Occupy Paranoia

Who will time and history come closer to vindicating, the anti-communists or the anti-capitalists?

By Carl L. Bankston III

In 1963, Richard Hofstadter published an essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  “I call it the paranoid style,” he wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”  Hofstadter acknowledged the influence of this paranoid style in popular movements throughout American history, but he directed his attention most immediately toward what he characterized as the right-wing political thinking of the day, especially toward anti-Communism. Of course, one response to Hofstadter’s claims might be that he was constructing an ad hominem argument (“you are wrong because you are paranoid”).  Was the anti-Communism of the fifties and early sixties really paranoia or was it recognition of a genuine conspiracy?  Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the publication of materials such as those in the Venona program, it is today evident that Soviet agents did engage in conspiratorial activities within the United States. The anti-Communist paranoids were wrong only in attributing excessive competence and coordination to the conspirators.

Still, although we might criticize Hofstadter’s essay as an effort to disguise partisan rhetoric as historical commentary, there is something to the concept of a paranoid political style. Not long ago, I read a collection of Gordon S. Wood’s essays, which contains his 1982 adaptation of the Hofstadter conceit to discuss ideas of causality in the eighteenth century. Wood maintains that one of the reasons Americans were so suspicious of the intentions of the English parliament in the years leading up to the Revolution was the commonly shared eighteenth century understanding of causality as a matter of the intentions of individual actors, rather than as the mechanics of impersonal and unintended historical forces. In reading Wood’s essay, I thought that Wood (like Hofstadter) might too readily assume that paranoids don’t have enemies, and that the English government did not contain some genuine intentions to limit American autonomy and subordinate American interests. I also thought the Wood was too ready to attribute the “paranoia” to a peculiarly eighteenth century approach to social thought. The inclination to believe that everything happens because some group of actors is pursuing a virtuous or nefarious end may be more of a universal human tendency than a product of eighteenth century economic and political complexity outpacing social philosophy.

If the paranoid style is constant, the question may be: when is paranoia reasonable? In other words, when does it make sense to see events as products of small groups of people acting in concert to affect the lives of large numbers of others and when does it make sense to see events as unintended consequences of actions or institutional structures?  As I look at the various Occupy movements around the United States today, I tend to see them as manifestations of the paranoid style. If home values have been dropping and foreclosures have been increasing, this must be because the mortgage industry has sought to victimize homeowners for the sake of profit. If unemployment has been increasing, this must be because neo-liberals want to drive down American wages and seek more exploitable workforces at home and abroad. If students graduate from college with heavy loans, this must be because they are victims of a deceptive, self-seeking student loan industry. If economic inequality has been growing, this must be because the wealthy are attempting to deprive everyone else and concentrate resources in their own hands.  Ultimately, all evils come together in the machinations of the 1 percent cabal on Wall Street.  Our social and economic issues are, therefore, all questions of morality and justice and outrage and demonstration are the most appropriate responses to them.

I think in the case of the Occupy movements, the paranoia is indeed true paranoia, a perception of a conspiracy that doesn’t exist. Profit-seeking did play a part in the mortgage bubble, but so did the egalitarian ideology of universal home ownership.  Unemployment has increased, but this was due mainly to the mechanization of domestic labor and to a more inter-connected world labor market. College is expensive and depends heavily on student debt, but this is largely the unintended consequence of efforts to extend college education through subsidizing demand. Economic inequality fluctuates over the decades, but current increases in relative inequality are due to more to the financialization of the American economy than to the malevolence of the wealthy.  If the occupiers could somehow dispossess the putative plotters on Wall Street or force CEOs to take smaller pay packages, this would solve nothing.


The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.  He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here.  He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2011 Carl L. Bankston III.


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