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Over There: The Occupiers, Seen from Europe

PRAGUE — Viewing the Occupy Wall Street movement from post-Communist Europe, I can’t stop thinking of October 1917.

This date, when the Bolsheviks seized power from the Russian Provisional Government and set in place a Communist dictatorship that would last for more than seven decades, was brought to mind by the recent comments of the great Polish dissident and newspaper editor Adam Michnik. Speaking on a panel at Forum 2000, the annual conference put on here by his friend, the former Czech president Vaclav Havel, Michnik heard a familiar message in the rhetoric of the protesters in New York. The topic at hand was “Europe’s Future: Constitutional or Populist Democracy?” Fortunately, revolution (whether from the left or the right) is unthinkable in the United States, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. But it is not so unthinkable in Europe, destroyed by a world war just seventy years ago, where Spain and Portugal only emerged from fascist rule in the 1970s, and where one half of the continent freed itself from Communist domination not long after that.

It was in the context of rising European populism that Michnik obliquely criticized the Occupy Wall Street movement, then spreading across the United States and around the world from the original demonstrations in downtown Manhattan. A man with solidly social democratic credentials, Michnik would find himself comfortable on the left wing of the American Democratic Party and is certainly sympathetic to demands for a greater redistribution of wealth. But he is too smart and too familiar with Europe’s dark history to fall so easily for the insidious, if deliberately vague, calls for “social justice” and even “people’s democracy” that have been voiced by the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their echo chamber here in Europe. Michnik prefers “regular, normal, sinful democracy.” For all its faults, such boring democracy is at least a system “where, if someone calls you at six a.m., you know it’s the milkman at the door.”

Having been joined on October 15th by solidarity protests in hundreds of cities across the world, Occupy Wall Street is trying to invoke the legacy of 1968 rather than 1917, and they might as well. For it was 1968, as Michnik said, that witnessed actualization of the ideas espoused by Herbert Marcuse, the German philosopher, “who explained to students that fascism is in the United States.” That year, while students in France, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the US were protesting what Marcuse alleged to be the West’s “repressive tolerance,” Michnik was sitting in a jail cell for his dissident activities in Communist Poland. It was then that he “learned to be careful” when hearing people in free countries voice existential doubts, no matter how benign-sounding, about electoral democracy.

The self-appointed heir to Marcuse, Michnik said, is the Slovenian Marxist academic Slavoj Zizek, one of the first in a series of radical left-wing figures to address protesters in New York. In a subsequent mini-essay, posted on the website of the London Review of Books under the title “Democracy is the enemy,” Zizek opined that “democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction.” Therefore, nothing less than the American system of liberal democracy itself must be overturned, Zizek wrote, and it is this end to which Occupy Wall Street must strive, presumably using violence if necessary. “Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations,” he opined.

Zizek, this “new guru of the new Europeans,” as Michnik characterized him, “is trying to pressure us to give space to the new dictatorship of the proletariat.” We must guard ourselves against such calls, for “we’ve seen this before.” Americans and Western Europeans may take their liberal democratic capitalism for granted, but it took generations for it to reach its current, advanced stage, and it still has many detractors. The world financial crisis and the seeming inevitability of Chinese global hegemony pose new threats. Democracy faced no greater challenges than the twin totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, fascism and then communism. Having withstood these monumental adversaries, supporters of democracy have rested on their laurels, leaving the liberal democratic order vulnerable. A Slovenian poseur preaching Marxist drivel to crowds in Manhattan may not seem threatening, but then, neither did many people pay attention to the bearded German Jew scribbling away in the British Museum’s reading room, nor, at least initially, did they pay much heed to the Austrian paper-hanger ranting about perfidious socialists in Munich beer halls. As bad as things may seem in the West right now, Michnik counseled the audience against falling for the promises of snake oil salesmen. It is “better to have imperfect democracy than perfect dictatorship,” he concluded.

 

Read the signs, listen to the rhetoric, and witness the disorderly behavior of the Occupy Wall Street people and you can’t help but wonder if some sort of “perfect dictatorship” is what they seek. Micah White, senior editor of Adbusters, the radical, anti-consumerist Canadian magazine responsible for “Buy Nothing Day,” which initiated the call for mass protests in Manhattan, says, “The idea of Occupy Wall Street is to revive people’s democracy.” That communist euphemism for dictatorship has been voiced in protests from Manila to New York. In Washington, DC, occupiers have named the sidewalks surrounding their encampment in McPherson Square Che Guevara Avenue and Angela Davis Avenue, in honor, respectively, of the mass-murdering Cuban revolutionary and the two-time vice presidential candidate for the Communist Party of the United States.

But it was the infamous YouTube video of an Occupy gathering in Atlanta denying Democratic congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis a chance to speak that cemented the realization of just “what democracy looks like” for the Occupiers. On October 8th, Lewis approached a crowd at Woodruff Park intending to voice his support for their nebulous cause. What followed was a bizarre, ten-minute “debate” in which the group’s leader spoke in half sentences, pausing so that his followers could antiphonally repeat back every single word. (Upon watching this episode, a Slovak acquaintance, possessing first-hand knowledge of the sort of system that such people would likely inflict upon the rest of us were they given the power to do so, asked incredulously if these grown adults “were in kindergarten.”)

Despite the fact that the vast majority of the protesters wanted Lewis to speak, a handful resisted his taking the microphone. They opposed a Lewis oration by dint of his being an elected member of Congress, resenting the fact that he felt entitled, in their view, to just strut over and foist himself upon the gathering when, in the words of one protester, he “isn’t better than anybody.” After being subjected to this humiliation, Lewis quietly left the park, telling the media that he had another meeting to attend.

The video, which should be watched by every American, is at first hilarious in its depiction of every 1960s leftist trope: groupthink, organizational incompetence, and the simultaneous hostility to legitimate authority while blindly following illegitimate authority that masks itself behind faux-democratic rhetoric. It looks precisely like the sort of thing the conservative guerilla activist Andrew Breitbart—the closest thing that the right has to an Abbie Hoffman—might have staged. But then you remember that the video is not a parody but the real deal; that the hundreds of people amassed on the lawn, chanting in zombie-like unison and thoughtlessly allowing an aggressive and extremist minority to hijack the proceedings, are American citizens, not prisoners in a Khmer Rouge reeducation camp.

Purporting to stand for the little man, Occupy Wall Street has proved a burden to the small businesses that surround their encampments in cities across the country. Stacey Tzortzatos, the owner of a bread shop opposite Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, complained to the New York Post about threats directed at her by protesters after she forbade them from using the store’s bathroom, which is reserved for paying customers. At one point, the Occupiers broke the bathroom sink and clogged the toilet, causing $3,000 worth of damage. One protester entered her store and insisted that workers fill a ten-gallon jug with water. “He said he was entitled to have it for free,” Tzortzatos recalled, the most fitting summation yet of the Occupiers’ worldview.

Not long after the Occupy protests took off across the country, a number of videos emerged depicting anti-Semitic statements made by some protesters. In Los Angeles, an employee of the city’s school system said that “the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and the Federal Reserve, which is not run by the federal government—they need to be run out of this country” (the woman, a substitute teacher named Patricia McAllister, has since been fired). One demonstrator in New York subjected an elderly Jewish man to a harangue, yelling at him to “go back to Israel.” Another protester shouted, “The Jews control Wall Street” while holding a poster alleging them to be “Hitler’s Bankers.” And in Boston, the local branch of the movement held a “sit-in” at the Israeli consulate. (It’s worth noting here that, in 2004, Adbusters published an article listing dozens of Iraq War supporters under the headline “Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?” with dots next to identifiably Jewish surnames.)

While it’s too soon to determine if these outbursts are indicative of a wider sentiment, my initial reaction to them was: of course. Anti-Semitism is a predictable feature of any mob, particularly one that imagines a shadowy and all-powerful conspiracy of “bankers” intent upon world domination, which is precisely the simplistic lens through which Occupy Wall Street sees things. Mainstream media outlets, quick to jump on any racist or outlandish remark uttered by a Tea Partier, have been hesitant to report on these occurrences at all, other than to stress how “isolated” they are and how deceitful it is for anyone to draw attention to them, never mind insinuate that they discredit the movement as a whole.

 

Which leads us to the inevitable comparison: Many liberal commentators, nostalgic for the days when left-wing populism had the power to bring down a president and end a war, have rushed to cast Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party as similar, albeit ideologically disparate, phenomena. This is absurd for several reasons. While the demands of the Tea Party might have struck many as far-fetched (cutting entitlement spending by that much?), this was partly because the size and scope of the federal government has increased so exponentially over the past half century. Whatever one thinks of the Tea Party’s agenda, it is fundamentally rooted in basic American constitutional principles of limited government and individual rights. And, despite the media’s failed attempt to portray it as a savage mob of racist gun nuts intent on overthrowing the government, Tea Party protests have been unfailingly peaceful.

Occupy Wall Street is the precise opposite of the Tea Party. Whatever program one can discern from the various statements of its spokespeople and supporters on the streets, Occupy Wall Street has little regard for the Constitution, with that great founding document’s emphasis on liberty, individual rights, and a government of checks and balances. The demands of OWS are framed in vague attacks on the rich and calls for massive wealth redistribution. Its catchphrase, “We are the ninety-nine percent,” attempts to persuade us that just one percent of the country, through its money, power, and sheer wiles, is suppressing the vast majority, as if America is a contemporary version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. If electoral democracy cannot right this massive wrong, then what can? According to an October New York magazine poll of Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York, thirty-seven percent believe capitalism “can’t be saved” because “it’s inherently immoral,” and thirty-four percent identify with the extreme end of the poll’s “Scale of Liberalism”: “Convinced the U.S. government is no better than, say, Al Qaeda (i.e., Noam Chomsky).” A survey by Democratic pollster Doug Schoen found that nearly a third back violence to support their agenda.

Indeed, while the Tea Party is quintessentially American in its opposition to an ever-growing federal state (the main reason why Europeans, who immediately perceive any populist movement remotely right-of-center as a fascist harbinger, view it with such derision and mystification), Occupy Wall Street is a hodgepodge of Marxism and anarchism, European ideologies irrefutably discredited long ago. One need only to have witnessed the tenor of the October 15th “solidarity” protests around the world, organized by far-left and communist parties, to understand this connection. “Occupy Vienna,” which I happened to stumble upon, was replete with Soviet flags, images of Che Guevara, and protesters chanting, “Klassenkampfen!” (class struggle). Marchers in Sarajevo chanted, “Death to capitalism.” In London, the virulently anti-American WikiLeaks impresario (and accused rapist) Julian Assange addressed cheering crowds. Notably, the worldwide Occupy protests were far more numerous (and larger) in Western Europe than in those European countries historically afflicted by communism.

But the most obvious difference between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street is one of tone. Those marching on the homes of Manhattan millionaires and their overseas confederates are a far cry from the peaceful example set by the Tea Party, as the illegal squatting on private property and disruption of various small businesses, blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, and rioting against police officers amply demonstrate. In Rome, protesters torched offices belonging to the Defense Ministry, smashed bank and shop windows, and set cars on fire with Molotov cocktails. Seventy people were injured. In New York, a protester defecated on a police car. Since September, some four thousand demonstrators across the United States have been arrested for refusing to comply with the entirely reasonable desires of municipalities to regulate the broad use of public parks and avoid public health hazards. Contrast this record of despoilment, disorderliness, and outright violence with the various Tea Party rallies, at which not a single arrest has ever been recorded.

As soon as widespread grassroots opposition to President Obama surfaced in the form of the Tea Party, the media attempted to discredit it, initially alleging that it was all the work of moneyed elites and cynically dubbing it “Astroturf” politics. When that concerted effort failed, they set their sights on the protesters themselves, claiming that they were racists, fascists, and so forth. None of this worked; rather than adhere to the media line that opposition to the president was predicated on either racism or insanity or some combination of both, the American people, including many independent voters who had just elected Barack Obama to the presidency two years prior, voted for a Republican takeover of Congress. Now, in the form of the transnational “Occupy” movements, the ideological inverse of that which the media smeared the Tea Party as being has emerged: a violent, unruly mob with no understanding of basic economics or the rule of law, who, despite their incoherence, are nonetheless clear in their desire to impose radical change on society. We’ve indeed seen this show before, fortunately from afar, and it isn’t pretty.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor for the New Republic based in Prague and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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