Pre-Occupied

Peter Wood

On September 17, “Occupy Wall Street” protestors began their anti-capitalism enterprise in lower Manhattan. In the weeks since, I’ve encountered a few of the occupiers taking breaks in Union Square. At around 2:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, September 24, I saw a half-dozen police on foot in close formation headed into the square. They were part of what became the most cinematic part of the narrative so far: the arrest of 80 protesters who marched without a permit from Zuccotti Park to Union Square, closing streets and engaging in “disorderly conduct” and resisting arrest. Three women were pepper-sprayed that day by a police officer at 12th Street, the action (and agonized reactions) caught on a widely circulated You Tube video. On October 1, the Occupiers staged another illegal action, this time marching to and blockading the Brooklyn Bridge. Police arrested and bused away more than 700, but released almost all of them by the next day. On Monday, October 3, some protesters costumed themselves as zombies and shambled around Wall Street to mock mindless corporate conformity.

As I write today, October 5, the Occupiers have been joined by some labor unions and by some college students responding to a call for a “national student walkout.” The protest movement has spread to several other cities including Boston and Portland, Oregon.

What is this all about? On the surface, it is a protest focused on “corporate greed, unemployment and the role of financial institutions in the economic crisis”—to quoteThe New York Times’ main story so far. These are surely the most conspicuous themes, but they go only so far in explaining this particular protest. Nearly all Americans deplore corporate greed, high unemployment, and the unconscionable behavior of many financial institutions, but the taste for Occupy Wall Street-style tactics to register this point is limited to a relative few.

What moves these few? I have some observations. The protests so far have been mildly lawless but nonviolent, and the protesters, though they are often described as “angry,” often seem more exuberant than choleric. The Times says they have “tapped into a deep vein of anger,” but that doesn’t seem quite right. The Occupiers have indeed named some of the sources of social and political discontent among Americans, but they haven’t given those discontents any coherent form. I have stopped to listen to several of the Occupiers ranting in Union Square and found them essentially improvising about their own anger and why all the rest of us should be angry too.

What came across was not any understanding of the causes of our tough economic times but something more like an expression of look-at-me pride. The theatrics of this movement seem at most points to overshadow its content.

This is not to say that the Occupiers never rise to the point of real anger or that they have no economic analysis at all. A moment before those women were pepper-sprayed, they are leaning into the red net barrier screaming at the police.  I’d say they are genuinely angry. As for what message the Occupiers are trying to get across, many of the participants freely admit they don’t have much in the way of an actual agenda. Some are ardent socialists who would like to bring down capitalism altogether. Others are just distressed that—the Times quotes a 24-year-old student from Pasadena City College—“The monetary system isn’t working.” Still others resent their lack of employment opportunities, or their relative privation while those corporate zombies are making lots of money. Some say they’re there just to be with their friends and enjoy the excitement.

This is more a collection of resentments than a social movement. Some see in this, of course, a mirror image of the Tea Party movement, which is likewise driven more by social resentment than by cold policy analysis. The alleged parallel strikes me as inaccurate in one key dimension:  The Tea Party movement has a clear core message—it favors smaller government and conceives of the American political tradition as rooted in the protection of individual freedom. The Occupiers may eventually have a more crystallized message, but at the moment they don’t.  And the movement has the oddly postmodern quality of being more about itself than about the external realities that it ostensibly is protesting against.

I have a phrase for this that I have used before: the Occupiers are, in their indignation, exemplars of New Anger. They are engaged with the pleasurable activity of performing indignation for their own videocams and those of the admiring press. New Anger, as some of my critics like to point out, isn’t entirely new. There have always been a few people whose pride and vanity is inseparable from their public displays of pique. What’s new about New Anger is that it now has a fairly high degree of social prestige. That’s why the Occupiers are spending so much effort trying to come up with imaginative ways to display themselves—zombie costumes, clever signs, and the search for celebrity endorsements.

The denizens of this encampment, of course, are mostly college-educated un- or under-employed twenty-somethings; mostly white; and many of them dressed in a manner that suggests fairly affluent backgrounds, which might well stoke their current sense of injustice. The world just isn’t providing the degree of respect that is their due.

Of course, this wounded vanity is wallpapered over with plenty of “theory,” which serves as an intellectual anesthetic against self-doubt. My fellow Chronicle blogger,Laurie Essig, provides a fetching example of how simplistic sloganeering can, with a little rhetorical magic, be turned into a supposedly deep insight. She writes:

These protesters seem to understand what the mainstream media cannot: that capitalism is broken, that greed is not good, that it’s time for a different economic system to take hold if we have any chance of surviving. That message is not something most of us can actually hear.

In American culture, the idea that capitalism may not be a perfect system, but it is “the best system ever invented” is so pervasive as to be hegemonic. To speak outside of hegemonic ideology is, of course, to be incomprehensible.

Oh, we hear it, Professor Essig.  It isn’t “hegemonic ideology” that makes us resistant to the message. It is the vapidity of the message itself, combined with the know-it-all smugness of the protesters, who think the rest of us are pretty stupid.

Unknowingly, they are testifying to the quality of their college educations. They have graduated with a tissue-paper thin grasp of economics, contempt for the institutions that have made their lives pretty easy up to this point, and an unearned high estimation of their own acumen. For all this, the movement may have some staying power. The pool of disappointed, unskilled, semi-educated college graduates from which to draw new Occupiers is pretty large. The unoccupied can occupy themselves for a while declaring that capitalism is broke. But their protests declare more convincingly that the woes of capitalism aren’t the only issue.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on October 6, 2011.

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