The occupation movement’s greatest challenge will be overcoming the deep distrust of white liberals by the poor and the working class, especially people of color.
Marginalized people of color have been organizing, protesting and suffering for years with little help or even acknowledgment from the white liberal class. With some justification, those who live in these marginalized communities often view this movement as one dominated by white sons and daughters of the middle class who began to decry police abuse and the lack of economic opportunities only after they and their families were affected. This distrust is not the fault of the movement, which has instituted measures within its decision-making process to make sure marginalized voices are heard before white males. It is the fault of a bankrupt liberal class that for decades has abandoned the core issue of economic justice for the poor and the working class and busied itself with the vain and self-referential pursuits of multiculturalism and identity politics.
The civil rights movement, after all, achieved a legal victory, not an economic one. And for the bottom two-thirds of African-Americans, life is worse today than it was when Martin Luther King marched in Selma in 1965. King, like Malcolm X, understood that racial equality was impossible without economic justice. The steady impoverishment of those in these marginal communities, part of the Faustian deal worked out between the Democratic Party and its corporate sponsors, has been accompanied by draconian forms of police control, from stop-and-frisk to militarized police raids to the establishment of our vast complex of prison gulags. More African-American men, as Michelle Alexander has pointed out, are in prison or jail or on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began. The corporate state keeps some two-thirds of poor people of color in the United States trapped in internal colonies—either in the impoverished inner city or behind bars. And the abject failure on the part of the white liberal establishment to stand up for the rights of the poor, as well as its decision to throw its support behind Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who abet this institutionalized and economic racism, has left many in these marginal communities disdainful of protesters from the newly dispossessed white middle class.
“The black community and the community of color have been dealing with these issues for decades,” the Rev. Raymond Blanchette, an African-American preacher from Queens, said in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan one day last week as we closed our jackets against a chilly wind whipping down the canyons of the financial district. “Now the white community around the country is beginning to see it and experience it firsthand. It’s pretty shocking to them. The African-American community and other communities of color are saying, ‘Welcome to the world I live in.’ That’s why you don’t see that many of those [nonwhite] faces here. It’s like, OK, now you decided you are going to speak up because now you’re the one that’s affected by it. One of the reasons I’m here is because I see the viability of this movement. I want to bring those communities together.”
The power elite have desperately tried to tar the movement with a series of calumnies, branding protesters as hippies, anti-Semites, drug addicts, leftists, anarchists and communists. They have so far been unable to blunt the fundamental truth the movement imparts: We have undergone a corporate coup. It has to be reversed. But this truth has yet to resonate among those who for decades have been betrayed and ignored by white liberals.
The decision by protesters from Occupy Wall Street to join Cornel West in Harlem last Saturday to protest the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy was an important step in taking the message of the occupy movement to our impoverished internal colonies. West, who led the protest outside the 28th Precinct at West 123rd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and who was arrested along with about 30 others, was part of a crowd that chanted: “Stop-and-frisk don’t stop the crime. Stop-and-frisk is the crime.”
The power elite are frantically searching for the ideological weapon that will discredit the movement. But the clarity of the protests, the painful personal stories of dislocation that are the heart of its message, and, most important, the self-discipline, despite police provocation, which has kept these protests nonviolent have advanced the movement and discredited the forces of control. The power elite, held together by the glue of force and fraud, are seeking ways to communicate in the only language they know they can master—unrestrained force. And as we enter the second month of demonstrations, the power elite fear that the core message and the calls for resistance, which resonate with a majority of Americans, will lead to a direct confrontation with the corporate state. If the movement starts to pull hundreds of thousands of people together, if it leaps across class lines, as I saw during the peaceful revolutions in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, then the corporate state is probably finished. Our corporate overlords know this. And they are doing everything in their power to make sure this does not come to pass.
The divisions between the poor and the working class on the one hand and the white, liberal middle class on the other reach back to the Vietnam anti-war movement. The New Left in the 1960s was infused with the same deadly doses of hedonism that corrupted earlier 20th century counterculture movements such as the bohemians and the beats. The antagonism between the New Left during the Vietnam War and the working class and the poor, whose sons were shipped to Vietnam while the sons of the white middle class were usually handed college deferments, was never bridged. Working-class high schools, including many high schools with large numbers of African-Americans, sent 20 to 30 percent of their graduates to Vietnam every year while college graduates made up only 2 percent of all troops sent to Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. Anti-war activists were seen by those locked out of the white middle class as spoiled children of the rich who advocated free love, drug use, communism and social anarchy.
The unions and the white working class remained virulently anti-communist. They spoke in the language of militarism and the Cold War and were unsympathetic to the anti-war movement as well as the civil rights movement. When student activists protested at the AFL-CIO’s 1965 convention, chanting “Get out of Vietnam!” the delegates taunted them by shouting “Get a haircut.” AFL-CIO leader George Meany ordered the security to “clear the Kookies out of the gallery.” United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther, once the protesters were escorted out, announced that “protesters should be demonstrating against Hanoi and Peking … [who] are responsible for the war.” The convention passed a resolution that read: “The labor movement proclaim[s] to the world that the nation’s working men and women do support the Johnson administration in Vietnam.”
Those that constituted the hard-core New Left, groups like Students for a Democratic Society, found their inspiration in the liberation struggles in Vietnam and the Third World and figures such as Mao and Leon Trotsky rather than the labor movement, which they considered bought off by capitalism. They saw the working class as part of the problem. Many came to embrace the cult of violence. The Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and the Weather Underground Organization became as poisoned by this lust for blood, quest for ideological purity, crippling paranoia and internal repression as the state system they defied.
The bulk of the white protesters in the 1960s found their ideological roots not in the moral imperatives of King or Malcolm X but the disengagement championed earlier by beats such by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs. It was a movement that, while it incorporated a healthy dose of disrespect for authority, focused on self-indulgent schemes for inner peace and fulfillment. The use of hallucinogenic drugs, advocated by Timothy Leary in books such as “The Politics of Ecstasy,” and the rise of occultism that popularized transcendental meditation, Theosophy, Hare Krishna, Zen and the I-Ching were trends that would have dismayed older radical movements such as the Wobblies and the Communist Party. The counterculture of the 1960s, like the commodity culture, lured adherents inward. It set up the self as the primary center of concern. It offered affirmative, therapeutic remedies to social problems and embraced vague, undefined and utopian campaigns to remake society. There was no real political vision. Hermann Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha” became emblematic of the moral hollowness of the New Left. These movements and the celebrities who led them, such as the Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, catered to the stage set for them by television cameras. Protests and court trials became street theater. Dissent became another media spectacle. Anti-war protesters in Berkeley switched from singing “Solidarity Forever” to “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine.”
The power of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it has not replicated the beliefs of the New Left. Rather, it is rooted in the moral imperatives of justice and self-sacrifice, what Dwight Macdonald called nonhistorical values, values closer to King than Abbie Hoffman. It seeks to rebuild the bridges to labor, the poor and the working class. The movement eschews the hedonism of the New Left; indeed it does not permit drugs or alcohol in Zuccotti Park. It denounces the consumer culture and every evening shares its food with the homeless, who also often sleep in the park. But, most important, it eschews, through a nonhierarchical system of self-governance, the deadly leadership cults that plagued and ultimately destroyed the movements of the 1960s. The political and moral void within the New Left meant that, like the counterculture of the beats or the bohemians, it was seamlessly integrated into the commercial culture. At its core the New Left shared the same hedonism, entrancement with mass entertainment, love of spectacle and preoccupation with the self. And the degeneration of the New Left is personified by politicians such as Clinton, who mouthed the usual platitudes about the poor and working men and women while he and both major political parties, awash in corporate dollars, betrayed and impoverished them.
Murray Bookchin wrote: “Radical politics in our time has come to mean the numbing quietude of the polling booth, the deadening platitudes of petition campaigns, carbumper sloganeering, the contradictory rhetoric of manipulative politicians, the spectator sports of public rallies and finally, the knee-bent, humble plea for small reforms—in short, the mere shadows of the direct action, embattled commitment, insurgent conflicts, and social idealism that marked every revolutionary project in history. … What is most terrifying about present-day ‘radicalism’ is that the piercing cry for ‘audacity’—‘L’audace! L’auduce! Encore l’auduce!’—that Danton voiced in 1793 on the high tide of the French revolution would simply be puzzling to the self-styled radicals who demurely carry attaché cases of memoranda and grant requests into their conference rooms … and bull horns to their rallies.”
Macdonald argued that those who wanted change had to base all actions on the nonhistorical and more esoteric values of truth, justice and love. They had to retain Danton’s call for audacity. Once any class bows to the practical dictates required by effective statecraft and legislation, as well as the call to protect the nation, it loses its moral authority and its voice. The naive belief in human progress through science, technology and mass production, which this movement understands is a lie, erodes these nonhistorical values by placing faith in state power and fantasy. The choice is between serving human beings or serving history, between thinking ethically or thinking strategically. Macdonald excoriated Marxists for the same reason he excoriated the liberal class: They subordinated ethics to another goal. They believed the ends justified the means. The liberal class, like the Marxists, by serving history and power capitulated to the state in the end. This capitulation by the liberal class, as Irving Howe noted, “bleached out all political tendencies.” Liberalism, he wrote, “becomes a loose shelter, a poncho rather than a program; to call oneself a liberal one doesn’t really have to believe in anything.”
In line with the occupy movement, we must not extol the power of the state as an agent of change or define progress by increased comfort, wealth, imperial expansion or consumption. The trust in the beneficence of the state—which led most liberal reformers to back the wars in Vietnam and Iraq at their inceptions, as well as place faith in electoral politics long after electoral politics had been hijacked by corporate power—ceded uncontested power to the corporate state. Liberals and liberal groups, such as MoveOn, which urge us to appeal to formal structures of power that no longer concern themselves with the needs or rights of citizens have become forces of disempowerment.
The only effective tool for change will come through movements such as those that stand in direct opposition to state power and seek through the sheer force of numbers and civil disobedience to discredit and weaken the corporate state. The corporate state cannot be the repository of our hopes and dreams. And the liberal establishment has, by making concession after concession, merged itself into the corporate apparatus and has nothing left to say to us. It is part of the elaborate and hollow political theater that has replaced genuine political participation. The dismantling of our radical social and political movements in the early and even middle part of the 20th century in the name of anti-communism left the liberal class, as well as the wider society, without a repository of new ideas. The utopian fantasies of globalism and naive acceptance that the dictates of the marketplace should be permitted to determine human behavior became not just the creed of the corporatists but finally the creed of liberal apologists such as Thomas Friedman and most professors in university economic departments. And the strength of the new movements is that they have exposed this lie.
What we are witnessing in parks and squares across the United States is not simply widespread revulsion over the greed and cruelty of corporate capitalism, but the articulation of a new and potent radicalism. This radicalism challenges the right of corporations to poison our ecosystem and turn greed and self-promotion into the highest good at the expense of human life. If this movement can cross class lines, if it can articulate its vision to those in marginalized communities, especially poor people of color, it can tap into a force and power that was never part of the New Left. It can make possible the shaking of the foundations and, let us hope, the toppling of the corporate state.