Ron Radosh

Occupy Wall Street and the Delusions of the Left

What strikes me about the Left’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the total delusion about its meaning and the scope of its reach. I do not dispute that there is justified grievance about the bailout of the big banks by the Obama administration and the failure to get the economy moving and to create new jobs. But on this score, the OWS shares its estimate with that of the Tea Party, which made cutting the deficit and doing something about our growing entitlements a primary goal.

But where the OWS is different, is in its apparent characterization of itself as radical or revolutionary, terms coming from the utopian and highly unrealistic hopes of its participants. In his column today, David Brooks rightfully writes that they have “nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent,” including the 99 percent they claim to represent. These folks are anything but radical, says Brooks. Their redistributionist claim to pay for everything by taxing the rich at the highest rate possible is a chimera. As he puts it,

Even if you tax away 50 percent of the income of those making between $1 million and $10 million, you only reduce the national debt by 1 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. If you confiscate all the income of those making more than $10 million, you reduce the debt by 2 percent. You would still be nibbling only meekly around the edges.

These protesters may look radical and think of themselves that way, he adds, but the truth is that

its members’ ideas are less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club. Its members may hate capitalism. A third believe the U.S. is no better than Al Qaeda, according to a New York magazine survey, but since the left no longer believes in the nationalization of industry, these “radicals” really have no systemic reforms to fall back on.

Brooks takes them a tad too seriously; these protestors are all poseurs, more interested in getting attention than in being serious. They have no sense of the economic reality in which the world lives; hence their magic solution to everything is “tax the rich.”

The truth is that they are would-be revolutionaries who perform for the TV news, which if it went away, would quickly find that the Liberty Park encampment would disappear in one day.

So here are three of my favorite examples of the radical delusion, in all of their multifold patterns:

I: Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Talk of the Town” in the latest New Yorker. Hertzberg is too smart to take the protestors seriously. Taking off from Chairman Mao’s well-known aphorism that a revolution “is not a dinner party,” he writes that the protest is in fact “a dinner party of sorts, albeit one with donated, often organic food served on paper plates,” tea that is of course “mostly herbal,” but no marijuana! New York City, evidently, is not Berkeley, California, circa 1968.

Hertzberg therefore questions “the meaning of it all,” and emphasizes with humor that whatever it amounts to, it has become “one of the city’s most interesting bargain tourist destinations.”  Also, what drew crowds at first was not pure protest, but a false rumor that the mega rock band Radiohead would appear there and play for free!  Yet Hertzberg took heart when “transit workers, teamsters, teachers, communications workers, service employees” all heeded the call of their union leaders and packed the area with 15,000 more people. The dream of the working class making the revolution real still lives.

Yet he understands that OWS does not have a “traditional agenda: a list of ‘demands,’ a set of legislative recommendations, a five-point program.” Of course they don’t. Writing a five-point program takes some work — which clearly these people don’t know how to do. They prefer what he calls “constructive group dynamics,” a feel-good time on the street to real politics. And of course, Hertzberg loves it. He writes:

There’s something oddly moving about a crowd of smart-phone-addicted, computer-savvy people cooperating to create such an utterly low-tech, strikingly human, curiously tribal means of amplification—a literal loudspeaker.

Nevertheless, as a good radical, Hertzberg has hope. The “greed and fraud” that  “precipitated the economic crisis” is now being protested, and that is enough for now. The “Republican right willing and usually able to block any measures…that might relieve the suffering” is being challenged, and for him, that will do for now. I guess Hertzberg does not know about the Community Reinvestment Act, ACORN, the bi-partisan repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Dodd-Frank law — all of which Democrats have supported and which led to the housing bubble and the market collapse. So he sees a great future, as long as it is not hijacked by “a flaky fringe.”

I’ve got news for you, Hertzberg. You were witnessing the flaky fringe in all its glory. But I guess for you, what you saw doesn’t meet the criteria for flaky.

II. Todd Gitlin, one of the old SDS’s first leaders, proclaiming its importance in the Left’s paper of choice, the New York Times.

Somehow, I don’t recall the Times asking a defender of the Tea Party to do an op-ed explaining what they believe and want when the movement first started. I wonder why. Anyway, the good professor of journalism and communications at Columbia, and an early leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the ’60s, has done the job for OWS in its pages.

Gitlin is ecstatic. As he sees it, the chant of “We are the 99 percent” shot “across the bow of the  wealthiest 1 percent of the country.” There might be a similarity with the Tea Party, he acknowledges, but the difference is that of the different goals and “passions that drive them forward.” The Tea Party, he says, is “white, male, Republican, graying, married and comfortable.” How does he know? The only Tea Party people he has seen, I suspect, are those whose images appeared for a fleeting moment on TV. They do not have the “untucked shirts, the tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks,” evidently credentials that are required to prove you are part of the real Left.

The OWS is therefore “nascent and growing,” the proof being the thousands the unions brought down. Yes, Hertzberg too said the same: it must be a necessary point of all Left journalists. So his hope is that in a month the movement will look “quit different,” and become something that will challenge the citadels of power. As he points out, it might be somewhat anarchistic, but “anarchism has been the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements for nearly the past half century.” Gee. I thought, having read Michael Kazin’s new history of the American Left, the animating spirit was the very non-anarchist American Communist Party, but it seems one has to change the standard to meet today’s anarchistic protest.

Then Gitlin grows nostalgic. He remembers his old days in SDS, when Marxists tried and failed to “define proper class categories for the student movement.” Somehow, my memory is different. Didn’t SDS fall apart when the two different Marxist factions fought it out till one triumphed and took over the group? Didn’t they all support the North Vietnamese Communists and urge them on to victory? I once read a book about this by one Todd Gitlin that understood all that; indeed, I either blurbed or reviewed it at the time. I guess the author forgot what he wrote so many years ago.

Well, Gitlin does admit that the “tiny hierarchies” took over “decisive control” over the New Left. Could it have been any different, when its original members made that fateful decision to admit Communists into their ranks, since the only evil was Red-baiting, and they didn’t want to be accused of that? Yet Gitlin seems to persist in believing that the radicals of his era were “mostly leaderless.” Anyone remember the role of Tom Hayden? Leaderless, indeed.

So Gitlin is enthralled. He is reliving his youth, finding that a new generation is validating his own past, and will soon be making the same mistakes his people made forty years ago. It is the “counterculture,” he writes, and it must be celebrated. So he hopes the “allies” from the trade unions who arrived mid-week will stay firm, and rescue them from their romantic anarchism. This is “what labor and the activist left have been waiting for” since the ’60s. No wonder Gitlin is swooning. The last remaining step is to convince Barack Obama, that compromiser, to move towards “significant reform,” like socialized medicine and redistribution of wealth by government edict. Then we can all be poor together, as we destroy the banks and no money is available to lend to those who want to use funds to build and create corporations and jobs.

Remember, corporations are by nature evil. They are the epitome of capitalism; and if the protest is anything, it is anti-capitalist. If only they can last, Gitlin pines, and come out with “concrete goals, strategies and compromises.” Gitlin is no doubt pining away for a new Michael Harrington to emerge from the ashes, and give this amorphous mass the necessary Marxist content to push forward towards socialism. Until then, it is sufficient, he writes, to refuse “to compromise with this system,” with its “hierarchies of power and money,” and honor anarchy’s “great, lasting contribution.”

Occupy Wall Street, he says, can eventually move movements and “move countries,” but they need leverage. And perhaps centrist liberalism will be moved to adopt what they are demanding.

You get the picture. The revolution has never been closer. And its word can be spread in the pages of the New York Times.

III. And finally, here is the most delusional entry of all. It comes from the pen of a professor of history and rapper who teaches at Fordham University, the ultra-left historian Mark Naison. Now he went as a participant, who took part in “a grade-in organized by teacher-activists,” whatever that is. I assume all the students who went got As for merely showing up at the protest — a real example of today’s learning in the universities.

Finding them very “international,” Naison felt like he was in Berlin or Barcelona. Did he forget Greece? Clearly, even more than Gitlin, the revolution had arrived for Comrade Naison. He writes:

I felt like I was in the midst of the global youth community that I had seen emerging during my travels and teaching, but I had not expected to see at this particular protest.  It definitely made the discipline, determination and camaraderie of the protesters that much more impressive.

Well, if bong smoking and topless women protesters are the mark of a really genuine revolution, I guess he is right. Suddenly, Naison had a sense of déjà vu. It all seemed very familiar. As he explains:

The longer I stayed at Liberty Plaza, the more it felt like the countercultural communities of the 1960s, where discontent with war and a corrupt social system had bred a communal spirit marked by incredible generosity and openness to strangers.

I don’t know what revolution he played at in those turbulent times, but I recall a hostility to anyone who was against us, as in, i.e., “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” So if you were not part of the revolutionary vanguard who was willing to risk your life for the class struggle, you were part of the sell-out bourgeois brigades who talked the talk but would not walk the walk. It was the opposite of generosity and openness, especially to strangers, who might turn out to be FBI agents. But I guess Naison has forgotten all about the dark side of the movement he now idealizes as he remembers his young radical past.

Now, Naison really waxes ecstatic and becomes truly delusional:

I had feared those days would never return—erased by decades of consumerism, materialism and cheap electronic devices—but when I visited Liberty Plaza, I realized that the global economic crisis had recreated something which I often thought of as an artifact of my own nostalgia.  Because right here in New York were hundreds of representatives of a whole generation of educated young people around the world, numbering tens if not hundreds of millions, who might never land in the secure professional jobs they had been promised or experience the cornucopia of material goods that came with them.  Described as a “lost generation” by economists, a critical mass of these young people, in cities throughout Europe and Latin America—and now right here in the United States—had decided to build community in the midst of scarcity, challenge consumerism and the profit motive, and call out the powerful financial interests whose speculation and greed had helped put them in the economic predicament they were in.

Cheap electronic devices? Did he not go to the Liberty Plaza media center, with its expensive generators so those bloggers would not depend on running their laptops on battery power, and see all those Macs, iPhones, iPads and state of the art PCs? Cheap? Perhaps he did not wish to inquire what corporations made these products, what their stock was selling for on the market he despises, or ask how these poor, unemployed protestors could afford all this stuff? Anyway, Mark, I have news for you. It ain’t cheap!

Tens of millions? Where does he get his figures from? And obviously, they cherish their “material goods,” even if they pretend not to. He is happy to see them challenging the profit motive and consumerism. I wonder if Professor Naison, in his own life, is really so immune to these?

Somehow, I doubt it.

And so the communist-socialist dream lives in Naison’s take on Liberty Plaza. He hopes they will unite with the minorities, the workers and the immigrants, creating that all-class alliance they hoped for in the ’60s that would produce the socialism that until now has eluded them.

And speaking of illusions, he asks: “Can the protesters connect with the people in poor or working-class neighborhoods who were already practicing communalism and mutual aid to create a truly multiracial, multiclass movement?” Pray tell. What neighborhoods is he talking about? I suspect that multiclass movement exists in his own head, and is in fact part of the “artifact of… nostalgia” he writes about in the beginning of his article.

The “global youth counter-culture,” Naison concludes, is part of what he sees as part of a “global movement for freedom, democracy, and economic justice.” It’s all so very simple. Protest, take to the streets, bring down the banks and the corporations, and Nirvana will finally arrive.

On my way from a dentist appointment today, I saw a sign on a lamppost: “Occupy Wall Street: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” That I recall was a slogan from a famous poem written decades ago, I think, by the late Gil-Scott Heron. But in fact, it is being televised, which is one reason it is not a revolution. So I suggest to the media they leave their cameras home. How many nights can we see the same crowds, the same scenes, the same incoherent ramblings of phony rebels? Take them away, and they will soon go back home.

So the Revolution will fade away, and 30 years hence, its few stalwarts can write op-eds about how they were there when it really counted, and bemoan the fact that the socialist future once again eluded them, and hope that in the mid 21st century, it might occur, if only the spirit of Liberty Plaza could be resurrected.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on modified image.)

Also read: “Occupy L.A. Speaker: Violence Will Be Necessary To Achieve Our Goals”