It was 1968 all over again, and Occupy Wall Street was the Grateful Dead concert that never ended. In a textbook case of history repeating itself as farce, images of Karl Marx and Che Guevara were everywhere and OWS politics blended Sixties-era cynical white guilt and youthful techno-optimism. Jesse Jackson took the show on the road, telling the Occupy London faithful that Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela all would have been Occupiers. But whereas those teachers preached justice and equality rightly understood, the Occupiers, descending upon the public square, celebrated “social justice and equality” understood as soft despotism.
They clung to the preachings of the postmodern university, whose teachers were, as always, quick to be the revolution’s vanguards, oblivious to the role they had played in increasing the debt that so many of their students had bemoaned. This year student debt reached $1 trillion, but rather than criticize academia’s excesses—abusive tenure, a growing country club mentality on campus, frivolous departments—Occupy Wall Street invited the sort of professional activists who masquerade as scholars. There were the usual suspects: Cornel West (African American Studies), Frances Fox Piven (Sociology), and Noam Chomsky (Linguistics) all showed up.
Early last October, some 300 professors from Columbia University—Barack Obama’s undergraduate alma mater—signed a petition lending their support. Inequalities, they wrote, “block opportunities for the young and strangle the hopes for better futures for the majority while generating vast profits for a very few.” But the professors left out the role they had played in blocking opportunities for college students by saddling them with debt for degrees of dubious worth. Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, definitely a one-percenter with his $1.38 million salary, recalled his own outings in yesteryear’s protests:
In both [cases], very, very serious things happened. The political systems seemed unable to cope with those problems, and civil demonstrations are perfectly legitimate, reasonable, and at times highly effective ways to change that.…My own view is that Wall Street bears a very significant share of the responsibility for the failures of these systems and the resulting, negative effects on the entire society and beyond.
The Occupiers took to their tweets as they took to the streets. (Indeed, the Millennials could have been named Generation Twit.) Their revolution was tweeted, podcasted, YouTubed, Facebooked, and Tumblred. It lived as much on the Internet as it did in the tent cities. “Flash mobs”—Internet-facilitated gatherings that hit like flash floods—descended upon the Brooklyn Bridge, where more than 700 were arrested in one day.
Yet despite their one-ness, protesters couched everything in the first person singular: “I may be a member of one percent…” or “I am someone with college debt…,” as if simply tweeting one’s discontent from an iPhone could induce sympathy from a media content to see its issues du jour—income inequality, student indebtedness, Wall Street excess, unemployment—in the protesters’ tattered dreams. It worked. The New Yorker featured a story about a homeless man attracted to the protests. Time called the “Protester” its Person of the Year, while Charlie Rose featured fawning coverage of Occupy Wall Street and asked seemingly every guest on his program their thoughts about it.
One thing they knew: how to play the media. They deftly restricted access to prying eyes and journalists, especially for those among the encampments who might stray from the unfolding stage play’s script. Occupy Baltimore handed out pamphlets telling demonstrators not to report sexual assaults to police. Under this “stop snitching” policy, the rapes mounted. A transcript of the January 7 New York General Assembly meeting reveals that one Occupier was responsible for six rapes alone. The Wall Street Journal reported that New York City churches were housing one such rapist, a Mr. Tonye Iketubosin who raped a Massachusetts woman on a Saturday morning. There were other casualties. New York businesses near the park lost an estimated $500,000 in income. The shopkeepers formed a resistance of sorts, but it soon faded. Its organizers had to go back to work.
Of course, as was true in the free-love protests of the Sixties, many of the protesters were there for the fun of it. What was important, as with the rock concerts of the past, was simply being there. In our ironic age, it is hip to protest when you don’t say (or perhaps know) what you are protesting, and especially if someone else pays for the cleanup.
And pay someone else always does. Occupy Wall Street raised $667,080 from October 1 to December 13 from its mostly small donation supporters, but before long the Occupiers’ funds dried up. By January, they were slowly going broke. The New York Times reported that OWS was forced to institute a “partial spending freeze” in order “to make sure enough money is available for critical functions like bailing protesters out of jail.”
It fell to others to pick up the tab for their encampments. New York taxpayers had to pay $13 million for all the police overtime. Evicting protesters from shantytowns around City Hall in Los Angeles cost taxpayers $2.35 million. And Occupy Washington D.C. cost the city $1.7 million—though Mayor Vince Gray is looking for a bailout from the federal government, a fitting finish for a group ostensibly concerned about government bailouts.
“Occupys” have now sprouted up around the world, from Amsterdam to Santiago and Seoul. There was Occupy San Francisco (hard to tell it hadn’t already been occupied), Occupy the Ports (to shut down the ports in Portland, Oregon) and even Occupy Harvard, which succeeded in shuttering Harvard Yard to tourists. (Students had to show an I.D. to enter.) Alas the demonstrators lacked the decorum once expected of Harvard men. In one well-circulated photo, a protester defecated on a police car. At another protest, a police officer was pushed off his motorcycle.
These were signs of things to come. Occupy Wall Street’s co-founder Kalle Lasn, a gadfly of the pro-fessional left, last fall proclaimed the first phase of the occupation over just in time for winter. But it was now time for a second and “more militant phase,” he decreed. His “meme war” against American commercialism had won the attention of the international and activist left, and he had done it with little more than a poster—a ballerina poised atop Wall Street’s raging bull and an invitation to take over the metropolis. He is compiling a “textbook of the future,” Occupy Econ 101 (it’s being published in June), with contributors including Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist turned far-left polemicist, and Herman Daly, former World Bank sustainable development guru and father of “ecological economics,” which holds that there might be “limits to growth.” Lasn’s self-described “loony left” has gone mainstream.
The Occupation began on September 17, a date that Kalle Lasn had picked to honor his mother’s birthday. It also happened to coincide with the 222nd anniversary of the Constitution, the document that set up the republic that Lasn despises. America’s consumerism is “ecologically unsustainable,” he says often, and its culture “psychologically corrosive.” Americans are brainwashed by advertising—”the mass-media mind f**k”—and by its handmaiden television, the source of America’s “mental health problem.”
Lasn would set us free from this with his own left-wing subsidized magazine, Adbusters, the key OWS instigator, if not its organizer. Adbusters has more than 90,000 followers worldwide on its listserv but only 100 protesters settled in to spend the first night there, and this in the most populous city in the U.S. Before long, the contradictions were apparent and sometimes humorous, like OWS’s own ties to Wall Street and to a Mitt Romney donor, Richard Halper, a former Mercantile Exchange VP, who gave the largest donation, $20,000. “Advertising is one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world,” he once lamented. Through it, big corporations were working with big government to control us. In 2001, Lasn began an attack on that most American of symbols—the Stars and Stripes—and encouraged his readers to fly his alternative flag, in which the stars were replaced with the corporate logos of Warner Bros., McDonald’s, Shell, Coca-Cola, and Playboy. He called it an act of “symbolic disobedience” that “will force America to think hard about…its subservience to corporations today.” The flag, he claimed, was “emerging as a symbol of what is wrong with America.”
Lasn’s first book, Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge, published in 1999, warned that at least 75 percent of Americans were “caught in a consumer trance,” “brainwashed” into “believing in the American Dream.” As a Canadian national who considered himself a citizen of the world, Lasn wouldn’t be caught believing in that.
Born in Estonia in 1942, he later lived in a postwar German refugee camp, was resettled to Australia, and made his fortune in Japan in the 1960s doing market research on alcohol and tobacco. (He dedicated Culture Jam to his “mortal enemy, Philip Morris Inc., which I vow to take down.”) He finally settled in Vancouver in 1970 to make documentary films while becoming a professional activist and agent provocateur. He would make a study of what he called “culture jamming” or “subvertisement,” a strategy to undermine commercialism and therefore, to his way of thinking, America. He now claims to lead a group of “artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs,” who aim to “topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live.”
Lasn learned the power of the Internet at the Seattle protests of late 1999. “People were reporting their own confrontations. Back in the Sixties, there weren’t videographers. If you took a picture, maybe it was a snapshot to show to your friends,” Lasn noted. “The Net is a way for people to tell their stories to the whole world.” But it wasn’t enough that the Revolution live online. Micah White, senior editor at Adbusters and Lasn’s anti-commercial comrade, had long argued that “clickitivism” reduced activism to online petitions. People had to get out and move. White wanted protesters to “put their bodies on the line.”
It was that kind of activism that White celebrated and promoted through Adbusters. Fresh out of college in 2004, he looked up Lasn and asked to be put to work. Like Lasn, he was a veteran of the protest culture, founding an anti-Iraq War group called Why War? at Swarthmore and marching alongside pro-Palestinian groups in the 2002 national march against the war. Even at his Michigan high school he had been a professional troublemaker, starting an atheist club that caused a ruckus on campus and penning an op-ed for the New York Times against prayer in public schools. White also sued his high school, with the help of the ACLU, after being denied a spot on the wrestling team because he would not take a drug test.
Lasn and White had another thing in common: hostility toward Israel bordering on anti-Semitism. In 2009 White and his wife, Chiara Ricciardone, a fellow Swarthmore alum, started an anti-Israel divestment campaign at their alma mater. “American institutions especially should divest. For Muslims to see U.S. citizens taking a stance against apartheid, that will do more to undermine support for terrorism than a war ever could,” Ricciardone told the Swarthmore school paper. In other words, terrorist attacks on America were the Jews’ fault.
Last year, as he looked at the violent uprisings in the Mideast, Lasn wondered: “Why can’t this hap-pen everywhere?” Writing in the July 13 issue of his magazine, he prophesied “surprise attacks” against corporations. “I’m a revolutionary,” he said, and this revolution, for all its supposed nonviolence, was going to be bloodier than it already was. The agenda was equally aggressive. Lasn favored a “Robin Hood Tax,” taking one percent of all global financial transactions, but that wouldn’t be the end. “Once the one percent is accepted, and people realize concessions are being made, the door is wide open for more,” he predicted. “Just wait and see.”
Since then, they disrupted Iowa caucus events and the New Hampshire primary. They targeted law-makers in Capitol Hill and the New Jersey—soon to be the Brooklyn—Nets of the NBA and promised massive, union-backed, divestment campaigns against Wall Street. They even evicted a man from his home in New York and took over a homeless shelter in Atlanta.
Museums are already memorializing the movement for posterity. “Occupy is sexy,” says Ben Alexander, head of special collections and archives at Queens College in New York, which has been collecting Occupy artifacts. “It sounds hip. A lot of people want to be associated with it.”
That apparently includes President Barack Obama, who threw his support behind the Occupy Wall Street Movement, telling them that they were the reason he had entered politics. At a $1,000-a-plate New York fundraiser on November 30, he asked them to believe again in change, while acknowledging it was “tempting to believe that change may not be as possible as we thought.” That is, unless you grant him a second term. Their movement, he told them, represented “broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.” But the frustration wasn’t only with the financial system, it wasn’t broad-based, and it was as personal as it was political. Obama had failed those who had believed in him.
“The very people who supported Obama in ’08 are the Occupy organizers,” David Goodner, the head of Occupy Des Moines, told the Los Angeles Times. “That same energy has shifted from the electoral arena to the streets.” Theirs was the revenge of “the professional left.” Professing their disgust with politics—or more likely, the fact that they hadn’t gotten everything they wanted—Obama’s supporters deserted him for the thrill of street theater. The rhythmic beat of the drum circle at New York’s Zuccotti Park had replaced the Obama chants. There, in a public square, they could act out or imagine the fantasy world that the left really longs to occupy: a world where the one percent is punished, at the 99 percent’s whim, merely for existing, and where every social agenda is indulged, without thought to its cost.
As they assembled on Liberty Plaza, it became clear that their only program was license—the license to protest without a permit on public property, to study whatever they wanted in college without paying the costs, to have sex without consequences (although doctors at free STD clinics near the encampment reported that free love didn’t come cheap). The stakes were low: unlike the civil rights movement with which the protesters disingenuously compared themselves, they were met, if not welcomed, by big city mayors, whose public sector union masters wouldn’t allow their eviction. The 38,000-strong New York Transit Workers Union voted to support OWS. The AFL-CIO’s executive council expressed unanimous support. The Services Employees International Union, the United Federation of Teachers, and the United Auto Workers marched alongside the Occupiers. Meanwhile, the ACLU argued that the protesters had a right to free electricity, left out of the Constitution though it was.
Safe in the crowd, the pseudo-communitarians and activists could lose their identities at the same time they withdrew from reality. The “mic check”—one person would speak and have the crowd parrot back the words—became the ultimate symbol. If you spoke for the group, you spoke for no one. If you were just mouthing someone else’s words, could they really be your own?
Tocqueville warned of a new despotism that would relieve citizens of the “trouble of thinking and the pain of living.” In subsuming themselves in the collective, they would bring about a new kind of despotism in the name of equality:
Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But mark the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
The greatest obstacle to Occupy-style despotism lies not in the refusal of servitude by their stated targets, the wealthy, but in the fact that most Americans—even if they dislike ostentatious riches—want to be one of them. Mainstream Americans know that our nation’s exceptionalism requires that some of us be exceptional, financially and otherwise. That there be, in fact, a one percent, an “aristocracy of talents” as John Adams put it in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. The discontents can occupy the hearts of America’s cities. But in the heart of every American is a yearning for excellence that the Occupiers, in their self-pitying bitterness, just don’t get.