Asked in July if Occupy Wall Street has been successful, Todd Gitlin—renowned social historian, former President of Students for a Democratic Society, and author most recently of Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street—responds:
"OWS has been successful because we are talking about it. You now see bumper stickers that say 99%. I was just in upstate NY and I saw a candidate running for office with a sign that says: The candidate of the 99%. It is now legitimate to talk about inequality and the domination of American by a plutocracy, by an oligarchy of the super wealthy. No it is not successful in the sense that it has not delivered concrete results."
As the election has heated up OWS has faded even further from consciousness. At a time when we are about to pick our next leader, the leaderless rhetoric of OWS is out of step.
That said, Gitlin is right that many of the pressing issues underlying the OWS movement have insinuated themselves into public discourse. It is unlikely that without OWS President Obama would be focusing so clearly on raising taxes on those he calls the wealthy (by which he means those who earn over $250,000 per year). Indeed, if there is one core issue that seems to demarcate President Obama and Governor Romney it is the question of their differing attitudes towards wealth and taxes.
Gitlin, who is speaking next week at the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference “Does The President Matter?", is clear-headed about the movement's failures but remains optimistic about its future. Gitlin’s optimism, his hope for a movement that many other see as dead, is heartening. There may also, surprisingly, be a grain of truth in his rosy scenario.
Gitlin understands that the future of OWS is not in what it has been, but in what it has not yet imagined. After a lull in the movement, OWS, he writes, may well birth “individual initiatives combined with community spirit, assisted by technical ingenuity and the ability to learn from experience,” to shift the values that caused the crisis in the first place. If OWS is to bring about change, it will be because against its own anti-leadership rhetoric, it has and continues to produce new leaders.
"Leadership," Gitlin writes in Occupy Nation,
"is not abolished when movements don't designate spokespersons and leaders refuse the label, any more than prisons are abolished when they are designated as correctional facilities. In all social groups, leaders emerge. They emerge in the course of action when acts of leadership take place. Leaders prove themselves. Some are labeled leaders, some are not. Some accept the label, others reject it. Those who get the reputation for leadership get treated as leaders. It is as simple (and as complicated) as this: Leaders are persons whom others follow—admire, heed, recognize."
In imagining the fecundity of Occupy Wall Street's birthing of new leaders, Gitlin focuses on that aspect of OWS that was most surprising, new, and wonderful: Its determination to open up a space for being together, thinking, and talking in public. He quotes one OWS member as saying: "Something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed." There was, in the encampments, "a public place to go to, where attention could readily be paid, and individuals had faces and stories." Above all, Gitlin writes, the Occupiers were "creating a space where leaders and ideas could emerge."
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries."
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the presence or lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.
What Gitlin's account of Occupy Nation makes palpable is that amidst all the excesses and competing narratives, there are still some people who aspire to be real revolutionaries. Whether that small group will produce leaders of revolutionary potential is, of course, something we cannot know. But at a time of political paralysis amidst the political, economic, and ecological crises of our time, any movement that might give birth to new leaders is something to be welcomed.
So this weekend as we prepare for next week's conference "Does the President Matter?" pick up Todd Gitlin's Occupy Nation. You can also here him speak at Bard College on Friday, Sept. 21. And you can have him sign your book then.
The Hannah Arendt Center's Fifth Annual Fall Conference will take place on September 21-22, 2012 at Olin Hall at Bard College. A mere five weeks before the upcoming presidential election, the topic could not be any more timely:
DOES THE PRESIDENT MATTER?
A CONFERENCE ON THE AMERICAN AGE OF POLITICAL DISREPAIR
Click here to learn about the keynote speakers and attendees.
Greece voted on Sunday and the headline account shows that the right of center moderates won. This was presented as good news, for it means a continued embrace of the Euro and years more of austerity. But there are other lessons to glean from the Greek election.
1. Extremism is rising quickly in Greece. As the Financial Times reports,
The parliament, for the first time in Greek history, will be full of extremists. Besides the neo-nazis and a Stalinist communist party there is Syriza, whose leader is a fan of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. How did Greece, the birthplace of democracy, come to have a parliament full of hammers, sickles and swastikas?
2. The Greeks are being asked to suffer for years more, but with little or no hope in sight. Here is what the NY Times reports today, an opinion from one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the Greek crisis:
“Greece will be forced to return to the drachma and devalue, and the default will cause bank runs and money flowing into Germany and the United States as the only viable safe haven bets,” he declared the day before Sunday’s Greek elections, irrespective of which party would win. “Greece will default because there is no other choice regardless of anyone’s politics.”
Almost all of the loans that Greece receives from Europe go directly to pay off the interest on loans to banks in Germany and elsewhere. Greece is neither paying down its debt nor investing in its future. The result is that the Greeks will suffer through years more of austerity and will likely be in no better position in a few years than they are now.
3. The combination of 1 and 2 above do not bode well for European politics in the coming years.
When Hannah Arendt looked to the Origins of Totalitarianism in the 20th century, she began her analysis with the financial speculation and subsequent crash of 1870. The ensuing crisis led to a weakening of nation-states and the rise of imperialism, all of which dissolved the traditional political and moral limits that had for centuries formed the structural foundation of European civilization.
As Europe struggles now to overcome national political limits as a response to the financial and banking crisis, it faces once again a political crisis mixed with an economic crisis. Europe is in trouble and they are not alone. But in Europe, unlike in the U.S. or in Japan, the financial crisis is inextricable from a crisis of nationalism and sovereignty. The potential for nationalist extremism on the one hand is real. On the other hand, there is also the potential for a weakening of national political traditions and the rise of technocratic and bureaucratic rule that, for all its rationalism, weakens moral and ethical restraints.
The most exciting aspect of Occupy Wall Street was seeing Americans—young and old, white and black, Jew and Muslim—coming together in public spaces to talk about matters of public importance. The most disheartening failure of Occupy Wall Street was how quickly those conversations turned to navel gazing. Instead of aiming to lead, to take on responsibility, and to honestly and courageously work to impact the public world around them, the protesters (and that is what they are, at least to date, rather than revolutionaries) satisfied themselves with talking to like-minded people about their dreams and hopes. Occupy Wall Street fizzled because the passions and happiness at making a difference gave way to the solipsistic self-pleasuring of those speaking to themselves, and those like them.
Consider, as an alternative, the villagers of Wukan, China. In September of 2011, the village government sold town land to real-estate developers. Such deals are reportedly common in China, since China repealed local agricultural taxes in 2006. To raise money to run local governments, Chinese local officials are increasingly selling farmland to developers. According to Michael Young, "the local government compensates the farmers with a minimum amount of money and then is paid 50 times more by the developer." According to Young, "60 to 70 percent of local government income comes from selling land to developers." The land sales "enrich officials" and also contribute to economic growth of China.
The land sales have generated huge resentment throughout China, and for a while Wukan was no different. In 2009 villages petitioned and protested the sale of 67 acres of land to a Hong Kong developer. In September of 2011, another protest erupted, but this time serious clashes only intensified the protests. Eventually new villagers were elected to the village government. One of these, Xue Jinbo, was then arrested and died in custody, amidst rumors of torture and mistreatment. The resulting uproar led to something unheard of in China: A free and democratic village election with secret ballots.
On February 11, 2012, over 6,000 of the Wukan's 8,000 residents filled out "pink ballots in rows of plywood booths that ensured their choices would remain secret, then dropped them in big steel boxes sealed with tamper-proof stickers.
Officials tallied the votes in the schoolyard as residents looked on." According to The New York Times report,
It was the first truly democratic vote here in decades, if not ever, and something of a landmark of transparency in China's opaque politics. By the time it ended, the very men who had led Wukan's struggle against an entrenched village autocracy had been chosen as its new leaders.
Even as the Times article reports on the amazing victory in Wukan and the optimism it has spawned, the narrative of the article questions whether anything will change. The corruption underlying the land sales is deep and "reaches into layers of higher governments." The new leaders of Wukan have received threats. Other similar attempts at protests in China have lately been suppressed: "this month in Zhejiang province, north of Guangdong, officials suppressed a Wukan-style land protest in Panhe by systematically rounding up protest leaders and sealing their village off from journalists." The Times quotes Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing scholar, who argues: "Reform in China doesn't start in places like Wukan. It starts at the top and soaks downward."
I am not an expert in Chinese politics. But dismissals of the Wukan revolution—and that is what happened in Wukan—do seem to ignore the incredible and seemingly impossible victories of the people there.
So what, we must ask, has changed in China? How does the people's occupation and revolution in Wukan compare to the Occupy Wall Street movement here?
Whether or not the people of Wukan get their land back, they have tasted what Hannah Arendt calls public freedom. Like OWS, the people of Wukan experienced the joy of collective action in public. In both cases, they did not simply protest. They also created councils and general assemblies and thus built organizations in which people could act together in public. But there is where the similarities end.
In Wukan, the people did not only occupy parks. They came together and created a new power in society and used that power to take over their government.
Leaders emerged, who channeled the spirit of protest into demands not only for redress of their land claims but for an openness and participation in government. What Wukan shows, in other words, is a new model for revolutionary politics in China—a path towards the creation of local power centers built upon the consensus of individual villagers.
I have no doubt that China can, if it wants, violently suppress these concretions of people power. As Syria is showing now, unrelenting violence can overcome power. And yet, to employ such violence risks destroying the power of the state itself, which is always based upon the consensus of the people. More likely, the revolution in Wukan is an example of the way that people in China are, in steps big and small, demanding the control of their political fate.
What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words,
They knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else.
Arendt was always alive to this sense of "public happiness" which she distinguished from the economic and social needs that comprised being well fed and comfortable. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions." It was this passion to be involved, to be seen and heard in matters of public importance, and to distinguish oneself before one's peers that Arendt points to as central to the experience of freedom in America.
The promise of Occupy Wall Street was not simply that it would bring about economic equality or other specific results. It was that it returned citizens to the public square to engage again in the public life of the nation. Its failure, at least to date, is that its activists refused to take seriously the responsibility and need to speak and act not only in public, but also for the public.
By avoiding taking stands, by eschewing leadership, by insisting on appealing to everybody, by seeking to offend no one, and by holding themselves above and outside of politics, the movement became consumed by itself, inward looking, and, ultimately, apolitical. The joy of OWS did not translate, as did the joy of the collective action in Wukan, into political power. If we are to rejuvenate our political culture, it is better to look to the revolutionaries in Wukan than the protesters in Zuccotti Park. Or rather, maybe the OWS movement needs to pay attention to Wukan, and think about how to transform its power, joy, and public engagement into political channels.
See the NY Times Slideshow of the Voting in Wukan, here.