An Unauthorized Interview with Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn isn’t one for succinct titles. His recent Counterpunch blast, "Biggest Financial Scandal in Britain’s History, Yet Not a Single Occupy Sign; What Happened?" even has a semi-colon. The same long-windedness is lost in the body of that essay, as Cockburn dismisses the Occupy movement's accomplishments and future prospects in just a few hundred words.
It's typical Cockburn. Meaning, he's not all wrong, he just chooses to use a polemical broadstroke when something more subtle would do, opening himself up to attack from people who he could be honestly engaging with. In uncharacteristically clinical fashion, I'm going to breakdown and rebut some of Cockburn's points in an "unauthorized interview" to ensure of a pleasant and charming conversation.
Cockburn: Cynicism about Occupy was not a popular commodity. But new movements always need a measure of cynicism dumped on them. Questions of organization were obliterated by the strength of the basic message – we are 99 percent, they are one percent. It was probably the most successful slogan since "peace, land, bread."
Me: I agree. There was too much cheerleading and not enough criticism. Part of the problem was the level of politicization in the lead-up to Occupy. But movements can get politicized. No broad movement emerges out of an apolitical era and latches immediately onto some sort of unified and comprehensive critique. The cauldron of occupation was potentially a breeding ground for a better kind of politics.
I tried to do my part and strike a balance between being genuinely excited about activity on the ground and seeing the limits to the present course. It was a posture many also held. Cockburn wasn't the lone visionary, harboring doubts from his ranch in rural California. There was lots of vigorous debate inside the movement and it's insulting to the people who were embroiled in it to pretend that wasn't the case.
But there was definitely something about the way criticism was received by some activists that brought to mind "offical Communist" responses to criticisms of the Party in places like post-war France. "Attacks on the Party were objectively counter-revolutionary, because the Party was at the core of the workers' movement."
In the Occupy case, many Marxists, especially, weren't confident enough to present their own critiques in this climate. And partially for good reasons: the "Leninist" model of organization had utterly failed for decades and Occupy's anarchist-inspired tactics were working.
Cockburn: There were other features that I think quite a large number of people found annoying: the cult of the internet, the tweeting and so forth, and I definitely didn’t like the enormous arrogance which prompted the Occupiers to claim that they were indeed the most important radical surge in living memory.
Me: These two things need to be separated. The first makes you sound like a cranky old man. Perhaps the importance of social media was overstated by those in the movement, but there was no "cult of the internet" on the ground at protests and in the encampments. There was genuine human interaction and solidarity. It was no different than past, pre-internet movements for social justice.
On the second point, I completely agree. That was my problem with the "general strike" rhetoric. More than betraying a defeatism that, to paraphrase Laura Clawson, indicated a real general strike wasn't possible, it showed a historical disconnect from the lineages of past movements—movements that mobilized more people, got more accomplished and were only half as self-congratulatory.
Cockburn: Where was the knowledge of, let along the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance. Yet when one raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.
Me: But where's the critical lens that you want to bring to the Occupy movement applied to those past movements? The fission between the Left that supported the Second World War as an anti-fascist struggle and those who saw it as an "inter-imperialist" conflict is complex. The rosy popular portray of the resistance to McCarthyism is a bit too simplistic too. And Sixties radicals failed at their much hyped efforts at "revolutionary organization and resistance." The mass movement petered out, with the fringes of it drifting into futile urban terrorism.
How is an uncritical, self-congratulatory reappraisal of the Sixties any less damning than the present generation doing the same with Occupy? With the gift of hindsight, it's even less excuseable.
Cockburn: There also seemed to be a serious level of political naivety about the shape of the society they were seeking to change. They definitely thought that it could be reshaped – the notion that the whole system was unfixable did not get much of a hearing.
Me: I'm not sure if this is true. A prominent wing of the Occupy movement consisted of self-described "anti-statists," who had no patience for reforms. On the other extreme, were people who were fundamentally liberal, committed to restoring financial safeguards and resisting austerity.
And that was okay.
Remember the old radical refrain against "maximalism"? We had to begin from somewhere and vaguely social democratic sentiments in the tent of a broader anti-austerity movement was just that. The failure of the socialist left to make sensible articulations to this crowd was, simply, the socialist left's failing.
Cockburn: People have written complicated pieces trying to prove it’s not over, but if ever I saw a dead movement, it is surely Occupy.
Me: The words of Frances Fox Piven come to mind:
I don’t think that social protest works as a little explosion and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s much more interrupted, dispersed, there are periods of discouragement—1959-1960 the civil rights movement people thought it was over, after 1962 in Albany, Georgia—this movement is going to be like that too.