Two hundred police, some in riot gear attacked and arrested over 100 members of “Occupy Boston” in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The arrests followed Monday’s 10-thousand-strong march of union members, students, veterans, families, men and women of all ages in support of the occupiers. Although initially claiming that they acted to protect $150,000 worth of privately-owned shrubs planted in the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a public park along the route of the old Fitzgerald Expressway, the police later admitted that the real reason was to regain control of the occupation and limit it to the smaller area of Dewey Square.
The normally politically astute mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, made a major blunder by authorizing the police action, which will inevitably attract more support for the “Occupy” movement, especially as veterans bearing the U.S. flag were knocked over and trampled by the police. Menino epitomizes the dilemma of the Democratic political leadership, who are constrained to viewing the protests through the prism of state control and the two-party system. They only perceive a populist rhetoric which seems to jibe with their own electoral concerns, but they don’t recognize the strength of the social movement behind it.
“The message they are saying … is the middle class of America is having a difficult time. That’s the issue they are trying to get across,” Menino said, justifying the arrests. “I agree with them on the issues. Foreclosure. Corporate greed. These are issues I’ve been working on my entire career. But you can’t tie up a city.”
According to the New York Times, the Democrats are divided between those who credit the protests “with tapping into pent-up anger over a political system that it says rewards the rich over the working class — a populist theme now being emphasized by the White House and the party,” and those who are more wary because, as Robert Reich pointed out in his blog, “a big share of both parties’ campaign funds comes from [Wall] Street and corporate board rooms.”
The theme of diffuse anger and populism enables the mainstream media to further confuse the issue by a false description of the “We are the 99 percent” movement as a “Tea Party” of the left. While the Tea Party rhetoric is populist, that doesn’t make it a social movement. It consists of a tiny core of paid activists, supported by mega-rich foundations, who are given great attention in the media which creates the impression that it is more significant than it actually is. Most of their supporters among the general public are not active in any sense.
A recent definition of populism is that of an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.” (Albertazzi, Daniele and Duncan McDonnell, Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008: 3) This definition embraces the true populist movement of small farmers at the end of the nineteenth century who battled capitalist interests like the railroads and banks. They were, however, susceptible to conspiracy theories, suspicious of foreigners, and as the movement declined, railed against Jews, Catholics and African-Americans.
Tea Party rhetoric fits the insular and xenophobic aspect of populism without any of its anti-capitalist virtues. While the overwhelmingly white Tea Party seeks to turn the clock back to a time before the civil rights movement, blaming minorities for their problems, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement goes beyond populism because it doesn’t assume a virtuous and homogenous people. Rather, diversity and inclusiveness are stressed by their slogan “We are the 99 percent.” Their refusal to commit to specific demands discourages that sectionalism which has always been a weakness of left groups and the trade unions. The term “populist” is therefore misleading as a description of this new kind of pluralist movement, which has such a close connection with the realities of life for most Americans. New conceptions of political thought and action are going to be needed.