Politics & Policy

Occupy’s Totalitarian Temptation

May Day 2012 in New York City (redguard)
Occupy’s top-down vision of utopia doesn’t resonate with normal Americans.

Yesterday morning, I sauntered into Madison Square Park before many others had arrived. The “Free University” was still setting itself up, and it was a forlorn sight. Lonely red balloons flew at various points around the fountains, and bored policemen sat on benches looking bemused and coordinating their patrols with the Park Service. Dotted around the place were “professors” without students, waiting expectantly under signs that read “Open-Access Teach-In” and “Free Yoga,” and trying to catch the eyes of unimpressed commuters in the hope that they might stop and engage. (Students, it appears, will be no earlier to the revolution than they are to their classes.) One man with some sports equipment — presumably the “(Meta-)Physical Education” teacher — stood in the rain waiting in vain for takers. But on the north side of the park, next to the statue of David Glasgow Farragut, a circle had formed — what seemed to be a roundtable on climate change. I wandered over and stood quietly on its edge.

#ad#“Naomi Klein went to the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change,” the speaker was saying, “which must have been an unpleasant experience.” (Snickers greeted this addition.) “And what she discovered was that the conservatives get it. She wrote about it in The Nation.” He picked up a piece of paper and read aloud: “Here’s what she said they think:

. . . climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book Climate of Corruption, climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.”

The assembled Occupiers laughed nervously, and some nodded. “Yes!” smiled the speaker. “The Right gets it. They spread misinformation about the science, as they know that it means the end of how we’ve been living. And they’ll do anything to keep the system as it is.” At this, everyone nodded. “So,” he continued. “What can we do?” The group had a brief conversation about the importance of educating Americans in scientific truth — which will, no doubt, have raised a few hackles among those intent on relitigating the Science Wars — and an agreement that everybody needs to stop driving cars, and then moved on to more important things.

“Well,” the speaker said, “I want to move on a bit. A lot of people live in the suburbs and they have a few cars and they live in houses that they probably bought in the 1980s. We need to morally exclude those who don’t recognize the problem, and let them know that they have no place in a future America.” This sounded a bit off to my ears, so I waited until they were finished and then asked one of the friendlier-looking participants a question: “I understand that you think these people in the suburbs can’t continue their lifestyles. Where will they live if not there?”

“Where will they live? In a community!” she replied.

“They do live in a community,” I said.

She laughed nervously. “A different community. One that we’d all design together.”

“Forgive me,” I said. “But you just described America. This is a community that we all designed together. How would yours differ?”

After a while, we established that what she actually meant was that people who shared her views would need to design the parameters of others’ lives — for the “common good,” of course. She was very nice — more Tom Friedman than Mussolini — and would surely be horrified if I were to buy her a copy of Liberal Fascism and suggest that people like her are exactly what the book is about. But neither her basic decency nor her naïveté can change the fact that she and her fellow panelists have succumbed to the totalitarian temptation, and adopted wholesale the seductive idea that the future is just too important to be left to individuals and free institutions and must thus be bent to the will of experts who happen to look very much like them.

This group, discovered early in the morning before the cameras and microphones had arrived and the day’s message had become filtered through them, summed up what I recognized last year in Zuccotti Park, and what you will find rather quickly if you peruse the various websites that Occupy has been running for its May Day events and beyond: The people involved in the movement have managed somehow to confuse their conception of the “public good” with the American “general will.” (Rousseau deserves some of the blame for this conflation, one suspects.) Thus, in the imaginations of the Occupiers, the American people — 99 percent of them, at least — serve as an enormous human Rorschach test, onto which the hopes and fears of a small minority of progressives are projected, and by which universal authority is claimed. It is a clever trick, but it is one that runs contrary to the American system of government and to the maintenance of a free and virtuous people. And it is one that, ultimately, requires government by an enlightened class at the expense of the best elements of both American democracy and republicanism.

Thankfully, such people root their convictions in some remarkable wishful thinking. All day yesterday, vast majorities of pedestrians walked directly through the hearts of the May Day protests without stopping. They went to work, they visited the bank, maybe they went to the movies or had lunch in a restaurant. In short, they did everything that they had been told not to. Yesterday’s “General Strike,” Occupy Wall Street claimed, was called against “a system that does not work for us.” But the “us” was presumptive. No doubt there are many in this country who would like to see change. But they will want a say in how such change comes about, and, as long as the Occupiers so widely and openly indulge the totalitarian temptation, and so long as they seek to impose from the outside their vision for utopia, Occupy Wall Street is destined to remain what it has always been: a group on the fringe.

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

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