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Intro: "Americans have historically stood up to coercion - and the OWS movement might be the latest incarnation of resistance."

Oakland Police officers strike a defensive position after attacking protesters with truncheons, 10/25/11. (photo: Marc Ash/RSN)
Oakland Police officers strike a defensive position after attacking protesters with truncheons, 10/25/11. (photo: Marc Ash/RSN)



Fear: American Style

By Corey Robin, Al Jazeera

14 November 11

 

Occupy Wall Street: Take the Bull by the Horns

 

everal Fridays ago, I attended an excellent panel discussion on Occupy Wall Street sponsored by Jacobin Magazine. It featured Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean - representing a more state-centered, socialist-style left - and Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard, representing a more anarchist-inflected left.

Natasha Lennard is a freelance writer who's been covering the OWS story for the New York Times. After a video of the panel was brought to the Times' attention, the paper reviewed it as well as Lennard's reporting and decided to take her off the OWS beat. Despite the fact, according to a spokeswoman for the Times, that "we have reviewed the past stories to which she contributed and have not found any reasons for concern over that reporting."

Even more troubling, Lennard may not be hired by the Times again at all. Says the spokeswoman: "This freelancer, Natasha Lennard, has not been involved in our coverage of Occupy Wall Street in recent days, and we have no plans to use her for future coverage."

This is hardly the first time that the mainstream media has fired reporters for their political activities, even when there's no hint of evidence that those activities have led to biased or skewed coverage. Even so, it's worrisome, and ought to be protested and resisted.

Such political motivated firings fit into a much broader pattern in US history that - in my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea - I call "Fear, American Style." While people on the left and the right often focus on state repression - coercion and intimidation that comes from and is wielded by the government (politically driven prosecution and punishment, police violence, and the like) - the fact is that a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state. More specifically, in the workplace.

Think about McCarthyism. We all remember (or remember learning about) the McCarthy hearings in the Senate, the Rosenbergs, HUAC, and so on. All of these incidents involve the state. But guess how many people ever went to prison for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era? Fewer than 200 people. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot. Guess how many workers were investigated or subjected to surveillance for their beliefs? One to two out of every five. And while we don't have exact statistics on how many of those workers were fired, it was somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000.

There's a reason so much of US repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer often is not. The Bill of Rights, as any union organiser will tell you, does not apply to the workplace. The federal government can't convict and imprison you simply and transparently for your political speech; if it does, it has to paint that speech as something other than speech (incitement, say) or as somehow involved in or contributing to a crime (material support for terrorism, say). A newspaper - like any private employer in a non-union workplace - can fire you, simply and transparently, for your political speech, without any due process.

On this blog, I've talked a lot about what I call in The Reactionary Mind "the private life of power": the domination and control we experience in our personal lives at the hands of employers, spouses, and so on. But we should always recall that that the private life of power is often wielded for overtly political purposes: not simply for the benefit of an employer but also for the sake of maintaining larger political orthodoxies and suppressing political heresies. That was true during McCarthyism, in the 1960s, and today as well.

It was also true in the 19th century. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed it while he was travelling here in the 1830s. Stopping off in Baltimore, he had a chat with a physician there. Tocqueville asked him why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had "numerous doubts on the subject of dogma." The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man's career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skillful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

After the Civil War, black Americans in the South became active political agents, mobilising and agitating for education, political power, economic opportunity, and more. From the very beginning, they were attacked by white supremacists and unreconstructed former slaveholders. Often with the most terrible means of violence. But as WEB DuBois pointed out in his magisterial Black Reconstruction, one of the most effective means of suppressing black citizens was through the workplace.

The decisive influence was the systematic and overwhelming economic pressure. Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. Negroes who wanted to increase their income must not agitate the Negro problem. Positions of influence were only open to those Negroes who were certified as being 'safe and sane,' and their careers were closely scrutinised and passed upon. From 1880 onward, in order to earn a living, the American Negro was compelled to give up his political power.

In the past few months, I've had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields - and it's considerable - it's not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.


Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin" and "Fear: The History of a Political Idea." His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. He received his PhD from Yale and his A.B. from Princeton. Read his blog here.

 

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+42 # Activista 2011-11-14 22:18
great article on corruption of power -
it does not bother me much if 1% owns 80%, but that 1% CONTROLS (power) 100%.
Stop reading NYT PROPAGANDA (they supported Iraq War, Libya bombing - now destruction of Iran.
Did you ever read in NYT that Israel has 200+ nuclear arms and we are sending them $3 billion/year for bombers?
 
 
-13 # Ralph Averill 2011-11-15 03:44
The NYT used to be called "the old gray lady" of American journalism. It was, and still is. Don't expect it to be anything else. (It was the right wing PR/propaganda machine that successfully painted it as left-wing and liberal, thereby shifting the center way to the right.)
As to the firing of Natasha Leonard; the results would have been the same if she had publicly argued for a radical right-wing point of view. Nobody owes anybody else a living.
 
 
+1 # Billsy 2011-11-16 01:55
then why do they still publish Friedman's op/ed pieces after he supported the Iraq war, now known to be based on lies and obfuscation?
 
 
-1 # Ralph Averill 2011-11-16 16:29
Your question proves my point. Try reading my post again. Slowly.
 
 
+27 # globalcitizen 2011-11-14 22:31
The corporate press has no credibility, with its lies, propaganda. Ignore these class/ideologic al thugs.
 
 
+44 # DaveM 2011-11-14 23:02
You can push people for a certain length of time, which varies depending on numbers and the exact circumstances. But inevitably, the pushed start pushing back, or someone steps in to do it for them. The Occupy movement may have taken a few setbacks in recent days, but their ideals are as strong as ever--and very possibly moving into a segment of the populace which will not be contact to express itself by camping in parks.
 
 
+12 # mwd870 2011-11-15 06:18
The obvious solution is to boycott the New York Times. At one time I never would have believed this newspaper would engage in political suppression without cause. I have not been a NYT reader for several years - it sounds like I have't missed much.
 
 
+3 # mwd870 2011-11-15 10:57
I wouldn't want to boycott Paul Krugman, though. Not supporting the NYT could present a dilemma.
 
 
+15 # jon 2011-11-15 00:07
History has shown, going back to the French Revolution, that a People will not be pushed beyond a certain mathematical ratio regarding the cost of bread, and shelter, versus the average income - it has been proven over and over again.

When those costs tilt over the edge, revolution is certain.
 
 
+3 # tahoevalleylines 2011-11-15 00:09
Corey Robin, and other interested OWSers, please type in "World Of Wallstreet: ASPO-USA Conference Report: Friday Notes"

The fact of Peak Oil and effects on recovery is no small matter. If the 99ers need something significant to rally around, Peak Oil remediation is the inescapable Job #1. Looking at Peak Oil gurus like Richard Heinberg and Robert L. Hirsch is requisite entry-level work.

One of the best (and upbeat) treatments of Peak Oil management is found in Christopher C. Swan's "ELECTRIC WATER" (New Society, 2007) -Swan offers comprehensive treatment of sustainable local economies, mass transit and freight railway expansion with renewable growing alongside.

The near-term limits to motor fuel discussed at the 2011 ASPO-USA Conference invites very careful and open discussion of the subject, and the 99ers have the collective intelligence and talent to work on solutions...
 
 
+7 # Erdajean 2011-11-15 11:07
Mystery: much of the plutocrat frenzy we have been seeing over the Reagan+ decades does not SEEM to make sense, in human terms. Why would the grossly wealthy willingly destroy the earth for oil, even though their own offspring will inevitably be poisoned and smothered, with yours and mine?
We can only guess that they have reached a point where hoarding Wealth is a terrible disease, an addiction. Now the source of that wealth is visibly running out. Their cash cow Earth can't make oil fast enough to satisfy their craving. They Will Have The Last DROP -- while the planet dies. What is most ironic, to me, is that Oil never belonged to them in the first place, more than it did to any one of us. Common sense should have invoked this fact when the first well was drilled, with regulations enacted and suitable restitution demanded by nation/state and used for the good of all. Thus this debacle might have been avoided. Now the "cow" is nearly dry. And in the panic, the addicts' thirst grows more murderous by the hour.
 
 
+14 # Patch 2011-11-15 03:20
When the people fear the government there is tyranny. When the government fears the people there is liberty. - Thomas Jefferson

We the People need to get the government, and perhaps more importantly, the top one percent to fear us.
 
 
+11 # Dion Giles 2011-11-15 03:39
A decent society is based on democracy and individual autonomy, with full protection of all the rights that this implies, including freedom of association, assembly, speech and publication. It is not enough that the state be barred from violating these rights, it must also be held responsible for protecting them from anyone at all who seeks to violate them. This includes violation by groups, by state AND non-state institutions, and by any individuals who seek to enhance their own autonomy by violating someone else’s.
 
 
+13 # Peace Anonymous 2011-11-15 05:58
Workplace pressure is real. But to illustrate the level of fear under which we live I will tell you a story. We were diving off West Palm Beach in 2006. There were 8 of us, all friends, and we were anchored 2 miles off-shore. The owner of the boat went to say something about Bush but before he spoke he quickly checked over both shoulders to see who was listening. It was a habitual, paranoid, fearful example of where freedom resides today. How can you be free and afraid at the same time? Journalism in the mainstream is struggling to make a comeback, but largely due to the impact of online media and people like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Michael Moore. I thought Don't ask, Don't tell was about being gay. I think it also pertains to being an open-minded liberal who has grandiose expectations of a fair and equal society, in a society constitutionall y committed to being fair and equal.We wouldn't want anyone to find out that is how you "really" think - would we?
 
 
+13 # Dale 2011-11-15 07:47
Yes, repression of dissidence comes mostly from non-governmenta l entitities.
One of the most effective has been the purge of university professors since the 1980s, including myself, who teach critical thinking or are activists. Now we have practically no voices from universities that could help give the Occupy movement some basis for thinking and action.
 
 
0 # dorianb@fuse.net 2011-11-19 20:31
wHY IS THIS? IS IT THE UNIVERSITY WHO QUIETS THE PROFESSORS FOR FEAR OF FISCAL ISSUES? OR IS WS OPERATING INDIRECTLY IN PURGING THE VOICES OF THOSE WHO COULD GIVE ACADEMIC CREDENCE TO THE OCCUPIERS WHO DEFINITELY NEED THE VOICES FROM ANALYTICAL, CRITICAL THINKERS SUCH AS YOURSELF?
 
 
+1 # wgalison 2011-11-15 08:07
To send flowers and thanks

HON. LUCY BILLINGS
Chambers: 71 Thomas Street, Room 203
New York, New York 10013
 
 
+7 # tswhiskers 2011-11-15 08:13
de Tocqueville's physician friend was right. The same hold true today for the press. Corporate owners and editors hold tremendous sway when determining what the media will cover and write about. Most of the media would have scrupulously ignored the Occupy movement if MSNBC and K. Olbermann not just as scrupulously covered it. The only hope I see is that the Occupy movement will force the country back into a sane attitude toward money. Unfortunately it's not only the top 1% who are greedy. Too many of the 99% want to be right up there with them.
 
 
0 # dorianb@fuse.net 2011-11-19 20:35
The way things are in the economy today, those who want to be right up there with the 1% are delusional.
 
 
+6 # in deo veritas 2011-11-15 08:33
BOTCOTT NEW YORK CITY! The people running the show from Bloomberg on down have no souls or hearts, Kick them in the wallet! Lots of better places to visit and not the ridiculous sales tax that NYC imposes. There are plenty of good movies about the police state. Visit them without risking being a victim of the real one.
 
 
+6 # readerz 2011-11-15 08:48
I noticed this years ago at my very first job. We live in two nations: our country and our workplaces. Even if a person owns a small business, I've seen businesses fail in the 1990s where the owner didn't go to the right church. There is no freedom of speech at all in most places where people work.

Private property is also not under government jurisdiction. In some places, even though there are handicapped spaces, parking lots are considered private property that the state does not regulate, including business lots and shopping centers. The police will not come if there is a car crash in a parking lot.

If you must fight for your rights at work, they can "fire at will." And they will. In a bad economy, people work long hours without pay, because they don't want to be the person who complains. I know a computer programmer who worked 80 hour weeks without extra pay, but she was fired after all that because the company claimed its contract was not renewed. (They took the money and ran, but that sort of thing is almost impossible to prove.)

Workers may not discuss paychecks, so nobody knows how much discrimination is present, or if there might be embezzling, etc. But anybody who has a job is just glad to be working; better than homeless in the cold winters.
 
 
+10 # John Locke 2011-11-15 09:13
You will never find a media franchise like the NYT which is corporately owned and wall street financed that will turn against its financial backers...they are strictly mechinisms of propaganda like the nightly news and fox...look at who controls ALL media, and a big picture comes to life, there is government money behind them From defense contractors, to even Disney who is so very cozy with our CIA...
 
 
+10 # BradFromSalem 2011-11-15 09:13
Interesting article.

It implies that corporatism has a long history in the USA. Slowly evolving over the generations until we reach its pinnacle, where the target of political protests are not the political institutions anymore.

How fitting that an article written for Al Jezeera defines why the Occupiers feel it necessary, indeed crucial, that the target is Wall Street. This instinctive recognition of the true enemy of the ideal of America is what the Tea Party cannot or will not grasp.

Corey, thanks you for a very informative article. Food for thought.
 
 
+11 # John Locke 2011-11-15 09:19
Set backs are expected, as a movement moves ahead, interestingly in other countries they seem to have more freedom to protest than we have in America, our country likes to give the world an appearance of freedom and tollerance ... but obviously we are more oppressed here...and now the world knows the sham of American style democracy, we have no freedoms left...
 
 
0 # 666 2011-11-16 08:31
"how many people ... went to prison for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era? Fewer than 200... how many workers were investigated or subjected to surveillance... ? One to two out of every five. .. how many ... were fired .. somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000."

To pull out an important number: 20% to 40% of American "workers" (your qualification) underwent some form of state investigation in the 1950s!!!!! And that says nothing of millions who were back-balled & couldn't even get interviewed. It says nothing of MIC's widespread nuclear experimentation on workers & mentally ill (see the Boston Globe's pulitzer winning investigations from the late 1990s). etc etc.

I've long argued the fundamental legal problem we must resolve is to reassert the primacy of constitutional law over all other forms of law in this country (in particular contract law which has superseded constitutional law). Congress can make no law abridging freedom of speech etc, but business does it both in and out of the work place. Our choice is to accept it or to starve.
It may not be convenient for business, but the constitution must be the highest law of the land - along with a 2nd bill of rights guaranteeing this.
 

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