There are some pieces you just want to bury. When you’re writing on the cutting edge between unknown and obscure, that normally isn’t too hard.
Around this time last year, I was commissioned for a Dissent symposium marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks. Within the “somber and professorial” pages of that journal, I described the anti-globalization moment, with all its warts, and attributed part of its downfall to that day’s terrorist acts.
The dominant tone of essay was, well, somber (though I hope not professorial). I saw the triumph of global capitalism and protesters who weren’t up to the challenge. And, on the other hand, I saw the rise of a reactionary extremism whose resistance to modernity would drown out the Left’s more noble critique.
It was a bit odd to make pronouncements of this variety. I had spent most of the 90s, the decade the anti-globalization movement crystallized, hyper-obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. But I do think my analysis of the spirit of the times and the political actors mobilized was correct.
The pessimistic tone of the essay, however, looked completely out of place just a few weeks later with the emergence of the Occupy movement. Political debate was back, the Left was vibrant, and the movement owed much of its form and substance to the WTO protesters.
So in the heady post-Occupy months, I pretended like that piece didn’t exist and that my premature pessimism about the future of this type of anti-capitalist politics was unwarranted. The pressure felt by reporters and activists to table critiques of the movement during its early stages was in a sense analogous to the way critiques of national Communist Parties were suppressed in certain Western European countries in the post-war period. One could not be critical of the French Communist Party, despite its odiousness, because it was the only viable opposition, for a time, to De Gaulle, and it had hegemony in the workers’ movement. An attack on the PCF was taken to be no different than an attack on the working class as a whole.
So after spending some time in Zuccotti Park during the very early stages of the occupation, I wrote a critique of the type of radicalism I saw as dominant through the lens of another movement, without actually mentioning Occupy. That balance between self-congratulation and dour pessimism, between solidarity and critique, is hard to find, and I was still searching for it. But the essay was received well. The non-mention seemed smart when OWS really exploded in early October.
Now the situation is far different.
It’s safe to say the actual Occupy movement is in disarray. It has, however, had a far more significant impact than the anti-globalization movement did, unleashing a wave of politicization that can’t be forgotten and continues to influence the struggles that have emerged in its wake.
Admittedly, critiques of inequality haven’t flourished in the 2012 election cycle, but there still seems to be new energy on the Left, a Left that’s set to reemerge as a political force that at the very least needs to be acknowledged, if not immediately reckoned with, by the mainstream of American politics. The CTU strike, continued activism around issues like housing foreclosures, and renewed ferment among the intellectual organs, old and new, of the Left shouldn’t be overstated, but they can’t be ignored.
September 11, 2001 deflated the American radicalism, and the accompanying “war on terror” was even more disorienting. But perhaps the legacy of September 17, 2011 will also subtly linger over the body politic over the next decade as a force for good.