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Robert Teitelman

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Occupy Wall Street on the Eve of Halloween

Posted: 10/30/11 07:38 PM ET

It's cold, threatening to snow, and Halloween is upon us. The Occupy Wall Street habitation of Zuccotti Park is fast approaching two months now; life in the park will only get more difficult, though veterans of Tompkins Square Park know how to survive. Remarkably, the movement has not seemed to change much in that time; it continues to adhere to its early faith in participatory democracy and, on the surface, at least, remains a vessel for a thousand causes and positions, some practical, others utopian (a world without money or credit), a few nutty or insane. The incoherence persists. The movement also continues to baffle large segments of what I hesitate to call the mainstream media, since I'm no longer sure what's mainstream and what's not. In fact, OWS provides a mirror to media preoccupations. Much of the media still expects it to behave like a mainstream political force, influencing voters, establishing positions, pushing a program, even if it's kill the bankers. The right-wing media, notably Fox, continues to suggest that OWS is simply a gang of hedonistic hippies from the '60s: dirty, drug-taking, un-American, anti-Semitic, criminal, and, my god, cohabitating (see John Bussey in the Oct. 28 Wall Street Journal). The left has its own tendencies. On Thursday in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof again weighed in on OWS (in the same paper that contained the immortal, if jarring, headline: "To be young, hip and Mormon"). Kristof has decided that OWS represents a chance to cleanse America of crony capitalists, linking the movement up with a standard meme of the progressive left. Kristof joins many other pundits, not to say labor leaders, politicians, movie makers and celebrities of all kinds, eager to impress their program -- jobs, inequality, breaking up the banks, taxing the rich -- on what really appears to be an eruption lacking doctrine.

Both sides seem to be missing something. In a recent piece in The New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg reports a conversation with an "intense, exhausted man from Ohio who had been living in the park for eleven days." The man had a proposal he wanted to present to the General Assembly, the very heart of OWS' participatory democracy. "I call it the Declaration of No Party," he told Greenberg. "It's meant to chase away speculators and opportunists who come down here and try to co-opt the movement." His proposal was classic anarchism: "We are not Left. We are not Right. We are the 99%. We are leaderless. Just stay away."

In fact, OWS, at least the Ur version in Zuccotti Park, is not a set of demands, not a fixed set of issues, not a party, not a gaggle of terrorists, drug-takers, hippies or sex maniacs; it's a stage, a platform, a process, undoubtedly an experiment. It's also not new. These experiments in direct democracy have been occurring since the ancient Greeks and include everything from the Diggers (hat tip to John Gapper in the Financial Times) and Levelers to New England town or church meetings, various utopian or communal experiments, and the interminable chat fests of '60s protests; it resembles the many attempts to return to a purer or more authentic Christianity or Islam, most often by carving out a pure space within a fallen world. In this case, OWS democracy becomes the path to a kind of secular grace; democracy is both the goal and the means of achieving that goal. Some of the charm of OWS -- and a visit to the park, with its drums and flags and waving signs, does have a certain charm -- comes from the belief of the young and the idealistic (and in some cases the old and idealistic, for whom idealism verges on despair) that they have somehow discovered something new; in fact, with the exception of their use of social media, which the Greeks and the New Left lacked, it's very, very old.

This experiment in democracy is both a strength and a weakness. Many of us have long wondered: where is this heading? That is another way of saying: when will this experiment, this process, collapse, evaporate, be carted away by the police? The mistake here, as Greenberg notes, is to view OWS as an example of normal politics, like a left Tea Party, which, despite all its absurdities, infiltrated the Republican Party. The ambitions of OWS are higher, and transcendentally naïve: to create a revolution in consciousness, to spark a wider movement of democratic renewal that features accountability and a "return" to the sense that every individual has a voice, a secular Great Awakening. Why naïve? Because, except for brief moments and in unusual conditions, democracy has never been as soul-enhancing as its Emersonian press and Whitmanesque promise. Pure and direct democracy remains utopian. As all the reports of the meetings of the General Assembly suggest, you have to be a saint to sit through the endless People's Mike episodes, which, as Greenberg points out, serves to flatten and simplify everything that's said. In their deep romance of democracy -- really anarchistic democracy -- OWS ignores or appears simply unaware of the historical dark side of "the process." It's not just that it's difficult to reach consensus, or that anything that requires complex daily tasks or technical decisions (like what to do with all the money, as The Wall Street Journal points out) can't really be dealt with by the General Assembly. It's that democracy always contains the potential for tyranny, for majority domination of a minority, and for corruption, manipulation and conformism. The French Revolution ended in terror, a "cleansing" of the revolution, then coughed up Napoleon; the American Revolution hatched a republic defined by fierce partisan in-fighting and two-plus centuries of intermittent self-interest, greed, and corruption. Look at our experiments with democracy in the Middle East. Democracy can, as often as not, produce theocracy. Democracy easily flips to its antithesis.

The charge often made about those who criticize or even question OWS is cynicism: those who do not embrace the faith view the world cynically, as something to be manipulated in their own self-interest. Perhaps that's true, though that is the world that exists. Still, that's not to say that this experiment in utopian politics is not fascinating and perhaps a tonic to a world weary of naked self-interest and distress. It also provokes a few thoughts about where OWS might go next, particularly as the weather worsens. First, Zuccotti Park is a symbol, not a necessity. OWS can strategically retreat to the virtual utopia it emerged from: the Internet, the virtual heavens of social media. They can convene virtually; they can even summon their adherents to whatever new Zuccotti Park they find. Second, there are real limitations on growth for all the hype. Again, history, that cynical bitch, tells us that these experiments in direct democracy must remain small -- democracy's dark side emerges with size, something the Founding Fathers knew quite well -- and with complexity; it must always cope with a threatening outside world. The power of OWS is its viability as a compact symbol. There often lurks in these experiments a weakness for martyrdom (provoking a police response, à la Oakland, is one way of achieving it) because it enhances the symbolic power and provides a resolution that a consensus-driven General Assembly cannot; it avoids disillusionment and failure. Third, none of this suggests that OWS is necessarily headed for either violence or, as some Democrats hope, endorsements of Obama or labor or any single policy deeper than the 99-percent slogan. The likelier outcome is that as winter descends and the media grows weary of the show, the permanent inhabitants, one by one or as a group, tactically drift off. And once OWS shows weakness, the police will take back the park.

That does not mean this movement will be over. This kind of movement lives for regeneration. This movement has always existed and probably always will, as a potential, as a yearning. Mostly it lurks beneath the surface. The young and the restless are particularly susceptible. But the combination of social media and difficult times have brought it to visibility and will do so again. Whether it will alter the course of American politics is a stretch. But then I'm a cynic.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.