Remember when Occupy Wall Street was sweeping the nation? The media branded it the left’s answer to the Tea Party, the start of a grand national mobilization; depending on who you ask, half of America once supported the OWS protestors, double the amount who back the Tea Party. The Huffington Post even launched a separate page devoted entirely to coverage of OWS.
How the mighty have fallen. The New York Times may still be trying to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation on the decomposing OWS corpse, attributing continuing policy influence sans evidence of any kind to a movement that has all but completely disappeared, but compared to the Tea Party, except for the media hype, OWS was a political flop. (Via Meadia is not a card carrying tea-partier, by the way; any tea sipped in the stately Mead manor is poured into delicate China cups by our well trained housekeeping staff, and tasted with pinkies appropriately extended in the proper, traditional way.)
Much of the Tea Party’s influence was negative from a Republican point of view: weak Senate candidates nominated by Tea Party enthusiasm dragged the GOP down to defeat in Delaware and Nevada races. In other cases, Tea Party enthusiasm increased turnout and swung close races to the GOP. But like it or loathe it the Tea Party did — and does — make a difference. Politicians seek its support; its leaders have taken over local party organizations and made waves in race after race across the country.
OWS is not in the same league. Despite generally favorable coverage from the MSM (something the Tea Party has never had), OWS has essentially fallen apart. It is not a significant presence on the streets; it is not a significant presence in Democratic Party politics; it is not a significant presence in the national conversation. Its vaunted strategy of shunning conventional politics in favor of self organizing groups making decisions from day to day more or less evanesced into space while the Tea Party, equally anarchic, did in fact spawn the kinds of movements and political changes that the OWS crowd did not.
To the extent that OWS had any influence at all, it was at the level of slogans: “one percenters,” “the 99 percent” and “occupy x” have entered our language. But as a populist left wing fight back against the biggest economic disaster since the 1930s, it was dismally lame. At its height it failed to match levels of popular mobilization and outreach that earlier movements achieved in past episodes in American history– and it fell quickly from that height.
To some degree, it was killed by its “friends.” The tiny left wing groups that exist in the country jumped all over the movement; between them and the deranged and occasionally dangerous homeless people and other rootless wanderers drawn to the movement’s increasingly disorderly campsites, OWS looked and sounded less and less like anything the 99 percent want anything to do with. At the same time, the movement largely failed to connect with the African American and Hispanic churchgoers who would have to be the base for any serious grass roots urban political mobilization. The trade unions picked up the movement briefly but dropped it like a hot brick as they found the brand less and less attractive.
It is as if the Tea Party had been taken over by the Aryan Brotherhood and delusional vagrants while failing to connect with either evangelical Christians or respectable libertarians. The MSM at one point was visibly hungering and thirsting for exactly that fate of marginalization to happen to the Tea Party, and the MSM did its klutzy best to tar the Tea Party with that kind of Mad Hatter extremism. The Tea Partiers by and large (not always or cleanly) escaped the fatal embrace of the nutters and the ranters on their side of the spectrum; OWS was occupied by its own fringe, and so died.
OWS’s popularity continues to plummet. Many pollsters haven’t even bothered to ask the public about OWS since the protestors were kicked out of Zuccotti Park. The NBC/WSJ poll, one of the only reliable indicators of OWS support these days, shows OWS’s popularity has dropped by half since November. Over the same period NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg’s popularity has remained steady months after closing the sad and futile encampment at Zuccotti Park. No backlash there.
At Via Meadia, we thought we’d wait until the weather warmed to offer our opinions on OWS, since we don’t like to bury social movements prematurely and since college students mostly come out to protest when it’s sunny. But there’s been no upsurge this spring. OWS tried to spark a May Day protest against the 1 percent that would reverberate around the world. The Whole World Is Waking! Into The Streets! OWS wanted the May Day affair to breathe new life back into the movement, but it was more of a last gasp. Few people took notice, even fewer obeyed the message and took to the streets, and May Day passed without incident.
OWS also tried to partner with Anonymous, the hacker group that once teamed up with Russian television propagandist Julian Assange to attack Visa and Mastercard when those companies refused to process funding for Wikileaks. Jointly, the two organizations published a laundry list of demands and tried to hype each other up: They promised to “flood” downtown Manhattan with protestors, they tried to send “black faxes” to the Federal Reserve, Goldman Sachs and others, they tried to hack into the NYPD’s communications equipment, they tried to take down the NY Stock Exchange website — all efforts sputtered and failed.
The ideas behind OWS are more important than the movement; questions about the legitimacy and the consequences of liberal capitalism are going to be part of the political discourse as long as markets produce socially disturbing and morally questionable results. It is natural and healthy for young people to question society and to explore the alternatives to the intellectual status quo. Many youthful protesters grow up to play important parts in the social organization they once denounced; others end up writing blog posts about the futility of exactly the kind of protests their younger selves would have joined.
It is important to ask how wealth should be distributed or redistributed. The role of banks and the dangerous position they occupy — where private, market power and government finance intersect — has preoccupied and puzzled some of America’s greatest statesmen; neither Thomas Jefferson nor Andrew Jackson would celebrate the crony capitalism that the conventional establishment takes for granted.
Occupy Wall Street brought important issues into a national discussion. The group had a range of complaints, some reasonable, others not so much, about a variety of policies and social conditions in the United States. Many of the concerns and the grievances they voiced were and are widely shared.
This makes the failure of the movement more striking, not less so. It is easy to understand how someone can go broke selling umbrellas during a drought, but OWS was peddling leftie economic ideas and the politics of redistribution in the middle of the worst economic times in eighty years.
There are some who think the United States is better off without an effective left. Via Meadia does not share that view (though we wouldn’t want the left to get so effective that it “seized state power”, “occupied the commanding heights”, and then extirpated outdated bourgeois illusions like free speech, trial by jury and private property before going on to liquidate such social parasites and running dogs as ourselves). The level of confusion and dysfunction apparent in the OWS universe during its brief run is a sign that the American left has yet to find a vocabulary and a political stance that works in the 21st century.
Historically, the American left has found its base among immigrants who have not yet found a place in American society, African Americans excluded from it on the grounds of their race, workers savagely exploited by the rawest kind of capitalism and farmers being driven from the land. Organizing an effective left has always been exceptionally difficult in America because these groups were (and remain) much less cohesive than, say, the traditional blue collar factory proletariat of a conventional European ethnic nation-state.
There are plenty of reasons today why Americans might turn to the left. Since the 1970s real wages have scarcely budged: manufacturing employment has been falling, waves of immigrants are competing for low-end jobs, and the mass entry of women into the workforce since the 1960s has increased the supply of labor as well. Those long term problems were seriously exacerbated when the housing bubble burst and the financial panic swept us into a deep recession.
Meanwhile, the upper middle classes and the super class (the Davoisie) have seen their incomes soar even as their interests and their values diverge from those of mainstream America. Seldom has the American economy looked so unfair — and so unpromising — to so many.
A generation of intellectuals and students raised on Howard Zinn expected great things from this combination. If times don’t improve — and especially if the GOP wins in November and a Romney administration governs from the right so that right-wing rather than left-wing policies get the blame for economic failure — we may yet see a serious movement of left-populism contending for national power. But on the whole, it is harder than it looks to push the United States to the economic left.
The great OWS meltdown is proof enough of that.