Occupy Wall Street

What's the Matter with Anarchists?

Thomas Frank enters an intra-left war.


Thomas Frank played the guitar and the French harp.

There always was a tension at the heart of the Occupy movement, a rupture-in-waiting between the anarchists and the social democrats. The fact that Occupy is pretty much over hasn't changed that; it's just moved the sniping over to the retrospectives. Thomas Frank, occupying the pages of The Baffler, has now joined the hostilities, with a 5900-word salvo on behalf of Team Social Democrat.

Credit where it's due: Frank scores some points, as with this reaction to a Noam Chomsky pensée:

he tells us that "one of the main achievements" of the movement "has been to create communities, real functioning communities of mutual support, democratic interchange," et cetera. The reason this is important, he continues, is because Americans "tend to be very isolated and neighborhoods are broken down, community structures have broken down, people are kind of alone." How building such "communities" helps us to tackle the power of high finance is left unexplained, as is Chomsky's implication that a city of eight million people, engaged in all the complexities of modern life, should learn how humans are supposed to live together by studying an encampment of college students.

I also enjoyed some of his barbs against the grad-school wing of the movement. Frank complains that Occupy's "ranks weren't just filled with professionals and professionals-to-be; far too often the campaign itself appeared to be an arena for professional credentialing." More specifically: "dear god why, after only a few months of occupying Zuccotti Park, did Occupiers feel they needed to launch their own journal of academic theory?"

But of course the force of essay comes down to the rivalry between the anarchists and the social democrats. Frank thinks it self-evident that "it was the bankers' own uprising against the hated state that wrecked the American way of life." (This statement comes just 63 words after the phrase "the bailouts," so now we know precisely how long it takes Frank to forget the state's role in the corporate state.) That leads in to Frank's social vision: "You do it by rebuilding a powerful and competent regulatory state. You do it by rebuilding the labor movement. You do it with bureaucracy." (The implicit identification of "the labor movement" with "bureaucracy" is an interesting touch, if a little ill-timed. The essay arrives just as Walmart wildcatters are rediscovering the power of pre-Wagner Act organizing.)

Frank's crowning argument is that Occupy resembles that bête noire of all right-thinking Blue Teamers, the Tea Party movement:


both are almost obsessively concerned with the bailouts of 2008, correctly understanding them as the departure point in public attitudes toward business and government. Participants in both describe the bailouts as "crony capitalism." Both make their displeasure known by occupying public spaces, and both forms of protest cherish stories about the lengths to which their cadres have gone to keep those public spaces clean. Both Tea and Occupy gave Ron Paul followers prominent roles, and you could hear calls to "End the Fed" in Zuccotti Park as well as at the big Glenn Beck rallies. Then there were those Guy Fawkes masks, popular with both groups (Grover Norquist displays his prominently on his desk), which commemorate not the 99 percent or some red-state ur-American, but a comic-book loner who wages a righteous, one-man war against a tyrannical government.

The movement cultures are similar, too. Tea Partiers as well as Occupiers deliberately kept their demands vague, the better to rope in a wide cross section of the discontented….Leaderlessness is another virtue claimed by indignados on the right as well as left….

"This is not a political party," [Tea Partier Matt Kibbe] insists; "it is a social gathering." Tea Party events don't have drum circles, as far as I know, but Kibbe nevertheless says he is "reminded of the sense of community you used to experience in the parking lot before a Grateful Dead concert: peaceful, connected, smiling, gathered in common purpose." It is "a revolt from the bottom up," he declares. It is "a community in the fullest sense of the word."

"Boss" as in "awesome," of course.

This goes on, eventually including an analysis of Atlas Shrugged that finds parallels between Zuccotti Park and Galt's Gulch. That part of the argument makes sense, by the way. I mean, I haven't read Atlas Shrugged, but I've absorbed its plot by osmosis, the same way I have a vague sense of what's been happening on Mad Men without ever actually watching it; and Frank's remark that Rand's strikers change the world by "building a model community in the shell of the old, exactly as Occupy intended to do," doesn't seem off-the-wall to me.

And those Occupy/Tea Party parallels are obviously there. It's just that Frank sees them as a sign that the left's latest revival movement went off course, whereas I think they're a sign that decentralized, networked protest is on the rise even as particular protest movements come and go. Granted, the protesters haven't entirely figured out how to avoid being coopted like the Tea Partiers or marginalized like the Occupiers. But maybe the next surge, from whichever direction it comes, will move a little farther along the learning curve.

Bonus reading: I reviewed Frank's 2008 book The Wrecking Crew here and his 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas here. I got aggravated at a couple of his Wall Street Journal columns here and here. And I grumbled at him a little more here.

NEXT: Atlantic City to Reopen Casinos

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  1. French harp? What a fucking pussy. Blues harp is where it’s at.

  2. What’s wrong with anarchists? Episiarch.

    1. So that’s why you made him the mascot.

      1. Well, that and how good he looked in short pants with ringlets and a giant lollipop.

        1. *shudder*

          Please, stop right now!

        2. and thus was created the coalition of anarchists and kiddy-fiddlers long dreamt of and feared by political theorists

        3. SF, come on. I’m sure I look way better dressed like that.

          Oh. Nevermind.


            1. You still have the photos of Epi like that. IIRC, you still haven’t photoshopped the ballgag out yet.

              1. It’s not the ballgag that needs the photoshop.

          2. Pics or it didn’t happen. You should know the drill by now.

          3. Not pics. Video. Dressed like that. Riding the rollercoaster that gives women orgasms.

            Jus’ sayin’

            1. I’m not doing the rollercoaster orgasm thing. And I think that chick on the left is faking. She’s saying “oh my god” way too many times.

              1. Oh yeah? Then how do you explain all the other rollercoaster orgasm videos, oh ye of little faith?

                1. I’m not saying it’s not possible, the other one just seemed a little theatrical.

                  1. I suggest that you and a group of your female friends ride said rollercoaster and allow us to film the results.

                    In the same of Science!, of course.

                    1. you and a group of your female friends

                      And this is where we know that watching too many rollercoaster orgasm videos has totally addled your brain.

                    2. You don’t even have any female frenemies?

                      My frenemy is the dog.

      2. I didn’t make him the mascot. It was a spontaneous vote of individuals who absolutely were not coerced or even consciously cooperating.

  3. Thomas Frank clearly is Matt Welch’s idiot brother

    1. I thought that was Paul Rudd?

  4. …both forms of protest cherish stories about the lengths to which their cadres have gone to keep those public spaces clean.

    I apologize if I missed something, but surely they’re not talking about the physical cleanliness of the OWS sites … they lived in filth!

    1. Feature, not bug. They have been trying to replicate Woodstock for generations.

  5. http://c4ss.org/markets-not-capitalism-audiobook

    This may be one of the best tools to bring these (and other) camps together. Lengthy, but well worth a read for everyone. It’s bound to shake up your views at least a little bit.

  6. More specifically: “dear god why, after only a few months of occupying Zuccotti Park, did Occupiers feel they needed to launch their own journal of academic theory?”

    What, never heard of a self-licking ice cream cone?

  7. All three of these catastrophes, however, were brought on by deregulation and tax-cutting?by a philosophy of liberation as anarchic in its rhetoric as Occupy was in reality. Check your premises, Rand-fans: it was the bankers’ own uprising against the hated state that wrecked the American way of life.

    It is utterly depressing to continue to read this sort of garbage. The American banking system is utterly entwined with the state. Banking is as free market as defense contracting. Just a few sentences prior, he wrote:

    [To protest Wall Street] was to protest the political power of money, which gave us the bailouts

    So, the political power of money is not being used for Randian Superhero Free Markets, then? Obnoxiously dense.

    1. Yeah, what’s libertarian about banksters lobbying for a government handout?

      1. What libertarian about having a central bank.

  8. I find it hilarious that the Occupy movement accomplished absolutely nothing other than some trampled grass and OT for local police.

    Why anyone would want to even bother discussing the “implications” of what was essentially a bunch of whiny brats who wanted free stuff?

    Nothing is more indicative of the bias in media than the coverage of the Occupy movement vs. the Tea Party.

    The Tea Party was the impetus behind the biggest congressional upset in recent history. The Occupy movement was a big fat nothing.

    1. The Tea Party of 1773 was a murderous mob destroying highly valued property, and it’s rightly remembered as leading to war of independence. If this recent Tea Party also wants to be remembered, it’ll have to do more than vote in congressional elections.

      The hand-wringing over media bias in the “coverage of the Occupy movement vs. the Tea Party” is misconceived. The framing of the two as in conflict in the first place is purely a media construction. To skip over this and go directly to bias of the coverage is be a stooge of the media elite.

  9. The Galt’s Gulchers didn’t build a model community within the old to change the world, they just checked out and started over. And it would have worked, too, if not for those pesky kids.

  10. This article underline the essential tension between the counter-culture and social democracy. Advocating for more bureaucracy isn’t COOL, and it never will be. Demanding more regulation is fundamentally at odds with the essential human desire for autonomy.
    Anarchism will always have more allure. Regulation and government will always have the stench of oppression about them.

    It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never make government cool.

  11. So, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are not out there promoting growing the SEIU means that they are not to be taken seriously? Is that the sum up, Jesse?

  12. The Galt’s Gulch vs. Zucotti Park comparison is interesting. because in Rand’s world, people like the occupiers would be completely free to go off and form their own commune. They just worldn’t be allowed to force the entire country to go along with them. The Galt’s Gulcher’s and the anarchists can get along. They can live separately and respect eachother. maybe even trade.

    By contrasts, progressives and social democrats cannoy coexist alongside objectivist and anarchist societies becuase their philosophy is universalist in nature. Their vision is of one central state to which EVERYONE must belong. Everyone must pay taxes to the same government. Everyone must participate in the same health-care distribution scheme. The fact that nobody in their society is permitted to “drop out” and form an independent enclave is emphasized by the many instances of federal authorities enforcing federal law on various Christian communes like the Branch Davidians in recent years. There is no way that the health care laws supporters would allow, for example, an enclave of objectivists to “drop out” and stop paying for health insurance.

    1. Collectivists feel that coercion is voluntary.

      After all, they voluntarily do what they coerce others into doing, so how can it not be voluntary?

    2. One state!
      One people!
      One government!

  13. I found this sentence near the end of the article oddly out of place:

    “Granted, the protesters haven’t entirely figured out how to avoid being coopted like the Tea Partiers or marginalized like the Occupiers.”

    If these protesters were wholly Social Democrats that would make sense. A mass movement seeking reform can’t afford to be coopted or marginalized. But this doesn’t apply to Anarchists, who are not a mass movement and aren’t seeking reform. Cooptation is not a worry, and a viable marginalization is arguably a goal for Anarchists.

    The next surge, whenever it comes, is likely to sharpen the differences between the Anarchists and Social Democrats.

  14. I’m on the anarchist side, and T. Frank has always been rather overrated, but he does at least deserve some credit for publishing his anarchist adversary David Graeber in The Baffler. Graeber is an intellectual giant compared to Frank, a writer/academic on the left who is genuinely refreshing to read, esp. in comparison to all the typical dead-enders on the “liberal left” (aka social democrats) at sites like Alternet and Salon.

    1. Frank is no longer editor-in-chief of The Baffler, so I’m not sure he gets credit for publishing Graeber.

      1. I didn’t realize this, so I guess Graeber appearing in The Baffler makes more sense now. It would be great to see Graeber debate someone like Frank or Hedges; instead the two sides seem content to talk around each other, which is frustrating.

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