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James Miller and the Danger of Liberal Paralysis

The Fight of Our Lives

by MAX SCHWARZ

On October 25th James Miller, a professor at the New School for Social Research, weighed in on the Occupy movement in an Op-Ed in the New York Times.  In this piece, Miller warned against extremist, anti-democratic elements who threaten to undermine the nascent movement.  This is not his first foray into the debate over the tactics and goals of recent protests.  Nearly three years ago, Miller penned an open letter to the New School community that accused similar fringe elements of ‘hijacking’ a university campaign to censure then President Bob Kerry for his autocratic and anti-education antics.  These students had the temerity to occupy a university building in the middle of Manhattan. http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/04/22/the-battle-to-take-back-the-new-school/  Miller was on the wrong side of history then, and he is on the wrong side of history now.

Miller himself is hardly a danger.  He sits in his ivory tower, padding his residuals from his various texts on rock and roll, student struggles from the 1960s and Foucault or other dead philosophers with what must be a nice wage and some decent benefits.  The danger lies in his worldview; one that infects and inflects many within the academe and the Occupy movement itself.  For the Millers of the world, struggles of the 2010s must take the a certain shape because of the particular processes that arose in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  This idea is poisonous because we live in an entirely different era and our problems are vastly different from those of four decades ago.  In seeking to divide the occupy movement between the supposedly virtuous center and the villainous fringe, Miller causes damage far beyond his meager position as a liberal armchair pontificator.  The study of history is important for anyone seeking to change the world, but the artless grafting of one era’s social dynamics onto another is foolhardy and perilous.

According to Miller’s Op-Ed, participatory democracy is all well and good for small groups, but the protesters are hopelessly naive if they think they can keep up momentum by meeting and talking out there grievances.  This supposed naivete opens the Occupy movement to the forces of anarchy, violence and disorder.  In Miller’s conspiratorial worldview, it is the nefarious ‘uncompromising militants’ who undermine the fight for a better world.  Supposedly all was well in the 1960s student movement until it was hijacked by violent terrorists such as the Weather Underground.   His is a Dolchstoßlegende (the German myth that World War I could have been won except for a stab-in-the-back by leftist politicians) for a new age.

In his Op-Ed piece, Miller defines the ‘paradox’ between participatory democracy and direct action.  After weaving in some ahistorical references to ancient Athens and a lecture on the global nature of our problems (as if we didn’t know that), Miller claims that, “The success of a polarizing movement hinges on obtaining publicity and attention from outsiders. The surest way to obtain such publicity is through demonstrations that prompt a disproportionate and unjust response from the authorities. Violent confrontations can be intoxicating, on both sides of the barricades; so, a taste for street fighting takes hold among a small number of protesters”  We see here the cracked cosmology of the Millerian faith.  Protests are apparently wholly symbolic acts that serve to create a polarization.  This then attracts and repels certain social elements on the given political spectrum.  Accordingly, this symbolism is at its strongest when protesters spark a confrontation with the neutral (?!) arm of state power.  And here is where the real trouble arises in the Miller universe.  By confronting power, protesters put themselves in mortal danger: the danger of an internal corruption; a violent intoxication that takes hold of once virtuous demonstrators.  Once they get a taste of that sweet Demon Rum of provocation they risk being transformed into dark-eyed golems, insensate and cruel, whose intoxication with violence subverts the good intentions of prelapsarian protesters.  This is a purely subjective evil; an ancient morality play; a tragedy as fit for ancient Athens as it would be for today.

As any honest observer can tell you, it is not the protesters who are waging a campaign of polarization.  The United States is more polarized between the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, than at any time in its short history.  If Miller sees a tendency for polarization in the Occupy movement, it is not because the protesters seek to cause a split within the organic solidarity of American society.  When protesters point out the polarization between the 99% and the 1% they are recognizing that we live in a class society.  And—earth to Miller—one class is reaping all the rewards while the rest of us languish with lousy jobs or no jobs at all.  Many people have been faced with these conditions for over three years (and many more for decades) and nobody has listened.  Occupy Wall St has succeeded not because it has prompted ‘disproportionate and unjust’ responses from ‘the authorities’, but because the conditions that the demonstrations object to are now being felt by so many across the country and world.

The attacks on protesters by police have come at exactly those moments when the Occupy movement rises above the merely symbolic and actually succeeds in confronting the powers that daily reproduce our misery.  The police are just doing what the police have always done: protect property and the state apparatus.  It is no surprise that their response should come in the form of flashbangs, pepper spray and batons.  But Miller would have us rely on “friends and allies within the Democratic Party and the union movement.”  This is a surefire way to keep the police at bay.  It is also guaranteed to destroy the movement before it has really begun.  After all, the whole impetus behind Occupy Wall St is a rejection of the same political forces that Miller would have occupiers align themselves with.

Without providing evidence Miller states, “Meanwhile, back in the general assemblies that are one hallmark of a radical democratic movement like Occupy Wall Street, the demand for consensus willy-nilly puts the most uncompromising militants in a position where they can veto the tactics and strategy proposed by the vast majority of their comrades. The moderates are inclined to compromise. So they silence their reservations about the tactics of the revolutionaries for the sake of preserving consensus and unity.”  This is patently absurd.  One of the hallmarks of the General Assemblies so far has been their inability to be co-opted by one group or another.

But, then again, what does Miller even know of the Occupy movement?  He simply ascribes dead ahistorical dynamics culled from personal experiences four decades ago to a lively protest that grows in numbers every day.  His only attempt to relate to the ‘kids these days’ is through a glaring red herring.  His reference to The Coming Insurrection imputes an importance to this text that is surely lost on even the extremist elements he vilifies.  At its best, The Coming Insurrection is a mediation on the diffuse cultural and economic powers that confront any movement trying to find itself after the failures of the previous struggles of the 1970s an 1980s.  At worst, it is a eclectic mishmash of platitudes and plans of action devised by an obscure radical sect that lives in the mountains of France.  This supposed ‘touchstone’ for ‘the anarchists’ is only important in the minds of James Miller and, oddly enough, Glenn Beck, both of whom ascribe devilish powers to a text barely read (or readable) by anyone inside or outside the anarchist milieu.  But this is part and parcel of Miller’s implicit goal: to divide the virtuous center from the villainous fringe.

Many of the folks out occupying are far to young to remember the great battles of the 1960s and 70s.  There were clearly many successes and many failures.  But our struggle simply cannot take the same form that those struggles did because the content is different.  We are going through an epochal economic and political crisis.  In the 1960s vast swaths of the American electorate were disenfranchised.  Today, vast swaths find so little of interest in the political horserace that they do not even bother to vote.  In the 1960s young people chaffed under the yoke of stultifying cultural norms that made life tedious and life choices few.  Today young people are as free as they want to consume all manner of salacious and flashy cultural ephemera, but cannot because of high youth unemployment, massive debts and general economic misery.  In the 1960s middle-class children were being drafted to fight an iniquitous war.  Today our all volunteer army is, ironically, the one employer that working class youth can count upon.  It is a different world.

The turn towards violence and terrorism in the last cycle of struggle was not the cause of its failure, but a reflection of the fact that it had already failed.  And yet despite the myriad differences between then and now, James Miller’s progressive intelligentsia would have wait.  They would have us fall back on the same powers that have sold us out since we were born.  This real results of this parlous ideology were described just yesterday on the Counterpunch website by Mike King and George Ciccariello-Maher. http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/10/27/oakland-on-strike/  In Oakland, it took a group of ‘anti-democratic’ extremists to recognize that the object of desire lay just beyond a tiny fence and all that was necessary was to tear that fence up and put it aside.  There is a push and pull between the type of actions that feels safe and comfortable and the kind of measures that push the struggle to the next level.  How groups of protesters express their real needs—and their anger and discontent—will be fleshed out in the dozens of occupations taking place right now across the country and not in the pages of the New York Times.

Miller succeeded three years ago in demonizing New School students when they occupied a four-story building on Fifth Avenue in New York City and hung a banner that read, “Occupy Everything.”  The crisis has since taken its toll on hundreds of millions of working families across the globe.  Occupations have arisen across California in response to cutbacks in education.  They have arisen in Spain and Greece against the imposition of austerity.  They arose in Tahrir Square and factories all over Egypt when Egyptians finally rose up against dictatorship.  In each instance it is reasonable to assume that James Miller and his ilk would reject the extreme actions of a dedicated few who refused to bide their time in the face of worsening conditions.  Now Miller and the liberal nomenklatura would impose the same upon Occupy Wall St and the hundreds of kindred occupations popping up all over the country.  Clearly they desire control above all else.  And as that control slips away we can only expect their bleating to get louder and their condemnations ever more polarizing.  Thankfully the Occupy movement has already rejected their prescriptions.  It is time that James Miller and his cohort stop lecturing and start listening to the voices on the street.  After all, it is not symbolic power we are aiming for.  We are fighting for our lives.

Max Schwarz is a former graduate student and occupier of the New School for Social Research. He can be reached at: Schwarz (at) riseup (dot) net