An Argument Against Taking Occupy Wall Street Seriously

by Josh Barro

Yesterday, Reihan wrote that labor unions and groups like MoveOn should hesitate before getting into bed with Occupy Wall Street, given its anarchist roots. Then I went on CBC News to debate a representative of OWS, and came away convinced that Reihan is exactly right.

You should watch the video, partly because it is the most (unintentionally) hilarious TV interview I have ever done. You might say that the OWS rep blathers incoherently, but there are actually two important takeaways from his comments.

One is that, as is typical for OWS, he is unwilling to set out any actual policy goals that the movement wants—except for, and this is a direct quote, “a Glass-Steingold Tax, or whatever that is.”

The other is that the structure of his comments is broadly anarchistic—he says OWS doesn’t need policies because they will create social change by “building a model society” in Zuccotti Park, where people share food and sleeping pads according to their needs and arrive at decisions through discussion and consensus. I guess the idea is that the American people will give up capitalism once they see how wonderful it is to camp out in a park and dress up like Zombies.

Matt Yglesias has written that labor unions and other more mainstream left-wing organs need to co-opt the OWS protests as a vessel for a more concrete policy agenda. Presumably, his model is along the lines of the Tea Party, where disparate and sometimes extreme activists have, more often than not, played ball with the Republican Party and its associated entities.

But I’m not sure that will work for OWS, because too many of its participants may simply be too extreme. If you reject the mixed capitalist economy and representative democracy, how do you fit within a political coalition broadly aligned with the Democratic Party, even its left flank? It’s a much more fundamental rejection of the American political and social system than, say, wanting to repeal Social Security.

I suspect that the only thing holding OWS together is policy ambiguity. Some of the protesters want to reform the system; others want to smash it to bits. If you get too specific about policy, how do you keep those people marching together? But Yglesias’s co-option strategy would involve injecting at least some policy specificity.

So, Reihan is right and progressives should be careful where they step, as this dog is not likely to hunt. But the dance between the anarchists and the labor unions will be fun for me to watch from the sidelines. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.