, fell a victim to its methodology, egotism, insanity and, quite possibly, police provocation.

    But what Brother Gitlin neglects is what has actually been accomplished by Occupy Wall Street and the other still-functioning Occupies: May Day! In New York, perhaps 30,000 people marched in the largest May Day demo probably since the 1930s. And how did this happen? Within Occupy, from the very beginning, has been a small group of seasoned radicals, many of whom go back to the 1960s which Br. Gitlin has chronicled so well. And these people have tried, with some success, to keep the Occupy movement pointed at the Labor Movement and the Labor Movement in an alliance with the Occupy movement. Hence the victories of the West Coast Longshore Unions in their struggle last winter. And hence the 99 Pickets, a spontaneous generation of almost that many mini-demos in the days before and on May Day that made May more than a symbolic action by a day of actual struggle.

    The word that jumps out of Br. Gitlin’s piece is “MoveOn.” Just six little letters, but oh what they mean. “Strategic clarity is more likely to come from the groups who make up the outer movement; the members of unions, MoveOn, and other groups.” In other words, unlike Occupy, which cracked open the shell of US politics, the same old politics we have had since time immemorial is what is really needed.

    Now unlike the Labor Movement, which forms strategic alliances with the Democratic Party, MoveOn is a DP front group. It, along with other groups, in the past two months, has set up a rival to Occupy called, variously, 99% Spring and 99% Power. While superficially looking like an independent movement, it is, in fact, a wholly-owned subsidiary of MoveOn and the Democratic Party. It’s trajectory in the next few months will show that.

    So where do we go from here, Br. Gitlin? Are we going to follow the “strategic clarity” of MoveOn and the labor bureaucracy (the bureaucracy not the “members of unions”) back to the Democrats. If so, like the CIO, the Civil Rights Movement, the Ban the Bomb Movement, we will find ourselves in what Lyndon Johnson call “the big house” (The kind that is not a home!)? Or will we go with those elements within the Occupy movement that, with the experience of decades and the experience of months, will try to find a way to widen the crack that was opened on September 17?

  2. Emily says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Gitlin. I had high hopes for Occupy Wall Street, but have become increasingly disappointed, and now have no hopes whatsoever that it can even provide the theatre that it’s proclaiming itself to be.

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