A funny thing happened in a New York Magazine blog post last Friday. In a piece on Occupy Wall Street's upcoming plans, reporter Joe Coscarelli made a little mistake. He wrote:
...next month will bring "99 percent Spring Action Training" across the country. "In April we will train 100,000 people in nonviolent action," the group's site says. "It's an audacious plan, but movements can do great things when everyone works together." Backed by organizations like Greenpeace, MoveOn.org, and the United Auto Workers, the preparation is meant to culminate in the general strike on May 1.
Here's the problem: May's general strike belongs to the nationwide Occupy movement, the grassroots rejection of co-opted corporate politics. "The 99 Percent Spring"-which makes no mention of May 1-is astroturf. It's Occupy Wall Street brought to you by MoveOn.org, the people who send you 17 emails per week asking you to sign milquetoast petitions or read unctuous defenses of whatever castrated legislation Harry Reid has limply waved at the opposition. These are different beasts.
Alexander Cockburn's Counterpunch broke the story over 10 days ago, and in the interim not much has come of it. You can take your pick as to why. GOP primary handicapping is sexier and easier to discuss. Trayvon Martin's killing generates new outrages almost daily. It's easy to write off Cockburn, if you want to; between his strange climate change skepticism and the number of times he's been disingenuously called an anti-Semite for his criticism of Israeli occupations, there's enough there to turn off large parts of the left. Plus, the Counterpunch article was written by someone with a pseudonym: you just cannot trust those people.
What seems likelier, though, are two things:
- 1. That bloggers in the tank for the Democratic National Committee have zero interest in calling out a cynical co-optation of a genuine movement.
- 2. That the astroturfing worked on the uninitiated. Look at Coscarelli, who made the easy mistake of conflating one movement with another "movement" deliberately named and styled like it.
(Organizers of the 99 Percent Spring, for their part, insist they're not trying to co-opt Occupy. "We don't want to pretend that this is an Occupy-endorsed thing," 99 Percent Spring organizer Joy Cushman told Alternet. Judging from the New York magazine mix-up, they should not-pretend better.)
So what's the problem?
Well, one, astroturf sucks, especially in a movement that ostensibly rejects it. (And this is astroturf; you can probably reassemble the 99 Percent Spring's press release just by Googling selected phrasing and nouns and seeing which blogs are just rewriting it.) Everyone who went to Woodstock '94 and Woodstock '99 knows just how mercenary and artificial any "spontaneous," collective event is when it's run by people with entirely different stock priorities.
Two, one of the virtues of progressive pushback against Bush/Cheney and the kill-'em-all Galtpocalypse of the GOP this last decade is that it's stood as a repudiation of slickly prefab conservative populism. The left has spent 2009-present damning the Tea Party for being a Koch/Forbes/Armey-funded co-optation of American history and the Ron Paul 2008 campaign's fundraising and organizing. Soul-sucking remora Rick Santelli had his Reichstag fire moment, delivering a cri de coeur on behalf of poor bedeviled millionaires, setting in motion pre-planned outrage for moneyed interests, cloaked as ordinary folks just havin' it up to here. Now, establishment Democrats will slather the face of Occupy with enough concealer and foundation and powder and run it out to the mainstream, as much of a clownish dishonesty as Santelli himself.
Three, while there's a chance that this MoveOn- (and, essentially, DNC-) directed management of Occupy could see a clarification of the movement's goals and an injection of money and organization that achieves them sooner, it's just as likely that the opposite will happen.
What makes Occupy interesting as a power is its amorphousness. Journalists, pundits and everyday people debate what Occupy's deal is, and in doing so help to mainstream progressive grievances. While they have by no means halted the rightward drift of the discourse that's continued since 1964, they've at least inhibited it for the last few months; they've made everybody slow down just a damn minute. They've perniciously injected into our discussions ideas that would have seemed nostalgic or like some pointy-headed anathema just five years ago.
Occupy's vagueness demands that politicians and commentators approach it and engage it. They have to move left and ask if that's enough. As soon as the movement is distilled to 10 targeted pieces of legislation with three-point action plans for each law, though, every Democrat on Capitol Hill can roll his eyes, go down the list saying, "Yes, no, hell no, yep, doable..." etc., immediately calculating which ideas can be gutted and sold out, which can get him reelected and which he can safely ignore.
The easy dismissibility of so much organized effort cuts both ways. MoveOn has always represented "fire and forget!" democracy. You get an email telling you to sign a petition; you click on the petition and autofill does the rest. Maybe you sign your wife or husband's name on the petition too. So much activism! It couldn't be any more slothful and doomed unless the cable remote came with an "I HAVE AN OPINION!" button that made Bill Clinton appear onscreen and say, "Your voice... is heard," while your brain released endorphins.
Occupy, on the other hand, is hard. There's sweating and bad weather. People have to interact with other people, listen to them, and sometimes even lend a voice to them. It's anarchic, and politically it could go anywhere, which is why it frightens and threatens the Beltway fun-club.
MoveOn, on the other hand, is clean and organized. It does the scut work. When someone needed to explain the Democrats' failure to push Iraq withdrawal after 2006, MoveOn was there. When someone needed to explain why the Obama administration farmed out health care reform to some of the party's biggest insurance whores, abandoned single-payer healthcare and gutted the public option before even sitting at the table with the opposition, MoveOn was there.
And while it's certainly possible that the 99 Percent Spring will give a structure and strength that only aids Occupy, it's just as likely that they'll drown it out and sanitize it, "mainstreaming" progressive populist outrage by beating it down and dragging it back to the spineless middle.
And MoveOn will be there, too. Only this time they'll have 100,000 volunteers ready and able to get out the vote in 2012, helping Occupy to astroturf for the same slate of corporate disappointments that sent people screaming into the streets in the first place.
Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via Getty/Shutterstock.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.