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Occupy Irrelevance

I’ve entertained hope that Occupy would evolve into what tea parties pretended to be, and failed to become: a populist uprising that grows roots and becomes a lasting force. Unfortunately, the militantly-leaderless nature of the movement lends itself to success-averse puritopians like this guy:

“I don’t see any opportunity inside electoral politics this year,” long-time activist and former Ralph Nader spokesperson Kevin Zeese remarked.

The speakers called for building a “deeper” grassroots movement outside electoral politices to “build power first,” then maybe a robust third party or infrastructure several years down the road.

There is not enough facepalm in the world to express the dismay such dissonance inspires. “Former Ralph Nader spokesperson” should be a giant flashing warning light: Nader blew up the 2000 presidential race and left nothing behind. Twelve years ago, a “robust third party or infrastructure” was still “several years down the road,” too. Like Zeno’s Paradox, the moment for a third party of “real progressives” is always coming, but never, ever quite here yet.

“There’s always this emphasis on winning,” Occupy Wall Street’s Ian Williams said. “But do we want to win or do we want to transform the world?”

I will never understand the mentality that sees victory and transformation as separate and incompatible goals. How is transformation even possible without victory? How does a movement propose to change the laws when it refuses to get involved in making them, much less picking the people who will make them? Magic? Prayer?

How does one “build power” without, you know, building power?

Moral power does not translate into a changed system on its own. Neither does popularity. Neither do “the facts.” As Stalin might ask, how many divisions do the facts have? Or how many votes in Congress? Because that is the calculus of politics: victory is a prerequisite to change in every political system that has ever existed. Without power, you have nothing but wishes and dreams.

“Social transformation” is already underway. As I’ve chronicled here countless times, the basic challenge for conservative orthodoxy is that generational, demographic, and public opinion shifts threaten its political supremacy. Conservatism — particularly its Grover Norquist, drown-gummint-in-a-bathtub version — is desperate to preserve its waning power against the tide of history, and so we see teapublicans racing to undo American liberal civilization as fast as they can.

This was happening, and is still happening, and will keep happening, without any help from Occupy.

Contrary to the right wing caricature of Alinskyites running rampant, Occupy increasingly represents the rejection of effective, pragmatic action in favor of ineffective radicalism. This is actually a much older trend than Occupy, however. There is no “left” left, and what people call “the left” is actually a broad category for factions directing their energies all over the map of incoherency. To wit:

Protest against low transit funding on Wednesday is directed at the wrong audience

On Wednesday, people will gather at the Chicago Transit Authority headquarters (567 W Lake Street) to protest “inadequate funding and policies”, according to the Red Eye. Members from at least two groups (LVEJO and Citizens Taking Action) will join to protest public-private partnerships and to support laid off bus drivers. This is part of a larger National Day of Action for Public Transportation called by Occupy Boston.

They are protesting in the wrong location. They should be rallying at locations where there are people who can do something about underfunded transit: the offices of elected officials, like at City Hall and those of state and federal Congresspersons scattered around town. (Emphasis mine)

Kevin Zeese, the Naderite quoted above, also told Occupiers not to get involved in the Obama campaign this year. Remember how well that worked out in 2010? One thousand abortion bills, dozens of voter ID bills, and countless attacks on unions and teachers in state legislatures argue against the stay-home-because-we’re-mad-at-Obama approach. Yet that kind of cliquish stupidity remains a popular conceit.

What Chris Hedges (also not an Obama fan) calls The Death of the Liberal Class is more applicable to the president’s critics than the president. He is in fact more popular than they are, and has actual power to actually change things. So rather than sit out 2012, a transformative movement should dress him in coattails:

If Obama’s weak approval rating stays at 47 percent, there is an 85 percent chance he wins reelection. Should it rise to 50 percent or better, which is the goal of the Obama-Biden campaign, he stands a 99 percent chance of winning.

“The Republican primaries are nothing more than an interesting side-show to an eventual Obama victory,” said Young, managing director of Ipsos Public Affairs’ U.S. polling. He tells Secrets: “Obama is the odds-on favorite barring some unforeseen random event. As such, we really should not be asking who will win the presidency but instead who will hold the House and Senate and will Obama be able to govern?” (Emphasis mine)

The greatest danger for Occupy is not that Obama might lose, but that he might win without them — or even against them, should they continue to define themselves against him. The danger for America is that Obama may be reelected without a Congress capable of passing, say, a simple transportation bill — putting us right back where we are today.

Ideally, the idealists will recognize this and act to give the reelected president a more ideal Congress. Realistically, I am not holding my breath. Tea party astroturf saw lots of attention to practical political goals: flipping the House of Representatives, electing “real conservatives,” and undoing the Affordable Care Act. The only equivalent coming out of Occupy so far is Obamacare, and that’s because it isn’t good enough. See how that works?

Tea parties took two years to achieve the level of irrelevance that Occupy threatens to reach in just six months. If this movement heeds the call to reject political empowerment for iconoclastic puritopian powerlessness, then participants should prepare themselves for eternal outsider status. That might make them feel good about themselves, but it will achieve absolutely nothing else for anyone — and reduce all the sacrifices they’ve made into a historical footnote.

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  • Anonymous

    I’ve had the same conversation ad nauseum with a multitude of angry progressives re: Obama and re-election. In THIS election, a vote for 3rd party is a vote for the republican candidate.

    At the same time, these angry progressives refuse to see what the congressional and state legislature losses in 2010 did to the modest gains made in 2006 and 2008. They not only wiped out those gains, but set them back several good years. But will they hold congress at all responsible for the shitfest legislative failures of the past 2-4 years?

    Hell fucking no…instead it’s…”I’ll never vote for that traitor Obama again”…

    I could tolerate a Ron Paul presidency. But I do not think I could tolerate another year of republicans holding any power in congress. <-THAT is where America is failing.

  • Yeah, but, you know, BRADLEY MANNING.

  • Anonymous

    As @LOLGOP:disqus  tweeted, Occupy has succeeded in at least one thing: giving populism a rock-solid meme, the 99% versus the 1%. It speaks to basic notions of fairness that are at the heart of Western society – what is a democracy, if not an attempt to be fair in governing – and it also is empowering, telling people that they have nearly a hundred allies should they choose to walk with them. This is an important distinction since too often, lefty politics is about learned helplessness – “there’s nothing we can do, so don’t bother voting,” or “they all suck equally,” or “we have to live with the Blue Dogs because we’ll lose without them.” A message of “no, we can do this” is the fire in the furnace of the engine of change.

    I’m glad, at the least, they gave us that. But I am beginning to think that Occupy is getting high off its own supply here. The structure of Occupy makes it difficult to get rid of, since there’s no condition to satisfy and the chief means of protest is “don’t go away.” That, more than anything, is why it’s been so persistent. It’s also why, when it comes time to actually get it to DO something, it responds with the crisply engineered response of a semi with five flat tires. 90% consensus is a rule that helps Occupy remain inclusive – since it’s less likely to go in a direction you disapprove of if you have such a strong minority veto – but as anyone who’s watched the Senate can attest, minority veto is not the model you want when you want things to get done.

    I think Occupy should be thought of as the arm of the activist left that acts as weathervane and vanguard – out there, soaking up attacks, and creating an environment where activism is thought well of. But the actual issues-based work will have to be done by other groups in the space that Occupy creates. This is just fine by me, as long as people understand this. But too often we expect one component of a political machine to do all the work. Van Jones in particular has been out there banging the drum of “we need a movement to pressure our leaders, AND leaders who are open to our pressure,” and that’s why I think he is baller as all hell.

  • I was one of the skeptics about the Occupy movement when it started.   What bothered me about it then turns out to be pretty  much what happened.  They didn’t coalesce around a core set of principles (beyond 99% vs 1%), didn’t have a proposed course of action, and no idea of what to do to get that into place.  Basically, when asked “what next,” the answer appeared to be “huh?” 

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