The “We are the 99%” slogan. I don’t see how this can be justified, or redeemed. It is, first of all, false. It can mean two things coming from the mouths of “Occupy ____”: either “we have been delegated by the 99% to speak for them,” or “we are representative of the 99%.” Now, both these are false: no one has delegated these protestors, and clearly this isn’t a sample, but a core made of members of a political subculture, and then a larger number of some others. If I’m right, then it means we have to treat it less as identifying the protestors and more as announcing their analysis. Which, from this slogan, must be as follows. Society is divided into two groups: an overwhelming majority who are powerless or nearly so, and a tiny minority who oppress and exploit the majority. 1% of 300 million is 3 million: so the United States is (mis)ruled by a tiny clique which, since it’s unthinkable that such a small group could exploit the vast majority by normal mechanisms, must rule through deceit, conspiracy, subversion or misuse of normal institutions, etc. And this indeed is the mental world that most Leftists I know inhabit, with greater or lesser degrees of sophistication. The most important point is the personalization of politics: WE are the immense exploited majority; THEY are the tiny parasitical minority.
This kind of language has a long history, on the left and on the right. I see no reason to believe that it presents an accurate picture of American society. I see lots of reasons to believe that it will encourage the climate of scapegoating and conspiracy-theory that the right is already doing its best to create.
It’s possible, of course, that (some kinds of) power really is concentrated in the hands of a very tiny group. The mistake, I think, is to think that this is a sufficient explanation for the state of the world.
The demands for demands, or for leaders. In this case I am entirely on the side of the protestors. Liberals will lament, I suspect, that all this energy will go to waste unless it is channeled into influencing the proper institutions or winning elections. This requires concrete demands, and responsible leaders who can control the movement and push it in that direction. And I think they’re right. The question to ask, then, is whether there might not be some other result, other than a) the kind of change mainstream liberals counsel, and b) the protests fizzling out. Said another way: what significance could “Occupy Wall Street!” and its sister-protests have for more radical politics?
In a recent post, Norman Geras suggests (I paraphrase) that unless protestors who are questioning the legitimacy of the institutions of liberal-oligarchic “democracy” can either a) win elections or b) explain why they don’t have to, then “then their claim to represent an alternative democractic legitimacy is spurious.” Now, to the extent that anyone involved in the occupations is thinking in terms of undermining the legitimacy of representative institutions and replacing them, I think they should take up the challenge Geras offers here. If the liberal “within-the-system” solution is exhausted, if Bolshevik imposition upon the population is either impossible or undesirable, and if there is no majority who will join you in overturning existing institutions, then what is the 99% to do? A recipe from the old anarchist cookbook: use these protests as an opportunity to very visibly develop counter-institutions. I see some sign of this in the use of “general assemblies” and the like. There is a space, I will suggest, between pie-in-the-sky commune-type utopianism, and networking that is indistinguishable from any other bureaucratic institution save for its content. What exactly this will look like, I don’t know.
One step in this direction: a recognition that you are not the 99%, and that that which you find unacceptable comes from far deeper springs than the wickedness of bankers. A sober acceptance that those who cogently advocate a sane and decent society are a small minority will, if nothing else, help seal off the movement against tea-party populism, which, disastrously, some people seem to want to encourage.
What I fear is that there is no one to take up this kind of project, and that the composition of “Occupy Wall Street” is really a small clique of vanguardists-by-any-other-name steeped in High Theory and nihilism, and a much larger mass of well-meaning people who, but for a set of cultural or generational reference-points, might as well be going to Tea Party events. The ease with which the incoherent “99%” slogan was taken up, as well as the odd prominence of the term “occupation” (a buzzword of the academicized ultra-left), makes me wonder.