Two articles about Occupy Wall Street penetrated the blissed-out miasma that was my past week in Los Angeles: this New York Times report on the #occupywallstreet meme’s* origin in Adbusters magazine and this link roundup on the “shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy.” They take different tones. The first is a straight profile piece about the world’s smuggest person, Kalle Lasn. The second is a semi-hysterical screed about perceived efforts to suppress the OWS movement, ranging from single-source-speaking-on-background stories that may as well be flash fiction to documented offers to coordinate anti-protest propaganda. It’s a lot to take in. The basic assumptions of each article—that OWS is a fun trend whose popularity reflects our dissatisfied zeitgeist, or that it is a repressed movement that has prompted collusion between the Department of Homeland Security and Wall Street—are impossible to believe at the same time. It’s almost as if what OWS is and what people want us to think it is are two totally different things. Or it’s like none of that is happening and we just think all the news about OWS is the product of a monolithic politico-media culture bent on deceiving us. Here we encounter the defining problem of the modern age.
People who have become trapped in conversation with me at the bar will recognize Kalle Lasn as the founding editor of the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. Among other things, Lasn invented the Blackspot sneaker, an “unbranded” shoe he used to indict the gross fetishism that collects around products like Nikes. He also used it to sell a bunch of shoes. Lasn’s semi-retarded failure to notice that Blackspot is just another brand is the kind of thing that makes him a frequent target of Joseph Heath, the rad social theorist who is quoted on our About page. And, sure enough, there’s Heath serving as the con source on page two of the Times article:
There’s nothing wrong with making fun of ads, but it’s not revolutionary. I don’t think that has revolutionary political implications, whereas Adbusters thinks it has revolutionary implications. If you want to do politics, you have to do good old-fashioned politics.
That’s the critique of Occupy Wall Street in a nutshell: that it looks like activism but fails to act. A thousand people camping day and night in Zuccotti Park seems important, but what could those thousand people accomplish if they spent all day and night in a K Street office lobbying to get Tim Johnson [Ed.: who?] to reintroduce the Glass-Steagall Act? Protest is dangerous, because protest can become a substitute for meaningful involvement. It’s like refusing to sing at karaoke because everyone is doing Dixie Chicks.
Or it’s like being a Soviet in 1991. Maybe Occupy Wall Street is the beginning of the revolt against a corrupted system, and jerks like me think it isn’t because we get all our news from four enormous corporations. Maybe when Naomi Wolf writes in the Guardian that “the Department of Homeland Security coordinated a violent crackdown” against OWS demonstrations, she is talking about a real thing that happened. We just don’t know, dude. Here is the danger of living in a culture that markets everything—music, organic food, conservative politics, progressive politics, retirement funds—as rebellion against The Mainstream.
Like that ill-defined concept, the question of whether OWS is real and important is unanswerable because it forgets how such a question is answered. The demonstrations in Zuccotti Park and at the University of California and the places in between are important if we make them important. If we treat them like we did the protests against the Iraq War—things we do to excuse ourselves for fully participating in a system we claim to hate—Occupy Wall Street will not be important at all. If we treat them like the Republicans have treated the Tea Party, we can maybe change the trajectory of a country that recently decided AT&T is a citizen.
Democracy is a choice. It was a million little choices that led us all to loan imaginary money to one another and wreck the economy in 2008, and it will be a million choices that turn Occupy Wall Street into the beginning of the end of American corporatocracy or a Trivial Pursuit question in 2025. Maybe #occupywallstreet is Kalle Lasn’s best-ever ad slogan. Maybe OWS is the historical moment when the Department of Homeland Security shows its hand as the federal agency that keeps the homeland nice and secure. It is not a matter of wait and see.