News & Politics

How Right-Wing Libertarians, John Birchers and Conspiracy Freaks Are Trying to Hijack the Occupy Movement

The Occupy movement's evolving agenda is in danger of being sullied by association with neo-Nazi David Duke and antigovernment crusader Ron Paul.

"End the Fed" signs, and other Ron Paul-inspired sloganeering have been a staple of Occupy encampments from the birth of the movement. To an extent, that reflects the Occupiers' diversity of ideas. But Paul, who wrote a book called End the Fed in 2009, has a spotty reputation among champions of social justice, which was made worse this week with the release of another round of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments excerpted from a newsletter he published throughout the 1980s.

At many Occupy encampments, “End the Fed” signs are everywhere, and Paul supporters are becoming more and more vocal — using the language of the Occupy movement in service of their extremist anti-government agenda.

For the most part cooler (and more progressive) heads prevail, but to a certain extent in the movement, anger at Wall Street and its bankers is morphing into anger at the Federal Reserve and international “banksters” — a term long popular among libertarians, John Birchers and the armed right-wing Patriot Movement.

The Occupy movement’s evolving agenda is in danger of being sullied by association with Paul, whose position includes at its core a conspiracy theory involving the Federal Reserve — a decades-old right-wing bugaboo. On the web, a crucial battleground in the era of the online revolution, the Occupy Movement’s central critique of the obscene power of corporations is in danger of being slapped way off course. Ron Paul supporters dominated the conversation in the public forum on, the movement’s unofficial Web site, throughout the fall. A December post on the forum complained about the Paul-partisan spammers, and warned against forging an alliance with “Wall Street's religious fanatics, the libertarians, espousing their predatory free-market religion.” 

A few weeks ago, the forum’s anonymous moderator finally banned Paul’s supporters from propagandizing:

“We do not support an election campaign for 2012. At all. We have removed election material for Obama, Paul, Warren, Paul, Cain, Paul, Perry, Paul, the green party, Paul, Nader, Paul, and did I mention Paul?”

At the same time, the forum mod announced a ban of “conspiracy theories, including any attempt to spam material by David Icke, Lyndon LaRouche, David Duke or Alex Jones.”

But elsewhere on the web, the Occupy message is being shanghaied by radical libertarians, Tea Partiers and worse.

On Martin Luther King Day, as the Occupy the Dream marchers were on the move in 13 cities, I Googled “Occupy Federal Reserve,” and the first result was a link to Infowars, a Web site run by Alex Jones, a Texas-based wingnut radio host. Jones, a longtime Ron Paul supporter, believes that the government staged both the World Trade Center attacks and the Oklahoma City bombings; that the Gates Foundation is a eugenics operation; and that the government has been taken over by agents of the New World Order who are planning to release a cancer-causing monkey virus.

Since the Occupy protests began, Jones, whom Rolling Stone has labeled “the most paranoid man in America,” has added a wrinkle to his shtick, ranting and blogging relentlessly on behalf of OWS and the 99 percent, while threading attacks on the 1 percent into his vitriolic rants. He also began to call (loudly) for the Occupy protesters to turn their attention to the Fed. Apparently it has become his chief mission to embrace — and be embraced by — the Occupy movement. His gambit may be working.

While Occupy the Fed appears to be largely a creation of Jones and other right-leaning libertarians, it is having some success weaving itself into the fabric of the movement. The Facebook page “Occupy Federal Reserve” contains status updates from thousands of Friends apparently affiliated with the mainstream Occupy movement. It also contains hundreds of updates posted by radical libertarians and wack-job conspiracy freaks. Days after launching, @OccupyFederalReserve posted a link to the 2007 documentary Zeitgeist, which claims to prove that 9/11 was orchestrated as a pretext for the creation of a police state, that the Fed and the IRS are criminal enterprises and, by the way, that Jesus Christ did not exist.

A later update, a link to another YouTube video, rails against “Zionist Jews, who are running these big banks and our Federal Reserve.” Those familiar with this topic could not be surprised to see this odious slur — it is commonly found at the root of anti-Fed conspiracy theories.

Among the results of any “Occupy Wall Street” YouTube search is a sickening eight-minute tirade by David Duke, the neo-Nazi former Louisiana congressman and KKK Grand Wizard, in which he inveighs against Wall Street and declares support for the Occupy movement, meanwhile blasting “Zionist bankers, Zionist prosecutors, Zionist judges and Zionist media.” 

To their great credit, many of the men and women who have stepped up as leaders in the Occupy movement have spoken out loudly and clearly against the anti-Semitism that has erupted, in rare instances, at Occupy encampments and online. But they have more pernicious enemies to battle than blatant bigotry: the selfish naiveté that allows radical libertarians to believe a completely unfettered market will lead to economic justice, and the paranoid naiveté that fuels conspiracists like Alex Jones.

Post-Rational Cynicism

For many of the people involved in the Occupy movement, this is their first involvement with political activism. Their openness to new ideas and reluctance to embrace any one political dogma is refreshing. But as the saying goes: “It’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

There is something undeniably romantic about radical libertarianism, with its fundamental commitment to individual liberty and its utopian belief in free markets. Its appeal can be found in the skyrocketing popularity of the film Thrive

A breathtaking concoction of New Age pseudoscience and paranoid conspiracy theory, the film starts off with ancient aliens delivering the secret of free energy to Earthlings, proceeds to show how the secret is being suppressed by an evil cabal — and somehow winds up as a treatise on radical libertarian politics.

Makes sense as political narrative, when you think about it. All of our problems are magically solved. But wait: the government’s squelching our space secrets? Abolish the government!

Thrive, which was purposely released on 11-11-11, is in heavy rotation on both Ron Paul and Occupy message boards. As is America: From Freedom to Fascism, another urgently paranoid (and thoroughly debunked) litany of conspiracy theories, from the illegality of the Fed and the IRS to the threat of human-implanted RFID chips.

Bill Chaloupka, author of the book Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America, sees the eruption of interest in wiggy conspiracy theories as something familiar — a populist expression of anger and skepticism. He’s not surprised, or overly concerned, that some people involved with the Occupy movement have been swept up in it.

“The most important thought that so many of these folks have is their disbelief,” he says. “They find these scraps of information — some credible and some not. They feel that they can recombine all of these scraps of information any way they want. And as far as they’re concerned, their combination is just as good as CNN’s.

“This astounding sense of disbelief is part of contemporary culture. We find it with the Tea Partiers and we find it within elements of the left as well.”

Chaloupka points out that the Occupy movement’s anarchistic impulse — an impulse he applauds — makes it somewhat vulnerable. But having witnessed the occupiers develop what he considers a consistent political identity, and having worked with other grassroots organizations, including Earth First, which employ this  “anarchistic process” strategy, Chaloupka believes the movement is not in grave danger of being co-opted.

“The Occupy culture knows how to repel this stuff,” he says. “The rap on Occupy — they don't have an agenda; they haven’t identified specific demands — that’s bogus. From what I can see, they’ve developed a coherent political culture. And that’s the most important thing. As a community, they’re obviously not going to give serious consideration to this kind of nonsense.”

Eric Johnson is a veteran altweekly editor now working as a freelance journalist and web consultant in Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley.