A comprehensive analysis of the progressive media’s response to the Occupy Movement.
As both a diverse physical presence and an ideologically evolving protest movement, Occupy Wall Street is widely considered by the liberal media as a spontaneous movement of the people. It wasn’t formed to find answers to the country’s questions; rather, to question conventional answers. The initial call from Adbusters for the frustrated middle class to protest unaccountable institutions didn’t consist of Situationist, Marxist, or virtually any parasitic or outdated rhetoric. It appealed to real grievances and egalitarian passion, and was an attempt to inspirit the democratic impulse in citizens that calls for action.
Now, the reason why direct citizen action is desperately needed isn’t what being disputed in left-liberal commentary. How to proceed, develop, and build power is a different story, and has become the subject of serious debate in the liberal press. This conversation begins with the movement’s core values and characteristics, ranging from its name and the number of participants to its rhetorical style. It ends with questions of sustainability, goals, and an analysis of its effect on society.
One of the first liberal critiques of Occupy Wall Street was a preemptive strike—before the protests even began. Social activist and Columbia professor Marc Lamont Hill responded to the notion of a presumably small protest in Manhattan organized by Adbusters as a pathetic failure of an inept and disorganized modern left. “There was a time when we had million man marches!” he told Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld. His initial judgements of Occupy have been forgotten as of late, as he’s defended the movement from anti-Semitic charges on Fox News ever since. Occupy has likely been more successful than Dr. Hill expected. One should note, however, that the premise behind his former criticism of Occupy extends much more broadly, and into establishment liberal operations across the mass media.
Elite contempt for working class organizing appears on liberal media outlets far more often than the title ‘liberal’ should presuppose. The New York Times, consistently praising Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his “restraint” in dealing with Occupy Wall Street, editorialized an example of a common liberal critique of Occupy:
“For two months, a confrontation between the demonstrators and the City of New York has been steadily brewing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg restrained the police and resisted political pressure for weeks, but he had some legitimate worries about crowding, drug use, noise and unsanitary conditions. His decision to clear tents and sleeping bags out of Zuccotti Park, the focal point of the protests, and have the area cleaned, was justifiable legally.”
Interestingly, the business press (CNBC’s John Carney) factually disputed the Times’ claim that Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to force Occupiers out of Zuccotti Park “was justifiable legally”:
“It’s often said that Zuccotti Park is “private property” owned by Brookfield Office Properties. But this isn’t quite true. It doesn’t own the property in the way that you own your home. It cannot exclude unwanted guests, it cannot close the park for even one day a year… there’s no property right at stake here to exclude Occupy Wall Street.”
It’s striking that CNBC, which commonly extolls right-wing policies and vets business interests, was arguing a point that the establishment liberal press pretentiously opposed. John Carney ended up taking a much less ideological approach to analyzing Bloomberg’s decision to treat public property as if it were owned by a private entity. Evidently, the liberal critics who are often funded by corporate advertisers and cater to privileged audiences reflect these elite interests, and it shows in their opinions of Occupy Wall Street. As the Huffington Post‘s Jay Michaelson explains, “the protests are imperfect, the participants are unsophisticated, the agenda far too ‘left’ for mainstream appeal.” Occupy’s agenda is indeed too far ‘left’ to appeal to the mainstream liberal press and its financiers.
In the independent and alternative left-liberal media, the criticism of Occupy is less predictable. The slogan, “we are the 99 percent” is assumed to be symbolic and an expression of Occupy’s goals and rhetorical strategy—both important aspects of the movement. Liberal blog Think Progress tends to favor “99 Percent Movement” as an alternative title to Occupy Wall Street altogether, as it dedicated an entire section of its website under this heading. Z Magazine editor Michael Albert disputes its effectiveness, however, and argues that this oversimplification has dangerous implications.
By dividing society into two economic classes, Albert claims that this gives rise to a third privileged class that rests somewhere between the 99% and the 1%. Instead, the more abstract “capitalist class” should be the target of the Occupiers, and the rhetoric should match this overall vision of removing societal classes altogether. He poses the question:
“Without becoming sectarian, without becoming judgmental, without becoming personalistic – can we pay attention to class differences which, if they instead go unmentioned, will get in the way of self management and participation?”
Thus, Albert’s critique is based on both the implementation of Occupy’s strategy and its vision for expansion. The movement should exclusively employ working class rhetoric for the reason that it matches its core values, and thereby admit that class differences exist within the 99% which interfere with what he describes as a commitment to “self management and participation”.
In fact, external interference with the values of the movement is a widespread concern in the left-liberal press. Mother Jones‘ Andy Kroll, while reporting on labor union support of Occupy, raised the point that “it’s possible the merger of the two could splinter and derail the protests rather than sustain them,” given the difference in structure. Unions, like the private institutions that surround them, are hierarchical in structure and in their decision-making process. Occupy Wall Street functions in diametric opposition to this tightly organized, avant garde style, with its participatory meetings (general assemblies) and inclination toward direct democracy.
As The Nation’s Nathan Schneider further details, it’s incredible to be “among hundreds of passionate, rebellious, creative people who are all in agreement about something.” The general assemblies and organization of Occupy Wall Street are impossibly intriguing, given the empowerment of spontaneous citizen participation. Perhaps this is why the social structure of the movement has yet to be criticized by the left. No sympathetic human can resist real democracy in action.