What follows are brief and unorganized thoughts on the “Occupy” protests that have been popping up over the last month. One interesting and more or less unreported fact: the original Occupy Wall Street demonstration was about to fold a few weeks ago because of its small numbers and lack of media coverage. THEN a rumor sprung up that Radiohead was going to play a concert at the protest on a Friday. Predictably, the numbers immediately swelled into the thousands that day. When it turned out that Radiohead wasn’t going to play, the kids got angry, resulting in the first of many arrests. That shocking and immediate growth in the number of demonstrators was reported by the media as if it was an organic, unexplainable event, which gave legitimacy to the protest at large. Closer to the truth is that a lot of people between 20 and 30 years old like the band Radiohead — so, Radiohead more or less single-handedly saved Occupy Wall Street (without even showing up!).
The first real point I want to make about the Occupy protests is that they have explicitly adopted a martial rhetoric to describe themselves. There is no question that the word “occupy” used in this context is taken from its use in wartime. And as you may or may not have gleaned from the leftist commentary on war, wars kill people. Personally, I could give a damn about the war metaphors that the movement is using, but the public silence on this matter is important: where are the public-speech moralists now? Where all the high-minded lectures about how the words we choose really do matter? Of course, while Obama insists that his Jobs Bill &etc. are “not class warfare,” the administration periodically gives veiled statements of support to the Occupy protests. This is interesting only because the Occupy people are explicitly advocating class warfare, through their use of war metaphors and the occasional acts of violence that have been perpetrated by the demonstrators.
But what is an “occupation” in wartime? We should know: we keep hearing about how bad it is that we are “occupying” Iraq. An occupation is a holding of a particular type of space: a space to which you have only an illegitimate claim. Thus, conceptually, the idea of occupation upholds the notion of private property — in order for one party’s claim to a space to be illegitimate, someone else must have a legitimate claim to that space. Usually, in a real war, an “occupation” is the result of some victory (even if only temporary): you won the battle, now you occupy the space. In contrast, the Occupy protesters are implicitly claiming that their occupation of the space IS their mode of combat — it is by holding that space that they believe they will eventually get what they want (not that they have even offered one coherent statement of what that is). This begs a question: can you accomplish real change on a societal level simply by holding space (especially if you concede implicitly at the outset that your claim to that space is illegitimate)? I believe the answer is no.
Space isn’t the only thing that the demonstrators are claiming. They are also claiming a right to other people’s money. IF we are being generous, the single univocal statement of the Occupy protests is that “The rich have too much, and we have too little” (a deeply problematic assertion). Still, in this statement, they argue that the rich people’s claim to their money is illegitimate and the Occupy people’s claim to that money is legitimate (ostensibly because their claim to that money is motivated by a concern for the general good). However, another problem arises: the Occupy protesters’ admittedly illegitimate claim to the space that they insist on holding neutralizes their moral claim that the rich must acknowledge the illegitimacy of their claim to the money they hold. Put differently, the problem of the Occupy movement boils down to the same philosophical stalemate that has plagued left politics since the 1960s: if no one holds any more authority to advance any particular claim than anyone else, how can we view the Occupy protesters as having any more of a legitimate claim to that money than anyone else does? Further, by using the term “occupation,” you admit that private property exists, but these protests then turn around and argue that the public has the true claim to the private property owned by the wealthy.
It is also of passing note that the media is trying to shape a coherent argument from the Occupy protests, arguing that they are an authentic, grassroots expression of anger at the lack of good jobs and the “shrinking middle class.” Ironically, that anxiety about the fate of the middle class was precisely what united the earliest Tea Party protests, but that was met with derision by the mainstream media — after all, what does the middle class have to complain about, right? Now that the protesters are wearing Che shirts we need to take them seriously. Pah.
Despite all of this contradiction, I expect that the Occupy protests will be around for a while. This is mainly because they have become a tourist attaction for America’s un-occupied youth. It is important to note that in so many cases these young people are NOT un-occupied because they “can’t find a job,” but because they are fortunate enough to come from prosperous middle-class families who can support their pseudo-bohemian lifestyles. Still, most educated young people are interested in politics and are seduced by the easy comfort of the leftist worldview. These protests are big — and the kids don’t want to miss the moment. They need to go there, get the t-shirt, so their kids can know that Dad was cool enough to be there when the shit (almost) went down. At the end of the day, the protests are something to do in Manhattan. Hey, it’s better than being bored.