There were moments of last night’s “Occupy Everywhere” symposium that felt like a debutante ball introducing Occupy Wall Street to polite liberal society.
To be sure, several dozen occupiers with their sleeping bags on their backs traipsed up from Zuccotti Park to attend the event. But the panelists (Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, William Greider and Rinku Sen, as well as Occupy Wall Street spokesman Patrick Bruner) were mostly addressing an audience of exactly the sort of institutional, establishment liberals you’d expect at an event put on by the Nation Institute and the New School.
But if the evening had its share of cloying, self-congratulatory applause breaks, it also featured enough disagreement and debate to be interesting.
Perhaps the biggest disagreement on the panel was one of tone rather than substance. Michael Moore was so giddy with triumphalism over the burgeoning movement that half his remarks were delivered through high, breathy giggles.
“I just think this is all going to happen,” he said. “You can play this tape back in about two years, because this is all going to move very fast.”
In contrast to Moore’s jubilant victory lap, Naomi Klein’s sober assessment of the challenges ahead seemed almost bleak:
“If the task is to figure out how to rein in ephemeral virtual global capitalism, let alone transform it, let alone doing what we need to do to actually deal not just with the economic crisis but the ecological crisis which means to challenge the entire ideology of endless growth and asking if we can grow forever on a finite planet — I mean, nobody has ever figured out how to do this. So we have to start from the premise that we are in uncharted territory.”
Greider also tempered his enthusiasm with caution, drawing parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the populist movement of the 19th century, which built a lot of home-grown alternative institutions before being ground out by financial elites.
Bruner has at times seemed unsure of himself in his frequent role as a spokesman for Occupy Wall Street (not least of all when apologizing profusely for the great Radiohead show that wasn’t). But last night, sitting between some high-wattage lefty luminaries, he represented the movement with intelligence, diplomacy, and even a certain amount of swagger — even as he dutifully reminded everyone that he speaks only for himself, not the movement as a whole.
“We have youth who are aware that their future has been stolen,” he said. “We have kids who have massive amounts of student debt, and they’re going to carry that around for the rest of their lives, possibly…. Not if we have anything to do with it.”
Most of the panelists agreed that the movement would eventually need to engage with electoral politics. But Bruner pushed back on that assumption.
“I think personally that it’s very important that we don’t become involved with parliamentary procedure and parliamentarianism. I can understand the impetus to work from the government but I think that the government, in its current form at least, is itself a very corrupt institution.”
Take for example, the case of Obama:
“A lot of people in this room helped elect Obama — and he had more donations from Wall Street than any other candidate ever. We elected a person who ran on change and hope. And I don’t see too much change and I don’t have too much hope. So I think what we’re seeing is a rejection of this political binary, but also just the entire way of doing things, this representation by other individuals. As long as they’re more influenced by the money that comes into the system than the voices that come into the system or the votes that come into the system, which is the way things are right now, we can’t use the government.”
Knocking Obama clearly sat uneasily with the audience, which greeted Bruner’s swipe with scattered applause but more muttered dissent.
Rinku Sen, of the Applied Research Center and Colorlines disagreed: “The government we have now is not the government we need to have and it’s not the one that we must have want to have, I think changing it is entirely possible,” she said. “We have to have a discussion about the government that doesn’t just reinforce its crappiness. Because that reinforcement just makes wider openings for libertarians.”
Sen also urged Occupy Wall Street to recognize race as a central issue of the movement. “It’s not enough for Occupy Wall Street to be diverse, which it is,” she said. “The real question is: Are those people who are there able to influence the agendas of local occupations? ….If Occupy Wall Street is going to cause this public shift, a really significant part of that shift has to be the ability to recognize the role that racial discrimination, racial exploitation, racial hierarchy played in getting us to this very depression.”
To close out the conversation, panelists were asked what they thought the biggest challenge facing the movement was.
Bruner answered with a distinction that has been growing in recent weeks: “The biggest problem is Liberty Square,” he said. “People think that’s where the Occupation of Wall Street happens. That’s not where it happens. It happens wherever you choose that it happens.”
Klein repeated her fear that, faced with the staggering task of transforming a global culture of perpetual capitalist growth, the movement will devolve into sectarian battles. “It’s never been done, and that’s terrifying,” she said. “When you pick a fight with the most powerful force in the world… there’s always a tendency to pick a fight with somebody where you have a better chance of winning, like the person sitting next to you.”