Politics & Policy

Can Occupy Wall Street Make Sense of Itself?

The five oddest attempts to make OWS seem coherent

The Occupy Wall Street protests have been notable for their inchoate nature as much as anything else. At its root, OWS’s brotherhood of anger largely comprises rebels without a cause and is punctuated by those either young enough to lament that they missed the Woodstock generation by a long shot, or old enough to regret that the naive political ideas of their time never came to fruition.

Try as they might, neither the OWS leaders (sorry, quasi-autonomous horizontal change facilitators) nor the mainstream media can develop a compelling or coherent narrative. Still, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Here are some of the best attempts to thread a sense of coherence through a movement which simply hasn’t exhibited any, and to accord the patina of respectability to a group that has very little in common with itself:

#ad#Writing in Esquire, Charles P. Pierce conceded that “the protests here are omni-directional.” However, he argued, “they appear inchoate” only “because their target is so diffuse — an accelerating sense in the country that there is no pea under any of the shells, that the red Jack is not in the deck, that the wealth of the country is being swindled and gambled and frittered away by so many people in so many ways that to sharpen the focus on one of the long cons is to let a dozen others reach fruition.”

In other words, there is no coherent form. Occupy Wall Street is a general protest, against a thousand different targets. To Pierce, OWS seems to be the natural manifestation of an Indignez-vous! mentality, which holds that protest is inherently virtuous, regardless of its reasoning. I have asked protesters down in Zuccotti Park at what point the United States became this den of iniquity, and to which point in history they would like us returned. It is soon apparent that, far from the current state of the union being an anomaly, the majority of those angry at the state of the union have never considered there to be peas under the shells.

Loath to be outdone on this post-modernist front, CNN’s Douglas Rushkoff babbled an excuse for OWS’s incoherence so vague and full of casuistry that it would make Noam Chomsky proud. To conclude that this is really about anything concrete, he argues, is to miss the point: “We are witnessing America’s first true Internet-era movement, which — unlike civil rights protests, labor marches, or even the Obama campaign — does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular endpoint. . . . That’s because, unlike a political campaign designed to get some person in office and then close up shop (as in the election of Obama), this is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. As the product of the decentralized networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet.”

The Internet is not a bad comparison, actually. The Internet has a lot about it that is admirable, but it is also a completely open book which is mostly filled with mindless, narcissistic drivel, pornography, bigotry, self-delusion, paranoia, redundant nonsense, and spam. The Internet is also a medium, not a message; a distinction that seems to be largely lost on the protesters and on Douglas Rushkoff.

#page#Speaking of spam, Marc Adler, writing on Michael Moore’s website, cracks out some top-notch graduate-student angst:

Humanity faces a daunting battle against corporate forces that have historically proved willing to employ any means necessary to preserve an evil system. The police brutality and corporate funding aimed at crushing Occupy Wall Street hint of the savagery unleashed by corporations in countries around the world over the past 150 years. Yet the recent crackdown has provided our rebellion with an extraordinary public relations weapon by demonstrating the veracity of our charges against a ruthless system that despises democracy and justice. The movement sweeping America is our link to a world-wide chain of rebellion. The majority of the world’s population, which for half a century has borne the brunt of neoliberal policies, is finally determined to stop the onslaught of global capitalism, which is the force sustaining most brutal systems on the planet, from the military dictatorships in the Middle East to the neo-feudalist societies now permeating industrial nations.

Thanks, Marc. I look forward to the sociology dissertation.

#ad#Alexa O’Brien of US Day of Rage picks up a familiar theme and compares the protests to the movements in Egypt: “I see an American moment coming to America. It’s not that Tahrir isn’t inspiring. People all over the world are facing tremendous challenges in the face of globalization, increased institutional complexity, and ancient problems of just and stable governance. But our nation’s problems are our responsibility to fix. Either we face up to that fact, or our nation will perish from the earth.”

In a single paragraph, O’Brien has not only compared a thousand people standing in a park running a commune with the seriously downtrodden fighting brutal oppression abroad, but she has invoked a speech that Abraham Lincoln made during the Civil War. Self-important much?

And finally, having checked Lincoln off of the list, we get an obligatory Founding Fathers moment from Dylan Ratigan, who compared the OWS movement with the American Revolution on the Huffington Post, claiming that “the response to a situation like today’s is often Constitutional in nature. In one historical era long past, crowds of Americans similar to the Occupy Wall Street groups gathered to protest foreclosures, to show anger at economic depressions brought on by corruption, and to check banker control of the monetary system. They used well-orchestrated disruptions to block judges from making unjust decisions, to stop sheriffs from foreclosing on properties, and to enforce no-buy covenants when properties went up for auction. They called themselves ‘regulators,’ and created a broad-based movement against the corrupt collusion of government officials and a financial elite.”

One can only imagine the hysterical reaction from the Left were a group on the right of the political spectrum physically to take over part of a major city under the guise of “occupation.” Indeed, those familiar with the history of occupation would most likely refrain from such a comparison. But if the OWS crowd wish to persist with their nomenclature, they should at least be cognizant of something important: Most occupying forces have some coherent idea of their aims before they man the barricades.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.

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