From the Sixties to Occupy: A Conversation With Todd Gitlin (Part Two)

Here we continue our discussion with Todd Gitlin, author of Occupy Nation, about the future of the OWS, the challenges of political change, and the social cost of income inequality. (Read part one of this interview here.)

As you note in your book, Occupy feels very ambivalent about what they would call pandering to the mainstream media, a media that largely ignores or simplifies the movement. So how would Occupy go about creating a better public relations strategy?
Well that’s a very large and thunderous question. I mean some people think it would be valuable to coalesce around a meme, a slogan, an approach, a symbol, even a color, or perhaps a badge that is universally recognized. The closest we have to that is a 99 in a circle, which you do see, although it by no means omnipresent, but it is the closest we have to a badge that signals we are everywhere. Single slogans are helpful when you can generate them. I have been privy to a lot of discussions as to what that slogan might be and none of them quite jell, yet.

In another manner, some people think there ought to be more of these coordinated occasions when the whole movement focuses on something like the Bank of America. I like the concentration on the Bank of America. I think there are occasions for campaigns which would reach out, more easily, to millions of people. Just speak the words of Bank of America, crooked derivatives, foreclosures, and you will have a very large audience that will roughly get the message.

    In the beginning journalists and cynics claimed not really to understand what Occupy was about, But what was the civil rights movement about? One of the chants was, “What do you want? freedom! When do you want it? Now!” Was that a slogan of clear demands?  No, but it wasn’t hard to get what that movement stood for. On the first big march I attended, out of Zuccotti Park, October 5, the two big chants were, “We are the 99%,” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” If you’re a journalist covering that march and you don’t get what it’s about, you should take up another line of work. Still today it’s evident what this movement is about.

However, as the movement grows, as it did, then the demands for clarity are ratcheted up as people come to expect something more from this Occupy phenomenon. Politicians seem to take it seriously, which engenders the question of now what? What can you show to people who weren’t roped in by the first manifestation? At this point  you owe people something clearer. That’s where the public deserves a respectful answer. It’s a question that has to be asked and asked and asked and argued about until in the mess of sorting through a lot of experiments, something gets attempted that works.

One of the repeated ideas of the Occupy movement is the idea of horizontal organization and direct democracy in which no one voice is valued over another. How do you balance that with experts on issues that touch the core of Occupy?
Well, some experts fit prominently and they have to be accorded their due. Joe Stiglitz’s article in Vanity Fair did a lot of good. When economist have Nobel Prizes they deserve a hearing, in my book, even if I disagree with what they say. Especially when they have a knack of writing in accessible fashion, as he and Krugman do. I’m not going to agree with them just because they are saying something I like, but I am sure as hell going to take them seriously and give them my attention.

How does this fit with the anti-authoritarian ideal of Occupy?
Well I’ve written about this in regards to the sixties. The movement was anti-authoritarian, which posed a problem, because if you don’t trust the authority of the authorities, and if you don’t trust even the authority of your own authorities, then where are you? The movement in the sixties wasn’t able to work out a good approach to this problem. In fact, what people don’t realize is that you don’t overturn or overthrow authorities on behalf of no authority; you overthrow them on behalf of some other authority. The gamble of the Occupy movement,  its hardcore elements anyway, is that through the General Assembly it will assemble the authority of the masses through endless conversation. But I don’t agree.

I think there are people who understand economic phenomena better than I do, and I don’t think a random sampling of people in the phonebook will suffice. I still want to know what someone like Stiglitz says. I don’t want to put the question of bank regulation to a direct democratic hand-twinkle. Just as if I am sick I want to go to a doctor. I am not going to conduct my health as if everyone’s opinion is valuable. I don’t want a plane flown by consensus. Not every matter of knowledge is merely technical, but a foundation of technical knowledge is very valuable.

    Now, it’s not for Occupy to set up a school to teach the dynamics of financial instruments. However, the movement has to be hospitable, as in many cases it has been, to respectable people of different stripes, who offer something substantial, and to use a controversial word, professional. From the other side, I think it is also very important for those people to step up, as a small number have done.

To this extent, do you think there is an area of academics that have been slow to respond to the questions raised by Occupy, the economic crisis and the rising awareness of income inequality?

To me, if I may ride one of my hobby horses, it’s actually a disappointment that the university part of the Occupy movement has not issued a resounding call for a scrutiny of the economic departments and business schools that led us right over the precipice into this hole. A re-evaluation and scrutiny of this fantasy about self-regulated markets, this now acknowledged-to-be “flawed” model of how bankers think, to quote Greenspan. It is as if there had been a meteor shower that had been unanticipated by astronomers and one happened to hit the earth and obliterate a big hunk of territory and people, and the next day the astronomers went back to intone the old ideas. In fact, the current intellectual situation is worse, because what happened in 2007-08 wasn’t accidental.  The crisis arose from instabilities that were inherent within the system, and still there has been no public examination, en masse, of what we got wrong.  What’s with this profession that missed the meteors? I’ve been trying to get people to work on this. There badly needs to be a public re-examination of the flaws in the system, intellectual flaws.

    To me, it’s pathetic how much we cling to this notion of the total efficacy of a free, unfettered, pure market. I understand it psychologically, but that doesn’t make it more inspiring. There’s a mental rigidity. There is comfort in living in a box.

Many see the upcoming 2012 elections as a possible watershed moment for Occupy, what are your thoughts on the topic? How can and should Occupy relate to the election?
I don’t think it is a make or break moment. I think that if I speak the words Bush v. Gore, or Citizens United, or Clarence Thomas, I won’t have to work that hard to convince someone that it matters whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House. However, given the weight of institutions and the privileged place of the plutocrats, the White House needs pressure whoever exactly is living there.  There needs to be a movement that occupies the heart of the populace, drives the money out of politics, and ties down the oligarchs. The movement is necessary one way or the other. I think the conditions will be more auspicious if the Democrats are in the White House, but I don’t have any illusions about the core of the Occupy movement engaging fully with the election. It is not predicated on that type of thinking. It is not a Tea Party. It’s a movement, not a party. Bless them and go in peace.

I do think that the outer movement, by which I mean the unions and MoveOn and various letterhead organizations who collect themselves under the rubric of 99 spring, I think they are right to mobilize people to work for Obama and the progressive Democrats—not for any old Democrat. I think that with respect to Congress, there should be a charter, a sort of Contract with America, which the movement should put before candidates.  If they sign, we support them; if they don’t, we don’t.  I think if it comes to pass that the youth and Hispanics don’t turn out in numbers similar to 2008, but more like the numbers in 2010, then that will usher in a ferocious demoralization.  There would be a real missed opportunity to put down a floor on which we can continue to operate.

This gets to your point in the book of the ambivalent, but often important relationship between liberals and radicals.   

This conclusion came only with difficulty:  that the radicals of the sixties and the liberals in the sixties had an interesting and important symbiotic relation to each other. Up to a point they actually were actually good for each other. I think it was a mistake to label liberalism as the problem then.  It was short-sighted, and, reckless. The Obama administration is an administration you can have a conversation with.  It is not the equivalent of Bush and his maniacs.

I think of myself as a realist taking the lay of the land.  Look at the turnout in 2008. The under 30 vote about matched the over 65 vote. That’s highly unusual in recent American history. In 2010 that ratio turned to the normal ratio, about 2-1/2 to one. What happened in 2008 is that you had a messianic fantasy movement about a guy who could walk on water and deliver us to the promised land, and lo and behold he couldn’t and didn’t do that, and then a lot of the 2008 young voters went home. That’s not a political reflex. It’s apocalyptic hope ushering in a tailspin. An excess of extremity followed by another excess of extremity.

      I think we are up against something very hard and challenging. It is not just an American problem, it’s a global problem. Most of what the left says about the instabilities of global capitalism is right. We are in for something very disturbed, and pathological. When you read that a neo-Nazi party will now walk into the Greek parliament, for example, expect to see more of that. This is all to say that the long haul is the haul that now matters. To think that a messiah will arise is crazy thinking. His name won’t be Obama or anything else. There’s an unlearning that has to take place about the obligations of a citizen. A citizen doesn’t just show up for elections. However compelling the candidate, you can’t relax.  This insight of the Occupy movement is correct, that is – the world is moved and obligations are discharged by people who understand that politics is or ought to be a way of life, a life-giving activity. You take part in the process of trying to ascertain the common good and working toward it.  You don’t go home when the going gets rough.
For example, I wrote this piece about the right of assembly. There’s an interesting terminology that doesn’t show up in the First Amendment, but first shows up in the constitution of the state of Pennsylvania, when it was still a colony.  Pennsylvania specified “the right of the people to assemble and to consult for the common good.” This language still appears in numerous state constitutions, including Pennsylvania’s, though not New York’s. I think this says a lot. They understand that it is instrumental to the process of government for people to assemble to consult for the common good, and that you can’t get the common good without that consultation. It will not be delivered by autocrats or bureaucrats. Here is where the anarchists and the direct democracy people are absolutely right. Political judgments need to be worked through by the people, or else you are in the hands of the bankers and the czars.
Americans are not educated in this understanding. We have silly, formal civic ideas about what self-government entails, but those are shabby, rococo, shallow, and ignorant. I was deeply disappointed in the Obama people for going home after they took office, for taking their 13 million mailing list and turning it over to the DNC. But I was also disappointed in the kids who turned out with such exuberance for Obama in ‘08 and then went home as if nothing more was required.

Given the political, social, and economic climate in America and even the world at large, how do you not get demoralized, day in and out? For my generation. We grew up being taught that If you get a college degree things will go well and now we know this as a big lie, so what can you say to the younger generation that feels heavily demoralized by America?
I do get demoralized. I’ve been around long enough to get demoralized. This isn’t new for me.  I was never convinced that we were all going to glory and everything was going to work out. I was often quite pessimistic. Often, that guarded me against disappointment. You just do what you can. There still exists the prosaic half-full, half-empty problem. However, to me it’s miraculous that this movement came into existence.  I’ve been beside myself for years because America has seemed so utterly inert. I mention in the book that for years I’ve been quivering to what Springsteen shouts at his concerts: “Is anybody alive out there!” I’ve gone around just barking this out. So yes, it turned out that there were people who were alive, and that’s amazing to me. I think it amazed them, too, as they improvised the Zuccotti occupation.
About what you say concerning college degree and jobs, I understand. There’s now a majority of baby boomers who have children come home to live with them as adults. It’s a common experience and a radical shift. So why succumb to despair?  That’s bad faith.  A wise elder friend once said to me, “You never really know enough to warrant being optimistic or pessimistic, so why not be optimistic?” It is in a way an existential choice. We don’t come equipped with future-reading equipment, and the world is strange. Often not happy, but sometimes people are remarkable and the world looks different. Look, The Knicks won a playoff game!
But seriously, I came of age in a period in which it really did feel that world might blow up at any time. Natively, my temperament is not that of good-time Charlie. But looking back, we dug our way out of that the worst of the Cold War. I remember segregated water fountains.  I saw them the first time I traveled to Virginia, and I was appalled. I knew about it, of course, but to see them was very different. In some ways, giving in to demoralization belittles the remarkable and courageous experiences and actions of those who changed some of the horrors of our past. To then take refuge in cynicism and say, well, nothing has changed does our history a disservice. Tell that to a black person who couldn’t find a motel to stay in crossing the south, etc. That’s one important thing to think about.
From a different vantage point, I came into awareness at a time when I knew about mass murder, about the war, about nuclear weapons, and I didn’t think the world promised a rose garden. However,  I did gain inspiration, most of all, from Camus in his insistence that when you are up against hell, and in his case it was the hell of Nazi occupation of France, you did what you could do and you didn’t worry about the consequences. That it is in my bones. This is why I think movements need to develop a livable way of life, because there will always be hard moments and times. This is hard stuff, moving the world. You better be fortified. Nobody is trained for it. There is no training for it.

What does it entail, this hard stuff, this moving of the world?    

I think, essentially, it is a spiritual challenge. I don’t mean that in an ideational sense, I mean that it’s a matter of fortitude, of courage. It’s deciding to take your life in your hands, and to use an odd word in this context, investing it, dedicating your life. In that sense it is a matter of spirit, will, clarity, and moral purpose. To me, it’s sort of second nature. “Well, OK, we are fucked again, pick yourself up and get on with the next project.” People often forgot how many such terribly demoralizing moments there were in the sixties, which was not just a frolic of endless success. People were killed: Kennedy, Malcolm X, King, and then Kennedy, and Kent State, and nameless people were being killed in the South. You just got up the next morning and figured out what you could do that day. What good thing is accomplished without effort? What good thing does not require some sort of creation of something out of nothing, that is, some sort of social invention? That to me was the great aspect of these movements of the sixties, they were their own creation, and Occupy in its own way is its great creation, and now it has some problems, but still it provides inspiration. All those impulses and desires I am collapsing into the word spiritual.

What would you say to a younger person who wants to get involved, but I don’t know where to begin to make this situation better?
The first thing I would want to know is something about this person. I would have a conversation about who they are, and what they want to be doing in five years, and what do they take pride in, and what interests them. I don’t want the shoemaker to feel that he has to drop out and go to dental school. I think the music of the answer is what I was getting at. There are some things in your life that matter. What you learn how to do, to cultivate, the personal relationships you cultivate matter, the way you treat those with whom you are intimately connected matters, and what you deliver to the larger world, including the physical earth and the social earth, matters. Those considerations are fundamental. One size does not fit all, there is no magical organization to join, this is no code deserving of absolute allegiance. If you are really alive politics will be one dimension of your life. You have a nervous system, a digestive system, a muscular system, and you also have a political system.

Having received a liberal education you are trained to think of the other, and the other side, to empathize with them. You want to always understand how the other side lives. How do you begin to empathize with those you don’t fully understand in terms of political persuasion?
It’s hard to answer that question. But there was a period in the mid 60s when we decided in SDS that our mission was to see if we could organize an interracial movement to fight poverty. The motivation behind this project was the recognition that the civil rights movement was in the process of winning its demands for social equality, and that the next step was making the country more equal economic conditions. It was incumbent upon us, mostly white people, to see if we could mobilize, or help mobilize alliances between white and black poor people. The upshot was that I first spent a summer, then 2 years, in a poor white neighborhood in Chicago.  I spent a lot of time talking to people and most of them were in some fashion racist. I heard their stories. When I was doing that, I was not preaching. I was just listening. I learned a lot about what poverty smelled like in Chicago. I met a woman, a white woman, who fished in Lake Michigan to feed her kid.

Yes, that was a long time ago, and it was a limited experience, but I came to learn that lives have a certain coherence even when they are riddled with contradiction. You can only appreciate the coherence by plunging into them, using what Keats called negative capability. To be able to feel the force of these lives even when you don’t like what you hear. So, yes, I learned a lot, even if I didn’t understand everything I heard. I think that I deepened my ability to think of people as starting with fairly similar equipment when it comes to making sense of the world.

   All that being said, I do think it is really important to get the other. I haven’t answered the question of how to do it, but going on a big listening tour is a requisite. There are people who had that kind of experience in the military, which is something that most of the middle class doesn’t do. Parenthetically, one of the social harms that has been done by these decades of class stratification is the widening of the gap in life experiences.

I went to public school in NY and my classmates included the children of doctors and lawyers and also the children of printers and shoe salesmen.  We were going to the same schools.   That isn’t true anymore. That’s a real loss because just being exposed to other environments makes a difference. It’s not just a statistical fact that class inequality has worsened and warped the social map, but it’s a lived reality.  An abyss has opened up and you have to determine or choose to plunge into worlds that don’t come naturally to you.

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