November 04, 2012

Thomas Frank nails why #OWS failed

With one failure, discussed below, Thomas Frank, in the new issue of The Baffler, has a great essay that largely agrees with me, and other critical observers such as Alexander Cockburn about why Occupy Wall Street failed as a movement. That’s along with taking well-earned potshots at people such as Chris Hedges for the massive amounts of ink spilled over a “movement” that hasn’t really … done anything! In fact, Frank semi-snidely compares OWS to the tea party. 

First, Frank says here’s what Hedges and other uncritical babblers were missing:
What we need to be asking about Occupy Wall Street is: Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing?
His answer? It focused on horizontal organizing, i.e., the “we have no leaders,” etc., while not actually focusing on what’s traditionally considered as “organizing,” and refusing to see the need for it.

More on that from Frank here:
To protest Wall Street in 2011 was to protest, obviously, the outrageous financial misbehavior that gave us the Great Recession; it was to protest the political power of money, which gave us the bailouts; it was to protest the runaway compensation practices that have turned our society’s productive labor into bonuses for the 1 percent. All three of these catastrophes, however, were brought on by deregulation and tax-cutting—by a philosophy of liberation as anarchic in its rhetoric as Occupy was in real life.
(Frank emphasis, not mine.)

Another way of phrasing this might be that the “eternal youth culture” many an old conservative feared would happen after Woodstock might be more likely post-OWS.

That said, by ignoring the presence of a security force guarding selected insiders, and other things, Frank fails to note that OWS had a “leadership” all along. And, so, he fails to answer the question of why this leadership eschewed traditional organizing.

For the reason that it has since the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, which Frank does mention elsewhere as a precursor, though failing to draw the appropriate lesson.

These folks wanted, and got … anarchy for anarchy’s sake. And, by not admitting to being, or showing themselves as being, leaders, and by not striving for vertical organization, they couldn’t be challenged on this except by the ground-level OWS rubes, who had been successfully diverted into the task of horizontal organization.

Frank has another opportunity to dig deeper on the whole “no demands” issue:
This was an inspired way to play the situation in the beginning, and for a time it was a great success. But it also put a clear expiration date on the protests. As long as demands and the rest of the logocentric requirements were postponed, Occupy could never graduate to the next level. It would remain captive to what Christopher Lasch criticized—way back in 1973—as the “cult of participation,” in which the experience of protesting is what protesting is all about.
But he never asks if, just maybe, OWS’s leaders, since we know it had them, wanted the movement to stay in arrested development.

Frank does tangentially tackle this, as part of discussing OWS’ failure in more detail:
Unfortunately, though, that’s not enough. Building a democratic movement culture is essential for movements on the left, but it’s also just a starting point. Occupy never evolved beyond it. It did not call for a subtreasury system, like the Populists did. It didn’t lead a strike (a real one, that is), or a sit-in, or a blockade of a recruitment center, or a takeover of the dean’s office. The IWW free-speech fights of a century ago look positively Prussian by comparison.
With Occupy, the horizontal culture was everything. “The process is the message,” as the protesters used to say and as most of the books considered here largely concur. The aforementioned camping, the cooking, the general-assembling, the filling of public places: that’s what Occupy was all about. Beyond that there seems to have been virtually no strategy to speak of, no agenda to transmit to the world.
But, again, he leaves it there with only a “what” himself, and no “why.”

That said, Frank fails to note the whiter than average, better-educated by far than average, and presumably richer than average demographics of OWS, as I have done.

If Frank had noted the demographics more readily, he would have had more to explain why OWS “cadres” readily fell for the pomo academia — they’d heard it spouted for years and probably spouted some of it himself. He’d also have more explanation for them believing the cant of leaderlessness and more. See the “lazy libertarianism” below.

He does, though, note their strongly academic background, and how this lead to the postmodernist diarrhea we heard in general, not just the “horizontal organization.” Stuff like this:
And dear god why, after only a few months of occupying Zuccotti Park, did Occupiers feel they needed to launch their own journal of academic theory? A journal that then proceeded to fill its pages with impenetrable essays seemingly written to demonstrate, one more time, the Arctic futility of theory-speak?
So, to all the OWS fluffers still out there, call me back when there’s a real movement.

He finishes by noting that OWS had a lot of similarities with tea partiers … even similar quasi-Randian ideas. He adds this observation:
The reason Occupy and the Tea Party were such uncanny replicas of one another is because they both drew on the lazy, reflexive libertarianism that suffuses our idea of protest these days.
Agreed. With the tea partiers, it seems a conservative version of “The Secret,” mixed with get-rich-quick ideas that Rick Perlstein, in this same issue of The Baffler, says regularly get peddled by the rich

With OWS? Per my link above, I’ll venture it’s a mix of helicopter moms and some vague sense of “entitlement.”

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