Friday, December 2, 2011

The Conservatism of Liberal Pundits Revealed

This excellent article is a great starting point for beginning a discussion of the recent political positions on the occupy movement staked out by many "progressive" or, if you like, "liberal" politicians and pundits. The thesis of the article is that the radicalism of Occupy has provoked a counter-attack from liberal pundits and politicians, thereby evincing their underlying conservatism.

The article explores a variety of Chicago-specific examples. But this problem is hardly specific to Chicago.

My favorite incarnation of this phenomenon is the following story: Occupy is bad for "progressive" change in this country because it is going to alienate mainstream voters--particularly working class voters--who are repulsed by its radicalism and "counter-cultural" rituals. The Occupy movement, in fact, is "bad" in exactly the same way as those crazy anti-Vietnam War protesters were back in the 1960s. Those long-haired dirty hippies alienated all manner of working-class voters and provoked a conservative reaction that landed Richard Nixon in the White House! So, if these smelly Occupy kids don't get their act together quickly--and stop criticizing Democrats who back austerity and police violence--this country is going to get really bad, really quick because Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann are going to take power! Conclusion: be afraid, stay home, turn on the TV, forget about Occupy, don't criticize the Democrats, and drastically lower your expectations.

This is the "bad cop" strategy used by the Democrat political machine. The "good cop" strategy is one of co-optation and merely rhetorical support. But both aim at the same goal: winding down protest, lowering expectations, getting votes for Democrats who defend the status quo, and, ultimately, dissolving elements that could develop the power to criticize the Democrats from the Left.

As pointed out in the In These Times piece linked above, we sometimes see interesting shifts between these two strategies. Whereas allegedly "progressive" Aldermen in Chicago gave rhetorical support to Occupy Chicago (which at one point had the support of 79% of Chicagoans) at one point, they quickly withdrew that support when the movement started targeting them for voting for a cruel austerity budget that favors the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Instead of sweet-talking Occupy, they switched gears rather quickly and adopted all of the verbal bile of Right: the protesters are smelly, they are all white trust-fund babies with no idea what's going on, they are idiots, etc. The ease with which they adopt the same language as Newt Gingrich is astonishing, isn't it?

But what of the scare tactics? Do they hold any water? No. I think they are evidence of desperation among Democrat politicians and their lackeys.

First, this thing about the anti-war movement being to blame for right-wing backlash is preposterous. The same thing has been said about the black freedom movement of the 50s and 60s by racists in the Democrat Party: it "divided" the country and caused the Southern Democrats to jump ship and abandon the postwar Keynesian consensus. According to these ridiculous stories, we should come away thinking that the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were bad. It's as if they single-handed caused a conservative reaction and therefore deserve all the blame for what followed.

This is nonsense through and through. First of all, the black freedom movement won huge concessions from the powers that be (who were Democrats) because of extra-electoral struggle. That movement shattered Jim Crow (something that couldn't have ever happened by working exclusively through the ballot box), dealt a series of blows to de jure racism, and won Federal legislation that attempted to dismantle some of the worst forms of legal and institutional racism. They reconfigured the politics of race in this country for generations to come. The movement's impact extended far beyond the ephemeral swells of the election cycle. To say that the civil rights movement--or, for that matter the anti-war movement--produced nothing but right wing reaction is nonsense.

This bogey-man strategy is extremely self-serving as far as Democrat politicians are concerned. What they're afraid of is a serious challenge--from the Left--to their tepid, ultimately conservative and pro-corporate party. They want their "base" of voters to shut up, sit down, and robotically support and vote for them. They don't want pressure from below to actually enact policies that benefit the majority. That could hurt, among other things, their clout and fund-raising potential.

But what of holding up Richard Nixon and the "silent majority" as a scare tactic? Two things must be said. First of all, Richard Nixon was a more conventionally "liberal" political figure than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. He, for example, expanded Medicare, whereas Obama is cutting it. Notice that I'm not saying anything good about Richard Nixon the person. He was a reactionary. But he was more or less forced by the conditions of the time to continue to fund and expand programs like Medicare. This shows that the party who takes the White House matters a lot less than the extra-electoral conditions. So the scare tactic here misses the point that genuine changes come when pressure is exerted from below through extra-electoral struggle and resistance.

This scare tactic also uses an old trope--familiar to the Democratic Party as much as the Republicans--that Americans are fundamentally conservative people who simply don't like anything "radical" or Left. Because that is supposed to be so, Democrats are justified in being "cautious" and thereby defending the status quo.

That this is bullshit is obvious for any reasonable person to see. First, people's ideas and political beliefs are constantly in flux. It is absurd to say that Americans are fundamentally conservative for all time. People are pissed off and feel that our economic and political system does not serve the interests of the 99%. The slogans "banks got bailed out, we got sold out" and "how to fix the deficit? end the wars, tax the rich" resonate deeply with a significant portion of the population. But, of course, Democrats are for the bailout of banks, for selling-out homeowners and debt-encumbered students, for the wars, and for giving tax breaks to the rich. They're also for austerity, layoffs, school closures, and all the rest of it. So, naturally, Democrats want to sell us the lie that Occupy's demands are "too radical".

Second, Occupy has consistently had (and continues to have) higher levels of support among the public than Congress. This has been true across the board in every single poll, which hasn't been hard to accomplish considering that Congress's approval ratings are regularly lower than 25%. If anything, these self-serving politicians should be asking why what they're doing is alienating 75% of the public, before they dare to criticize Occupy. Third, Occupy has--quite obviously--electrified millions of Americans who have either directly participated or indirectly supported the movement in various ways. Many have said that Occupy was the first time they ever took to the streets to protest and fight for their interests. Organized labor has come out strongly in support of the movement, showing a great deal of working-class interest in the politics of Occupy. Moreover, Occupy has forced the discourse in mainstream media to shift to, occasionally, deal with issues of inequality. To say that it is alienating people is false on many levels.

The key is to recognize the "tactical advice" given from above by Democrat politicians is 100% self-serving. They aren't on our side. They aren't our allies. They want us to be docile and blindly supportive of their efforts to "take care of things for us." They don't want a challenge to their authority. They don't want pressure from the Left to fight for the 99%. So, naturally, they don't want Occupy to exist as an independent, Left force in American politics. They either want to control it and convert it into blind support for whomever the Democrats put up for election, or they want to destroy and discredit it in order to stop it from undermining the authority of the corporate-backed Democrat Party.

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