Universal Translator

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Might Work After All

Well, I’ve spent some more time cruising through the internet and watching the Occupy sister/solidarity sites springing up.  It occurred to me that – all my already avouched pessimism and skepticism notwithstanding – I can foresee at least one way in which this movement may end up actually changing things for the better.  The ironic thing is that, should this occur, it will be in spite – and not because – of the movement itself.

But before I explain how I dimly see a dark and twisted path to potential success, let me give an example of the kinds of things about the Occupy movement that absolutely drive me up the goddamned wall. 

I have, of course, been pushing for a while for the movement to develop some actual purpose, to take a stand, and to start telling the American people what it is – specifically – we should be doing to get America back on track and make this a better country.  We can’t be all things to all people, so let’s be at least one good thing to most people.

But the Occupy movement appears to be going in a different direction.  In the recent interview I referenced earlier, David Graeber explained that the Occupy Wall Street protest is “pre-figurative, so to speak.  You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.”

I didn’t precisely understand what Graeber was talking about until I checked out the home page for the NYC General Assembly.  There I discovered that the General Assembly posts the minutes of the meetings held each night to discuss the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement. 

After reading through the minutes of four nights’ worth of meetings, I learned that OWS is not concerned at all right now about developing a ideology or a fixed purpose or a set of goals or – really – anything that can be communicated to the outside world.  The meetings were all entirely inwardly oriented, dedicated to thinking about OWS itself and to developing the OWS community – not a community of ideas, Lord no, but the fixed, outdoor, physical community, the one of camping kits and drum circles.  This, apparently, is the “sort of society you want to have in miniature” that OWS is concerned with creating right now – and it is exactly what Peter Dreier described as “Woodstock on Wall Street.”

There are discussions about how to buy sleeping bags, briefly hijacked by a young man who questions whether OWS should be buying sleeping bags at all since a lot of the participants are “anti-capitalism,” and wouldn’t it be better just to buy cloth and then make sleeping bags out of the cloth?  (Coupla quick points.  First, if it were me, I’d want my sleeping bag to be made out of Gore-Tex; so, Sparky, unless you’ve got a Gore-Tex loom hidden under your poncho, I don’t want to hear about it.  Second, how is it less “capitalistic” to purchase cloth, but not sleeping bags?  The same money gets pumped back into the system.  The subtlety of Sparky’s logic boggles my mind.)  The young man is politely told this really isn’t feasible, but that most of the sleeping bags are being purchased from the Salvation Army and other charity stores, so OWS isn’t really pumping that much money back into the local economy.  Which – for some unfathomable reason – is considered by the General Assembly to be a good thing.

There are reports from people working for or with (but not “on,” never “on” – correct prepositions are important to the revolution) the finance committee, and a cheer goes up when it is reported that the movement has a little over $35,000 right now in donations.  (And, of course, I wonder how much would have been donated if the people giving that money understood that it wasn’t going to be used to present any kind of coherent vision of financial, political or social reform, but was instead going to be used to try and develop a low-grade sleeping bag Utopia.)

And, finally, someone asks if they couldn’t get a consensus to request that the goddamned drum circles stop drumming and come join them during the meeting or, if they don’t want to come to the meeting, maybe try drumming a little more softly so that the General Assembly can hear each other speak.  (No, I’m not making that up – except for the “goddamned” part, but I figure that was almost certainly said and was just left out of the official minutes for reasons of formality.)

* * *

But here’s the thing that really gets me.  I found on Daily Kos a blog post written by a guy who has been participating in one of the sister Occupy movements.  He had titled his post “Report from#OccupyBoston - Building the Occupation vs. Specific Demands,” and when I saw that title I thought to myself:  Huh.  Well this looks interesting.  This guy is taking part in the same protest, but he is not part of the same group.  And apparently he has found a way to balance building a physical Occupy community with actually working up some specific demands to make.  Let’s see what he has to say.

But I was wrong in my assessment.  The entirety of his post was about the physical and logistical challenges of building up the tent community that is Occupy Boston.  But he ended his report with this:

So, as Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street are dealing with all of these logistical issues (and more I haven’t mentioned) people here and elsewhere are calling for these movements to release statements of purpose and specific demands.  In my opinion, these people are missing the point.  We are occupying Wall Street and Boston and elsewhere because we have lost our political voices in this country – just being there is an exercise in having our voices heard.  For many of us, this is the first time in our lives that we feel as if ANYONE ANYWHERE is taking notice to [sic] our point of view.  (There’s few more exhilarating feelings than seeing a reporter quote you or your poster.  To me it meant more than a lifetime of voting!)

Goddamn! but that strikes me as the most narcissistic, 20-something, self-centered pabulum I’ve ever read.

Let me give you a clue here, Chuckles:  just because every life is precious, doesn’t mean that everybody is worth listening to.  When you tell me that you can’t be bothered to explain what it is you stand for but that “just being there is an exercise in having our voices heard,” what you are saying is that you want me to pay attention to you even though you don’t have anything to friggin’ say.  You can’t articulate anything you want to share, but you want me to pay attention to you anyway.

I’m sorry, but no.  Life is too short to pay attention to people who can’t explain themselves.  There are too many interesting, challenging – and who knows? maybe even productive and helpful – ideas for me to explore and think about, and the notion that I should spend my time listening to someone with nothing to say just because no one has ever paid attention to him before is the worst kind of false entitlement that I think I’ve ever run across.  Jesus!  Who ever told these people that political activism is a groovy way for them to work out their own feelings of self-worth and significance?

And – hey – maybe I’m mischaracterizing that dude . . . but I don’t think so.  Apparently the greatest thrill of his life is being quoted by a reporter and seeing his name in the paper or (more probably) the TeeVee – but I note that he didn’t see fit to tell the rest of us what it was he actually said that made the nightly news.  For this nimrod, the important thing is that he was being paid attention to – why he was getting attention or what it was he was saying is, really, completely incidental to the story of how his words, any of his words, were repeated on the news that one time.  Apparently what he had to say was cool and all . . . but not really worth getting in the way of the main point of his story, which is how somebody else once paid him some attention one time, and how that was more important to him than “a lifetime of voting.”

Jesus Christ in a chicken basket!  I am getting too old to indulge self-centered twits like this.

* * *

Ironically, it is that same self-centeredness that might prove to be Occupy Wall Street’s salvation.

I have been skeptical of the movement’s ability to persevere without taking a fixed stand on anything, but I’ve also been paying attention to the number of sites and sister protests springing up in solidarity with OWS, and the number of formal groups – many unions among them – who are expressing solidarity with OWS.  On its face, this makes no sense.  How can one express solidarity with a group that adamantly refuses to stand for anything?

But then it occurred to me that refusing to actually stand for something may end up being OWS’s greatest strength.  Right now they are making a lot of noise to no actual effect, but their failure to have any kind of formal position means that all the other people who are pissed off about . . . well, about anything, really . . . are free to project their own feelings and gripes onto OWS.  It is similar to the way low-information liberals thought Obama was something other than the completely Centrist candidate he actually was running as; they heard “hope and change” and just assumed he shared their hopes and wanted the same changes they did.

As a concrete example of what I’m getting at, I’ve seen a lot of sites where Ron Paul devotees are supporting OWS because they want to eliminate the Fed (OWS has said absolutely nothing about the Fed).  It seems that the accidental genius of OWS is that pretty much anyone who is feeling dispossessed and disenfranchised and wants to rally and protest something can now do so . . . and claim they are doing so in solidarity with OWS, thereby becoming part of a national movement and therefore more important than they would be if they were protesting by themselves.

It doesn’t really matter that there is no national movement, that everyone protesting and agitating for different things is not really part of OWS because – hey! – OWS refuses to stand for anything.  No, what is important is that the OWS brand attaches itself to the broad feeling of unrest alive in the country.  And that is easy to do because most people are like that self-important, self-indulgent twit I described earlier, who are just happy to get a chance to pretend they are part of something important and bigger than themselves and get someone, somewhere, to pay some kind of attention to them.

So here is how I can see this playing out successfully.  Occupy Wall Street continues basically as a brand, but not a cause.  Over time, the people who are less angry and less devoted to whatever particular cause for which they have been agitating drop off or join other groups, until only a few significant protests remain.  They can be about anything, really, but they’ll all bear the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ brand.  Then after this period of fierce competitiveness weeds out the weakest of the advocates, whoever is left standing can finally make a push for a couple of significant, highly popular reforms that – by then – might just be politically viable as well.

OWS might succeed by, essentially, letting everybody else do all the work.

It could happen.

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