The problem with Occupy Wall Street

By , 7 October, 2011, 1 Comment

As regular readers will know, I worry that the American left is preoccupied with culture at the expense of economics, more concerned with identity politics than it is with combating inequality. As someone who leans left primarily because of economic issues, that’s made me feel a bit homeless, politically.

So, as a critique, from the left, of our economic malaise, Occupy Wall Street interests me. But I am frustrated by the way the critique is framed.

The protest seems to have two strains: There are some hardline activists who see corporate power as an ill in itself, and condemn capitalism as a system and the institutions – the companies, the regulators, the politicians – who make it work. And there are a bunch of recent college graduates frustrated by unemployment and mounting debt, who played by the system’s rules and find themselves not as far along as they expected to be because the system is broken. Their complaint doesn’t seem to be that the system is illegitimate and needs to be abolished, but rather that it does not work as advertised and should be fixed.

There is a tension between these two strains, and I would like to see the movement settle on one or the other. But there is a larger problem, which is that the movement makes both arguments badly, and that brings us back to the distinction between culture and economics.

The cultural left wants individual freedom from social and institutional constraints; the economic left wants to build institutions to advance communitarian interests, and protect the weak from the strong.

Both the more radical and more moderate voices of Occupy Wall Street are trying to advance ideas of the economic left – that the interests of the many have been trampled to benefit a privileged few, or that institutions aren’t serving the collective as they ought to be – but they are mired in the language of individualism.

Doug Henwood blames this gap between mission and rhetoric on Reagan, Thatcher, and neoliberalism:

“This is not about left versus right,” said the photographer, Christopher Walsh, 25, from Bushwick, Brooklyn. “It’s about hierarchy versus autonomy.

Autonomy in this context sounds like a hipster version of bourgeois individualism…Occupy Wall Street is hardly about autonomy. It’s about living out solidarity and about attracting people to a movement. They’re living a collectivity, even if they’re not articulating it that way.

I suspect the problem is that three decades of neoliberalism have destroyed any available vocabulary for solidarity. My guess is that most of the people in Zuccotti Park were born after Thatcher and Reagan took office. There’s no such thing as society, as the Lady said. But there is, and we need more of it.

And he’s right.

But solidarity, collectivity and building instruments to advance them didn’t become verboten solely because of right wing economics. The process got an assist from the cultural left’s own emphasis on personal autonomy and its mistrust of social institutions. When I hear occupiers say that adopting a more rigorous collective agenda would be an imposition on their personal freedom, and that the point of the protest is to protest, rather than to achieve any goals, I hear a bit of Ayn Rand, sure, but I also hear the obsession with individual expression that has been a feature of the left since the ’60s.

The has me thinking  of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, which I reviewed favorably here last year. One of the things Franzen reveals is the hollowness of the social doctrines that left-leaning individualism produces, so that its practitioners cannot rise above selfishness, even when (in the case of the protagonist, Walter Berglund, an environmentalist) they try to address societal ills.

If critics are dismissing Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of selfish, privileged whiners, that is because the protesters are speaking the language of the self instead of the language of the collective. Both left and right are to blame for that.

You can’t go home again, as the saying goes, so it is silly to get nostalgic about the old left and the old right (both of whom believed in society, in their different ways). But it is absolutely imperative to start building a new rhetoric of collectivity, if protests like Occupy Wall Street are to succeed.

Related Posts
1 Response {+}
  • Jed

    Hey Maha

    I dig this, because I agree that the most important thing is to form a less individualistic sensibility that can be the basis of an economic system that works for everyone. But from being down on Wall Street, I think that it is forming exactly that communalistic feeling; there’s a tremendous sense of community. One only has to be involved in the “people’s mic” for a few hours to utterly lose one’s own identity; amplifying other people’s voices no matter what they say, delivering a message as a unified voice, it’s quite a beautiful moment where the individual melts away and real change feels possible. I’m not really sure what individualistic language you’re talking about here; the language of 99% seems quite the opposite….Let’s meet up on Liberty Plaza sometime and talk? The most frustrating thing about this movement for me is having too much work when all I want to do is spend all day there.

Leave a Reply