Liberals Are Terrified of #OccupyWallStreet

TNR: Liberals should be nervous

Picking up where we left off yesterday, The New Republic has now offered its official two cents on the protests on Wall Street and, as one would expect of the stuffy self-appointed organ of the liberal power elite inside the Beltway, it disapproves.

[T]o draw on the old cliché, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Just because liberals are frustrated with Wall Street does not mean that we should automatically find common cause with a group of people who are protesting Wall Street. Indeed, one of the first obligations of liberalism is skepticism—of governments, of arguments, and of movements. And so it is important to look at what Occupy Wall Street actually believes and then to ask two, related questions: Is their rhetoric liberal, or at least a close cousin of liberalism? And is this movement helpful to the achievement of liberal aims?

This task is made especially difficult by the fact that there is no single leader who is speaking for the crowds, no book of demands that has been put forward by the movement. Like all such gatherings, it undoubtedly includes a broad range of views. But the volume of interviews, speeches, and online declarations associated with the protests does make it possible to arrive at some broad generalizations about what Occupy Wall Street stands for. And these, in turn, suggest a few reasons for liberals to be nervous about the movement.

The Editors responsible for the unsigned editorial then go on to outline the differences between #ows’s radicalism and TNR’s proper liberalism (the former is dreamy, “group-thinky” and utopian, the latter skeptical, pragmatic and pro-capitalist) , before urging liberals to stay the hell away.

As Eric Hayden writes at The Atlantic,  “These are the reasons TNR editors seem troubled by Occupy Wall Street”:

  • The protestors seem overly dismissive of capitalism. “One of the core differences between liberals and radicals is that liberals are capitalists. They believe in a capitalism that is democratically regulated—that seeks to level an unfair economic playing field so that all citizens have the freedom to make what they want of their lives. But these are not the principles we are hearing from the protesters.”
  • And they need to get over their utopianism.  Highlighting Occupy Atlanta’s decision not to let Rep. John Lewis speak at their rally, the editors then contend: “The protests have made a big deal of the fact that they arrive at their decisions through a deliberative process. But all their talk of ‘general assemblies’ and ‘communiqués’ and ‘consensus’ has an air of group-think about it that is, or should be, troubling to liberals.”
  • Plus, they may make liberals look bad.  “These are not just substantive complaints. They also beg the strategic question of whether the protesters will help or hurt the cause of liberalism. … we are hard-pressed to believe that most Americans will look at these protests, with their extreme anti-capitalist rhetoric, and conclude that the fate of the Dodd-Frank legislation—currently the best liberal hope for improving democratically regulated capitalism—is more crucial than they had previously thought.”

Though I don’t pretend to speak for #ows by any stretch of the imagination–I’m more of a very interested (indeed, admiring) observer than a participant, for one thing–I want to respond to each of these points based on my own understanding of it thus far.

Are the protesters dismissive of capitalism? To answer that, I offer this segment from Russia Today’s “CrossTalk” program featuring “Tea Party” talk show host Tony Katz, Kevin Zeese of October2011.org and Jason Del Gandio of Temple University. Conservative Katz makes the same charge as TNR, and Zeese and Del Gandio (neither of whom, to be clear, claims to speak officially for the occupations, either) each make the point that the protests are not against capitalism per se but about “crony” and corporate capitalism.

To be sure, there are certain to be members of the occupation and its supporters who are anti-capitalist. TNR cites Slavoj Žižek, who addressed the Wall Street group on Saturday. Žižek is a Marxist, certainly. But anyone who has read him at all closely knows that his critique of capitalism is not naively dismissive of it and is appreciative of it as a formidable enemy of his preferred system of communism, i.e., his economics based on the notion of the commons. (Rather than get into a distracting discussion of Žižek’s communism, let me simply clarify that it can’t be summarily dismissed, as American anti-intellectuals love to dismiss frighteningly foreign ideas, as identical with the state socialism that collapsed in 1989, for which Žižek has as much contempt as any non-Eastern European of the left, at least.)

It helps to define our terms, so let’s agree that what we’re talking about when we talk about “crony capitalism”  is capitalism that exercises control over the political system through finance of campaigns and employment of the revolving-door system between public and private sector leadership. Put more simply, it’s plutocracy, or control of the democracy by moneyed interests. It results when democracies allow money to have an influence on elections, because money is its own interest, which is entirely different from those of people. Capitalism per se is simply a means of distributing wealth. When it’s regulated, it can be an efficient resource distributor. But when it’s unregulated, the profit motive becomes, rather than an incentive for entrepreneurs to meet a social demand, an end in itself. What the #ows protesters (and even many Tea Partiers and common liberals) understand implicitly (having been long-term victims of it) is that the American system has been thoroughly corrupted by interests seeking to keep profit-making free from regulation and oversight. This single-minded pursuit has infected the Republican Party to the core and has thoroughly weakened the Democratic Party’s traditional resistance against it.

This, then, is #ows’s criticism, in my understanding, of capitalism as it’s done in the U.S. It’s not the economics of capitalism that is at issue here but the influence of capitalist profiteers on the political system. How many times and ways can this be said before those puzzled by the protests can get it? This is really not so difficult to understand. Nothing about this critique is fantastic or utopian. Rather, it addresses concretely what we see in front of our own eyes: the political system is not working for us. The political system has broken down for us. After years of making clear to the government that we disapprove of its direction with absolutely no sign that anyone in the government hears us, isn’t it  irrational for us to trust that it will work for us again?

As for the last bullet point above: #ows is not in the business of making liberals look good. In fact, it’s nuts for a liberal magazine that has just disavowed the movement based on its “non-liberalism” to fret about how it makes liberals look. As I said in my last post, it might be more helpful for Democrats (and mainstream liberals, for that matter) to think of #ows as anti-Democratic–in the sense of being anti-business-as-usual. I watched the video linked to above of John Lewis being turned away from the Atlanta occupation. If I had been there, I would have voted for him to speak, seeing that he is John Lewis and had made the effort to be there. On the other hand, everyone there had made the effort, so I can understand why the “anti-Lewis” contingent objected to interrupting a previously agreed upon agenda to let a “singular” person speak. One healthy skepticism the anti-Lewis contingent exhibited, in my view, is against Democratic powers suddenly swooping onto the scene to disrupt its agenda and take its floor.

One more point: the charge of “group-think” is a peculiar one for an inside-the-Beltway institution to be hurling at outsiders.  It’s largely their intractable hive-mind, brought about by Washington’s incorrigible incestuousness, that has us in the mess we’re in now. Imagine if the Washingtonian punditry and think tankers had shown some more independence of thought before the war in Iraq, to cite a particularly painful example, would there have been quite as much frustration out here beyond the Beltway, or quite as much determination to surmount the obstacle to real democracy that Washington as a whole has become?

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5 thoughts on “Liberals Are Terrified of #OccupyWallStreet

  1. You hit the nail on the head when you talk about the influence of capitalism on the political system as being the key issue here. The Wall Street protesters are leaderless and without a set agenda – but they have energy on their side. It would be interesting to see if over the course of the next few weeks, the movement gains momentum and a few leaders emerge.

    • It certainly looks like it’s gaining momentum, considering that there are encampments in dozens (or according to one count I saw, thousands) of cities globally. Apparently the US system is not the only one corrupted by profiteers.

  2. Pingback: This Is What #Democracy Looks Like: John Lewis and #OccupyAtlanta « Tragic Farce

  3. Pingback: Liberals Fear #OWS, Part Deux « Tragic Farce

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