BY THE TIME you read this, the Occupy Wall Street campaign may have fizzled or frozen, but even so it stands as the most significant truly grassroots, outside-the-system political eruption since the Great Crash of September 2008.
Some pundits have been calling Occupy Wall Street the tea party of the Left. But that’s not fair to the Occupiers. The tea party never mustered this many people for such a sustained effort, and the tea party has never been a truly independent, grassroots movement, not with former member of Congress and Big Pharma lobbyist Richard Armey pulling strings from the beginning.
The closest the Occupy movement has come to “establishment” support has been some help from organized labor. But the unions aren’t really a significant part of America’s power structure anymore, and the fact that they were willing to help the Occupiers shows they’ve finally begun to realize that. In fact, the leaderless DIY movement in Lower Manhattan has done something the labor movement should have pulled off years ago—a mass confrontation with the plutocrats who are steering the economy toward greater deindustrialization and inequality.
The unions are famously in decline, but they still have more than 14 million dues-paying members, and that dwarfs every other social force in the U.S. The Occupy Wall Street website proclaims the movement’s kinship with the revolutionary tactics of the Arab Spring. But the Occupy movement lacks the organic connection to the mainstream population that animated the streets of Egypt in February 2011. However, if the unions ever mobilized even 10 percent of their membership for an “occupation” of the seats of power, we really would have our own Tahrir Square.
The spark for Occupy Wall Street came from Adbusters, which is, essentially, a guerilla media outfit. And on those terms the campaign has been an enormous success. A few thousand dedicated, self-sacrificing people with a lot of PR savvy have turned the head of the mainstream media colossus, and so redirected the stream of public discussion. I must admit, I wasn’t sure that was still possible here in Fox News America. But here we are. The slogan “We are the 99 percent” and the proposal for a “Robin Hood tax” on speculative trading have changed the debate. People are talking about the scandalous concentration of wealth in the U.S., and that can only lead to good things.
Also, I have to admit that it does an old guy good to see another new generation stepping up to the barricades. But it also gives me a serious case of flashback heebie-jeebies to see them recapitulating some of the self-marginalizing and self-defeating inanities of dissident generations past. And I don’t just mean silly costumes at demonstrations. I mostly mean the cumbersome, exhausting, and sometimes alienating process of consensus decision-making in which the talking continues until everyone agrees on a course of action. Take it from someone who’s spent hours mired in discussions of arcane ideological minutiae: Consensus decision-making can make an old-style Senate filibuster seem purposeful and engaging.
The practice of consensus makes sense for relatively small and homogenous groups such as the Quakers, who originated it. But it is no way to run a democratic mass movement. It turns power over not to “the people,” but to that tiny fraction of folks who are willing and able to sit in meetings for hours, or even days, at a time. That deals out anyone who has a life. The insistence on “leaderlessness” and rule by consensus ensures that, no matter how appealing their media strategy, Wall Street protesters will still end up preaching to the choir instead of moving the masses. Our American Spring may be coming, but I’m afraid it won’t arrive until some accountable leaders and mass institutions enter the square.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Find out about his novel White Boy and more at www.dannyduncancollum.net.