Occupy Wall Street: Far from a left wing movement

Occupy Wall Street was heralded a return to the left; a revival of a progressive politics, representing the 99 percent.  With Occupy, we witnessed the return of a populism that attacked the inequities of capitalism. John Lowndes and Dorian Warren in Dissent Magazine claim “OWS and its slogan “we are the 99 percent” have antecedents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when populists framed their struggle as one of the common people against the moneyed elite”. The Occupiers of Zuccoti Park and beyond, supposedly, bought about a return to the mass working class politics of the turn of the century.

While the Occupy movement may have similarities with the populist left wing politics of the past with its anti-capitalism, there are other, not so populist, parts to it. Amongst Occupiers, it is not uncommon to hear elitist views, and disdain for ordinary people. Signs bearing slogans berating those who ‘follow the mainstream media’, or are ‘brainwashed by Fox News’ are an Occupy staple. Such sentiment gives of the impression that the Occupiers view themselves as an enlightened elite, above the sheeple of Middle America sat gormlessly in front of their televisions. The Occupiers are the enlightened section of the 99 percent that is able to see through the propaganda of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. This patronizing and infantilizing view of the general public clearly is at odds with any claim of OWS being a new populist movement representing the 99 percent, and harks back to the worst ideas and traditions of the left; principally the idea of ‘false consciousness’.

The contempt for the general public (the actual 99 percent) is also demonstrated by attacks on ‘consumerism’. According to an unofficial statement on the OWS website, “the masses are incessantly encouraged, even conned into consuming”, and capitalism “has to encourage mass consumption”. Anyone who has spoken to people at Occupy events will recognize such views. The ‘Occupy Xmas’ campaign further shows the ‘anti-consumerism’ views found within Occupy. Adbusters, the group credited with beginning OWS, claim on their website that the Occupy Movement in the lead up to Christmas should “put the breaks on rabid consumerism for 24 hours”, and showed disgust for those Americans that “camp on the sidewalk for a reduced price tag on a flat screen TV”. For the traditional left of the past, at least one involved with mass working class politics, such disdain for normal people attempting to acquire material goods was alien. The populist left wing politics of the “late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”, wished to change, tweak with or abolish capitalism due its inability to provide the majority, the 99 percent, with an adequate material life. Capitalism provided the majority too little, not too much. To quote Sylvia Pankhurst, “Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance…We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume”. In the Occupy camp, however, the general public is guilty of consuming too much, of being too obsessed with material goods and consumerism; willing to do anything to get the latest deal. Not only is such a view, that is the view of people as mindless consumer blinded by shiny trinkets, irreconcilable with a genuine left wing populism, it is the complete opposite of how mass left wing and working class politics viewed capitalism.

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