I went into Washington yesterday and stumbled upon the Occupy D.C. folks. They were in a little green space on Pennsylvania Avenue, which they have filled up with tents. I was surprised to see how few of them there were. Estimates have been a couple of hundred–which in itself is an unusually tiny demonstration by D.C. standards–but even that number seems high, based on the little tent village that I saw. Also, they don’t really look like 99% of America! I didn’t notice any working class folks–no truck drivers, factory workers, or farmers–despite the unions coming out in their favor. (That’s always what’s frustrating to the American left: the proletariat just never comes out for their causes!) It was pretty much the usual cast of counter-culture radicals whom I remember so well from my college days back in the early 1970s.
The media has been fawning all over these folks, and Democrats–including the president–have declared their support. That might come back to bite them, according to Michael Gerson, who describes the ideology at work in the seemingly unfocused protests:
But there is some ideological coherence within OWS. Its collectivist people’s councils seem to have two main inspirations: socialism (often Marxist socialism) and anarchism. The two are sometimes in tension. They share, however, a belief that the capitalist system is a form of “institutionalized violence,” and that normal, democratic political methods, dominated by monied interests, are inadequate. Direct action is necessary to provoke the crisis that ignites the struggle that achieves the revolution.
And we are beginning to see what direct action means. Occupy DC protesters recently assaulted a conservative gathering, then took over a public intersection to prevent the passage of luxury cars. Blocking the path of one driver and his 2-year-old son, an activist shouted, “Sorry, but you have no power right now.” That is the opposite of participatory democracy — the use of power to intimidate a fellow citizen on a public street. It is the method of British soccer thugs.
In Oakland, protesters have been playing at the Paris Commune — constructing barricades, setting fires, throwing concrete blocks and explosives, declaring a general strike to stop the “flow of capital” at the port. Here, OWS seems to be taking its cues from both “Rules for Radicals” and “A Clockwork Orange.”
Defenders of OWS dismiss this as the work of a few bad apples. But the transgressors would call themselves the vanguard. And they express, not betray, a significant ideological strain within the movement. Since the 1960s, some on the political left have sought liberal reform through the democratic process and nonviolent protest. Others have sought to hasten the crisis and collapse of fundamentally illegitimate social and economic systems. Both groups can be found within OWS, but the latter is ascendant.
OWS has, in fact, provoked a crisis of credibility for many American institutions. News coverage of the movement has been both disproportionate and fawning. The two encampments of Occupy DC, for example, have a couple of hundred inhabitants. If they moved to a nearby convention hotel, the group would probably be smaller than a meeting of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. During the Tea Party’s rise to national attention, the press scoured the country for any hint of rhetorical incitement to violence. OWS protesters smash windows, assault police officers and wear Guy Fawkes masks — a historical figure known for attempting to bomb the British Parliament.
City governments have also begun to look hapless for their accommodation of squalor, robberies, sexual attacks, drug use, vagrancy and vigilantism.
And what must Democratic leaders — who rushed to identify with a protean political force — now be thinking? OWS is not a seminar on income inequality — not the Center for American Progress on a camping trip. It is a leftist movement with a militant wing.
Will Americans, looking for jobs, turn in hope to the vandalization of small businesses and the promise of a general strike? Will citizens, disappointed by a dysfunctional government, be impressed by the endless arguments of anarchist collectives? Will people, disgusted by partisanship and rhetorical rock-throwing, be attracted to actual rock throwing?
This seems to be the desperate political calculation of the Democratic Party. Good luck with that.
OK, they have TWO encampments in D.C., so that explains how they might have 200 protesters, despite the mere handful that I saw. Gerson’s point is a good one: Radicals, whether Marxists or Anarchists, WANT the collapse of our economic system, which is understood as the prerequisite for the revolution.