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Shut It Down: Thoughts on the Tea Party-OWS Comparison

For fourteen days I’ve been looking at shutdown headlines, and at moments I have felt quite small and powerless. But then I imagine how it feels to short-circuit the government of the most powerful, dangerous, richest country in the world. It's only about 30 of you. You're watching your enemies and allies alike squirm. They try, and fail, to patch things up, deal by deal. They act superior, "rising to the occasion" and playing calm. But you know that you've got everyone confused, scared, and no one can deny that it was you that did this – that they're dancing to your beat.

Imagine you are one of the House members causing people all over the world to quake in their boots. You don’t even have to do the negotiating - others are seeing to that. You are just literally sitting around smoking cigars and watching the action like kings, or kingpins. This makes you feel extremely powerful and the power is turning into chemical impulses to your brain, rewiring things up there. Very few people ever get a taste of a drug this potent. You are now on a higher plane. You already knew that government assistance is for the weak and lazy, you knew that your party needed a wakeup call.....but now you understand in your bones that this whole system of government itself, the checks and balances and majority rule are just about hiding from the sun.

Those checks just shy us away from leadership, from the complete power held by people who know how to use it, people with clear decisive thinking: People like you.

People are afraid and you’ve won. It feels just incredible. And you're going to want more of this shit.

Pure political power is what makes the comparison between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, all these months later, especially funny. Occupy in its first stage was far from perfect – nevertheless its deeply democratic/anarchist checks and balances tethered us to core values of “stepping back” when necessary so that we could practice what we preached about sharing power widely. Especially after the open-hearted first few weeks, displays of such power surfaced, and would elicit a backlash. The power-hoarder might be challenged by a well meaning friend, or a group. Something would be written on email threads, or someone called out face-to-face in meetings. Or an imbalance might be noticed by the person themselves, and they might decide to “step back” after “stepping up”– a common principle of the movement. Imagine Senator Ted Cruz embodying “step-up-step-back!”

Comparing the Occupy Movement with the Tea Party was always deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons – starting with funder David Koch, who singed off the Tea Parties grassroots with wads of burning cash.

But the comparisons are flowing again during the shutdown. For instance, Joe Echevarria, chief executive of Deloitte: “The extreme right has 90 seats in the House...Occupy Wall Street has no seats.” Mainstream Republicans contrast themselves with the “extreme fringe” by comparing the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile, Democratic Party messaging calls the Tea Party representatives “Anarchists”, obliquely playing into the fear of the OWS movement planted by the right. The few billionaires who hovered around Occupy Wall Street are probably still mad at us for resisting cooptation by the Democratic party machine. They hoped to “harness” our radical energy, so that they could claim – as do the Far-Right billionaires who immediately swallowed up the Tea Party – that their party represents a truly populist base.

The Tea Party-OWS comparison is more than misleading; in the context of the shutdown, it fogs an ominous direction in politics: the triumph of ego power. The Tea Party’s shutdown has nothing to do with principles, and certainly not to Anarchist principles of sharing power horizontally and unraveling the hidden hierarchies of privilege, race and class. Neither does it have to do with Libertarian values of maximum freedom and small government, in which people seek greater agency and self respect through de-centralization of state power. If the shutdown is based on principles, these are ones which nobody would dare say out loud: mobster, muscle-flexing codes which disregard shared values in order to instill fear. We're talking about mobsters with egos big enough to shutdown the US government for no apparent functional reason other than the gleeful accumulation of power and position.

In contrast, the taste of power – and the money that came along with it at first – presented an immediate problem for Occupy Wall Street. Some heads swelled, various individuals consolidated power, all of us had our moments of cockiness, and we worried: if this went too far, it could be antithetical to our the means and ends of our experiments with “direct democracy”. Some called our movement “leaderless”, others, “leaderful”, but it didn't take too long for People Power to condense down into less inspired form: influential contacts, important twitter accounts, the ability to turn people out for votes around particular actions in the General Assembly, etc. Soon we saw the not infrequent appearance of the wrong kind of power: the ego-based kind, likely to be at odds with the collective goals of the movement.

I know the teeniest bit about what this kind of power feels like, because of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We tapped out our own beat, and for a moment we were the pulse, at the center of things. For a few weeks at the movement’s height it seemed that everything we said was launched out into the public realm, causing some kind of shift. We were driving news cycles with our marches and messages. It was a joyful and powerful feeling to introduce language about previously unspoken economic realities into the mainstream. So when we chanted: “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” many of us believed it. We weren't just saying things like – “Ain't no power like the Power of the People, and the Power of the People don't stop” – it was something we were living out. 

“Another World is Possible,” a much worse one too!

Two years ago, our moment in the spotlight was tinged with arrogance – or you could call it audacity. But it came from a deep conviction that even as we are subjugated by the hand of the 1%, with its vastly disproportionate amount of social/political power, it is possible to build a true democracy where all who live and work here feel empowered and where no one is marginalized or silenced. Within a corporation-dominated framework, that meant developing models for sharing power and resources from scratch....something which takes a little while. Although our movement changed the language around economic inequality, we didn't get much of a chance to grapple with real power before a coordinated nationwide crackdown forcefully pushed us off the stage.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, didn't endure over 7,000 arrests nationwide, nor millions of dollars of property destruction by direct order of mayors across the country. They weren’t infiltrated by spies or picked off for entrapment schemes leading to long prison sentences and humiliation. The Tea Party was showered with cash and led into the political control room where they are now wreaking ego-based havoc.

Credit: Watching Frogs Boil
Noah Fischer
The difference between Occupy Wall Street power and Tea Party power.

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The difference between Occupy Wall Street power and Tea Party power.