The Problem With Purity

Adbusters analyzes OWS:

Hey all you wild cats, do-gooders and steadfast rebels out there,

Our movement is living through a painful rebirth… “There has been a unfortunate consolidation of power in #OWS,” writes one founding Zuccotti. “This translates into ideological dominance and recurring lines of thought. We are facing a nauseating poverty of ideas.” Burned out, out of money, out of ideas… seduced by salaries, comfy offices, book deals, old lefty cash and minor celebrity status, some of the most prominent early heroes of our leaderless uprising are losing the edge that catalyzed last year’s one thousand encampments. Bit by bit, Occupy’s first generation is succumbing to an insidious institutionalization and ossification that could be fatal to our young spiritual insurrection unless we leap over it right now. Putting our movement back on track will take nothing short of a revolution within Occupy.

The article goes on to say that various groups around the country are engaged in local, community-based actions under the banner of Occupy. So the spirit of Occupy itself is not dead, even though the original Zuccotti Park crew has broken up. Adbusters also is promoting “a global cascade of flash encampments” this summer as the next phase of global Occupy.

I want to go back to the bits about consolidation of power, ideological dominance, lack of ideas, and the corruption of old lefty cash, whatever that is.

The idea that a large, amorphous, leaderless movement that refused to be boxed into an ideological or partisan nook could maintain some kind of uncorrupted state always was a childish fantasy. Human nature doesn’t work that way. Group dynamics don’t work that way. And especially when the group is challenging entrenched money and power and is fueled more by zeal than central planning, it’s going to be put under enormous pressure, and it’s going to be a mess.

But let me address the idea of maintaining purity. We snark at the Right for favoring ideological purity over reality, but you see something similar on the Left as well. There’s an ongoing fantasy that we must be pure of partisan attachments to the parties, or else we are selling out. Or maybe we can find the magic candidate(s) who will be absolutely pure of the corrupting influence of money and power, and will not compromise progressive ideals just to get bills passed, and we can send him/her/them to Washington, and then everything will be fixed.

Anyway — it seems to me you can take one of two roads. You can stay out of the mud and engage in symbolic actions that may affect public opinion, which can be a valuable thing over the long haul. But you will have absolutely no influence over the powerful people in charge of things, so you’re not going to see anything actually change except at pre-global-warming glacial pace. This is assuming your symbolic actions do not involve an armed takeover of government, of course.

If instead you try to push for real change and force the movers and shakers to bend to your will, you’re going to have to get in the mud with them and make deals with people who are a lot less pure than you’d like. One pure person standing alone can’t do beans. That’s the truth of it. The system is what it is, and you can’t change it without dealing with it as it is.

There’s plenty of room for both approaches, of course. But mutual respect is in order. If the purer-than-thou symbolic action-takers disparage the work of inside-the-system activists, and vice versa, then everyone loses.

OWS always was a lot more like the old New Left than they were willing to admit. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the New Left worked outside the system against the New Deal coalition that used to support the Democratic Party, and helped break it up. Labor unions were a huge target, for the understandable reasons that they tended to have racist and sexist policies at the time, not to mention the mob connections.

But now we’re all looking around and saying, geez, isn’t it a shame about unions dying off? And how did the Democratic Party get so dependent on corporate money? And the New Left has to take a lot of the blame for that. And the moral is that if you have a revolution to break up the old system, you’d better have something ready to replace it with. Just being pure of heart isn’t enough.

13 thoughts on “The Problem With Purity

  1. So they think spending a few summer nights in a tent will restore their virginity? Hell, I’ve been camping several times, and my hair didn’t even grow back!

    You have them nailed, if they can quit their political self-pleasuring long enough to think about being effective.

  2. The left accomplished a lot from 1900 to the late 70’s.

    Then, after we got out of Vietnam, and eliminated the draft (maybe not so great an idea as a lot of people thought at the time), and the ERA didn’t get ratified, we had the anti-nuke movement – but that was short-lived.
    And then, since Reagan came in, we’ve been fighting to keep what we had, rather than going for more.

    And the Democratic Presidents we had after LBJ, were more Conservative, or were forced to govern that way, then we’d have liked.
    Politics always was all about compromise.
    The New Deal wasn’t perfect, SS was far from perfect – and the flaws were there to mollify the Southern Democrats. There was compromise – for the greater good.

    Well, politics is NO LONGER about compromise.
    Obama’s tried that – only to have Republicans do a 180 away from things they supported just a short time ago – all because of party purity.

    There are three things that I can see happening:
    1. Obama wins, but without both houses of Congress, we continue on this same path downhill we’ve been on for the last 2 years (or 30, to be more accurate), with no progress or relief in sight.
    Obama, with both houses is a game-changer – again – but with all of the money going to make sure R’s win their House and Senate races, if not the Presidency itself, I don’t see this happening. And don’t forget the Red Dog D’s in both Houses.
    Not that it CAN’T – it’s just not very likely.

    2. Conservatives win in 2012, and with President Romney and a R Congress, they do what Hitler did in 1930’s Germany, and use the Constitutional system we have, with the Supreme Courts approval, to change the laws so that they can have a permanent majority. Voting will no longer be a right, but a privilege.

    3. Some sort of Civil War/Revolution (based on the first two options – either the left, or the right, may see no options except starting one).
    As Lincoln once famously said – “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

    And that may be where we’re at – we really are a house completely divided.
    We Liberals have tried, and continue to try to live with these people, hoping that they will see things as we do. Or, at least, accept gray, and not insist that every single issue is black or white.

    The Conservatives want to eliminate everyone who doesn’t agree with them off the face of the Earth.

    And so, we’ll either have another Civil War, or a Revolution.

    To prevent actual bloodshed, maybe before it happens, we can separate the nation into Blue and Red states, and set aside some money from the military budgets of the, now, two different countries, and let people move to wherever they want within 5 years.

    But this time – we won’t take them back.
    The Conservatives can live or die in their Theocratic Jesusy Fascist Hellhole.

    And we won’t give a sh*t – because those morons won’t be our problem anymore.

    Them’s my $0.02’s.

  3. Sorry, I kind of got OT.

    As for the remaining OWS people, would it kill you to do what others have done?
    Look at the Tea Party feckin’ idjits – despite their supposed “purity,” they folded nicely into the Republican Party, and got even bigger idjit’s and fools elected, than the idjit’s and fools who were already in the House and Senate!

    “Two can play at that game?”
    Take that energy into organizing for the people who believe closest in the things you believe in – and those people are still, despite their increasing Whorporization, the Democrats!

    You don’t have to “sell your soul!”
    Just rent part of it out for less than 6 months.

  4. Wow. It’s like a combination of a zen koan and a bad joke.

    Who are the leaders of a movement that has no leaders?
    I don’t know, but they’ve sold out.

    I think OWS may be suffering from the problem that there was never a clear answer to the question, “and then what will we do?” And everyone is coming up with their own idea for what the next steps should be, and maybe in the process revealing that there were hundreds of different understandings of what they were all doing out there in the first place.

    • And everyone is coming up with their own idea for what the next steps should be, and maybe in the process revealing that there were hundreds of different understandings of what they were all doing out there in the first place.

      Exactly. Every individual who participated was projecting his own ideals and desires onto the group. Since no two people have the same ideals and desires, sooner or later the group will fail to live up to all those diverse expectations. Once the giddy joy of oooo, look, we’re doing something! wears off, the cracks form. In particular, the high-ego types who think life is about hogging attention will show up and ruin it for everyone else.

      The strength of having a standard organizational structure, with clear leadership and stated goals, is that the group can become something other than so many co-mingled fantasies. If you like the leadership and accept the goals, join; if not, don’t. And then those who join can find some genuine commonality within group structure, even if they don’t see eye to eye on everything. And yeah, organizations are corruptible. As the Buddha said, all compounded things will decay. It’s inevitable. It’s a fantasy to think you can come up with some formula that defies that rule. But even with the decay and corruption, organizations can accomplish many things that an individual cannot, so they’re still worth forming sometimes.

  5. OWS was unique in that it was the only significant populist uprising since Vietnam. You will never see a populist movement on the Right because they already own all the media; there would be no point. OWS introduced the concept of economic inequality into the national dialog. That had merit. They can still redeem themselves by helping with voter registration. Not as fun as drums and masks, but, face it– registration and GOTV could have prevented the body blow to Democracy that just happened in Wisconsin— Democracy made it to the 99 yard line and dropped the ball.

  6. And, we live in a 2-party system. Both parties need Wall St money. The public does not have real options.

    It is nice to think that a good ground game ( GOTV ) will make up for a lack of $$, but it doesn’t and it won’t.

  7. “for the understandable reasons that they tended to have racist and sexist policies at the time, not to mention the mob connections.” — Also not to mention that most of them supported the war — no small detail at the time.

  8. And the moral is that if you have a revolution to break up the old system, you’d better have something ready to replace it with. Just being pure of heart isn’t enough.

    Absolutamente. If you listen to the right they’re all about what they want to eliminate but basic physics tells us that something always rushes in to fill a vacuum. That’s the part they leave unspoken. That doesn’t mean they don’t have something in mind but rather that they CAN’T mention it and get elected. Thusly we get a preponderance of negativity in fearful adds narrated in ominous tones.

  9. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the New Left worked outside the system against the New Deal coalition that used to support the Democratic Party, and helped break it up.

    Could you please link to something that would support that assertion? I lived through those years, and remember the politics fairly well from “Clean for Gene” forward, and my recollection is that the New Left was mainly just trying to claw its way in while elements of the New Deal coalition, including labor, were trying to keep the damned hippies out.

    Not to say they weren’t disparaging of elements of the New Deal coalition, but there’s an awfully big gap between disparagement and destruction.

    • low-tech — if you really did live through those years and didn’t see what I saw I’m not sure I can help you. I do recommend Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Anti-War Movement by Adam Garfinkle (St. Martin’s Press, 1995). See also “A Party in Search of a Notion” by Michael Tomasky and “When blue-collar pride became identity politics” by Joan Walsh. This is a complex issue that needs a lot of analysis to do it justice, and the New Left was not the only factor working to break up the New Deal coalition. But it was a big factor.

  10. maha – I’ve gotten through the Joan Walsh piece (might be as much as I have time for today, got deadlines and stuff), and her spin on it is like I remembered, plus some stuff I’ve forgotten.

    On the one hand, there was the basic tragedy of “Diversity arrived to American industry just as industry was leaving America,” that blue-collar whites were made to share their pie with blacks just as the pie started shrinking, and on the other hand, you have this:

    While George Meany flirted with Nixon, he refused to endorse him — but he did everything in his power to make sure George McGovern lost in 1972. As Cowie explains, “The majority of white working class voters [selected] Nixon by wide margins over the most pro-labor candidate ever produced by the American two-party system.”

    It’s hard to see that as the New Left destroying the Roosevelt coalition. It sounds to me like a combination of the tragedy of the times, and a death wish on the part of labor leaders who thought they wielded more power than they did.

    • low tech: You’re still not seeing forests for trees. You have to look at the whole arc of leftie activism from the mid-1960s to at least the mid-1970s. And, again, I never said the New Left all by itself destroyed the New Deal coalition. However, it’s indisputable that the New Left played a major role in breaking it up and then, for the most part, it walked away from the wreckage instead of trying to build a new coalition to prop up the Democratic Party.

      I well remember that in the 1970s, post Vietnam, progressive activism was every identity issue for itself. In the mid-1970s Gloria Steinem was touring college campuses with some prominent African American women and arguing that feminists and racial equality activists should be forming a big, single coalition and pulling in many other “identity” issues as well. She got nowhere. For most of the rest of the 20th century progressive activism amounted to umpteen single-issue activist organizations all competing for attention and funds, and none of these directly supported the Democratic Party. Meanwhile the Right was putting together the network of think tanks and media outlets that allowed them to dominate the national conversation and win elections. The Dems had no power base to speak of and were forced to beg various monied interests for the second-biggest check. And my point is that people today who whine about how the Dems have sold out to corporate interests need to understand how this happened, because the activist Left is partly to blame. Largely to blame, in my opinion.

Comments are closed.