Ever the contrarian, Alexander Cockburn threw a spitball at the Occupy movement on Counterpunch last Saturday that made me wonder if he ever had any enthusiasm for it despite the friendly articles that appeared there from the beginning.
The one thing that struck me as egregiously wrong was this:
Where was the knowledge of, let along the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance. Yet when one raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.
Maybe I am missing something but I got reports on almost a daily basis about some “old leftist” or another getting an enthusiastic response when they spoke to the occupiers, from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to the ISO’s Anthony Arnove. And speaking of the sixties, the New Left was infamous for its lack of “respect for the past”. And, finally, I am a bit puzzled by Alexander’s reference to us “making efforts at revolutionary organization and resistance”. I am almost tempted to repeat Tonto’s reminder to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean by ‘us’, white man?” Alexander, unlike Christopher Hitchens, is and was a political virgin. He does not know what it means to roll up his sleeves and actually go out and organize people. I think he is a very fine journalist, one of the best on the left on his better days, but he really doesn’t know anything about building organizations.
Most of Alexander’s hostility to the Occupy movement is based on an article by Thomas Naylor that appeared on Counterpunch on March 27th, 2012. Titled “Occupy Wall Street Revisited, Who is Occupying Whom?“, it poses the interesting question (without a question mark unfortunately): “Is it possible that the real purpose of Occupy Wall Street has little to do with either the 99 percent or the 1 percent but rather everything to do with keeping the political left in America decentralized, widely dispersed, very busy, and completely impotent to deal with the collapse of the American Empire”. Well, at least Naylor does not blame the CIA or other nefarious state agencies for this turn of events, as the ineffable Michel Chossudovsky did.
Naylor also objects to the appearance of the protestors, reminding me of Al Capp and George Jessel’s fulminations against hippie protestors on the Tonight Show during the Vietnam War:
Although Bill O’Reilly’s mean-spirited portrayal of OWS is grossly unfair, some of the TV images of OWS protestors do not instill confidence in their ability to change the world. Many of them come across as stereotypical radical, disgruntled, hippie malcontents. The problem lies when they become the defining image of a fledgling political movement.
It is hard for me to conjure up an image of a stereotypical radical/hippie malcontent. What does this mean? Wearing a black beret and a tie-dyed t-shirt? Somehow it doesn’t compute. At any rate, here’s a reminder of what a typical protestor looked like, from my visit down to Occupy Wall Street:
click image to play video
Alexander had another beef with the Occupy movement: “Where the hell’s the plan?” I wonder if his endorsement of Naylor’s critique includes an endorsement of the plan that he has long been associated with, namely Vermont seceding from the United States. Naylor is founder of the Second Vermont Republic, a group described on its website as follows:
The Second Vermont Republic is a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank committed to: (1) the peaceful breakup of meganations such as the United States, Russia, and China; (2) the political independence of breakaway states such as Quebec, Scotland, and Vermont; and (3) a strategic alliance with other small, democratic, nonviolent, affluent, socially responsible, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, ecofriendly nations such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland which share a high degree of environmental integrity and a strong sense of community.
All I can say is that the young people who occupied Wall Street were vindicated by provoking the wrath of this 76 year old Professor Emeritus from Duke University, for this “plan” is about as batty as they come. I got a big kick out of the description of Austria as being “democratic” and “nonviolent”. Does Naylor read a newspaper?
‘Haider is our Lady Di’
As the leaders of Europe’s far-right parties gather for today’s state funeral of Austria’s most controversial politician, is European fascism once again on the rise?
“Official Austrian state doctrine after the war was that the Allies liberated Austria from Nazi Germany in 1945 and that Austria had been a victim of the Nazis in 1938,” says Pelinka. “This overlooks the fact that the percentage of Austrians who participated in the Nazi regime was the same as in Germany. In contrast, Germany was forced to confront its past directly and did so. Austria was not and didn’t.”
In Germany, Haider – famous for his outbursts lauding SS veterans, his description of Austria as an “ideological miscarriage”, his labelling of Nazi death camps as “punishment camps” and admiration for the Third Reich’s “sensible employment policies” – could never have achieved the same success.
Haider himself was frustrated in his attempts to form a pan-European far-right club, though he was successful at least in his intention of provoking European leaders after they slapped sanctions on Austria following the electoral success of his Freedom party (FPO) in 2000.
Nonetheless he is credited with having injected new life into far-right politics. “He was one of the first in Europe to grasp that it’s not about issues or a rational discourse, but about emotion,” says Brem. “He understood that politics was about marketing and you need to be marketing savvy to succeed.”
“What Haider did was to bring Austria’s SS and Nazi history out of the past and put it in the present and because he was such a charismatic politician he got away with it,” says Rauscher. “But his lasting legacy is the way that he poisoned the political atmosphere in Austria in the process.”
Now I am not trying to connect Thomas Naylor with someone like Haider but there are worrisome signs that the Vermont secessionists have been a bit undiscriminating in their relations with Americans who are. In trying to build a nationwide network, Naylor approached an outfit called The League of the South that describes itself as “distinct from, and in opposition to, the corrupt mainstream American culture.” They “stand for our own sublime cultural inheritance and seek to separate ourselves from the cultural rot that is American culture.” This is a bumper sticker they sell from their website:
Under pressure from the Vermont left, Naylor broke with the racists. The Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont website, questioned Naylor’s motivations:
The famous Thomas “Don’t Call Me a Racist” Naylor has published a letter called (I’m not making this up)
To The League of the South From Vermont With Love
Yes, you read that right: “With Love”. That’s only the first reason to question the sincerity of this “break”, however. If you read the letter, you will see that, far from acknowledging the racism of the League of the South, Naylor treats it as no more than a PR problem.
Naylor thinks racism is no more than a problem of perception. Naylor covers some history, and then begins with the racist aroma surrounding secession movements: “Secession is often equated with Southern, redneck, Christian fundamentalist racism. Anyone who is a secessionist is considered a likely racist, but a Southern secessionist is a racist a priori. Since the LOS is a Southern secessionist group, it’s hardly surprising that there is a widespread perception that it is racist”. Get it? There’s nothing racist about LOS, but for some bizarre reason, people think that southern secessionists have some racist ideas. According to Naylor, this idea is no more than a “knee-jerk reaction” on the part of most Americans. It’s not that there actually is any racism involved in secessionists, it’s just “equated with” southern racism. The problem isn’t the racist ideas, it’s that people can’t stop thinking about them. There’s nothing wrong with it except those unfortunate associations with “images of the Civil War, slavery, racism, violence, and preservation of the Southern way of life.”
This unfortunate perception even infects the cultural symbols of the South. For instance, here’s Naylor on the Confederate flag: Whether justifiably or not, most Southern blacks view the Confederate flag as an overt racist symbol aimed at rubbing salt in their 400-year wounds.
Returning again to Alexander, I do have to wonder who he is referring to when he writes: “Leninists threw aside their Marxist primers on party organisation and drained the full anarchist cocktail.” This snappy bit of prose is classic Cockburn, incorporating everything except what journalism schools harp on: who, what, where, when and why.
Is a Leninist somebody who has nice things to say about Lenin, like the irrepressible Slavoj Zizek? I kind of doubt it. Lacan, not Lenin, seems more to the point. To me, Leninist means somebody who is actively involved in building a “Leninist” party like the ISO, the SWP, and the rest of the alphabet soup. Somehow, I don’t think that they ever “drained the full anarchist cocktail”. Mostly, they had some nice things to say about the movement but were never organically part of it. As is too often the case, they came to the movement with their own agenda and sought ways to exploit it. The one thing that the movement was resistant to was this kind of cadre intervention.
This leads me to my final point. Wherever this movement goes next, it pointed to the possibility of building massive anti-capitalist protests without the dubious support from the Leninist left. It is entirely possible that Alexander was referring not to Leninists, but ex-Leninists like Pham Binh who worked tirelessly on behalf of the movement and spoke about its possibilities for the future.
As American capitalism continues to hand out the shitty end of the stick to working people and the poor, there will be an impetus for a grass roots movement that challenges the ruling class. It will be incumbent on the “old left” to find a way to relate to such a development in a positive way and to learn from it. The Occupy movement has made mistakes, black bloc-ism the worst of it in my opinion, but it has also had a capacity to adjust and to move forward.
I suspect that in its next upward surge, whether in the name of Occupy or some other permutation, it will inspire millions, including the founder of Counterpunch who is not too old—one hopes—to be inspired by a genuine insurrectionary movement.