The Left Declares Its Independence
By TODD GITLIN
IF some aspects of the Occupy Wall Street protest feel predictable —
the drum circles, the signs, including “Tax Wall Street Transactions”
and “End the FED” — so does the right-wing response. Is it any
surprise that Fox News and its allied bloggers consider the protesters
“deluded” and “dirty smelly hippies”?
Then again, maybe it is surprising. As more than a few observers have
noted, the Occupy Wall Street chant, “We Are the 99 Percent” — a shot
across the bow of the wealthiest 1 percent of the country, which
includes the financial predators and confidence gamers who crashed the
global economy with impunity — seems synonymous with the Tea Party’s
“Take Back America” ethos.
Those similarities, though, mask profound differences. The two
movements both loathe the elite, but their goals, and the passions
that drive them forward, could not be more at odds.
The Tea Party, for all its apparent populism, revolves around a vision
of power and how to attain it. Tea Partiers tend to be white, male,
Republican, graying, married and comfortable; the political system
once worked for them, and they think it can be made to do so again.
They revile government, but they adore hierarchy and order. Not for
them the tents and untucked shirts, the tattoos, piercings and
dreadlocks that are eye candy for lazy journalists. (“Am I dressed too
nice so the media doesn’t interview me?” read one Occupy Wall Street
In contrast, what should we make of Occupy Wall Street? The movement
is, of course, nascent, and growing: on Oct. 5, it picked up thousands
of marching supporters of all ages, many from unions, professions and
universities, and crowded Foley Square. Its equivalents rallied in 50
cities. Deep anger at grotesque inequities extends far beyond this one
encampment; after all, a few handfuls of young activists do not have a
monopoly on the fight against plutocracy. Revulsion in the face of a
perverse economy is felt by many respectable people: unemployed, not
yet unemployed, shakily employed and plain disgusted. A month from
now, this movement, still busy being born, could look quite different.
And yet it remains true that the core of the movement, the (mostly
young and white, skilled but jobless) people who started the
“occupation” three weeks ago, consists of what right-wing critics call
anarchists. Indeed, some occupiers take the point as a compliment —
because that is precisely the quality that sets them apart from the
Tea Party. Anarchism has been the reigning spirit of left-wing protest
movements for nearly the past half century, as it is in Zuccotti Park.
IN this recent incarnation, anarchism, for the most part, is not so
much a theory of the absence of government, but a theory of
self-organization, or direct democracy, as government. The idea is
that you do not need institutions because the people, properly
assembled, properly deliberating, even in one square block of Lower
Manhattan, can regulate themselves. Those with the time and patience
can frolic and practice direct democracy at the same time — at least
until the first frost.
The anarchist impulse is nothing new in America. There were strong
anarchist streaks in the New Left of the 1960s — stronger than the
socialist streak, in fact, despite all the work Marxists did to define
proper class categories for the student movement. “Let the people
decide,” one of the early rallying cries of Students for a Democratic
Society (of which I was president from 1963 to 1964), meant, in
practice, “Let’s have long meetings where everyone gets to talk.” De
facto, this meant that politics was for people who, in a sense, talked
for a living — in other words, college types.
It was a revolutionary idea, at least for its time and in certain
places: in the Deep South, for civil rights workers and black farm
workers just to meet and talk was a dangerously radical, and radically
But the left’s distrust of outside authority reached, and still
reaches, much further. The bumper sticker of the 1960s New Left could
have been Bob Dylan’s lyric “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’
meters,” cheekily pairing hierarchy with overregulation. By 1967, its
membership soaring, the S.D.S. was so suspicious of leadership, so
disdainful of the formal structures of its first five years, as to
abolish its own presidential and vice-presidential offices.
As the S.D.S. discovered in 1969, when quarreling Maoist-Guevarist and
Stalinist factions tore it apart, chaotic meetings and suspicion of
formal procedures didn’t keep tiny hierarchies from exercising
decisive control. Radical feminists came to similar conclusions.
Nevertheless, hostility to elitism remained all the rage. From the
early ’70s on, activists went into revolt against just about anybody’s
authority, even their own. Vertical authority had a foul odor: it
smacked of colonialism, patriarchy, bad white men lording themselves
over voiceless minions. In left-wing activist circles, establishments
of all sorts were the immoral equivalents of The Establishment.
Disgruntled by big-talking leaders, turned off by celebrity media, the
left of the ’70s developed a horizontal style, according limited
authority to their own leaders, who were frequently at pains to deny
that they were leaders at all. “Affinity groups” and “working groups”
replaced organized factions and parties. Even movements that seemed to
require some level of verticality — those with concrete goals, like
banning nuclear power and weapons, or opposing apartheid — were mostly
That explains why, to the bafflement of their ideological opponents,
such movements barely paused at the fall of Communism. When Leninist
regimes collapsed, and their self-confident social democratic rivals
crumpled as well, anarchism’s major competitors for a theory of
This new protest style is more Rousseau than Marx. What the Zuccotti
Park encampment calls horizontal democracy is spunky, polymorphic,
energetic, theatrical, scattered and droll. An early poster showed a
ballerina poised gingerly on the back of Wall Street’s bull sculpture,
bearing the words: “Occupy Wall Street. September 17th. Bring Tent.”
It likes government more than corporations, but its own style is
hardly governmental. It tends to care about process more than results.
And oh, how it loves to talk. It is no surprise that it makes fervent
use of the technologies of horizontal communication, of Facebook and
Twitter, though the instinct predated — perhaps prefigured — those
tools. Not coincidentally, this was also the spirit of the more or
less leaderless, partyless revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt that are
claimed as inspiration in Lower Manhattan. An “American Autumn” is
their shot at an echo of the “Arab Spring.”
OCCUPY Wall Street, then, emanates from a culture — strictly speaking,
a counterculture — that is diametrically opposed to Tea Party
So where do these romantics go from here? The Zuccotti Park core
doesn’t seem to have a plan, or even to take kindly to the idea of
consolidating a list of demands. And yet, by taking the initiative,
they have aroused, as with the Oct. 5 march, less romantic and more
conventionally organized allies who do not disdain political demands.
Such is the cunning of political history. Having set out to be
expressive, the anarchists have found themselves playing, willy-nilly,
a most strategic role.
Such movements hope to remain forever under construction, fluid,
unfixed. They slip laughingly through the nets of journalism, which
prefers hard-and-fast answers to the question “What do you people
But the interesting, difficult, even decisive moment in the career of
such a movement comes when allies arrive, especially allies not so
enamored of horizontal democracy and more taken by the idea of getting
results. These forces showed up on Oct. 5. De facto, there is an
alliance in the cards.
It makes sense. Here, finally, is what labor and the activist left
have been waiting for. For two years, Barack Obama got the benefit of
the doubt from fervent supporters — I’d bet that many of those in
Lower Manhattan during these weeks went door-to-door for him in 2008 —
and that support explains why no one occupied Wall Street in 2009.
Now, as Jeremy Varon, a historian at the New School, said of Zuccotti
Park: “This is the Obama generation declaring their independence from
By allying itself with the protest, the left at large is telling the
president that a campaign slogan that essentially says “We’re better
than Eric Cantor” won’t cut it in 2012. “We are the 99 percent” would
be more like it. If President Obama takes this direction, the
movement’s energy may be able to power a motor of significant reform.
That raises the question, though, of whether the inchoate quality of
the Occupy Wall Street movement can continue. Probably not, since an
evolving alliance demands concrete goals, strategies and compromises.
But perhaps something of the initial free spirit can flourish. There
is plenty of public sentiment to nourish it. It doesn’t take public
opinion polls to detect American anger at the plutocracy and the
impunity with which it lords it over the country.
The culture of anarchy is right about this: The corporate rich — those
ostensible “job creators” who somehow haven’t gotten around to
creating jobs — rule the Republican Party and much of the Democratic
Party as well, having artfully arranged a mutual back-scratching
society to enrich themselves. A refusal to compromise with this
system, defined by its hierarchies of power and money, would be the
current moment of anarchy’s great, lasting contribution.
Until now, fury at the plutocracy and the political class had found no
channel to run in but the antigovernment fantasies of the Tea Party.
Now it has dug a new channel. Anger does not move countries, but it
moves movements — and movements, in turn, can move countries. To do
that, movements need leverage. Even Archimedes needed a lever and a
place to stand to move the world. When Zuccotti Park meets an aroused
liberalism, the odd couple may not live happily ever after. But they
can make a serious run at American dreams of “liberty and justice for
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and communications at
Columbia and co-author of "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and
the Ordeals of Divine Election."