The strangest thing about the Occupy Wall Street protest is that it did not begin on October 3, 2008, when George W. Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. This act––first proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs––pledged hundreds of billions in federal money to bailout financial institutions such as AIG, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs. Whether or not the bailout was a sound response to an economic crisis, it became obvious to everyone that something was wrong with our financial services sector. The Left and the Right raged equally and there were some peaceful demonstrations as well as some death threats, but this died down with remarkable speed.
For a while I watched with interest as popular anger led to the rise of the Tea Party, only to see this group become the pawns of the very oligarchy it sought to oppose. It was almost effortless for the likes of the Koch brothers to redirect their anger at the scapegoats of labor unions, Muslims, and immigrants. No organized movement formed in 2010 when the Supreme Court declared that any limits on campaign contributions would infringe upon the first amendment rights of corporations. Little happened this summer when House Republicans began calling for austerity measures, effectively claiming that because of mistakes made by the wealthiest we must cut programs for those in poverty. It is only now, three years after the bailout, that we are beginning to see anything resembling organized outrage towards an unregulated financial sector.
And yet, many of my progressive and moderate friends have been quick to mock the Occupy Wall Street protests. I understand their cynicism. Yoga lessons? Drum circles? Meditation flash mobs? This is not how the labor movement won the minimum wage and the forty-hour workweek. As a graduate of Hampshire College, I have heard enough drum circles for a life time and seen countless creative but ill-conceived protests. These tactics, developed by the New Left in the 1960s, seem to be useless politically. The costumes, noise, and pageantry of progressive protests only seem to inscribe the status of the protestors as politically irrelevant deviants. But the suspicion is deeper that: As a New York Times article claimed, the protestors themselves sometimes seem unaware of what they are protesting. Protests have become a fashion accessory, a place to be seen, not an authentic expression of grievances. In college I was as likely to mock protestors as to support them.
However, as a sociologist of religion, I now have a more enlightened perspective on demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street. The men and women who pioneered these techniques during the Vietnam War, figures like Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg, are remembered as gullible hippies who naively thought they could end a war through such actions as street theater or levitating the Pentagon. In fact, the opposite is true. The New Left only resorted to such tactics out of a profound cynicism over the democratic process. As counter-culture historian Theodore Roszak stated:
If violence and injustice could be eliminated from our society by heavy intellectual research and ideological analysis, by impassioned oratory and sober street rallies, by the organization of bigger unions . . .then we should long since have been living in the new Jerusalem.
The New Left was searching desperately for a way to circumvent a system in which they were powerless. The problems pointed out by Roszak are even truer in 2011 then they were in 1968, when citizens had far more freedom to protest. As professor of journalism Robert Jensen points out, no one would now be so gullible as to believe that because every citizen has only one vote, everyone has as much political power as Bill Gates. It is not the hippy radicals, but the moderates who are naïve. To quote Goethe, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
The cynicism I see towards the Occupy Wall Street protests is actually a kind of blind faith in utilitarianism. We believe that we are all individuals and that society is only the net result of our individual choices. Therefore, all we can do is vote for progressive candidates and write checks to progressive organizations. No amount of marching and chanting can have any effect, especially if it is done by youngsters who do not understand financial regulation. And yet the Tea Party, demonstrating enormous confusion about who or what they were opposing, used these very tactics to achieve a stranglehold on the GOP that nearly bankrupted the country during this summer’s manufactured “debt ceiling crisis.” Why then are we so skeptical of marches and chanting?
Collective representations are not the result of a social contract. Durkheim believed there was never a moment when individuals came together and agreed to participate in a society because individuals cannot exist outside of society. Instead, he believed that the earliest collective representations emerged from ritual. Anthropologists such as Roy Rappaport have since argued that ritual is actually the process through which all social reality is created. Human beings have a radical ability to reorder the world but only when we employ ritual collectively. To quote another anthropologist, Charles Lindholm, “It is not through rational argument but primarily through forms of charismatic commitment, that people achieve the levels of self-sacrifice necessary for revolution and social transformation.” Right now Occupy Wall Street is creating a new reality with their chants and drum circles. They have already created a world in which there is organized dissent against unregulated corporate interests. What is emerging in Zuccotti Park is a collective entity greater than the individual protestors.
Eventually, as skeptics are quick to point out, change will require organization and not drum circles. Platforms must be devised, candidates nominated, voters registered, and doors knocked on. But Occupy Wall Street is creating a social reality in which this kind of effort can succeed. The extraneous symbols and rituals of a rally serve as a kind of battery that animates a social movement. A colleague of mine recently returned from an Occupy protest and reported, “It was legitimately a more religious experience than I’ve seen any church manage in decades.” Durkheim wrote, “The believer who has communed with his god is not simply a man who sees new truths that the unbeliever knows not; he is a man who is capable of more."
This religious function is also why we should not rush to mock those who participate in a rally without an articulate political agenda anymore than we should mock someone in church who cannot explain the subtleties of the Nicene Creed. A protest is not simply a referendum but an opportunity to discover something larger than oneself. It is both a place where the individual can contribute their power and where individuals go to become empowered.
Behind the absurd street theatre of Ginsberg and Hoffman were advanced theories of semiotics and social action. Young progressives must read the literature of the New Left in order to understand why these tactics were adopted in the first place. Then these techniques must be revised and expanded on. Funny costumes were shocking in the 1960s, but the world has long since become inoculated against them. Besides, it was never about the shock value but manipulating collective symbols. Young progressives must develop new uses of ritual to bring down the gods of the market, erecting new social realities in their place. This task is simultaneously a religious, a political, and a prophetic act.
Joseph Laycock is a graduate of the Program in Religion and Secondary Education at Harvard Divinity School. After spending several years working in American high schools, he is now completing his doctorate in religion and society at Boston University.