I was just reading a review of a book about the artistic scene in early 20th century Italy, and it was all about manifestos. The Futurists had lots of manifestos, the Fascists had manifestos, even the conservative Catholics had manifestos. The communists had a famous manifesto. What happened to the manifesto?
Why didn't the Tea Party have a manifesto? wouldn't it have been a lot easier for us to figure out what they were trying to achieve if they had issued one at the start?
And what about Occupy Wall Street? I still don't know what they were about, other than a sort of generalized rage against inequality and a love of urban camping. Wouldn't a manifesto have given the movement some clarity of purpose?
And that, I think, is the key. Neither the Tea Party nor Occupy Wall Street had a manifesto because nobody, least of all the demonstrators themselves, really knew what they wanted. They were angry about something, that's for sure; but what? Inequality? Corrupt relationships between commercial bankers, the Fed, and the Treasury? Democracy being undone by back-room deals? The decline of the stable middle class family? I'm against all of those things. But what are we going to do about them?
In the absence of concrete programs, political movements are just parades. The Tea Party mostly seems to be a fit pitched by grouchy suburban white people against the whole direction of post-1970 America. Occupy Wall Street was some kind of attack on capitalism, but one that avoided endorsing socialism; where does that leave us?
Andrew Sullivan has been writing lately about ACT-UP in the 1980s, a movement with a strong carnival element and a lot of crazy anger, but that nonetheless achieved much. Why? Because they had, from the start, a list of concrete demands that were within the power of legislators to grant: more AIDS funding, a requirement that hospitals accept AIDS patients, subsidies so people without insurance could afford AZT when it became available, and so on. They had, although they didn't call it one, a manifesto.
Rhetoric is important to politics, and so is the harnessing of emotion; songs, speeches, and marches can help build a movement to fight for change. But without some concrete notion of what change is wanted, nothing is going to happen, and eventually all the protesters are going back home with nothing to show for their efforts.