Oct 17, 2011
Occupy Wall Street: An Infantile Disorder?
I read this New York Times article about the demands, or lack thereof, of the Occupy Wall Street movement and it reminded me of Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.
If I remember correctly, Lenin’s pamphlet was aimed at German radicals like Rosa Luxemburg and basically said that radicalism that preached “no compromise,” and which rejected all “parliamentary forms of struggle,” was doomed to failure.
When I read statements like, “Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond,” and ““The process is the message,” I can’t help but have similar feelings.
Believe me, I’ve long had a soft spot for radicalism, and my years immersed in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics certainly succeeded in making me skeptical of quick solutions and easy answers, especially when offered up by established parties invested in the status quo.
I also see in Occupy Wall Street an echo of Marcuse’s Great Refusal—a heroic, if somewhat empty, rejection of the present “situation” which one could see as a necessary, negative step towards creating a newer, better situation.
Nevertheless, I’m not filled with hope or optimism when I consider what I’m hearing about this stuff. Why not? Because Occupy Wall Street, aside from lacking demands, also seems to lack any coordinated mass militancy that could actually pose a threat to the 1%.
The Occupy Wall Street protests are symbolic, aspirational. These folks are not actually occupying Wall Street, after all. They don’t control the area as true occupiers would. Nor do they have the power, yet, to do anything radically disruptive such as call a General Strike (maybe it would take things really getting to Grecian levels for that to happen).
And not to put too fine a point on it, here’s another way to think about it.
A liberal friend of mine on Facebook wrote something like, “Yay! Now we have our own Tea Party Movement!”
I asked, “Do they have guns? Because the other Tea Party does.”
If Zucotti Park were the site of an armed encampment, this would look like a real occupation. Since it’s not, it looks like an expression of anger and frustration that generates more light than heat.
Well said. The demonstration is actually more symbolic than most realize, as it is mislocated. There is no Wall Street, as defined by the protestors. Where they are encamped exists only the NYSE, occupied mostly by hard-working middle-class traders. The Financial Institutions are now located in MidTown and across various places throughout the world. As one analyst said yesterday, “If the protestors can’t find Goldman Sacs, how will they ever find a job?”
Well, you gotta start somewhere :^)
And it’s been a while since armed struggle toppled the government of an industrialized country. On the other hand, non-violent demonstrations have led to literally dozens of changes of government in the last few decades.
The tougher problem, of course, is that changing an economic system is (much!) harder than changing a government. Even when you actually seize state power.
Paul, that’s kind of what I meant with the “Great Refusal” comment – you do need to start somewhere and a negative gesture, even if it doesn’t contain a clear, forward-looking concept is not nothing.
I was also thinking about you and Matt N. and Sushma and all my old Columbae cronies when I was implying that arming this resistance would make it somehow better. I’m not convinced that’s true and in fact think that armed militancy on the part of small groups (as we saw in Europe in some cases into the 90s) is generally ineffective and almost always counter-productive. Still, it hasn’t been all that long since armed force toppled a government of an industrialized country (I’m thinking of Iraq) and even when non-violent demonstrations do bring about change (Egypt/Tunisia) the army gets involved either by siding with protesters or by not-siding with the government, as seemed to be the case in Egypt (where, of course, the army is not in charge).
Finally, I absolutely agree with the “changing the economic system” part of your content and that’s kind of where the Lenin reference comes in. I don’t think a Soviet-style command economy is a good idea but most of the other proposals (playing around with tax rates for the rich or insisting that we would solve a lot of problems if we regulated stock-based compensation for CEOs of banks, for example) seem to be tweaks, not a true rethinking of how we manage resources in truly massive social formations involving hundreds of millions and even billions of humans.
Anyway, thanks for the comment and I’m always curious to hear your thoughts on these matters.
Thanks for the comment, Lewis. I’m not opposed to symbolic protests, but I do think it’s important that, push coming to shove, we are clear on what’s a mere symbol and what’s an actual idea that will change things. The challenge for this “movement,” as Paul suggests in his comment, will be crossing the chasm from the symbol to the thing itself.
OK, since you mention Columbae:
“A cleaner Columbae is a precursor to a more perfect society.” Greg Ching, in an epigram on an improved Wheel ‘o Jobs at our favorite co-op.
“We must cultivate our garden.” — a sadder but wiser Candide.
“Incremental change is _way_ underrated.” — Eric Cornell.
Sure, it’s arrogant to put myself in the company of two of the great sloganeers of the last three centuries, but what else is the internet for but that kind of arrogance?
The Internet is built on arrogance. Or at least “ego mania.” After all, to think that you need to broadcast your thoughts and feelings to the universe at large via this technology requires at least a modicum of ego-centricity: LISTEN TO MEEEEE!