On the Occupation and Vanguardism

Jeremy Kessler responds to Reihan Salam:

Over at National Review Online, my friend Reihan Salam has a post up critiquing my recent piece on Occupy Wall Street. In it, Reihan suggests that the Occupation is a familiar caricature of an American left-wing movement, spearheaded by a vanguard of college-educated elites and backed by the power of relatively privileged, and economically poisonous, public sector unions. In doing so, I think he misunderstands both the composition and the politics of the Occupation, and my claims about them.

First, in terms of composition, I don’t think I suggested—and I would not concede—that the core of the Occupation is a “relatively small collection of radicalized women and men, many of whom feel as though they should enjoy higher status by virtue of their cultural capital, sensibilities, and credentials.” There are a lot of people down at Zuccotti Park who are neither college-educated nor members of public sectors unions. The fact that 99 percent—or some large portion—of the nation is not currently occupying Wall Street does not indicate that a credentialed elite is.

Second, Reihan appears to misread the Occupation’s politics or at least my rendering of them. The politics of the Occupation, whose sincerity I have so far seen little reason to doubt, is explicitly opposed to vanguardism. While a vanguard first seeks to seize power and only then to convert the majority to its cause, the Occupation admits that it will not have power until the majority stands with it. It is the Occupation’s rejection of vanguardism that leads to the tactical challenges that my piece seeks to address. Reihan’s critique, on the other hand, proceeds by assuming that the Occupation—or my rendering of it—depends on a vanguard in classic Leninist fashion. Here I think Reihan may be trying to fit my acknowledgement that the Occupation has not yet secured the participation of a majority of the nation into a standard right-wing paradigm that assumes the elitism of leftist movements.

Putting these two misunderstandings aside, Reihan is correct that my piece looks forward to a broader base of support that would include unionized public employees and college-educated elites. His post helpfully raises two worries about the inclusion of these groups in the Occupation:

1. Are these groups (public sector unions, college-educated elites) inimical to the supposed ideology of the Occupation?

2. Will these groups intentionally co-opt the Occupation?

As for Question One, while I do share some of Reihan’s concerns both about public sector unions—particularly the police and their involvement in what he calls the “carceral state”—and about college-educated elites, the participation of these groups does not contradict the meaning and the goals of the Occupation. In a political economy characterized by extensive deregulation and de-unionization, it is true that the remaining public sector unions do exert undue influence on certain sectors of our political and economic decision-making. The left-wing answer to this problem, however, is more unionization, not demonization of the extant unions. Reihan is obviously not going to be impressed with the left-wing answer.

As for college-educated elites, there is no doubt that we can be annoying and do exert an undue influence on our national political culture. Indeed, I would go further and say that the inability of the Democratic Party to identify and promote leaders who do not hail from elite backgrounds is a serious political and moral problem. That said, Reihan’s teasing discussion of NYU and New School students reads more like conservative boilerplate than careful sociological analysis. I would also wager that Reihan has no data to back up his implication that most of the residents of the Park are, in fact, NYU and New School students. Finally, even if many in the Park are students of one kind or another, this fact should not embarrass the Occupation. In relatively affluent countries, students historically have been the bearers of political and economic change because they have the time to organize themselves and protest injustice. One of the most distasteful aspects of the right-wing imaginary—whether “libertarian” or “conservative”—is its contempt for the relative leisure that allows the young to be politically active.

Turning to Question Two, what if the public sector unions and the left-wing intellectuals—their forgivable faults aside—are truly aiming to co-opt the Occupation, leveraging whatever political power the movement might have in order to exploit the hardworking masses? My response to this worry comes in two parts.

First, I note that such co-option would be very sad. At Zuccotti Park, the daily General Assembly—in which thousands of men and women of a variety of classes, races, sexual orientations, and degrees of educational attainment participate in deliberative, direct-democratic decision-making—is a sight to behold. Conservatives who scoff at what’s going on down there should really check it out. Putting politics aside, as a simple model of human organization, the General Assembly—the decisional center of the Occupation—is ethically inspiring. For such a process to dissipate into the familiar byways of late-20th-century Democratic politics would be unfortunate.

Second, and happily, I do not think nefarious co-option of the Occupation by self-interested unions and educated elites is the most likely outcome of the movement. Of course, the Occupation will have growing pains, and its current organizational structure is fragile. How the movement will respond to increasing numbers remains to be seen, and any broad-based political coalition will always be troubled by internal competition. Those caveats aside, I believe—and the Occupation is premised upon such a belief—that the grounds for real economic solidarity between diverse sectors of the population currently exist.

To be sure, not all Americans are equally oppressed by the system of chronic personal insecurity that our political and financial institutions have established. Students with lower debt burdens are better off than students with higher debt burdens, public employees in strong unions are better off than private employees in weak unions who are better off than non-unionized labor who are better off than undocumented workers; whites are better off than blacks; the old are better off than the young. But for all of these groups, the vampiric rhetoric of austerity recently embraced by both the Republican Congress and the Obama White House was a wake-up call. A system that had already placed tens of millions of lives in a perpetual state of limbo announced that it would resolve their insecurity by destroying them. In doing so, that system acknowledged what its own political, financial, and media leaders had been admitting for some months—that it had become institutionally incapable of responding to economic crisis. The Occupation— in its zeal for new organizational forms, rejection of vanguardism, and appeal to the widest variety of American citizens, the moral majority of the nation—is an obvious response to the obvious political, economic, and moral bankruptcy of the current regime.

Yes, the Occupation will change as more traditional actors associate themselves with it. Yes, it will get more complicated, less pure. But if the Occupation persists, it will alter the national conversation by creating precisely what Reihan calls “a new kind of polarization,” based upon an increasing consciousness of shared suffering. This consciousness could provide the foundations of inter-class solidarity, revealing the overlapping interests of, say, older unskilled workers and younger, relatively low-paid tech workers (members of Reihan’s “credentialed professionals”).

There is a stern discourse, popular today with both the honest right and the dishonest center, that sees the Occupation’s critique of the prevailing system as nothing more than whining. But true maturity lies in the recognition of mutual suffering and the decision to overcome it through collective action. Herein lies the method of the Enlightenment, the best legacy of the West, which both the right and the center purport to represent. The right and the center understand that there is something dangerous about suffering, and call it shameful in order to suppress it. By being honest about the shared suffering we are currently experiencing, the Occupation increasingly will make available left-wing policy options to those who successfully ride the ups and downs of political fashion.

What might those policies be? The usual suspects: redistribution, regulation, cancellation of debts, potential nationalization. Now, Reihan may simply see all of these left-wing policies as the poisoned fruits of union and university self-interestedness (or, more generally, as economically ruinous). But that is a much larger debate, one that has little to do with the Occupation itself.

If Reihan is truly anxious about the seizure of the Occupation by spoiled private university students and bloated prison guards, he should come down to Liberty Street and lend a hand. If he’s right about the winter-resistant magic of synthetic fibers, the moral majority will be around for a while.

—Jeremy Kessler

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