Occupy: the liberal Tea Party?

By Domink Matusik

The Occupy movement has been going on for some time now — to the point where the media have largely moved on. This means it’s time for sobre reflection.

The mainstream media’s coverage of the protests was somewhat surprisingly comprehensive if a little insincere. All of the major newspapers ran articles about the movement quite prominently and, in many cases, Occupy made the front page. Surely the corporate media, controlled by the military-industrial complex, wasn’t rooting for the protesters, was it? Fact is, the media couldn’t possibly care less about advancing an agenda other than garnering profits by increasing their readership.

Some media outlets have taken to comparing the Occupy movement to the Tea Party. Certainly, any one of the protesters would scoff at that. But is the comparison more apt than it seems? It’s easy to think of Occupy as a populist movement and the Tea Party as a fringe faction of the Republican Party that wholly supports the corporate establishment. But the Tea Party clearly isn’t the fringe — over 30 per cent of the candidates affiliated with the Tea Party won their elections. Yes, this means that 70 per cent did not, but the point is, support for the protesters is not inconsequential. In painting a picture of the Occupy movement as the left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party, it would seem laughably inaccurate to identify them as the “99 per cent.”

However, despite all of the talk of left and right wing loons, there sure are a lot of ordinary people with ordinary grievances in both movements.

They lament that government has become too bloated, bureaucratic and inefficient — requiring sweeping reform. They oppose corporate bailouts, believe that government only works for the elites and are rabidly opposed to the incumbent order. They are dissatisfied with the way things are going and think the elites are out of touch with the “common folk.” They are largely middle-class. Which group did I describe? These are the relevant factors behind both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement sharing more similarities than is often acknowledged

What with the Tea Party complaining about “socialism” and “Marxism” and Occupy complaining about “corporatism” and “fascism” to describe much the same thing, one has to wonder whether left and right have any meaning anymore. People take issue with the general power structures in society. One might complain about the communist unions or the fascist corporations, but these are symptoms of the same system. Left and right are just ways (and deeply flawed ways) of categorising these grievances. A left-wing radical has more in common with a right-wing radical than with a left-wing reactionary.

The point is that there is dissatisfaction which is what’s relevant to Occupy. The movement does need to distance itself from the idea of a “Liberal Tea Party,” but because of the first part of that phrase. Occupy does not need an ideology, nor does it need to define itself in terms of anti-ideology (i.e. anti-capitalism). The main slogan of the group was “we are the 99 per cent.” Presumably, this includes socialists, conservatives, communists and liberals. This is the angle that Occupy should take.

The greatest strength (and possibly the greatest weakness) of Occupy is the lack of formal leadership. On the one hand, it’s nearly impossible for the movement to undergo some kind of coup or fundamental shift in direction and it makes it look very accessible and participatory. On the the other hand, it, well, makes it nearly impossible to undergo any conscious fundamental shift in direction — that is, the movement is organic and evolutionary for better or for worse. It is impossible, for example, to weed out the fringe elements of Occupy, and this makes it easy for critics to pidgeon-hole the protesters as being “leftist” or “communist” by giving undue weight to the fringe and ignoring the ordinary middle and lower-class protesters who, in many cases, have very valid concerns and grievances. Without formal leadership, any attempt at articulating a manifesto is ultimately doomed to fail unless a very broad consensus is reached on every goal (which is, by definition, impossible in a movement that is to represent citizens regardless of class, sex, age and political lines). Just as Occupy’s lack of leadership is its leadership, its lack of specific goals may as well be its goals.

What will doom the Occupy movement more than anything else, however, is the presence of wedge issues. If you asked somebody the reason why the Tea Party is often viewed as little more than a joke, much of the time the answer won’t be “because they support a government that only provides core services” or “they believe it’s possible to pay down the deficit in a couple of years.” The answer will probably relate to some whacky socially conservative positions many of its members adopt. The Tea Party would have gotten its message across quite effectively had they stuck to general issues like the deficit and government bureaucracy. The moment people began taking painfully divisive issues like abortion and gay rights into the movement, it was doomed to be merely a faction within the Republican Party. The same thing is very likely to happen to the Occupy movement and, without a hierarchy, there is no one within it that has any power to stop it. People have already begun linking the campaign to decreased disparity between rich and poor, pro-Palestinian advocacy, involvement in middle eastern/north African conflicts and other controversial issues likely to alienate not just conservatives, but centrists.

The Occupy protesters need to set realistic goals: namely, despite personal feelings, to take the position that the system needs to be reformed and not overthrown. This is an idea that the “99 per cent” can get behind. It is possible to affect change through protest, but it isn’t just about making a lot of noise and having a catchy slogan. It’s about rallying people and building popular support. It’s about sticking to a consistent and simple agenda. And it’s about following through by voting.

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