Can the Occupy Movement Fail Forward?

The New Republic‘s Michael Kazin detects the influence of a “throwback” ideology — anarchism — on the Occupy movement. He’s right, of course: We’re there. And refreshingly, Kazin doesn’t just arrogantly write our influence off as a bad thing.

“[T]here is something both bracing and even rational about the anarchist revival. …” Kazin writes. “Anti-authoritarianism can be a useful corrective to authorities who have lost the confidence of the citizenry, if not their legitimacy to rule.”

It’s nice to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Kazin misses the point. He’s not alone.

Love it or hate it, virtually every observer of the Occupy movement puts a “throwback” spin on things, usually referring to America’s social and political convulsions of the late 1960s (the latest conservative mantras invariably reference “those smelly hippies”) or to the 2009-2010 “Tea Party” movement. Those comparisons aren’t wholly without merit, but they fail to capture the essentials.

As a mostly unknown ideal, anarchism doesn’t fit into the old boxes. As it always has, anarchism represents the way forward to a society unencumbered by political government and the class warfare which inevitably accompanies it. If the Occupiers hope to accomplish anything worthwhile, they must likewise reject conformity to past patterns. Even if the movement fails, let it “fail forward,” revealing worthwhile lessons and creating the template for a mass movement come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him.

If we seek “throwback ideologies,” we need look no further than Occupy’s opponents — the Westphalian nation-states and their symbiotic corporate partners, responsible for the enslavement of billions and the murder of hundreds of millions in the last century alone.

“The confidence of the citizenry” be damned — their claim of “legitimacy to rule” is balderdash. They’ve had their day in the sun and then some, and at its best the Occupiers represent a force which loosens their grip on power. Which, of course, explains why the statist right is so eager to dismiss them and the statist left so intent on co-opting them.

I count myself among the movement’s most pessimistic supporters. The odds were long to begin with. They grow longer as the days get shorter and colder (autumn is a bad time to launch an “American Spring”), as the establishment and the political class marshal their astroturf and co-option efforts, as ideological fault-lines and just plain human nature (e.g. the Occupy Wall Street “women’s tents” to protect female occupiers from the preying element) begin to emerge, and as the media just plain gets bored with the whole thing and decides to move on to the next sensation.

If, as I expect, the Occupy movement drifts gently away into the good night of “old news,” dispersing dandelion-like on multiple winds, its most valuable and enduring legacy will be those who go into it believing that the existing system can and should be “reformed” and saved, but come out holding aloft the black flag on which nothing is written*.

* I grabbed that phrase from Ken MacLeod‘s wonderful novel, The Sky Road, then forgot to attribute it to him, for which I sincerely apologize. Just noticed, and now fixed!

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory