We are awash in movements. The Arab Spring is one long series of movements, like a row of candles, each one igniting the next one in the row—Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, then back to Benghazi, and so on across the Middle East. Even Israel has caught a spark, as protesters camped out on Dizengoff Boulevard in Tel Aviv in a surreal imitation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square—except that these people were not (or not yet) trying to overthrow the government, but just protesting the cost of living, unemployment, and the loss of kibbutz egalitarianism supposedly caused by the “neoliberal” economy. Once again high hopes for democracy and development are invested in these movements, as they were some years ago in various explosions of “people power” (first so called, I think, in the Philippines, when a popular revolt overthrew the Marcos regime) and in the “color revolutions” following the collapse of the Soviet empire.
And now we have movements in America as well. First came the Tea Party, exploding in rallies all over the country. It was clearly a phenomenon on the right of the political spectrum, hardly reminiscent of the Woodstock generation. Its mostly middle-aged demonstrators for some reason make me think of enraged Midwestern funeral directors. At first there was something refreshing about these people. For once these were people on the right concerned with issues north of the navel, like government spending and the national debt. As the Tea Party became a major force in the Republican Party, the sense of freshness quickly dissipated. A doctrinaire fanaticism against even one dollar of additional taxes repeatedly brought the country to the brink of economic catastrophe. This constitutes a more immediate threat than fanaticism against abortion or same-sex marriage. Actually, it turns out that the two fanaticisms overlap in the Tea Party itself and in the minds of Republican presidential candidates who, in the depressing lineup of the so-called “debates” (a misnomer if ever there was), spout sound bite after sound bite endorsing zero taxes and “traditional family values”. The Tea Party has become a well-organized constituency in right-of-center politics, thus raising the question whether it can still be called a movement at all.
The left must have felt deprived. After all, movements had been its property for decades, the big one of the 1960s still haunting its imagination. So there is a palpable sense of relief in left-of-center circles that, by golly, they now have a movement of their own. Occupy Wall Street is catching on, from sea to shining sea, raising hopes in the Democratic Party that 2012 may not be its year of electoral doom after all. Of course those of us who remember the 1960s have a twilight-zone experience of time travel, the pseudo-revolutionaries of that period reincarnated on today’s streets—the same young people, it seems, camped out with their sleeping bags and guitars, mouthing the same mindless slogans against capitalism and “the system”. But of course it is not the same young people, but their children and (more likely) grandchildren trying to relive the excitement of a supposedly heroic age. Here and there one can still see grandpa himself, no doubt swallowing pills supplied by Medicare (thanks to George W. Bush), his sparse grey hair defiantly tied in a ponytail. It was reported that a lending library was set up for the campers in downtown Manhattan. The books most in demand were by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky (who said that young people today have no interest in ancient history?).
I am not idiosyncratic in my belief that the health of American democracy depends on a vital center, spread across the two major political parties, thus marginalizing the extremes to their right and left. Since this center is not much visible today, I look hopefully for signs that it is still alive. I periodically check two publications, The New Republic and National Review, which to me represent the (relatively) sane sectors of, respectively, the American left and right encampments.
TNR pleasantly surprised me. In its issue of November 3, 2011, it announced on its cover page an editorial entitled “The Left takes to the Streets”. The editors admit that at first they reacted positively to the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, as did Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi: “We too now have a movement!” Then they had second thoughts, as must Democratic leaders who recall what happened to their party in the 1972 elections after they embraced the mystique of the streets. First reaction: “At first blush, it would be difficult not to cheer the protesters…. because they have chosen a deserving target. Wall Street should be protested.” But then second thoughts: The movement is criticized for its undifferentiated attack on capitalism and its suspicion of normal democratic politics —“an air of group-think …. that is, or should be, troubling to liberals”. It would be nice if liberals admitted that the current economic crisis began in the housing industry, and was not only the result of Wall Street greed, but also of government policies pressuring banks to give mortgages to people who could not afford them. Nevertheless—thank you, New Republic!
National Review was not surprising. Its issue of October 31, 2011, contained a full-blown assault on the Occupy movement announced on the cover, “No Tea Party”, with an editorial and two articles. Needless to say, there was no initial empathy. The running headings give the thrust of the assault: “A Witch Hunt on Wall Street”. “If this rabble stands for anything, it is the avoidance of unpleasant work and the satisfaction of emotions that are adolescent at best and very often pre-adolescent.” “Democrats look at the radicals with a parent’s love, seeing mobilizing power that will yield electoral victory.” The editorial grudgingly admits that there is a justified concern over what it calls “the Wall Street-Washington axis”, but says that this is no reason to hold back on scorn for the protesting radicals. It would be nice if NR-type conservatives paid more attention to the Wall Street component of the “axis” (not to mention the reckless spending of the last Republican administration), but it will be clear from what I have written above that I have no problem with the scorn.
But what is “a movement” anyway?
It is no accident that the media coverage of movements is full of crowd scenes, be it in Cairo or in Lower Manhattan. Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) is an (I think, deservedly) neglected early French sociologist. He had some pretty outlandish ideas about the psychology of women and “savages”, but in 1895 he published one influential and quite interesting book, titled The Crowd in the English translation. It opened up a whole field of studies of crowd behavior and, by extension, of modern mass movements. LeBon’s key idea can be simply stated: Called by him “the psychological law of mental unity”, it asserts that the crowd creates a sort of collective mind, which is impulsive, impervious to reason and potentially murderous. Put in different terms: The crowd is inherently de-individuating, dismantling the moral restraints of civilization and reverting to a primitive state of unquestioned solidarity. There is a lethal progression from crowd to mob to lynch mob. In a telling example, LeBon describes the massacre of aristocratic families—men, women and children—in the course of a mob tribunal during the French Revolution.
Whatever reservations one may have about aspects of LeBon’s thought, his depiction of crowd behavior is useful for an understanding of movements. A crowd, in its literal meaning, is a transitory phenomenon: Crowds assemble, crowds disperse. There are some crowds that retain this transitory character, for example crowds at a sports event or a rock concert. (Though one might ask whether, for example, the half-joking designation of Boston as “the Red Sox nation” already transcends the transitoriness.) Also, some crowds have no purpose beyond its immediate occasion—say, watching the baseball game or swaying to the rock music. Other crowds have a purpose beyond the immediate occasion—say, the storming of the Bastille as the prelude to a revolution. Such a purpose obviously requires an extension of the crowd experience over a period of time. I think this helps to define what a movement is: A movement is the preservation of a crowd experience over time—with precisely the social-psychological characteristics described by LeBon.
There have been crowds and movements throughout history. There may even be biological roots of this fact. Chimpanzees, our closest anthropoid relatives, engage in group dancing if faced with danger. So do tribal warriors as they go into battle. Such behavior is “primitive” simply because it goes back to the most archaic forms of human experience. By the same token, it is behavior suffused with religious symbols: The individual surrenders his separateness to the sacred unity of the group, an experience often including possession by a divine being. A prototypical case of this is the frenzy of a crowd possessed by Dionysus, classically portrayed in Euripides’ play The Bacchae. (Not accidentally, this particular crowd engages in a savage murder.) But in terms of modern movements an important case is that of the German Jugendbewegung, literally “youth movement”. The German word “bewegt”, like the English “moved”, has two meanings: an object or individual in physical motion, but also an individual feeling a strong emotion. The German movement, which erupted between the 1890s and World War I, embodied both meanings. Its most important grouping was called the Wandervogel—“migrating bird”. It consisted of young people (mostly from the educated middle class) who wandered around the country, singing folk and marching songs to the accompaniment of guitars, camping out under the stars, feeling one with nature and each other. They considered themselves as refugees from decadent urban culture and rebels against stuffy bourgeois convention. Supposedly they were free spirits. There were discrepant strands within the movement—some German nationalist, some anti-Semitic, some politically liberal, some homoerotic (others welcomed girls). These discrepancies were very obvious in an event in 1913 defined as historic, the Hohe Meissner Treffen, a gathering of thousands of “free German youth” over several days on a mountain top. After World War I the movement lost whatever cohesion it had. Different political parties created their own youth groups. The Nazis actually called their party a Bewegung. When it came into power in 1933 all German youth groups were absorbed into the Hitler Youth.
Almost by definition, every movement has a totalitarian potential. This potential can be contained if an individual maintains a measure of skeptical distance even if, for whatever reason, he joins a movement. Whether one considers a movement good or bad, worth joining or worth fighting, will obviously depend on how one evaluates its purpose. In terms of modern history, I think one should consider the Nazi movement very bad, the civil rights movement very good, the various strands of the 1960s movement a mixed bag (racial and gender rights good—victimology, identity politics and anti-capitalism bad—musical preferences a matter of morally indifferent taste). Looking at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements today, I find it difficult to see much good in either one. The health of American democracy will be improved if both movements are marginalized on the two sides of the aisle.