The “Occupiers” think they’re the new revolutionaries, but they’re not. Indeed, they are farcical actors performing a failed drama on a stage resting on ignorance of history and a classic philosophical error best illuminated early in the last century by someone they’ve never heard of, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The Occupiers, with their signs advocating “class war” and blaming the Jews for life’s intrinsic unfairness, bring to mind — at least to my aging mind — Karl Marx’s famous line: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The Occupiers are indeed farcical, and they go well beyond Hegel’s forecast. They are not the second, but the umpteenth appearance of a bourgeois movement advocating the destruction of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat.
One of my wittiest friends was once the leader of the Youth Organization of the Italian Communist Party. Like all good Communists, he fought zealously to bring the “working class” to power, until, one day, he had an epiphany. Walking across an elegant piazza in Milano, he suddenly proclaimed “but there is no working class.”
As indeed there isn’t, not even in Europe, and less still in the United States. While it may once have existed in the sociological sense of the term (you could talk about people in certain kinds of work with certain levels of income and certain conditions of life), it never existed in the way Marx wanted: the “workers” never thought of themselves that way. They never had “class consciousness” that would enable them to advance their “class interests.”
The myth of the working class existed in the minds of the intellectuals who conjured it up, and the revolutionaries who went to their doom trying to lead it. Working-class revolution never succeeded anywhere. For a while, Marxist historians hailed the French Revolution — the early phases, anyway — as the model for such a thing, but in the past few decades even the greatest historian of the Revolution, Francois Furet, had the same sort of epiphany as my Italian Communist friend, and hardly any leading scholar believes in the myth any longer. Indeed, Furet came to see that the French Revolution was a very bad thing, all in all. Bad for the workers, bad for the bourgeoisie, bad for the French people.
Nonetheless, the myth lives on, with the farcical results we saw, for example, in the streets of Paris in the summer of 1968. It damn near wrecked the city until de Gaulle’s troops rolled down the Champs Elysees and sent the advocates of “imagination in power” back to their classrooms and printing presses.
In America, the myth of socialist revolution has always been weak, and every serious student of American history has pondered the question “why has there never been a serious socialist movement in the United States?” It’s an important question, because it highlights a fundamental difference between us and the Europeans. The short consensus answer is: “because Americanism embodies the ideals upon which the socialist movements are largely based,” in the sense of social justice and equality. Most Americans have never seen the need for social revolution because they believe they live in a revolutionary society that offers them a path to success and happiness.
The Occupiers are a spinoff of the European tradition, which is hardly surprising. Leftist American intellectuals — of the sort that gravitate to social activism or who enter government bureaucracy to impose on the people things that the people would reject if given a free choice — have always wanted the prestige that is enjoyed by their European counterparts, but which is generally denied American intellectuals. Marx would laugh at them. Hegel wouldn’t pay them the slightest attention.
Finally, the Occupiers are caught in a linguistic trap best described by the early 20th century British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. “What do all games have in common?” he asked in the Philosophical Investigations. And then he explored the various possible answers. A winner and a loser? No, because a boy throwing a ball against a wall and then catching it is playing a game. Keeping score? Not always. And on and on. Finally, he said, the question itself led us into a trap. If we had instead asked the empirical question (“is there something that all games have in common?”), we’d have stayed outside the trap and said something like “well yes, but it’s a sort of vague family resemblance.”
Revolutions are rather like that. The word has been overloaded, and can’t help us understand what’s going on. How do you know when you see a revolution? How do you know if a revolution has succeeded or failed? Once you start looking at such questions, the image you’ve got of a “revolution” (which is probably something like an angry mob marching on the Bastille) dissolves. “Scientific revolutions” don’t have mobs or violence in the streets; they take place in laboratories and are conducted by men in white coats, for example.
Mobs and violence, even rhetorical violence of the sort the American Occupiers deploy, do not a revolution make. Nor is that sort of activity necessarily “progressive.” There have been very successful right-wing revolutions (Italian fascism, for example, or the 1979 Iranian Revolution that gave us the frightfully reactionary Islamic Republic, or Lenin’s coup d’etat, which may provide the model for what is going on in Egypt, or even in America: one group brings down the regime, whereupon a very different group consolidates power).
The Occupiers in New York seem very happy about the Egyptian “revolution,” and say so repeatedly:
The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.
Further evidence for the Occupiers’ lack of knowledge, let alone understanding, of the farce in which they are acting. And perhaps a telling insight into the nasty antisemitism that has cropped up in so many of their banners.
So how can we measure their success or failure? The question, as always, is whether or not they can impose their will on their enemies (the rich plutocrats). If you see investment bankers and hedge fund owners redistributing their own wealth, it will be a win for the Occupiers. If candidates adopt the Occupy slogans and do well in primaries, that will be a win. If their world-wide sit-in is sent away from the public squares, and they can’t continue to protest in significant numbers, it will be a defeat.
The president, and his media supporters, are joining the Occupy party (and Party), so those considerations apply to him and them as well. It would be surprising if they won, frankly. It flies in the face of many American traditions, it seems very likely to annoy most American voters, and it is so clearly irrelevant to the real concerns of American workers, whatever class they are in, that one is once again awed by how smart Hegel was.
At least I am.