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."
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.