I am probably the last person in the world who thinks Occupy Wall Street was doing everything right. The vague agenda, the leaderless organisation, the odd ritualistic decision-making that so many commentators found so vexing, I loved. I’ve spent the last two months terrified that they would abase themselves with a manifesto or an internet petition, and I’m entirely charmed that my fears have not come to pass. As I write, a judge has forbidden OWS from reestablishing their encampment, and it isn’t clear whether the folks will fight that or simply surrender and move to another park. The American left has spent the last century forgetting that it isn’t enough to be right – you also have to win – but even if they do keep moving meekly on, I think OWS has come closer to succeeding as a result of their apparent absurdity.
Look, everybody knows how you change the law, even financial regulatory law: incorporate as a PAC, line up interested parties as financial support, establish a set of principles, hire a consultant or a think tank to draft model legislation, and deploy lobbyists and campaign donors strategically to get your change attached to some can’t-fail bill in both houses. It isn’t foolproof, but it works, and that’s what everybody who wants to make a political change does. OWS knows this as well as anyone – better, maybe. Chanting and waving signs doesn’t accomplish anything; at best it fits in as a “third wing” next to those lobbyists and campaign donors, a pressure tactic to embarrass or terrorize reluctant lawmakers. This is what the Koch brothers did in Wisconsin, and what their media lackeys accused unions of doing with OWS – except that this wasn’t the story at all.
Nobody went to Zuccotti park, or their local affiliate park, because of a shrewd political calculation. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t the best tactic available to reach a political goal. The Occupy movement succeeded because several thousand people decided, for their own personal emotional reasons, that they really wanted to be one of those guys.
I’m not alone in this analysis. Two fairly important thinkers, anthropologist David Graeber and author Daniel Quinn, came to this conclusion independently and wrote about it online. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t a political formation, it was an affiliation narrative, a metastory that structured the world so that people who associated themselves with it – identified with its protagonists, to be literary about things – were part of a great and just collective, with noble aims and brave methods. It was a hero tale, about you, and all your new awesome friends. All you had to do was show up and join in.
And what a thing to join it was! Social psychologists would have to work very hard to come up with a better set of practices to consolidate group identity! The initiation rite was a collective violation of a mass-culture taboo – sleeping out in the city – for which the daring were rewarded with a warm welcome into a deeply interwoven community. It would be an act of hubris to suggest something like The People’s Mike in fiction – chanting, in unison, about Big Ideas is one of the strongest social consolidation mechanisms known, up there with marching and singing, and OWS did a lot of those together as well. Behind all the signs, under all the slogans, ran a refrain stronger than words – We Are Us, We Are Us, We See Each Other, We Acknowledge Each Other, We Value Each Other, We Are Us.
When these sorts of organising techniques are imposed from above, we call them brainwashing. When they are voluntarily constructed by participants, we call them something else: religion, from re-ligare, to re-connect. What OWS was doing wasn’t politics as Americans understand politics – OWS was forming a tribe.
Oh don’t look at me like that. We’re a tribal species. If you think that only applies to people with strange tattoos and exposed bosoms, you’re just being an exceptionalist. We structure our understanding of the world on tribal lines – what does an environmentalist look like? What does a Mormon look like? Why do you have ready answers for those questions? You know some Mormons are black… but you get my point. All great movements have had tribal aspects – communism, back when communism mattered, was intensely tribal. There were communist hospitals, communist restaurants, communist marriages, and that great cliché, the red diaper baby to carry the tribe forward a generation. When environmentalists were actually a threat (think Earth First, or No M11) they were so tribal that the majority of participants in a campaign may not even have been able to articulate the issues at stake, but were still able to contribute mightily to the effort.
In fact, No M11 spawned an actual tribe – the Dongas, who I encourage you to read up on. They’re still out there, raising their Donga children. My point is, we long for affiliative narratives, and when we share them with people, we tend to share our lives as well – our productive activities, our play, we even tend to be endogamous within our narrative affiliations. Carry it forward a generation, and “tribe” is as good a word as any. No matter how silly the actual origin of OWS (or the Dongas, or the Mormons) may be, after a few generations any pidgin becomes a creole. All you have to do is keep telling the stories and having babies.
I doubt OWS made these decisions consciously; I think something larger is happening. I think OWS, and all the Occupy movements around the world, and the Arab Spring for that matter, considered the affiliative narratives available in our global culture and rejected them all. There is no good progressive movement. There is no good nationalist movement. There is no good socialist, or Islamist, or any other movement whose precepts are really attractive right now, and the global mass culture narrative is truly awful. One corollary of We Are Us is pretty obvious – We Are Not You Anymore. OWS is a rejection of consensus America, just as the Tea Party was, just as the TNC rejected “Libya.”
Is this dangerous? Of course. Bleeding Kansas was tribal too – by Osawatomie, it didn’t matter what the Bible said anymore, you were either one of us or you were agin us, whoever us might have been. To stretch the analogy further, that decade was probably also the nadir for the concept of “America” as an affiliation narrative – evidenced by the bruises on Senator Sumner’s face. That tribal war killed two percent of the entire population before it quieted down. It also put the last nail in the coffin of human slavery in America, and I have a hard time imagining how else that could have happened.
Tribalism is frightening, if you believe it can be avoided without losing all the stakes. Right now, to use OWS’ own cosmology, you’d have to be in the 1% to feel confident with that Other Method of political change. We do ourselves no favours – and do OWS no honour – if we pretend that forming a strong tribe that believes what OWS believes is somehow less important than giving $100 to that Glass Steagall reform PAC which doesn’t exist. Does it further fracture the union? Yep. Is it better than losing everything, claiming to stand for compromise, bipartisanship, and rational deliberative process, and standing powerless in the middle of what is already a tribal war? You tell me. What’s an aquifer or an ice cap worth to you? How lonely are you willing to be?