When I first heard that a number of my friends from Occupy Cornell had been arrested, I was pleased. “Good,” I thought. “Finally, some political action from kids on this campus.” A common refrain here is that we’re too apathetic, so isn’t it great that someone’s actually doing something, even if it’s for a cause many of us emphatically reject?
Well, no. I’ve changed my mind: Occupy Cornell represents a brand of activism we’d be wise to reject. Here’s why.
As I’ve mentioned before, one problem lies in the fantasy that we can transcend self-interest in politics. But the problem goes deeper: Occupy Cornell supporters are opposed to politics as we know it. They scoff at outsiders’ attempts to discern a coherent agenda. What’s more, they even ignore internal attempts at coherence: When Adbusters, one of the original Occupy organizers, proposed a financial services transactions tax as its “one demand,” the protesters let it languish.
The reason given for ignoring politics is that our political system is “broken” and corrupt. The occupiers therefore turn to rallies and “general assemblies,” because they avoid the taint of formal institutions and can generate the radical changes they seek. However, unless they’re hopelessly naive, the protesters can’t possibly expect to bring about serious transformation through these mechanisms. And there’s some awareness of this fact. Many protesters and protest sympathizers argue that the movement’s greatest success has been forcing political elites to discuss income inequality, and not systemic change.
But wasn’t one of the movement’s main arguments that political elites are crooked? If this is the case, then it is inconceivable that the protesters would actually trust them to address these issues. How is this at all a victory?
The answer points to the deep divide within the movement. Indeed, for some supporters of Occupy, this might actually constitute a significant victory. These are the people who genuinely care about the policy issues under discussion and, despite their rhetoric, actually believe that political solutions can yield positive results. Their tactics are questionable but they are committed to our democratic process.
However, there’s another, more troubling faction within Occupy, one that is truly contemptuous of our political institutions. They are the ones who flout American law while presenting themselves as its truest champions, those who give lip service to the First Amendment while rendering public spaces unusable.
Moreover, this group doesn’t really care about achieving any concrete political goal, save spreading the cause. In a quote I’ve referenced before, Nathan Glazer noted a similar phenomenon at play in the 1960s student protests: “There is only one result of a radical action that means success for the radicals — making new radicals. The aim of action, therefore, is never its ostensible end — the slogan is only a tactic — but further radicalizations, ‘building the cadre,’ now ‘the movement.’”
Cornell’s occupiers fall into this category. Consider a Nov. 22 column, the movement’s most compelling public statement. As the columnist’s title indicates, his main argument is merely that “the kids are awake” –– that there is a group of individuals willing to hit the streets and endure “oppression” for a cause, defined as “fix[ing] the world” and “effect[ing] positive change.” He does not define what that “fix” or “change” will look like. And why should he? More important to him is the sight of peers “exhibiting … genuine passion for constructing a more just world.” The details can wait.
The columnist’s goal is strengthening an ever-widening circle of like-minded, singularly-focused individuals — not seeing through any specific policy. His compatriots at Cornell agree, and seek to accomplish this goal through public displays of solidarity with their ideological brethren. Politics takes a backseat. They therefore disrupt campus events and attempt to prevent the functioning of our economy by creating “human barriers” in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Of course, they do all these things while calling for “constructive dialogue.”
Now, Occupy supporters will undoubtedly critique me for ossifying a much more fluid and diverse movement. But this is precisely the problem. We cannot reason with this style of activism, which proudly waves the banner of incoherence and pursues an utterly unattainable, utopian goal. The occupiers have made it impossible.
I said earlier that we’d be wise to reject Occupy Cornell’s approach. In some ways, we already have: It appears that their meetings never draw more than twenty people, and they’ve failed to generate any momentum on campus. Like the broad majority of Americans, we’ve decided that our current political institutions, imperfect though they may be, are preferable to anarchy. Call it apathy, but I think we’ve made the right choice.
Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.