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Occupy Wall Street Revisited

Who is Occupying Whom?

by THOMAS H. NAYLOR

From the very outset I was an enthusiastic supporter of Occupy Wall Street. To me it represented the reawakening of the political left after four decades of uninterrupted slumber.  Maybe the radicalization of America had finally begun.  Americans might soon opt for jobs, health insurance, social security, better education, and a cleaner environment rather than drones, Navy Seals, and Delta Force death squads.

One could not help but be struck by the amount of energy emanating from tiny Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan and how this energy had spread to hundreds of towns and cities in dozens of countries worldwide providing the foundation for an international revolt against Wall Street, Corporate America, and the American Empire.  Perhaps a window of opportunity would be opened which would allow consideration of heretofore unimaginable political paradigms such as radical decentralization, direct democracy, secession, or even peaceful dissolution of the American Empire.  But that was not to be.  Most of OWS’s proposals for dealing with the American Empire are neither very radical nor likely to see the light of day.  The fundamental premise underlying OWS is that the U.S. Government is still fixable.  But what if that is not true?

Below we outline ten reasons why OWS has been so ineffective.

1.   Leadership.  Occupy Wall Street prides itself in the fact that, just like the Internet, it is a leaderless organization.  No one is in charge.  However, one is hard pressed to come up with a long list of successful leaderless revolutions over the span of history.

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the iconic leader of the American Civil Rights movement in the 60s, there were numerous other high-profile, charismatic leaders including Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, James Farmer, and Fannie Lou Hamer.  The Anti-Vietnam War movement also had multiple leaders such as Dr. Benjamin Spock, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Senator Eugene McCarthy, Jane Fonda and Senator William Fulbright, though none of the stature of Dr. King.  Lech Walesa and Václav Havel led Poland and Czechoslovakia respectively away from Communism in 1989.

Revolutions need strong leaders.

2.  Organization.  One of the reasons the leaderless Tahrir Square Revolution in Egypt has come unglued at the seams one year later is that there was no political organization in place to monitor the transition government to see that it carried out the mandates of the revolution.

Each separate OWS movement is loosely organized around a consensus based General Assembly which serves as the governing body of the local movement.  Verbal communication is supplemented in all General Assembly meetings by a unique form of sign language by which an individual member expresses his or her approval, disapproval, or desire for more information with regard to a particular issue, for example.  The consensus requirement and the sign language tend to prolong General Assembly meetings endlessly.

Some General Assemblies have a distinct touchy-feely character in which process always trumps substantive discussion.  No one is in charge.  Meeting facilitation is a shared responsibility.  Mutuality, inclusiveness, and political correctness are far more important than political strategy.  Hurt feelings are to be avoided at all cost.  More time is spent on deciding how to process particular issues rather than on the issues themselves.

3.  Political Process.  The idea of a mass political movement operating independently of the mainstream electoral politics has considerable appeal.  But to effect change one must have some form of political process, not no political process at all.  Although standing, sitting, or sleeping in a park or some other public space may make one feel good, it is not clear how this helps curb the power of a ravenous empire.

A National General Assembly has been called for July 4, 2012 in Philadelphia to consider a list of grievances and solutions to be presented to the U.S. Government.  Two delegates, one man and one woman, will represent each of the 435 congressional districts in the United States.  What is unclear is why the OWSers believe the U.S. Government would be motivated to respond to such a list?  The U.S. Government marches to the beat of Wall Street, Corporate America, and the Israeli Lobby which have their own agendas.

4.  Internet.  Supporters of OWS are unrestrained in the praise which they heap on the Internet and social networks like FaceBook.  They claim that without the Internet OWS would not be possible.  It’s as though cyberspace were their god.

When Lech Walesa and Václav Havel led their respective countries to freedom from Communism back in 1989, they did it the old fashion way.  There was no Internet.  They had to rely on a combination of hard work, person-to-person contact, grass roots organizing, moral suasion, and, yes, political discipline.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates would have us believe that the Internet leads to empowerment and enhanced democracy.  But who is being empowered by whom?  Those transfixed by iPads and iPhones have little time to participate in civic affairs and are a threat to no one.  Above all, what the Internet does extremely well is keep us busy – distracted from noticing what the cipherpriests are doing to us in the name of freedom and democracy.

Proponents of the so-called Arab Spring movement claim that the key to its success was the extensive use of the Internet by protestors.  Unfortunately, the results of the Arab Spring movement have proven to be a very mixed bag.  The Internet has not been able to make up for a lack of leadership and organization skills.

5.  Objectives.  From the beginning OWS has attracted a very diverse set of protestors with an equally diverse portfolio of concerns including income inequality, poverty, greed, unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, student debt, health care, environmental degradation, racism, sexism, corruption, violence, and imperialism to mention only a few.

In sharp contrast to OWS the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Polish Solidarity movement, and the South African Anti-Apartheid movement all had very specific, clearly defined objectives.  There was absolutely no doubt about what business they were in.

6.  Self-Interest.  Some OWS encampments have focused their attention on relatively self-serving issues such as reduced home mortgage loan obligations and reduced student loan payments.  While these may represent very real problems to some, it’s not so easy to build a national movement around issues perceived to be grounded primarily in self-interest.

7.  Iran.  Under enormous pressure from Israel, the White House appears to be on the verge of bombing Iran to take out its alleged nuclear weapons program.  The military, geopolitical, and economic consequences of such a move could be monumental.  Yet the OWSers have shown little or no interest in this issue.

8.  Vision.   Conspicuously absent from OWS is any well-defined vision of the future for the United States.  What would OWSers like to see the United States become when it grows up?

Notwithstanding overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of supporters of OWS behave as though they believe the U.S. Government is fixable.  Most of them cling to the fantasy that some combination of campaign finance reform or laws banning corporate personhood will solve all of our problems.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

These OWS adherents fail to realize that those who own, operate, and control our government like things just the way they are.  There simply are not going to be any constitutional or legal restrictions limiting the rights of corporations.  Nor are there going to be any meaningful campaign finance reform laws.  It’s not going to happen.

Two recent books, Why America Failed by Morris Berman and Deep Green Resistance by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen, suggest that at least a handful of writers on the left have begun to question whether or not the Empire is truly fixable.  They are starting to doubt whether President Barack Obama or his Republican opponents have any clue as to how to solve most of our problems.

But if the Empire is going down, which it surely is, and it is indeed unfixable, then what exactly is the point of Occupy Wall Street?  To go down with a sinking ship.

When all is said and done, there is but one morally defensible alternative to a failing evil empire, peaceful dissolution, just like the former Soviet Union.

9.  Image.  Although Bill O’Reilly’s mean-spirited portrayal of OWS is grossly unfair, some of the TV images of OWS protestors do not instill confidence in their ability to change the world.  Many of them come across as stereotypical radical, disgruntled, hippie malcontents.  The problem lies when they become the defining image of a fledgling political movement.

10.  Occupation.  Is it possible that the real purpose of Occupy Wall Street has little to do with either the 99 percent or the 1 percent but rather everything to do with keeping the political left in America decentralized, widely dispersed, very busy, and completely impotent to deal with the collapse of the American Empire. The fundamental question is “Who is being occupied by whom?”  A good occupier is someone who is completely occupied protesting, processing, communicating via sign language, social networking on the Internet, and promoting pseudosolutions to problems of an unfixable, failing empire.  Occupiers are all occupied doing exactly what their handlers would have them be doing, namely, being fully occupied.

In summary, Occupy Wall Street represents a huge distraction.  It very successfully diverts attention away from the fact that the United States is the largest, wealthiest, most powerful, most materialistic, most environmentally irresponsible, most racist, most militaristic, most violent empire in history which does all too little to support the vast majority of its citizens other than the superrich.

What OWS does best is keep thousands of people busy, people who might otherwise be a threat to the Empire.

My grievances with Occupy Wall Street can best be summarized by what Albert Camus once said about the relationship between conformity and rebellion.  “Conformity is one of the nihilistic temptations of rebellion.  It demonstrates how the rebel who takes action is tempted to succumb, if he forgets his origins, to the most absolute conformity.”

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of AffluenzaDownsizing the U.S.A., and The Search for Meaning.