Cockburn’s Death of Occupy Declaration and the Attendant Generational Fissure
In a rather imprudent attempt at provocation by lefty commentator Alexander Cockburn on the Counterpunch site last week, he declares the Occupy movement dead, and then proceeds into full-fledged hissy-fit, saying of the movement: “There were . . . features that I think quite a large number of people found annoying: the cult of the internet, the tweeting and so forth, and I definitely didn’t like the enormous arrogance which prompted the Occupiers to claim that they were indeed the most important radical surge in living memory.”
I have personally always enjoyed his prose, owing largely to his willingness to criticize conventional wisdom on the left end of the spectrum. His vilification of the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Eric Alterman have been simply priceless. Even when he adopts an opinion I find reprehensible, as with his denials of anthropomorphic climate change, he raises sound points that merit attention. I understand the impetus to criticize: he is right to say “new movements always need a measure of cynicism dumped on them.” However, that is not what he is doing here. He is merely bitching. As with his now-weekly dung cart of (mostly) Americanisms that he and other Counterpunchers resent ever entering the English lexicon, he comes off as pompous and out of touch. In so doing, he has accentuated a noteworthy generational fissure at the core of this movement.
Those who characterize Occupy as narrowly concerned with inequality and malfeasance on Wall Street have it wrong. Rhetoric about the evil crooks amongst the 1% is simply convenient fodder for the chattering masses. Even Cockburn admits to the success of the 99% slogan. However, by admonishing the movement for not being ready with emergency mass actions in response to the latest financial scandal in the U.K., he demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the movement is. This is not a thriving bureaucracy waiting to pounce the minute scandal breaks with a new round of encampments, marches, and battle with the police. The movement is definitively organic. It is a raw expression of the frustration of a precarious generation. As such, it continues the European movements of the last ten years against tuition hikes, worsening employment conditions for young workers, and horrendous job prospects for the recently graduated. While I lived in France, students took to the streets in opposition to then-president Chriac’s new employment contract for under-25’s, but broadly spoke of La précarité as cause to organize.
This is about a social and economic system that seems to have been fatalistically designed to not provide for anyone much younger than the baby boomer. It is as if the West promised it would never repeat the insanity of the mid-20th century, only to blunder its way into an increasingly bleak outlook for the mid-21st century. Francis Fukuyama captured l’espirit du temps with the declaration of the “End of History.” After thousands of years of human civilization, his generation had found the right way to organize the world. This logic is rooted in the smug determinism of the enlightenment together with the naïve belief in the perpetually progressive nature of the human condition. I see no difference between Fukuyama’s pseudo-scholarship and a cranky old lefty plodding into an Occupy GA only to deride the lack of “a plan,” before retreating to the writer’s den, anxiously awaiting the opportune moment to declare the whole thing dead.
What a cowardly act, reflective of a ruling elite that declared the entire generation dead on arrival. What can I do to impart to Cockburn and other great sages of the elder generation that us young people feel effectively powerless? The Generation Y crowd that dominates every Occupy gathering is resentful of having been deprived the dignity of adulthood. Many have literally had to face the humiliation of returning to their parent’s basements, desperately trying to scrape together enough by serving pizzas to get their own apartment. Meanwhile, rents have not come down to reality, instead driven upward by the pressures of thousands of former homeowners unleashed on the renters’ market after the scheming banks seized their property. Additionally, the student loan bills arrive monthly: a seemingly insurmountable burden that this country’s retrograde policymakers deemed non-dischargeable in bankruptcy court last decade, despite an ever-growing percentage of student debt being serviced by those same miscreants of finance whose greed gave birth to Occupy.
So naturally Wall Street is a convenient focal point of the ire of this generation, but the resentment goes further. Around Occupy meetings, one often hears expressed animosity toward the ostensibly liberal members of the baby boomer generation. Many occupiers have liberal parents: it is no accident they came to be free-thinking individuals. However, their parents have proven incapable of doing anything to help the situation, and this breeds resentment. Some of their parents have assured them that voting Obama would change things, and the fallacy of that thought process has bred resentment. I have seen visible hostility directed at some of the older members of the local Occupy camp in New Orleans: some of it reasonably well founded, and some of it thoroughly gratuitous in nature. In the latter case, this hostility is rooted in a resentment of a baby boomer generation that collectively left its children powerless, undignified and indignant.
The baby boomer arrives at a GA wanting to share organizing stories and tactics from an era where they were treated with a modicum of respect. Chris Hedges cannot fathom why some members of this generation feel compelled to yell “Fuck the Police” whilst marching alongside hundreds of storm trooper goons. Chris the circumspect wants us to know that his generation discovered that civility pays off. We have heard the same from Todd Gitlin, though the latter has failed to scribe much of anything worthwhile, while Hedges was mostly respectful until his now -infamous rant about the “ruinous” Black Bloc. These men populated a generation where you could be left of Kissinger and still get a job with the New York Times. You could even be Bill Ayers and get rewarded tenure after helping to organize an explicitly violent bombing campaign against targets symbolizing the evil capitalist state. It is simply difficult to endure lectures from their generation when we couldn’t so much as get a job answering customer service calls if a cursory Google search unveils even slightly radical tendencies on our part. Nor could we get said crap job if our bloodstream is found to contain just a tiny bit of narcotic, ingested to help cope with this excessively stressful reality.
We are told to maintain composure and minimize passion so as to preserve credibility with “mainstream society.” In a recent article I published at Alternet about the NATO protests in Chicago, a few readers commented that I ought “stick to the facts.” The article was not laced with innuendo or hyperbole. In my view, the critical commentary was appropriate for the realities we face as members of a movement that has been the victim of violent police repression, in addition to clandestine infiltration. To do anything but report passionately about the ongoing spirited effort to address the violence of the 1% corporate-state apparatus would strain credulity. Like it or not, the fact is that this is a horribly unjust country, obnoxiously operating under the guise of being a “beacon of peace.” And Occupy is the most compelling movement forcefully exposing this fraud.
If the movement has seemed slow to concoct definitive “plans,” that is a function of the manifold nature of the injustices we face. Wall Street is an apt starting point because it represents so much of what is wrong: rampant greed, selfishness, and total lack of morality. However, even if Wall Street were subject to a robust regulatory regime, we would still be living in a barbaric society. We would still find ourselves un- and under- employed, lacking in job security and comprehensive health care, still up to our eyeballs in student debt, and subject to the most offensive incarceration regime the world over.
There is no panacea. The work ahead is tedious and cumbersome. What’s more, we face a society that has been made to eschew reasoned argument. Anti-intellectualism has run rampant in a culture still smitten with trash on television. Appealing to “mainstream society” is particularly challenging because it has such a shallow understanding of the ravenous forces at work.
Rather than pronouncing the movement dead, it might behoove Cockburn to contribute his talent to it. Otherwise, the movement will justifiably perceive him as another elder lacking a grasp of the tenuous reality of young people in the great époque of the 1%.