John Heilemann on Occupy Wall Street

January 2nd, 2012

When Barack Obama ran for president four years ago, he was referred to by some as a “blank slate” upon which people of different walks of life were able to project their own hopes and fears. To some on the Right, he was a dangerous radical who “paaaled around with terrorists.” To some on the Left he was secretly more liberal than he let on. To many in the middle he seemed genuinely likely to bridge the differences between the two parties. Similarly, people on the Left and Right have radically different visions for what Occupy Wall Street should be standing for and have predicted significantly different outcomes. For mainstream liberals such as myself, Occupy Wall Street was seen as a sort of Tea Party on the Left that could mobilize support for Democratic causes and put some spine in the backs of Democratic politicians. Meanwhile, some on the Right predicted a 1968 style backlash as the Occupy Movement increased their level of confrontation with local police forces.

A recent John Heilemann article in a New York Magazine gives some new insight into the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as some reasons why both sides might be incorrect in their assumptions. Heilmann notes that one large difference between the Vietnam War Protests and the Occupy Movement is the amount of support for the movement’s general goals.

Where OWS departs from precedent is in the breadth of support from the get-go for its overarching critique in the electorate at large. A November NBC–Wall Street Journal poll found that more than three quarters of voters agree that America’s economic structure unfairly favors the very rich over everyone else, and that the power of banks and corporations should be constrained.“It took three years from the start of the anti–Vietnam War movement to the point when the popularity of the war sank below 50 percent,” observes Columbia professor and social-movement historian Todd Gitlin. “Here, achieving the equivalent took three minutes.”

To be sure, support for goals and support for tactics are two different things, but except for a few slips, Democrats have generally been successful at expressing sympathy with the goals of the movement, while not formally embracing the Occupy Movement. The events of the past few months have made it increasingly clear that this was a wise decision and that they should keep their distance until they have a better sense of how the movement will play out.

Perhaps Heilmann’s greater insight is into the internal debates that are occuring between the leaders of the movement regarding tactics and goals. He draws a distinction between

two broad strains within OWS: the radical reformism of social democrats…who want to see a more humane and egalitarian form of capitalism and a government less corrupted by money, (and) the radical utopianism of the movement’s anarchists and Marxists, who seek to replace our current economic and political arrangements with … who knows what?

Heilmann quotes Max Berger from the “social democratic” wing of OWS:  “My fear is that we become the worst of the New Left,” Berger says. “I don’t want to live in a fucking commune. I don’t want to blow shit up. I want to get stuff done,” He contrasts Berger’s focus with that of Vlad Teichberg, an organizer with a more sweeping and idealistic view of the movement:  “We’re talking about changing our society, so we no longer measure each other in terms of money, but based on fundamental things. What makes us special is not what we are against but what we are for: equality, unity, mutual respect. Those are very important elements of this new human system we want to build.”

More importantly, Heilmann points to this difference of opinion as a main reason that Occupy Wall Street has not presented any “demands”: they can’t agree on what those demands should be and any attempt to force agreement could potentially alienate one side or the other and thus stunt the growth of the movement.

In my opinion, understanding this tension is key to understanding Occupy Wall Street’s actions to date as well as predicting their behavior going forward. People like myself can suggest agenda’s for Occupy Wall Street all day long, but the the movement isn’t ours to command, nor is it likely to be easily co-opted into existing Democratic political structures.

A more likely outcome is that Occupy Wall Street will continue to set its own agenda and will periodically join with more established organizations (such as labor groups) to support certain issues. The 1968 scenario is certainly a possibility, and if occupy protesters disrupt the National Conventions, it’s not hard to imagine whiners like Eric Cantor and demagogues like Rudy Giuliani turning their convention into a forum to blame the protesters behavior on Barack Obama’s call for the top 2% of earners to pay a few more percent of their income to the government.

Whether these tactics will work is still very much an open question, but understanding the internal forces that are driving the debate is key to predicting the outcome.

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