How Theory Met Practice …and Drove It Absolutely Crazy

Thomas Frank compares and contrasts Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party in the latest Baffler:

There is a scene I always recall when I try to remember the exhilarating effect that Occupy Wall Street had on me when it was first getting going. I was on a subway train in Washington, D.C., reading an article about the protests in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. It was three years after the Wall Street bailouts. It was two years after everyone I knew had given up hope in the creativity of Barack Obama. It was two months after the bankers’ friends in the Republican Party had pushed the country right to the brink of default in order to underscore their hallucinatory economic theories. Like everyone else, I had had enough.

Anyhow, the subway car was boarded by some perfectly dressed, perfectly polished corporate executive, clearly on the way back from some trade show, carrying a tote bag that bore some jaunty slogan about maximizing shareholder value or what a fine thing luxury is or how glorious it is to be a winner—the kind of sentiment that had been commonplace a short while before but that the American public had now turned bitterly against. The man was clearly uncomfortable with it on his person. And I considered the situation: Once upon a time I would have been embarrassed to hold a copy of this magazine on a crowded subway, but now it was people like him who would have to conceal what they did. Your service to the 1 percent would no longer be something you could boast about without feeling the contempt of your fellow Metro passengers.

A while later I happened to watch an online video of an Occupy panel discussion held at a bookstore in New York; at some point in the recording, a panelist objected to the way protesters had of saying they were “speaking for themselves” rather than acknowledging that they were part of a group. Another one of the panelists was moved to utter this riposte:

What I would note, is that people can only speak for themselves, that the self would be under erasure there, in that the self is then held into question, as any poststructuralist thought leading through anarchism would push you towards. . . . I would agree, an individualism that our society has definitely had inscribed upon it and continues to inscribe upon itself, “I can only speak for myself,” the “only” is operative there, and of course these spaces are being opened up . . .

My heart dropped like a broken elevator. As soon as I heard this long, desperate stream of pseudointellectual gibberish, I knew instantly that this thing was doomed.

*  *  *
“There is a danger,” the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek warned the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park last year, and he wasn’t referring to the New York Police Department. “Don’t fall in love with yourselves.”

We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?

Read more here.

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  • BuzzCoastin

    a direct confrontation with an enemy is never successful
    unless you have a bigger army, better fighters and superior weapons
    however
    the Roman Plebs successful gained reforms and rights through strikes (The Conflict of the Orders)
    they simply withdrew from commercial society (and in some cases Rome itself)
    things ground to a halt
    the Patricians conceded some power and reforms
    and the madness started all over again

    the problem with OWS was
    most of it’s participates were already on strike
    and couldn’t convince the straight people to join them

    • todd southern

      It is not about bigger, better, and superior. It is about how to effectively engage an enemy and more importantly how to effectively agitate propaganda.

      You hit the nail on the head Buzz, the inability for the Occupy movement is that they have to make a connection with the so-called straights. The individualistic notion of speaking for themselves sadly creates a disconnect. This is not to say that they are wrong, rather that this approach does not connect with the public at large.

      When at least forty percent of the country votes against their own best interests there is a serious problem with defining the those best interests. The right has more effectively got about half this country to believe in an ideology that is antithetical to their interests. Throwing them bones of ending gay marriage, abortions, and taxes.

      Refine and define a message that connects with a population, it sounds so cheesy but united we do stand and divided we are about as effective as the occupy movement is at connecting with America at large.

      • Heath

        Since their foes work from Bernay’s handbook, I question how effective using their own tactics might have been.

        You don’t sell the steak you sell the sizzle..

        • todd southern

          That is exactly how you agitate. You find the connection that whets an appetite so to speak. I like your analogy. It is so frustrating to see so much unrealized sizzle in the Occupy movement, yet the dearth of sizzle the opposition possesses is so damn intoxicating. I am picturing Fred Flintstone floating into the kitchen on the aroma of that steak Wilma is cooking.

          Also a the pitcher plant comes to mind.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      “To win a thousand battles is not the pinnacle of military excelence. To subdue an enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of military excelence.”

      Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War’

      • Calypso_1

        If we do not wish to fight,
        we can prevent the enemy from engaging us
        even though the lines of our encampment be merely traced out on the ground.
        All we need do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way.

        ibid

  • Sarcasmo

    I know one thing the occupy movement did, it showed the world that when you protest the government’s fascist ponzi scheme, you get your ass beat by the paramilitary police state and the president they voted for keeps his puppet mouth shut.

  • Simiantongue

    Just dropping by to see if I had laid one of my typical asinine comments on this thread. I read the article and intended to, but I just couldn’t remember if I had. Looks like we’re all good here though.

  • Roger Mexico

    Bah. This guy’s hard-on for statism is unbelievable. Is it still “too soon” to give credit where credit is due? OWS was an anarchist action–everything from the people who started it to its organizational structure and tactics makes this clear. Few people want to say this, but it seems rather patently obvious to me. OWS, in its highs and its lows, corresponded exactly to the strengths and weaknesses of American anarchism as a movement. Why does this matter? Because anarchism is the closest thing to a “radical left” of any significance currently going in the U.S., and OWS was probably the biggest mass mobilization of the American political left in my lifetime. (I’m 29 years old) When was the last time the International Statist Organization or the United Socialist Workers’ Party of Whatever pulled off anything that made front-page news consistently for two months?
    Has it occurred to anyone that maybe it’s about fucking time the left ended its long and sordid love affair with the State?
    Right-wingers have been the dominant force in control of state power here since 1968, more or less. Why did this happen? Mainly because the New Deal Coalition fell apart when the “New Left” decided to mount a challenge to the “Old Left” that had rallied behind FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.
    But let’s think about this for a second–what was the New Left (SDS, etc.) all about? I’d say its two major issues were racism and imperialism. The reason these were explosive issues in the 60’s was that they had basically been swept under the rug in the 30’s. SDS fell apart, of course, and maybe it was a tactical blunder in hindsight, but if we take a step back there’s a good question to be asked–what fucking good is a “Left” that isn’t anti-racist and anti-imperialist? these are basic issues for anyone genuinely concerned about creating a more equal, just, and liberated world. FDR delivered full employment, higher wages, the right to unionize, banking regulations, and social security. OK, that’s nothing to sneeze at, but how did he deliver all that? Answer–by offering a Devil’s Bargain in which the left received these concessions in exchange for making its peace with corporatism and militarism, and at the very least agreeing to table the racial equality issue for another generation. As a result, all the “grownups” in the Old Left ended up throwing their support behind the single largest mobilization for imperial expansion in American history, thereby cementing the power of what a later ‘conservative’ president would term the “military-industrial complex,” an unholy marriage of militarist and corporatist hegemony. (It bears mentioning here that the original “progressives” were mostly Republicans, as were the people who had tried to make ending institutionalized racial inequality a national priority 100 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed.)

    MAYBE THAT”S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU HITCH YOUR MOVEMENT’S OX TO THE PURSUIT OF STATE POWER–your actual principles and goals get tossed out the window and then spat upon by your so-called “benefactors.”
    Comparisons to the Tea Party are tiresome–does anyone actually believe the Tea Party has done anything but make enough noise to be temporarily useful to the ephemeral agendas of the real players in the Republican party? If Romney successfully unseats Obama, I think the Tea Party will have largely outlived its usefulness to these people, they’ll stop bankrolling it and pimping it via their news networks, and the whole thing will fade rather quickly into irrelevance and obscurity.
    OWS is Round 2 of what we first saw in the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999. That is, an emergent challenge to the basic premises of the prevailing global power structure of the 21st century. Call me a “theorist” if you want–I’m stickign with my view that this has all been a prologue to the real story.

    • http://www.ContraControl.com/ Zenc

      Though I don’t entirely agree with you, I did want to commend you on this comment.

      Clearly you’ve put some thought or a considerable amount of research, or both, into this subject and I appreciate you sharing your informed opinion.

      Due to our collective inability to agree on what “the facts” even are (let alone agree upon what the facts “mean”) I find myself frequently posting short and generalized comments as a way to avoid the endless petty squabbling over minutia which seems to pass for intellectual discussion among some people.

      • Calypso_1

        I second your commendation & would also exhort you to extend your own expression as I believe it often carries a tenor that rises above the petty squabble.

    • Hadrian999

      What do you see as a plan of action by a non-statist left to counter statist right power structures

      • Jin The Ninja

        good question. i have an answer of sorts, but i’d rather see roger’s response first.

    • Jin The Ninja

      this is a great post. thanks for that.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    I emphathize with this author’s impatience, but GROW UP, already.

    There was never gonna be any white hat riding in from central casting to haul Snidley Whiplash into the town gaol. Political realities are shaped by cultural consensus, not strong arm individuals.
    America’s cult of capitalist empire enabled our current mess over a span of 40 years at least–because we asked for it–repeatedly.

    Occupy at least represents a shift in rhetorical momentum by reintroducing the idea of popular, heterodox dissent. It deserves at least 40 years to prove what it can achieve.

    • Calypso_1

      absolutely

  • Hadrian999

    in the united states the left suffers from a huge disability, the left has no unity. the left couldn’t organize an orgy if they were in a whore house. countless “lefty” causes move in countless random directions. there is con central core of beliefs or unified battle plan.

    The Right on the other hand is much more regimented with central creeds, command and control structures, and a unity of purpose. The left may not like it but if you wan’t to win a war you need an disciplined army not unfocused rabble, or what we used to call a gagglefuck.

    Hopefully next time they get their act together and come up with some sort of actual plan. drum circles full of starbucks hipsters aren’t going to do anything worthwhile

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