I just concluded a brief phone conversation with a MoveOn activist. It’s an election year, and her natural and obvious goal was to promote Barack Obama’s cause in November. She did not say much, however, and did not have a chance to speak at length, for when I heard Obama’s name after her organization’s name, I told her that I would never vote for Obama.
“Why,” she asked.
“Because he’s a war criminal, a promoter of authoritarian government, a tool of Wall Street and an opponent of authentic health care reform, among many other reasons,” I replied.
There was a brief silent moment which I used to punctuate my claim that “I [was] criticizing Obama from the left.”
I told her this because I did not want her to consult her talking points when she formulated her response.
She didn’t. In fact, she was shocked, and indicated that she could not understand why anyone on the left would criticize the President.
And that’s one problem with those progressives who tie their political fate to the Democratic Party and its candidates. They lack imagination. Their commitment to a pseudo-pragmatic electoral strategy binds them to a corrupt Democratic Party, to its commitment to war-making abroad, the security-surveillance state at home, to elite lawlessness, to a general austerity, a predatory economic system and the oligarchs who own them.
They are blind to the false dilemma inherent in the lesser evil principle. Why is the dilemma false? Firstly, the Democratic and Republican Parties do not exhaust the political options available to America’s nominally free citizens. Secondly, whereas the policies of the two parties differ on this or that issue and their constituencies differ, they are not so distinct that they differ in kind. The Democrat and Republican Parties are system affirmative entities, and reflect this fact. Voting for a candidate of one party thus affirms the core principles of the other party. This point expresses the gist of George Wallace’s “not a dime’s difference” evaluation of the two legacy parties. Thirdly, both parties form a party system which affirms and reproduces the larger political system of which they are a part. They accomplish these goals because they and the elections they contest operate as filters which eliminate the political opposition as an electoral force while thereby producing legitimacy for the results of the election and for the political system as a whole. Barack Obama was elected President. He legitimately occupies the office of the President. Outsiders — Ralph Nader and his kind — typically are shunned and ridiculed. The party system reproduces itself, and changes little. An authentic democratic politics can be found only in the streets. Sheldon Wolin thus identified the early 21st century American political system as an inverted totalitarian regime, a system without an opposition. Fourthly, there are situations, electoral contests and political choices that feature lesser evils which are too evil to tolerate. A lesser Hitler remains a Hitler. An Obama acts like a Bush. A Clinton works hard to complete the Reagan Revolution. War, war crimes and lawlessness; mass murder, suppression of dissent and incarceration of whistleblowers; social austerity, economic predation and personal hardship — these are some of the policies and policy outcomes which MoveOn supports when it thumps the tub for Barack Obama.
The lesser evil principle acquires its persuasive force when one considers the New Deal and Great Society reforms which once marked the history of the Democratic Party. One may suspect that Americans who voted for Obama and “change you can believe in” affirmed the collective memory of and institutional residues left over from these past victories. But these memories are mostly just memories. The New Deal State and the political culture which supported it parted ways decades back. Militarism and empire, finance capital and the capitalist class pushed labor and the lesser sort to the margins of the Democratic Party. This is the place where one will find MoveOn and the like. Rahm Emanuel once denounced them as “fucking retarded.”
The ideologically committed liberal should ponder well Emanuel’s words and insolence.
Stephen Zielinski can be reached at: email@example.com.
With hindsight gained by googling “MoveOn” and “co-opt” after the fact, I can’t claim that nobody tried to warn me. Many websites with left and even liberal politics had said in so many words, “Be wary of this organization called the 99% Spring. It is a Trojan horse for the Democrats.” I just didn’t read that anywhere in a timely fashion. I’ve had a lot of stuff on my plate lately. That’s my excuse. And in my ignorance, I responded to some spam about “nonviolent direct action training” organized by MoveOn and got invited to this 99% Spring thing on April 10 at the Goddard Riverside Community Center in Manhattan. Somebody even called me all the way from San Francisco to make sure I was a sincere seeker on the left and would be attending, along with 120,000 others in training sessions around the country.
Which I did. The meeting was a few blocks from where I live. The spam said it was “inspired by Occupy Wall Street.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was vaguely hoping that whatever the 99% Spring was, it would start a chapter of Occupy Wall Street on the Upper West Side, conveniently near my abode, and agitate for the Democrats and MoveOn to move left.
The first clue that my evening might go otherwise was the sign-up table, where there were a bunch of Obama buttons for sale and one sign-up sheet for the oddly named Community Free Democrats (are they free of community?), which is the local Democratic clubhouse. That killed the “inspired by Occupy Wall Street” vibe right there. No piles of literature from a zillion different groups, as there had been in Zuccotti Park. No animated arguments among Marxists, anarchists, progressives, punks, engaged Buddhists, anti-war libertarians and what have you. Just Obama buttons, which didn’t appear to be selling.
Inside the hall, it looked like an alumni reunion for the 1966 Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade. Almost all the 150 or so people were 55-80 years old. The ones I talked to expressed curiosity about Occupy Wall Street and enthusiasm about “nonviolent direct action” but didn’t have the knees or the ears for full participation in OWS activities in the financial district.
A large man with long wavy hair combed back started the presentation with a stirring call for…the meeting to be off the record. He didn’t want any stories that would violate anyone’s privacy, and if there were any lurking journalists, they weren’t allowed to use any names and they must see him afterwards for further instruction on the ground rules. This struck an even more dysphoric note than the Obama buttons.
WTF thought #1: This was a public event ostensibly to convince members of the public to engage in behavior that challenged the legitimacy of government authority in public and might cause angry police to beat the public crap out of them. Why would anyone risk that without trying to get publicity for their cause? Nonviolent direct action that no one knows about is like jerking off. It might make you feel better, but you’re not changing the world.
WTF thought #2: Transparency is the only protection that nonviolent people have against police spies and provocateurs and other infiltrators. Occupy Wall Street does a pretty good job with transparency. An organization claiming to be inspired by OWS but shunning transparency is deeply suspect.
WTF thought #3: Washington press corp rules for a meeting on nonviolent direct action?
WTF thought #4: I actually wasn’t there with the idea of writing about it, but neither did I agree to anything, so there was no agreement.
WTF thought #5: The name of the large man with the wavy hair was Marc Landis. He is a District Leader for the Democrats, who were paying for use of the meeting room. He is running for City Council. According to his law firm’s website his areas of experience are: “Real Estate, Banking & Finance, Corporate & Business Law, Securities & Private Placement, Fund Formation & Investment Management Group…” His Facebook page, which is geared for his City Council campaign, makes it sound like his specialty is pro bono community work. I don’t know. He might be a nice guy, but it doesn’t take a lot of intuition to wonder if he’s really been “inspired by Occupy Wall Street.” He’s a corporate lawyer. I can think of no reason for him to demand that the meeting be off the record other than he and his party don’t want to be publicly associated with anything radical, even it’s a pseudo-radical front group meant to steer people away from the truly radical Occupy Wall Street and into pointless activities that don’t embarrass Obama.
Next they showed a video that invited us “to tell our story” so that the 99% Spring could post us online along with hundreds of other people who had been foreclosed, bankrupted, lost their medical insurance or whatever. It appeared they all wanted to raise taxes, so that the rich would “pay their fair share.”
It was sanctimonious. It was supplicating before power. The audience looked like it wanted to puke.
Next some guy whose name I didn’t catch gave an astonishingly simple-minded lecture on the history of American radicalism since the populists. “This might be okay for Iowa, but not the Upper West Side,” said a woman near me.
That’s an insult to Iowa, but let me explain about the Upper West Side. It used to be a liberal-to-radical neighborhood that was ferocious in its support for civil rights and the anti-war movement. Its nickname was the Upper Left Side, and people here could read three biographies of Leon Trotsky before breakfast. Disastrously, it has become the most desirable living space in Manhattan, and Wall Street/corporate/real estate weenies have been taking over. But a significant radical remnant remains, thanks to rent control laws that Democrats seem to understand are necessary to preserve their voters.
“And then in the 50s, we had the civil right movement…” the guy droned.
“ Uh, I think we should conclude the lecture and break up into groups to discuss our nonviolent direct action training,” said Landis. “We seem to be losing people.” A lot of them, too.
So the hundred-odd remaining Upper Left Siders split into four groups for discussion. My group happened to be led by Landis, who directed the 35 of us to sit in a circle and identify ourselves with an explanation of why we were there. I was about #15 in the circle and the people who preceded me all appeared to have no experience with Occupy Wall Street and wanted to get involved. When it was my turn I said that Zuccotti Park was the most entertaining place to be in Manhattan for a couple months last fall and I hoped it would revive. And I said that the other thing I liked was that it was to the left of the Democratic Party and was pushing it from outside. There had been some mention of “the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act during the 90s” and I pointed out that it was Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who deregulated Wall Street.
“Excuse me,” said Landis. “We have a limited amount of time and a lot to discuss. We need to let everyone speak.”
I’ve thought about that a lot. I don’t believe I spoke for more than a minute, but I habitually obey the rules in a group, so I shut up. In retrospect, I was censored. I should have demanded a discussion of the true purpose of the 99% Spring and why Obama’s Department of Homeland Security orchestrated the violent destruction of hundreds of nonviolent Occupy camps around the country last fall.
As it was, we finished going around the circle. Everyone was a teacher or writer or connected with the labor movement. Wisconsin came up a few times. Landis asked what kind of a world we wanted to see. Someone said, “Socialism” and Landis said the topic for discussion was now how to plan for a “hypothetical direct action.” Every time somebody brought up something that was actually happening, Landis insisted that our agenda was set and we were only discussing hypothetical situations. So we talked about hypothetically withdrawing money from a hypothetical evil bank, or hypothetically stopping the hypothetical fracking in the Catskills that is going to poison New York City’s hypothetical drinking water.
“What about May 1?” said a retired professor.
“What about it?” said Landis.
“I heard that Occupy Wall Street was calling for a general strike. They’re planning actions all around midtown and they’re saying that nobody should go to work that day.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Landis. “We’re talking about hypothetical situations here.”
And so it went from 6:30 to 9:30 last Tuesday night. Over half the crowd left early. Most of those who stayed appeared to be angry and mystified that they had received no training whatever in nonviolent direct action. I doubt that the Democrats or MoveOn succeeded in co-opting anyone, and I predict that they will be inventing more dreary front groups as the election year grinds onward. “Front groups, not issues!” should be Obama’s rallying cry.
“I’m taking the subway to Wall Street,” said a guy in his 20s (probably the only guy in his 20s) as he walked out the door. “That’s where the action is. People are sleeping on the sidewalk there. Apparently the police can’t arrest you if you take up less than half the sidewalk. Go to Maydaynyc.org if you want to find out about the general strike.”
- Reportback: the 99%spring Training for Trainers and the Plot to Coopt #occupy (occupywalkusa.org)
- Infiltration to Disrupt, Divide and Misdirect Is Widespread in Occupy (Part I) (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Counter-Insurgency as Insurgency (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- The 99% Spring Is Here – Let’s Take the Fight to Big Oil, Gas and Coal (ecowatch.org)
The “99% Spring” Brings Co-optation into Full Bloom
As the Occupy movement begins to come into full bloom across the country this Spring – with plans for massive days of action and demonstrations on May 1st, new campaigns for transit justice on both coasts, continued organizing against foreclosures and police violence, and a slight chance of a bank protest or two – there are several weeds sprouting in the prefigurative garden. Not least of which is the “99% Spring” campaign, led and funded by every corner of the modern Democratic Party machine. One might ask themselves “What is wrong with non-violent direct action?” or “How effective could the ‘Democratic Party machine’ actually be, anyway?” There is nothing inherently wrong with civil disobedience and it surely remains to be seen if this campaign can train 10,000 people let alone the 100,000 they plan to. The campaign director at MoveOn.org, Ilyse Hogue, an organization that seems to be the key player in the 99% Spring, has recently written in the Nation that “Occupy is Dead” and that the 99% Spring will succeed where Occupy has failed – while mimicking their slogans. What they lack in actual knowledge of Occupy’s health, they certainly make up for in co-optive obviousness. Fertilized by decades of expanding inequality, Occupy needs to bloom and transform in the coming months, without getting mired in conflict with the various failed institutions of the organizational Left. However, those flowers of resistance will have to rise above the weeds of a dying order, including the 99% Spring dandelions.
The organizations comprising this effort are a litany of individual trade unions, both trade federations, environmental groups, and a range of non-profits, including groups who have done very respectable work, such as Jobs with Justice. There likely isn’t unified intent on behalf of every actor in this campaign. In Oakland, I have heard of some local participants in the training having serious reservations about the effort, but are participating in it nonetheless. The (potential) intent of these organizations, or the people they will train who will choose to lie down and get arrested, over some other tactics, isn’t the issue. What matters is the effect of this effort in the existing political context of counter-insurgency, the dismissive, patronizing and divisive terms in which this is being put, and the timing – right before the presidential election. If successful, this will undoubtedly serve as a wedge over tactics, exacerbating the “good protester / bad protester” trope that is always used, and that we have heard in the last few months already – from liberal Mayors to Fox News and everywhere in between. This attempts to bring organizations with sordid histories into Occupy, who will invariably try to wrestle legitimacy from a popular, radical movement, into political groups that are reformist at best, wholly complicit with the current order at worst. Hogue has stated that the plans for this effort pre-dated the formation of the Occupy movement in the U.S. The original goal, likely, to generate systemically non-threatening actions to draw attention to inequality and injustice – not to stop it, but to gather votes for Democrats, who, ostensibly, address those issues. Now that the Occupy movement has already done that, inadvertently, they seek to employ the same campaign to contain and defang that movement while preserving their positions as mostly poverty pimps and lazy labor bureaucrats that think strikes have lost their usefulness.
The existing powers, who some of these same progressives have consistently stood against (from their political position), deeply need to weld a safety valve on Occupy. Homeland Security, who has been “advising” police and city governments nationally and who coordinated the mid-November 18-city raid on the Occupy movement, released an article this week entitled “The Occupy Movement: Rising Anarchy” which states:
“So far, Occupy protests in the United States exhibit a mostly peaceful nature. However, certain elements within Occupy that have been seen both here and abroad have the potential to inflict major damage to governments, people and the private sector. If not carefully monitored and mitigated, these elements pose a significant threat to modern democracies.”
The existing order needs an institutionalized, liberal super-hero-on-a-leash to be used (whether the organizations involved all intend to or not) disrupt, discredit and destroy, from the inside, those elements who organized the November 2nd General Strike in Oakland, the militant demonstrations against police violence in New York in recent weeks, or community-led, anti-capitalist efforts against foreclosures in Chicago, or those that set barricades aflame in Seattle on December 12, 2011, or the scores of lesser-reported militant action that have taken place in the last half-year, out of nowhere. They also want to suck in the tens of thousands of young people all over the country, hoping to be able to do the same thing in their cities, into a more palatable strategy. Those in power would like to see nothing more than for 100,000 people to be trained to chain themselves to local bank branches for 6-9 months, hooting about their “greedy side,” get disillusioned at how fruitless that is, and go back to playing video games and downloading pirated music after Obama’s re-election.
Counter-Insurgency by any other name
This is not primarily about tactics, it is about politics. MoveOn.org and reactionary unions are not spearheading this for no reason. Are we to believe that the same unions that discourage their members from taking non-violent direct action during labor disputes, have found both the time and the energy to do a solid favor for the radical Left, by resuscitating a movement they have mistakenly diagnosed as dead? This is primarily about co-option and division, about sucking in a large cross-section of Occupy into Obama’s reelection campaign, watering down it’s radical politics, and using these mass trainings as a groundwork to put forward 100,000 “good protesters” to overshadow the “bad protesters” (who actually take personal risks and/or have radical politics), to ease the State’s ongoing campaign to pick us off one by one. In the words of MoveOn.org’s own campaign director, it is unabashedly and overtly a campaign of clear co-optation. This is not a riding of the coattails of a hip social movement; this will be a form of counter-insurgency. This will be used to disrupt, divide, discredit and destroy the Occupy movement. The parameters of acceptable protest will be imposed, not by some local non-profit starving for funding or wanting to remain relevant, but by city officials, the police, the major media, Homeland Security, Chambers of Commerce, police front groups like “Stand for Oakland,” and on down the line.
The Occupy movement has broken with the Left’s long-standing, self-defeating tendencies of meaningless, police-choreographed marches, 1-day pageant strikes, movement discourse that thinks the logic of the lowest common denominator that wins elections will win social justice (99% frames not withstanding), and non-violent civil disobedience designed to curry favorable media attention that gets de-contextualized and buried in the sea on nonsense entertainment that is the media. This scares the hell out of capital and the State. 99% Spring is not part of some nefarious conspiracy theory with Homeland Security or “the illuminati.” 99% Spring is not Wall Street. But they sure as hell are doing their work, whether some of them want to realize that or not.
“Just Say, No” (to government-sponsored co-optation)
A New York lawyer and some folks from OWS have made an attempt to turn the direct democracy of Occupy into a representation democracy of elected “Occupy politicians” who would have a new-Constitutional Convention this July 4th weekend in Philadelphia, comprised of elected officials from the Occupy Movement (“rising anarchy,” be damned). In short time Occupy Wall Street, from which these charlatans emerged, publicly denounced this attempted event at a General Assembly, along with Occupy Philadelphia. We have (imperfect) emerging direct, democratic institutions in our cities that reflect the will of the movement. We should use them. We should address the Operation 99% Spring Co-optation initiative the same way that New York and Philadelphia dealt with the “new founding fathers.” It is time to weed out our garden, so that real, social justice efforts can bloom.
My knowledge of the Occupy movement is derived primarily from my experience in Oakland. We have seen counter-insurgent efforts of this type before: when Mayor Quan’s Block-by-Block campaign organization tried to set up a “peace camp” right before the raid of the second Occupy Oakland encampment; when the one singular thing reporters wanted to know from press contacts before the December 12th Port Shutdown was “How can we get the protesters to obey police orders?” or their myopic fixation on the property destruction that they consider “violence;” to Quan’s unheeded call for the “leaders of the Occupy movement” to condemn said “violence” (by which she means people carrying shields who were hit with projectiles and beaten, while groups of children were tear-gassed): or how permits, taken out behind Occupy Oakland’s back, were used to arrest people for possession of blankets in Oscar Grant Plaza – some of whom are facing prison time; to Quan’s use of non-profits as a palatable alternative to a violent, discredited, and costly movement in a press-release and subsequent “volunteer fair.” All of this counter-insurgent misrepresentation, baiting, discreditation, and divisiveness is wearying and something we need to get better at combating. It has also only been partially effective. An Oakland Tribune poll found that 94% of Oaklanders support Occupy Oakland, even after all of the efforts I outlined above. We shouldn’t find a false complacency in this. It should be noted that even though most of these were attempts at co-optation, most came from clearly demarcated enemies.
99% Spring is attempting to graft itself to Occupy and hollow it out from the inside out, imposing rigid norms of non-violence and deference to police authority, while watering down our politics and introducing well-funded and trained institutions that are either fully invested in, or dependent upon, the existing power structure – and have the resources, connections and will of self-preservation to navigate the Occupy ship into a doldrums from which it will never emerge. Despite the undemocratic and self-defeating norm of consensus, we, as an Occupy movement, still have a sense of what we came here to do. We didn’t come here to sign petitions or to get Obama reelected. We didn’t come here to “have a voice in the system”; we came here to flip it on its head. We will not be co-opted. We should not have our tactics determined by the Democratic Party. We should not let ourselves be undermined from within. We have the capacity to call the 99% Spring out for what it is – a deluded attempt by the Obama campaign to kill two birds with one stone, to take the hundreds of thousands in the street demanding real democracy (laying bare the utter failure of the Obama administration and the American State) and turn it into a vehicle to re-elect him. So that he can bomb Iran with impunity, or continue to deport more undocumented immigrants than any other president, or cover-up more massacres in Afghanistan, or think that half-baked rhetoric about inequality coupled with more tax breaks for businesses represents “Change we can believe in.”
The Occupy movement may not have the power to change the talking points of duplicitous, liberal Mayors. It may not have the capacity to change the preoccupations of the mainstream media. It certainly doesn’t have much say in the manner in which the police try to suppress it. But we do have control over what goes on in our own house. These people only become part of the Occupy movement if we let them continue to say that they are out of one side of their mouth, while the other side says we are directionless, un-strategic and “dead.” Every single Occupation that doesn’t want to turn into nothing more than an ample pool of chumps registering people to vote for the same Obama administration that has declared an all-out war against us, should bring forward a resolution at their General Assembly to condemn this clear attempt to destroy our movement. This isn’t about violence versus non-violence; this is about autonomy versus co-optation. History will not forgive us if we let the 99% Spring Trojan horse into out movement so that the injustices we rose up against can be perpetuated with our own sanction, in our own name.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.
- Infiltration to Disrupt, Divide and Misdirect Is Widespread in Occupy (Part I) (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- The 99% Spring aims to train 100,000 in direct action (dailykos.com)