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The Occupy Movement and the Authoritarian Impulse

Tents Before Parks!

Although I feel like I’ve said my piece about Occupy Wall Street and its various international affiliate movements, the developments in the response of the authorities to the movement’s civil disobedience over the past couple of weeks probably do demand a brief word or two. The eviction of Occupiers from their home bases in Zuccotti Park in New York City and St. James Park in Toronto grabbed headlines, partly because these displacements were the only fresh progression in the Occupy story for some time and partly due to the perhaps overeager aggression of the evicting police forces in New York. The whiff of official oppression has animated the ideologically amorphous, Adbusters-shepherded movement from the start, and overt displays of authoritah are oxygen to its fire of sociopolitical outrage.

The impact of these events was much surpassed, however, by the confrontation between campus police at the University of California-Davis and sit-in student protestors. And by “confrontation”, I mean the police responded to the students’ non-violent civil disobedience by pepper-spraying them cruelly and gratuitously, as this now-viral video demonstrates. Although the Occupiers’ response is heartening, the casual authoritarianism of both law enforcement and their defenders in the light-fascist right-wing media is considerably less so.

In response to the circulation of the video, James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly invokes that modern apex of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in America, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Not that the cause of the Occupy movement has access to either the eloquent tone of moral necessity nor the deep well of historical injustice that the Civil Rights marchers drew upon, but the structural deprivations that affected African-Americans for decades come from the same essential place that those protested by the Occupiers do. The self-congratulatory boomer narrative about the 1960s counterculture, that it “changed the world” and corrected many of the inequities that it struggled against, is being exposed as insufficient, if not as an outright falsehood.

Matt Taibbi says it better than I can in his trademarked, inimitable rhetorical style, but what is happening in America, and all around the world, is that a smallish elite (partly made up of many of those same self-congratulating boomers) accustomed to exponential growth and the attendant benefits to their personal wealth and influence are facing a distinct lack of base-level economic expansion. With few new jobs and limited economic opportunities for more and more people near the base of the income pyramid, those at its summit have refused to relinquish the rising profit margins that have characterized the past couple of decades. These augmented takings have to come from somewhere, and increasingly they are coming from the dwindling share of the middle and lower class. Those lower classes resist this system of distribution with civil disobedience, and the authorities (forever the thralls of money and power) respond with appropriately overheated force.

This is perhaps not a new phenomenon, and the elites may tell us it is not a phenomenon at all, or at least that they deserve their ever-greater share and the rest of us deserve less than we have. But it is redolent of a perspective that is beginning to define the politics of our time (be they Tea Party conservative or Occupy Wall Street liberal), namely that democratic liberties are intrinsically tied to (and largely reliant upon) the vagaries of income distribution. Rights mean only so much, we are told, without a certain fairness of economic opportunity. Economics underlies all social relations, and progress is delineated by class struggle. With such ideas percolating around the cultural mainstream, it always surprises me that Marxist analysis is not undergoing more of a resurgence, since everyone seems to agree, in general terms, with Marx’s thoughts on social relations (if not, of course, on his proposed policy solutions, which have ever been found wanting). The key takeaway is that oppression comes in many forms, and these forms can be densely interrelated and unpredictable. All most of us can do is await and react as best we can.

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