Poor David Mills. He tries. He incessantly tries. What isn’t now tiresomely derivative (“mostly affluent”**), reveals a practiced ignorance of the left in this country. His begging for a left with which to interact carries that affected condescending tone from which Mills will never escape.
The people conceptually and “organizationally” behind the Occupy protests (David Graeber & pals) are anarchists. They do not want a political solution. They want to initiate broad social transformations which bypass the political process. The old leftists who are now participating in Occupy (and have been since about week 2 or so), very much disagree with that approach and want Occupiers to turn their energy toward the political, whether within mainstream politics or through radical political mechanisms. They want to make clear political demands and so forth.
What I have just outlined has been the subject of debate and discussion on thousands of left wing blogs, and just about every leftist think tank in America that has anything close to a connection to radical politics in this country. It has been the subject of public debate which caught the eye of right wing populist politicos like Limbaugh and Beck. Thus that Mills, on Oct 31, thinks he has something to say by pointing out that a lack of engagement with politics “gets you nowhere” suggests the intellectual bubble in which he lives and moves and has his being.
Both the old left and the anarchists agree that Occupy is worthwhile because it incites anger, promotes class consciousness, agitates people, and has proved to be among the better recruiting tools in the last generation. When a Marine gets shot in the head by a flash grenade atOccupy Oakland, and this radicalizes a bunch of Marines who are now huntingdown the police officer who shot that flash grenade, both old left and anarchists view this as a good thing. Pictures and videos of police meanness at this point are helpful. The more the better. Best yet, as more and more vets come home looking for work they won't easily find, provide more video'd instances of police assaulting peacefully protesting vets.
Mills and the legion of late middle age writers who posit that they have “seen all this before” are completely wrong in that regard. The aesthetics may in some respects be similar, but the conditions are completely different. In the late 60s and early 70s the liberal project still had currency. And as was seen throughout the 20th century, this perceived-legitimacy-of-the-liberal-project was used to de-radicalize the left and those institutions like unions where leftists tend to reside. There was still substantial hope by a number of people across class spectrums that liberal democracies could more or less effect a general state of relative equality and economic fairness.
We are also, hopefully, at the tail end of the longest period of time in American history since the 1870s during which there were no sustained, militant, mass protests. That America might be transitioning back toward having a regular (i.e., what is now seen as commonplace in European countries) protest culture and prolonged protest movements is substantial. There is also a great deal of talk about the use of general strikes, as the one called for Oakland tomorrow. In American labor history these usually fail, as does just about every tactic ever used by labor. There are generally many more "losses" than successes with any attempt at the use of direct action toward a given end - if by loss you mean an immediate threat to capital or an immediate granting of labor demands. General strike movements usually putter about for months or years before, if ever, they have a success. But when they succeed in actually shutting down commerce in a given area they scare the hell out of the powers that be. You don't need that many successfully conducted general strikes to make the threat of a general strike carry some weight. That mainstream union locals are now publicly supporting the use of general strikes (as was seen in WI before the Dems got the feet off the ground in Madison, and is currently seen in Oakland) suggests that there is at least a chance that mainstream labor, long a bastion of the worst effects of liberal policies and liberal ideology, has potential to be radicalized again. This is significant.
We are now in a post-Fukuyama period. As many have noted now, we’ve past the “end of history” and lo and behold, history has emerged again. Most anarchist and old leftist intellectuals I know, when speaking privately, will tell you that they don’t expect the Occupy movement to “succeed.” But it doesn't have to succeed to succeed. All it has to do is to display to the masses that paradigm of on-the-streets militancy as the initial primary vehicle through which to confront power in our culture. It has to re-radicalize just a substantial portion the left. Organization can come later. Political theory can come later. Of course, many anarchist and old leftist groups had the same “later” approach in the 60s and 70s, but again, in the 60s and 70s the soft social democratic – liberal project still held promise. That promise is pretty much bankrupt in our culture today. If things continue to decline economically and politically, even in America more and more people will be open to the ethos of protest militancy and direct actions.
There is not going to be some sort of distributist or “front porch republic” solution to the economic crisis. Either there will be some sort of temporary scheme which creates something close enough to a 90s boom to create job growth and assuage the public (this would provide a band aid until the edifice behind it collapses), or there will be continued economic decline for most Americans. Whether actual or perceived decline does not matter. This will increase class tensions, increase the likelihood of people to become militant, and so forth. At some point the right will no longer be able to use the “get a job” “look at those affluent wanna-be hippie” canards, and then the right will have to go the route it always does in crisis – towards a nationalism which uses the usual fuels for nationalist fears – racism, foreign aggressors & intrigue, red-baiting, and so forth. I don’t know that the left in this country will be able to overcome the onslaught from the right when this plays out. I kind of doubt it. The right in this country is stronger than it has ever been, and I speak here not just politically, which is somewhat superficial at this point, but culturally and with regard to control of institutions of power. I only know what side I will be on.
**http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-demographic-survey-results-will-surprise-you.php - that is a low quality initial study, but I think future studies will reveal similar results with regard to economic demographics, and outside of NYC there is an even lower percentage of upper middle class participants – as the movement ages, more underemployed youth begin to participate. Here in Memphis the Occupiers started out all white and very middle class, but by the time they got on the streets the people actually doing the Occupying were only about 55% white, and mostly lower middle or working class