Postmodern confusion about how populist movements take hold and flourish caused Occupy Wall Street to “deconstruct” itself in a frenzied obsession with nonhierarchical structures, a disdain for demands, and other trappings of “lazy, reflexive libertarianism,” author and columnist Thomas Frank writes in The Baffler.
Frank is no foe of the movement, but rather a leftist critic committed to understanding what has prevented his side from landing hammer blows in the culture wars of the last four decades. His conclusions come during a general review of the tone and bias of the multitude of books that have been written by left-wing journalists, activists and academics on the movement that began in Zuccotti Park in September 2011.
“[F]or all its intellectual attainments,” Frank writes, referring to the highly academic nature of the Occupy movement and its outreach to the public, “the Left keeps losing. It simply cannot make common cause with ordinary American people anymore.”
Additionally, in its manifestation as Occupy Wall Street, the left failed to distinguish some of its key philosophical premises from those underpinning the runaway capitalism it criticized:
[H]ere we come to the basic contradiction of the campaign. To protest Wall Street in 2011 was to protest, obviously, the outrageous financial misbehavior that gave us the Great Recession; it was to protest the political power of money, which gave us the bailouts; it was to protest the runaway compensation practices that have turned our society’s productive labor into bonuses for the 1 percent. All three of these catastrophes, however, were brought on by deregulation and tax-cutting—by a philosophy of liberation as anarchic in its rhetoric as Occupy was in reality. Check your premises, Rand-fans: it was the bankers’ own uprising against the hated state that wrecked the American way of life.
Furthermore, Frank suggests a fundamental parallel between OWS and the tea party that, absent the backing of billionaire conservatives a la the Koch brothers, serves to diminish the impacts of any movement.
The reason Occupy and the Tea Party were such uncanny replicas of one another is because they both drew on the lazy, reflexive libertarianism that suffuses our idea of protest these days, all the way from Disney Channel teens longing to be themselves to punk rock teens vandalizing a Starbucks. From Chris Hedges to Paul Ryan, every dissenter imagines that they are rising up against “the state.” It’s in the cultural DNA of our times, it seems; our rock ‘n’ roll rebels, our Hollywood heroes, even our FBI agents. They all hate the state—protesters in Zuccotti Park as well as the Zegna-wearing traders those protesters think they’re frightening. But here’s the rub: only the Right manages to profit from it.