Wednesday, February 6, 2013

More Manifestos

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.


Unknown said...

You've got to be kidding. It's always seemed to me that the will to create manifestoes was symptomatic of everything that was wrong with European politics in the last century. Clarity and consistency are absolute enemies of good politics; they breed conflict, sectarianism, and extremism.

What Act Up had was a list of demands, like a labor union. Libertarians, Communists, Fascists, Yippies, John Birchers, and suchlike noxious groups are the sort who have manifestoes.

John said...

You're just playing with the words. Yes, manifestos were obnoxious, especially from artists. But at least the manifesto habit led to people having clear programs. Political movements should have lists of goals, which I am calling, somewhat tendentiously, maifestos.

There are certainly times when not being specific helps politics. But at other times, as with the Tea Party, vagueness just becomes an excuse for inchoate rage.

Unknown said...

Perhaps you are right, I am playing with words. Though in my defense I would say that Act Up and the Tea Party seem very different to me, in that the former was not interested in winning elections; they were only interested in agitating for their fairly limited set of goals. In any case, it seems to me there are plenty of groups around with manifestos, and I don't see how it does the country any good. A Tea Party manifesto might well replace their inchoate, relatively ineffectual rage, with focused, dangerous rage. It would turn a bull session into Grover Norquist or the Project for a New American Century--and do we want more of those? I don't see any reason manifestos in themselves are desirable, and I think my point about European politics in the last century stands.

John said...

I personally don't want right wingers to have clear goals of any sort, and I much prefer them to be confused and directionless.

But Occupy Wall Street might have done some good if all that energy had been directed toward some political goal -- higher taxes on investment income, say -- rather than frittered away on clever tricks for doing without loudspeakers.