THE BLOG
10/13/2011 11:40 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2011

On "Occupy Wall-Street" and the Demobilizing Interpretation of Postwar American Protest Politics

My uncle used to tell a story about when he was a member of the Communist Party-USA in the early 1950s while a student at Columbia. He had lived in an apartment just off campus with three Iranian exchange students, also communists. Coming home from the library one night, he found his three roommates in a profound state of excitement. "The revolution has begun. The revolution has begun," they deliriously told him. Confused, he asked them to explain and they hurriedly rushed him out the door and down to the Barnard campus. There, a mass of Columbia students were storming dormitories in what looked like the most militarily precise panty raid in the history of that now quaint tradition of male chauvinism.

Whether my uncle's story was exaggerated or not, it keeps running through my head as I follow the Occupy Wall Street protests from afar. It seems in the last few days that somewhat of a message, if not a platform, has coalesced around the slogan, "we are the 99%." While there are certain aspects to the protests that as an American historian professionally and a committed leftist politically I admire -- in particular the patience of the core group and their uncanny ability to attract media attention (good and bad) utterly disproportionate to their numbers -- whenever I glance at the newest round of photographs from lower Manhattan or read on the ground blog reports I can't get the image of those young Iranian communists out of my head. Like those jubilant exchange students nearly six decades ago, this group of protesters and their growing message of "we are the 99%" are making an analytic and organizational leap that is both historically problematic and more importantly, likely demobilizing in its long-term effects.

I often tell students my uncle's story and ask them to interpret what it says about the generalized political beliefs of postwar communists. The answer I am looking for is how postwar American communism and communists -- politically inconsequential and rapidly hemorrhaging members and adherents in the face of the party's often brutal sectarianism internationally and McCarhtyite political repression at home -- clung to the belief, with true evangelical fervor, that there will come a moment when the appointed subjects of history will naturally rise up as one and throw off their chains. This deus ex machina understanding of historical transformation has far more reach than the esoteric history of American communism. It permeates our (mis)understanding of the great exemplar of postwar protest, the Southern Civil Rights movement, and remains an unspoken organizing principle in virtually all other progressive movements and protests that have attracted attention and adherents since then. [1]

We can see it in our popular understanding of the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Take Rosa Parks, who most Americans, most students, and I would wager, most protesters in Lower Manhattan, see as a tired woman who just wouldn't take it anymore and through her individual action on a Montgomery bus galvanized one of the most successful movements in American history. In this narrative, Ms. Parks is not the trained organizer who cut her teeth in one of America's most radical and effective leftist bootcamps, the Highlander Folk School, and was consciously chosen for her job by a coalition of civil rights and labor activists with the institutional capability to sustain a long-term movement. Rather, she becomes much like the image those exchange students had of Columbia fraternity brothers raiding a Barnard dorm -- an organic revolutionary who one day wakes up, recognizes her oppression, and transforms history.

Deus ex machina narratives like these permeate our cultural understanding of the Civil Rights movement and have been imbibed by virtually all subsequent progressive protest. Without cataloging the endless examples of this narrative, one recent example stands out for its illustrative value in relation to our current moment -- the 2006 immigrant rights protests, especially in Los Angeles and Chicago. The Occupy Wall Street protests pale in comparison, at least on the numbers level (the L.A. immigration rallies had well over 500,000 protesters and Chicago probably surpassed 200,000).

Unlike Occupy Wall St., the immigration marches had specific and definable programmatic goals. Yet, despite this, certain similarities though are evident. Both protests seemingly sprung out of nowhere. Both are largely divorced from any membership based organization or coalition of institutions. And like the immigration protests before it, Occupy Wall Street seems to be garnering a kind of vanguard status on the left -- here finally, is the organic movement we've all been waiting for. Unfortunately for those occupying Wall St. and those seeing in their occupation the seeds of a leftwing revolt, or at least a reinvigorated progressive movement, I suspect the comparisons won't end there. Despite their exceedingly impressive numbers, their seemingly organic composition, and their truly inspiring breadth of participation, the immigration rights protests have completely failed in their objective.

Immigrant rights -- legal, social, and political -- have in fact slid backwards to perhaps the worst moment seen since the 1920s. And while this nativist revanchism is hardly the fault of the protests and protesters, it's worth bearing in mind how the mobilization of over one million people failed to register as a blip on the consciousness of a nation that's growing more determined by the day to render undocumented immigrants as criminal pariahs. The protests of 2006 were that, and only that, protests. Behind them lay no mass based organization capable of mobilizing the anger on the streets into an ongoing politics that sought -- electorally or otherwise -- institutional, legal, and economic change. Furthermore, their lack of long-term organizational strategy has become ever more apparent in the failure of immigrant rights activists to develop a cohesive and effective strategy to combat the growing repression emanating from state legislatures in Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia.

One of the tragedies of the American Civil Rights movement is how its historical lessons have been misappropriated on the left. During the heyday of mass organization in the South, protest was always moored to specific demands and institutional apparatuses -- sometimes radical, sometimes mainstream, but almost always organized and capable of sustaining ongoing pressure on state, economic, and cultural loci of power. Protest was rarely, if ever, spontaneous. It was, in fact a relatively small, if dramatic arrow in the movement's quiver. Yet by the 1970s, if not earlier, the overwhelming cultural memory of the movement on the left, as well as more broadly, closely fit the deus ex machina trope. In the hands of identity politics and the rapidly expanding cultural turn in left intellectual and academic discourse, this trope led to the truism that "where there is oppression there is resistance" and a host of other nifty slogans and intellectual agendas that sought to place historical agency in the hands of the dispossessed.

Here we arrive at the long historical context for Occupy Wall St. and its rallying cry, "we are the 99%." "We are the 99%" sounds nice and I suspect has been a catchy chant below 14th St. The problem lies in the fact that it puts a very large cart ahead of a very small horse. Through virtually all of human history where there has been oppression, there has not been resistance, at least of the variety that has a modicum of hope of actually changing the political, economic, legal, or social imperatives of the oppression. "We are the 99%" as a message assumes otherwise. It assumes, sans historical or contemporary evidence, and without an organizational mechanism to change this fact, that the rest of the 99% will, like our sanitized image of Rosa Parks and those Columbia students mistaken for revolutionary proletarians, organically throw off their yokes in service of real and substantive historical transformation.

By claiming to represent the interests of, or worse, speak for the 99%, the protesters in lower Manhattan and across the country fully replicate the deus ex machina trope of historical change. As a result of this, protest on Wall St and virtually everywhere else in modern America has become more about bearing witness and venting anger than any effective or sustained challenge to the institutions and classes that control our politics, economy, and society. Protest becomes an end in itself, not a small, if dramatic weapon in the arsenal of radical transformation. Furthermore, when protest takes this form, unmoored from a sustained and mass-based politics and grounded in the dreamy assumption that oppression will eventually lead the oppressed to resist, it frequently serves to encourage political demobilization. Progressive politics becomes neither about convincing the 99% of their shared interests in any meaningful way, nor about establishing mass-based organizations that can begin to have a hope of contesting economic, political, and social power. Rather, it becomes politics waiting for god and his machine to descend down from the heavens, indeed, the hope that a panty raid is a revolution.

Am I glad that a group of young people are angry at the American economic system? Absolutely. Would I happily eat the stinkiest crow in a Staten Island landfill if a sustained movement arose out of Occupy Wall St. to actually challenge neoliberalism and the ever-increasing dominance of capital over politics, society, and everyday life? Absolutely. Do I have a sliver of hope that crow is going to be on my dinner menu anytime soon? Absolutely not.

[1] I will readily admit two exceptions -- second-wave feminism and gay rights -- and argue that to a striking degree their exceptionality arose from their conscious understanding that they were disincluded from the status of world-historical subject by the New Left and Black Power movements.