Anyone not currently living under a rock is well aware of the apparent surge in grassroots support for the Occupy Wall Street protests. After a start in NYC the movement has spread to locations across both the US and the rest of the world; just recently a news outlet posted a photograph of people in Antarctica “Occupying” in solidarity, even if the only beings around to witness it were a handful of penguins (whose black and white tuxedo attire smacks suspiciously of an alliance with Wall St fatcats…).
Unsurprisingly, those of us on the Left are lauding the protestors as a solid counterpart to the rise of the Tea Party movement (although whether the heavily-funded Tea Party may truly be considered “grassroots” is questionable). This is, according to some on the Left, the return of the great protest era, the 1960s. As one protestor put it—reposted by MoveOn.org—the uprising of the 1960s had merely fallen asleep for a while, and is now, finally, awake.
An interesting metaphor. “Coma” would probably be more accurate though, as whatever fell apart in the sixties did more than just catch some Z’s while banks, corporations, and government grew ever larger and more powerful. Maybe all that acid really did fuck people up enough to last for over three decades…
But I digress. Somnolence aside, the metaphor is more illuminating for what it has to tell us about the current protest movement, which is that it is almost certainly doomed to fail. What the Sixties showed us is that People in Power—and take that whatever way you like, but right now it seems to be big corporations, Wall St, and the politicians they’ve financed into office—are very, very good at not only keeping their power, but at increasing it. Even, and perhaps especially, in times when that power is ostensibly threatened.
The preceding paragraph’s ambiguity shows one critical component of the maintenance of power: an inability to clearly or easily define who exactly is in power. Unlike in Egypt or Syria or Libya there is no central, authoritative figurehead against which to protest. There is a Rogues’ Gallery of evil fuckers, to be certain; but who are they? How many of the protestors—or any of us—can name or identify the people responsible? HBO’s “Too Big to Fail” made some of the swine from Wall Street and Washington into household names, but the number of players involved—which far exceeds those shown in the film—is dizzying, and will likely never be known. And as if things weren’t muddled enough, the fuzziness of the whole thing creates more problems. Surely not all bankers are evil; nor are all politicians, or CEOs. Unlike the fables told to us in movies and books, the villains are not quite so clear cut.
Without a central axis of power, where do you strike? Washington and its corporate friends learned long ago to avoid a true centralization of power. Turning corporations into people–as is happening now–is just the latest move. When a company like Bank of America has over 5000 branch locations it makes any direct challenge to power seem hopelessly futile and poorly aimed. They—and most others in power in the US—have used a marriage of capitalism and government to achieve what Roman emperors long ago tried to do through art: the appearance of god-like omnipresence and omnipotence.
But if a decentralization of power were the only problem facing a modern populist uprising it wouldn’t be so bad. This is a goddamn big country, after all, with a lot of people, a lot of whom are legitimately angry. If large enough numbers of them were to act in unison—through protests, political action, or otherwise—things would very likely have to change.
No, the eventual failure of this and any populist movement currently underway has to do with the total fractionalization of the American public. By making sure the vast majority of frustrated citizens are split along ideological lines—lines that often have very little to do with the real problems facing people—those in power are virtually guaranteed to stay safe.
Consider the fact that many on both sides of the alleged grassroots movements see eye-to-eye on a few core issues; they want a level playing field for citizens, fairness in business and political competition, preservation of individual liberties, and an end to corporate dominance in politics. Naturally, there are some strong ideological differences, some of which—like gay rights—we on the Left must not bend on. And there are difference in just how to achieve some of these ideological goals.
But the Tea Partiers aren’t all as crazy and stupid as the media would like us to believe. There are fanatic racists among them, no doubt. And many of their views on social issues like gay rights and immigration are, at best, reprehensible. But every group—including Occupy Wall St—has its fringe elements, the folks we all hope don’t get put on TV but whom the media loves to trump around for the sake of a good story (no doubt due to the media’s stake in the current power structure). Even the Tea Party’s massive backers—the Koch brothers—aren’t the radical assholes you’d associate with the movement’s more stereotyped members. David Koch—unquestionably and proudly libertarian and conservative—supports gay marriage, and has donated millions to medical and arts charities (think of that the next time you step into the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center). And if you expand that philanthropy to his brothers, you’d have a hard time visiting any major cultural institution in New York City without getting Koch droppings on your shoe: The Morgan Library, The Frick, The Museum of Natural History, all bear the stamp of Koch family money. Lots of it.
Which is not to say I’m defending the Koch family. Far from it. Thanks in part to them right-wing lunatics now have a goddamn national platform on which to voice their views.
But at the very least the Kochs went outside the usual political machine to push their agenda, something they could have done simply by pumping more money into the establishment. They’ve certainly got enough to buy whatever Republican or Democrat they’d like.
The real Enemy—whoever or whatever that may be—realizes that going outside the political and corporate machine is the most damaging thing that could happen to American society, at least as far as entrenched power is concerned. And so they’ve made sure to pit the two groups—Tea Partiers and Liberals—viciously against each other. By ensuring those of us who are suffering—which is pretty much the vast majority of Americans—are fighting against each other, the People in Power have virtually guaranteed their own safety. And all this is despite the fact that most of us recognize we need tax reform, financial market reform, healthcare reform, political reform…in short, a total reorganization of how people earn and distribute money in this country.
Admittedly, some sort of brutal but practical common-law marriage between the two “grassroots” movements currently washing through the country would no doubt be ugly. And there’s a lot to disagree on. But in the end it’d probably be a lot uglier for the fuckers who got us into this mess in the first place, the people who are hell bent on making sure that political and economic agency is strictly a Club for Insiders.
But back to the Sixties, the last time there was ever any danger of real “change”, when there was the potential for a real “king-hell breakthrough.” As the Good Doctor put it:
“The [Hell’s] Angels blew it in 1965, at the Oakland-Berkeley line, when they acted on Barger’s hardhat, con-boss instincts and attacked the front ranks of an anti-war march. This proved to be an historic schism in the then Rising Tide of the Youth Movement of the Sixties. It was the first open break between the Greasers and the Longhairs, and the importance of that break can be read in the history of the SDS, which eventually destroyed itself in the doomed effort to reconcile the interests of the lower/working class biker/dropout types and the upper/middle, Berkeley/student activists.” (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, 179)
I can’t say whether there was any influence from Above that made certain the factions of 1960’s radicalism never came together, but intentional or not it certainly worked. And now, over forty years later, it’s clear that the Enemy has learned from history far better than the rest of us. With Tea Party support around 20-30%, and Liberal factions likely that large, a combination of the two would be far more damaging to mainstream power than anything the Sixties could muster.
But enough of this rambling. Between yesterday and today I’ve watched something like ten hours of live coverage of weightlifting from the PanAm Games, and my brain is starting to bubble. No doubt the causes of eventual failure for this and every major American movement are multivalent and endlessly complex. But if history has taught us anything—and admittedly we are terrible students of it—it’s that unless we start doing the unthikable it will fail.
Better to just sit back and wait for something where the playing field is a bit more level, like the upcoming 2011 World Weightlifting Championships…