Making common cause?

The talky,organically organised American Left contrasts the Tea Party’s discipline.

Written by New York Times | Published:October 10, 2011 12:13 am

Todd Gitlin

If some aspects of the Occupy Wall Street protest feel predictable,so does the right-wing response. Is it any surprise that Fox News and its allied bloggers consider the protesters “deluded” and “dirty smelly hippies”?

Then again,maybe it is surprising. As more than a few observers have noted,the Occupy Wall Street chant,“We Are the 99 Per cent” — a shot across the bow of the wealthiest 1 per cent of the country,seems synonymous with the Tea Party’s “Take Back America” ethos. Those similarities,though,mask profound differences. The two movements both loathe the elite,but their goals,and the passions that drive them forward,could not be more at odds. The Tea Party,for all its apparent populism,revolves around a vision of power and how to attain it. Tea Partiers tend to be white,male,Republican,greying,married and comfortable; the political system once worked for them,and they think it can be made to do so again. They revile government,but they adore hierarchy and order.

In contrast,what should we make of Occupy Wall Street? The movement is nascent,and growing: on October 5,it picked up thousands of marching supporters of all ages. Its equivalents rallied in 50 cities. And yet it remains true that the core of the movement,the (mostly young and white,skilled but jobless) people who started the “occupation” three weeks ago,consists of what right-wing critics call anarchists.

The anarchist impulse is nothing new in America. There were strong anarchist streaks in the New Left of the 1960s — stronger than the socialist streak,in fact,despite all the work Marxists did to define proper class categories for the student movement. “Let the people decide,” one of the early rallying cries of Students for a Democratic Society,meant,in practice,“Let’s have long meetings where everyone gets to talk.” De facto,this meant politics was for people who talked for a living — in other words,college types. From the early ’70s,activists went into revolt against just about anybody’s authority,even their own. Vertical authority had a foul odour: it smacked of colonialism,patriarchy,bad white men lording over voiceless minions. In left-wing activist circles,establishments of all sorts were the immoral equivalents of the Establishment.

Disgruntled by big-talking leaders,turned off by celebrity media,the Left of the ’70s developed a horizontal style,according limited authority to their own leaders,who were at pains to deny they were leaders at all. “Affinity groups” and “working groups” replaced organised factions and parties. Even movements that seemed to require some level of verticality were mostly leaderless.

That explains why such movements barely paused at the fall of communism. When Leninist regimes collapsed,and their self-confident social democratic rivals crumpled,anarchism’s major competitors for a theory of organisation imploded.

This new protest style is more Rousseau than Marx. What the Zuccotti Park encampment calls horizontal democracy is spunky,polymorphic,energetic,theatrical,scattered and droll. It likes government more than corporations,but its own style is hardly governmental. It cares about process more than results. And oh,how it loves to talk. It makes fervent use of the technologies of horizontal communication,of Facebook and Twitter,though the instinct predated — perhaps prefigured — those tools.

So where do these romantics go from here? The Zuccotti Park core doesn’t seem to have a plan. And yet,by taking the initiative,they have aroused,as with the October 5 march,less romantic and more conventionally organised allies who do not disdain political demands. Such is the cunning of political history. Having set out to be expressive,the anarchists have found themselves playing,willy-nilly,a most strategic role.

But perhaps something of the initial free spirit can flourish. The culture of anarchy is right about this: The corporate rich — those ostensible “job creators” who somehow haven’t gotten around to creating jobs — rule the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party as well,having artfully arranged a mutual back-scratching society to enrich themselves. A refusal to compromise with this system,defined by its hierarchies of power and money,would be the current moment of anarchy’s great,lasting contribution.

The writer is a professor of journalism and communications at Columbia

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