Doth Protest Too Much

Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street BY Todd Gitlin. It Books. Paperback, 320 pages. $12.
The cover of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy protests of 2011 successfully transformed the issue of income inequality from an under-acknowledged condition into a national problem. This is a victory that has eluded labor unions, progressive activists, and liberal Democrats for over forty years. It is an admirable and, in some ways, very inspiring achievement, given the slapdash, decentralized, and rambling nature of the Occupy encampments.

Despite these accomplishments, I think you can be committed to the cause of economic justice without being enraptured with the Occupy protests. In fact, in some cases, analysis of the protests has been so starry-eyed that it runs the risk of missing its mark. Take, for instance, social historian Todd Gitlin’s new book, Occupy Nation, in which he celebrates the earnestness of the nascent “movement” and its adherents: their energy, their intelligence, their “go-it-alone attitude,” and their commitment to a grand cause. Gitlin is not blind to Occupy’s shortcomings—the inward fixation with process, militant adherence to leaderlessness, and phobias about outside groups—but too often he rationalizes these distasteful tendencies. Every self-destructive element is chalked up to growing pains or a zealous élan for change. Here is a representative description of the Zuccotti park encampment:

“They were consistently unwilling to make the effort to coalesce around what would conventionally be called demands and programs. Instead what they seemed to relish most was themselves: their community and esprit, their direct democracy, the joy of becoming transformed into a movement, a presence, a phenomenon, that was known to strangers, and discovering with delight just how much energy they had liberated.”

Gitlin finds this endearing; I find it utterly maddening.

I come from a labor-union background of tactics, strategy, hand charts, house meetings, hard goals, clear numbers, elected leaders, shop stewards, contracts, and bargaining demands. Union work has many deeply ingrained flaws of its own, but at least it’s steeped in realpolitik instead of relish. The goal of economic justice, which my former union co-workers and I believe is, in part, achieved through collective bargaining, was paramount to our own political transformations and feelings. Showing up to the strike line wasn’t enough, that strike had to translate into gains at the bargaining table. My unease with Occupy and the surrounding culture largely stems from their inability to pull away from themselves in order achieve a noble goal. For Gitlin, the act of showing up, or Occupying (in the context of Zucotti park, not Tahrir Square), amounts to a corporeal petition. The Occupiers, Gitlin writes, “constituted, with their bodily presence, a human petition—an outpouring of conviviality and a declaration of loyalty to the 99 percent and desire to chastise the and curb the 1 percent.” Well, as a card-carrying member of the 99 percent, I demand more than conviviality and self-actualization from collective actions: I demand results.

When I spent time in the Occupy encampment erected on the front lawn of Los Angeles City Hall, I found the tent-dwellers to be more of a neurotic tribe than the vanguard of a new political movement. One of the features I found most unsettling about Occupy meetings (and there were many) was the use of the human microphone or “mic check.” A “mic check” is when one of the dozen agendaless speakers orates in short sentences and the entire crowd repeats the sentence back. (This is supposed to serve as a kind of prehistoric amplification system). At a Los Angeles Occupy meeting I attended last fall, this call-and-response played out among more than two hundred people:

Speaker: “MIC CHECK!”
Crowd: “MIC CHECK!”

The spookiness of the human mic is not lost on Gitlin. He writes, “there were those radicals who considered the mic check a noxious fetish, a turnoff for potentially interested bystanders, an instrument of group think, even a Stalinist mind-smothering exercise.” Yes! I am one of those people! But right when I think Gitlin is going to agree and say, “yes, this is weird and cultish and Occupiers should cut it out,” he writes of the human mic, approvingly: “This was, in many ways a community who was relating to itself.” Then he quotes a Boston Occupier who wrote on her Facebook wall: “The process is the message. Sometimes I think the conversation is one of our goals. Just being able to say what you feel is one of the most empowering things.” Ugh, cut the mic.

While Gitlin provides deft historical analysis and clear-eyed reporting in and around Zucotti Park, in order to really get behind his book, you have to buy that the Occupy protests of 2011 still amount to a viable social movement. That’s a difficult proposition to accept given that those affiliated with Occupy have not been able to recapture the enthusiasm or imagination that was apparent one year earlier when thousands of non-tent-dwelling citizens joined Occupiers to march across the Brooklyn bridge. Also, do you remember the Occupy-organized general strike of May Day 2012? You might not, because it barely happened. True, there were well-attended marches in New York and San Francisco, some school walk-outs, and arrests. But as even Gitlin concedes, “It was easy to observe that workers were still working and shoppers were still shopping.” The problem is that he can’t let that disappointment stand; he goes on to praise May Day’s more abstract gains, asserting that the gatherings served to buoy the spirits of Occupy activists after their winter of dispersal and hibernation. “This was a declaration of identity, spirit, not strategy,” Gitlin writes. And so much of Occupy is about spirit and identity instead of strategy. This book reaffirms why I never pitched a tent.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America (Harper Design, 2010).