Occupational Hazard

The Occupy Wall Street movement began with a proposal by the Adbusters Media Foundation, an anti-consumerist group, to stage a peaceful protest in response to outrages by the finance sector in recent years. The protest has endured since mid-September and escalated as groups in cities around the country have rallied in solidarity. As things stand, the 99 percenters (as the overarching movement has dubbed itself) are perched on a precipice. The movement, should it escape being crushed by authorities in coming weeks, and persists to develop a broad-based alliance between Left oriented groups, could shake the foundations of American and world politics.

Of note are the similarities between the ascendant OWS movement and Tea Party groups several years ago. OWS is, and the Tea Party was, relatively “anti-establishment” in the sense of promoting policies that would make the average beltway insider uncomfortable. The extent to which the Tea Party has been co-opted by more mainstream conservative groups is debatable, but it seems reasonable to say that at least a segment of the movement has embraced cooperation with the Republican Party. While the 99 percent movement is still in its infancy, it will be interesting to see if the reactionary Democratic Party will reach out to infuse itself with fresh blood. Reinvigoration of the two party system would be significant, but perhaps the least desirable of all possible outcomes.
The process of co-opting the movement may already be underway, as the Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has apparently claimed responsibility for laying the intellectual foundations of OWS. Certainly, the protest began with an initiative by an anti-consumerist group (Warren labels herself a consumer advocate), but noted intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, and Slavoj Zizek have lent support and hosted talks amidst the protestors. This supports the obvious fact that the “intellectual foundations” of the 99 percenters are a broad collection of critiques: of capitalism, globalization, consumerism, and others; but by no means a monolithic set of beliefs. In fact, this diversity of perspective has historically been a liability for the collective Left, in some cases the only unifying principle of the various parties being opposition to existing social conditions.

The question arises when discussing the future of the OWS movement, on what sector of the population can a lasting coalition be built? Historic incarnations of the Left, aside from facile liberalism, have been rooted first in organized labor and subsequently in coalitions between civil rights and students groups. With the relative death of organized labor, the erosion of social consciousness amongst civil rights groups, and the growth of an architecture of discipline that disempowers students as a social force – the way forward for the OWS movement is unclear. Populist outrage at the aforementioned excesses can be channeled, but as has been demonstrated by the Tea Party outrage can be channeled by conservative as well as progressive forces. It is unclear that, should the economy stabilize and concessions be offered, OWS would continue to enjoy the support of the masses.

Any potentially successful movement, it seems, would need to assume a broadly internationalist character and create ties with the Third World. It is questionable, although not inconceivable, that organized labor could be reconstituted as a social and political force on which to base an enduring 99 percent movement – given the seemingly irreversible process of industrial outsourcing. Deployment of social media, along the organizational pattern of the Arab Spring, to reach marginalized groups throughout the world seems like a more fruitful approach – looking towards a future of increasing international integration rather than wistfully and retrogressively gazing backwards at historically successful but now defunct models.

In many ways the hardest part is still ahead. Steps have already been taken to forge the loose coalition into a more coherent platform, in the form of convening a National Assembly to elect delegates and assume a more conventional political form. The most immediate concern is successfully ending the physical occupation on the movements own terms, that is avoiding eventual marginalization in the media and expulsion by police – in short creating the perception of the projects success. Whether the movement can ultimately avoid absorption, survive the attacks of its enemies, and create a lasting coalition of the disparate groups who have cause to assail the existing system, only time will tell.