A former Occupy participant reflects on the problems and virtues of a failed movement.
I would like to apply a basic Marxist analysis of the Occupy phenomenon. This is much more difficult than it might appear. There was no clear class orientation, though it often seemed to skew white and declasse. Occupy wasn’t a programmatic organization with a set of points open to critique. It arguably wasn’t even an organization. An event might be the best description, and it could almost be seen as a kind of temperature check of the American left in its moment. Any easy criticism of it will inevitably amount to it not being Marxist enough, i.e. lacking any kind unified program or even a shared understanding of capitalism. Decentralized in the extreme, Occupy was at once pre-political and hyper-political. Like riots or other spontaneous outbursts of indignation, the participants in Occupy agreed more on what they were against than what they were for, but unlike a riot, a great deal of the movement and discussion internal to the phenomenon was dominated by an abundance of conflicting political conceptions. In a way, Occupy was almost an effort to conjure a resistance to the current order out of thin air.
Since it no longer exists, and since it never really had any positions to begin with beyond slogans and complaints, recapitulating the necessary points of programmatic Marxism would largely be a waste of time. So instead I’m going to put on my swamp boots and wade back into the political muck of Occupy as I remember it. There were points where Occupy exhibited traces of latent untapped potential. It could have taken a turn that might have moved closer to substantial class conflict, where some steps were taken in the right direction. Typically however such steps were too little too late, or implemented haphazardly and not treated with the necessary seriousness that meaningful political struggle requires. I will identify some of these points along the way and offer a final summary of this failed movement.
Occupy Wall Street was clearly a response to the global financial crisis of 2007/2008, yet it seems curious that it took over three years for any kind of popular mobilization to take place in response to it. Part of this had to do with the election of Barack Obama, which many hoped would bring some kind of deeper shakeup in Washington politics. The general disarray of the American Left, burnt out from the numerous summit protests of the preceding anti-globalization wave, and the even more apparently fruitless anti-war demonstrations, doubtless played no small part in this as well. The belated response of the left to the financial crisis indicates just how far directly economic questions have been removed from the political conversation in this country. It wasn’t until the revolution in Tahrir square and similar movements that something came a long which seemed to serve as a plausibly functional new protest model. The first effort at this came in the Wisconsin Union protests, which would eventually end in a failed gubernatorial recall against Scott Walker. Old school peace activists planned a similarly styled protest in Washington DC, but for whatever reason the Occupy Wall Street protest is what caught everyone’s attention and energies. This action brought forth every conceivable aspect of the left, along with no shortage of elements from the fringe right, all seeking to reenact past glories or realize future visions. For the politically naïve, and I include myself in this, all of the past accounts of history suddenly seemed to be back on the table for a new settling.
Whenever I have talked to someone about Occupy, either when it was happening or after, I am reminded of the parable of the elephant and the blind men in which several men each grasp a different portion of an elephant and each has a radically different understanding of what they’ve experienced. Some came to Occupy for a hippie jam fest, others brought insurrectionary delusions of grandeur, some wanted to further their political careers, some wanted to fight the illuminati or the Tea Party, some wanted a revolution and others wanted life to be like the 50’s again. It is by no means limited to observers of the Occupy phenomenon that there are numerous conflicting analysis of what the hell the thing was. If anything, Occupy’s participants themselves had the largest spectrum of views on the subject. This was not accidental. From the beginning Occupy was undefined by any particular analysis or political agenda. Nor was there any set of agreed upon tactics aside from “taking public space” in a general populist demonstration against a set of vaguely defined elites. Riding high on enthusiasm over the “Arab spring” and low on the fallout from the financial crisis, this was enough to bring out almost every sector of the American left, as well as many others without any political experience or identification, in addition to Libertarian rightists, tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists, and even the oathkeepers in some places. Lyndon LaRouche and god knows what else. This set the stage for a massive an impromptu political conversation in which the imperative to act brought out all sorts of questions as to what people should actually do. The most famous of the initial calls to occupy wall street was put out by adbusters, in which they called for protesters to decide on “one big demand.” While many were opposed to making demands of the state, there was still a general sense that the discussion would turn to some kind of collective project or at least a concrete decision upon a course of action. But the numerous conflicting ideological dispositions and discourses resulted in an increasing confusion. Ultimately the effort was abandoned.
To add another layer of complication, every Occupy was different. Occupy Oakland saw itself as a commune and fought the police constantly while Occupy San Francisco endorsed Ron Paul for president. I participated primarily through the Tampa manifestation of the movement, and it is through that vantage point that can discuss it.
From the beginning, Occupy Tampa was both bolstered and hampered by the forthcoming Republican National Convention. Preparation for the event served as a long term goal for people to point to, at the same time it brought up a level of scrutiny by the police and various other interests that many were unprepared to deal with. The initial demonstrations in Tampa, for which I was not present, are purported to have numbered in the hundreds and some have claimed thousands. Tampa was one of the first out in Florida, and so had larger attendance numbers than others, though participants at nearby cities that I’ve spoken to reported similar levels of initial strength. The kind of turnout of the earliest protests would never be seen again, even during the RNC, but the hope seemed to be all along that we could somehow return to that moment. Overlooking of course the numerous people who turned up to take selfies and leave, in Tampa many blamed the initial decline in turn out to the first big split over the question of whether or not to take a park.
The question over whether or not to take a park immediately split the radicals against the reformists. The debate and “consensus” over the matter was subject to extensive procedural manipulation. In short, there was one faction lead mainly by aspiring careerists and DP hacks who sought to position themselves as mediators between the protesters and the city. They negotiated with representatives from the city in meetings that were often rumored but no one knew the content of, and threatened to go to the media and condemn anyone who was arrested trying to take a park as “not being a part of Occupy.” Unfortunately their ploy worked at getting the protesters not to go in the park, but of course it failed to get the city to give us space, their stated aim. When I started attending, Occupy Tampa was in the midst of this debate.
Instead of fighting for a park, we camped out on a 10 foot sidewalk near a busy road. We were routinely awoken violently by the police every morning and subjected to the kind of endless harassment that being in a park probably would have provoked anyway. But instead of one big confrontation, there was a steady withering away of forces over the following months.
Throughout my experience of Occupy, I observed an intensive focus on process. Because of the extreme heterogeneity of the different ideologies of the participants, making any kind of lasting decision collectively could be enervating in the extreme. It makes sense then that boundaries would have to be routinely enforced discursively in order for discussions not to collapse into shouting matches or even fistfights (which isn’t to say that these never happened either). The focus on process also stemmed from the obscurity of the process itself. Consensus decision making, typically utilized by small groups of like minded activists, hadn’t been typically applied to something as large and heterogeneous as Occupy. And for many, consensus decision making was a new concept. Because there was no central decision making body for the movement on a larger level, though the General Assembly of New York was the closest thing to it, clarity over what constituted good consensus practice was lacking. Horizontal decision making was as subject to manipulation and opportunism as anything else. Furthermore people often approached it formally in a way so as to gain an edge in the discussion. Often, debates over process served as proxies for deeper ideological differences, which served to obscure them further. Not to say that there weren’t broader debates over ideology, or attempts to develop a unified platform and strategy. There were numerous efforts at this, and abstract theoretical and historical conversations went on informally constantly. Again, without any underlying basis of agreement, these efforts went extremely slowly and lead nowhere. What could capture people’s attention tended to be instances in which the occupation’s functioning itself was in crisis.
Amid this, the issue over taking a park persisted. Many who were sleeping in the sidewalk wanted tents, others were convinced that things couldn’t go on without some kind of “infrastructure,” even more abstractly some insisted that we weren’t a “real occupy” unless we took public space. Eventually, around November and for all of the wrong reasons, the GA approved a plan to take a park, one that was approximately 1.5 miles from the downtown. What this meant of course was people getting arrested. The park was dark, there were no witnesses, and our popular support was not at the level it had seen initially. Many of those most agitating for this were themselves never arrested. Some never even stuck around when the cops showed up, and it has been later suspected that the “plan” was put together in part by some retrospectively shady people with the explicit intent of draining human resources. The police certainly seemed to enjoy themselves and treated the whole affair like the training exercise that it probably was. GA funds were drained on bail bonds and people were tied up in court. At this point the enthusiasm waned and the occupation limped on into the new year when it moved even further away from downtown to West Tampa to live on a park with the permission of its owner, local strip club magnate Joe Redner.
The narrative goes on for another 8 months, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll cut it off here. The long strange journey things took were probably less typical of most occupies nationally. We eventually reached the RNC with token forces, and whatever protest were managed were so easily contained by the police that things remained fairly ineffectual. Occupy Tampa lasted longer than most, but it was almost certainly a pyrrhic victory. For better and for worse, Occupy Tampa was a transformative experience for many. For me it served as a kind of crash course in American Leftism. I was exposed to a ton of new ideas and was able to test some notions I had in practice. In its best moments there was a sense of camaraderie and rebellion that you could almost get high off of. In the end I was forced to clarify my thinking and get around to studying Marxism more seriously, though not everyone took away the same lessons.
Instead of going through the numerous blind alleys that plagued the movement, the most prominent being it’s Graeberian focus on debt resistance, I’d like to instead point to the more positive tendencies and directions that it leaned in over the course of its existence. In spite of everything, there were a number of points and tactics that Occupy moved toward that showed a certain degree of promise, and that may even contain traces of elements we will see in struggles to come.
The openness of occupations meant that they were often inundated with houseless persons, the neediest people in the social order and sometimes the most dysfunctional. Providing food, aid, and just accommodating their baggage was often a drain on resources, yet it is one of the few concretely positive things that Occupy did. Revolutionary organizations cannot become charities, and there is nothing inherently revolutionary about charity. However, if the proletariat is to recompose itself as a class, developing lines of mutual aid and support will form a necessary be a part of any project of emancipation. In instances of strikes and other struggles against Capital the question of how food and other resources will be administrated becomes an immediate issue for the proletariat. Furthermore, the development of working class institutions capable of acting as a form of counter power is a development that ought to be encouraged. Of course Occupy came nowhere close to this, and never developed a sustainable means of regulating the internal distribution of resources, however its open handed policy with food was much preferable to having images of poor people being turned away. Many liberals, and even one houseless person that I talked to, blamed the collapse of occupy in part on the homeless. This of course is absurd. Again, it was the failure of Occupy as a whole to develop a cogent analysis of capitalism and viable strategy for the developing political power that allowed it to run out of gas. Without an outward sense of direction, there really can’t be any clear metrics through which to determine the allocation of resources anyway. In Tampa this effort has transitioned into a local chapter of Food Not Bombs, one of the better existing organizations in the area.
On a national level other occupations had some level of success fighting home evictions. Having access to free legal representation, sometimes in the form of the National Lawyers Guild tended to be important to these efforts. Much of the struggles against home evictions involved civil disobedience i.e. getting arrested. For this struggle to work, there would need to be more extensive political institutions capable of representing the proletariat, or a set of tactical actions undertaken in such a way capable of challenging or evading the law on the ground. There were efforts to attempt this in Tampa. Foreclosure rates in the area were astronomical and so in theory Tampa would have made a good place for such an effort. Few were willing to come forward to make their living situation a media circus/political issue and no one involved were willing to take the risks directly themselves. Eventually local activists attempted to import the Take Back the Land model of squatting in foreclosed homes. This already problematic model was implemented poorly. Contrary to what some involved were being told, the one house that was taken however ended up serving more as a publicity stunt for local paid “organizers” before the RNC. The house itself was stocked with homeless people who were told by one organizer that they were getting the deed to the house.
Occupy Oakland became famous for its routine Fuck the Police Marches and overall fighting spirit. Confrontation with the police, and any other armed representative of the state, has always formed a crucial component to revolutionary struggle. In recent decades, the United States prison population has skyrocketed, and it is no coincidence that this has taken place midst a period of de-industrialization. Rising populations, surplus to the needs of capital accumulation, must be increasingly managed by the armed force of the stat). For those outside the immediate circuit of productive capital the police stand in as the primary enforcer of capitalist social relations. The problem of the police, who enforce property relations, is one of the central problems of capitalism and will continue to remain central to future struggle. This has been borne out further in recent years.
Occupy started out as an effort by leftists and internet libertarians to recreate the Arab spring in the United States. As insane as this sounds, the fact that the protest was inspired by international action, and consistently saw itself as a part of a global movement is important. Again, due to its extreme decentralization this internationalism never really evolved beyond signs and salutes over the internet, but the spirit was in the right place.
Perhaps the biggest missed window lied in OWS’s attempt to revive the myth of the General Strike. Slated for May 1st, the events ended up being more of a May Day rally than anything else. Getting organized labor back behind a “red holiday” wasn’t nothing but it wasn’t a lot either. From the beginning many sought to develop one demand in the style of Egypt’s one demand to get rid of Mubarak, and I think that a General Strike could have fit the bill. It wouldn’t have been addressed to anyone in power, but instead to the whole of workers everywhere, which would have satisfied a good deal of anarchist concerns over placing demands toward those in power. The effort to organize something approaching a general stopping of the capitalist economy would have required the development of a level of coordination and labor organization that doesn’t currently exist. If the notion had been taken seriously as a long term goal, the efforts needed to bring it into being, or even close, could have served to elevate the level of class organization and bring the efforts of occupies into the realm of legitimate political struggle. Not to say that there aren’t problems with the concept of the General Strike, but a serious effort would have been streets ahead of anything else they had going and might have given things an outward orientation beyond trying to keep occupation going. Of course, there is no guarantee that the meme of a General Strike, even with the full backing and support of Occupy would have caught on the same way that the take the square protests did, and it even leaves out the question of what the general strike would be for exactly. But the relocation of Occupy’s organizational energies from camping and street marches toward the realm of wage labor could only have been an improvement, and in my opinion stood to open new possibilities.
Of course, the extension or intensification of any of these aspects would not in itself have translated into a more meaningfully revolutionary organization. But had things continued along these lines, new sets of problems might have opened themselves up, prompting new theoretical and analytical needs. Occupy’s lateral thinking worked best when it was able to avoid the normal blind alleys of American leftism.
Occupy was the apotheosis of the neo-liberal, post-modern protest. If the term rhizomatic could be applied to any type of protest, Occupy fit the bill. Occupy perfectly demonstrated the failure of a leftist discourse in which all struggles are theoretically equal, and randomized action will somehow additively total up to something. In order to shape the world there has to be some kind of “shared grand narrative” or at least an agreed upon “worldview” of its participants. We must understand class as the axis through which to understand the totality of social relations. Through this lens we can have a meaningful political orientation and begin to conceive of tactics that don’t just amount to persistent agitation and well, activism. This requires not only clear points that can be critiqued and refined against experience but an open identifiable, accountable leadership.
Since the post-war recovery from the great depression, capital has seen numerous crisis. Due to new modes of state capitalist economic management none have resulted in the same kind of panic and sudden catastrophe of past crises. And yet in 2008 we came close. If Marx was correct about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and there is some empirical evidence that he may well be, then the contradictions which compelled protesters to take to the streets will continue to develop. Capital will respond and the proletariat will also respond.
Occupy well demonstrated the limitations of franchise activism. Having a highly decentralized organization based around some popular slogans has the virtue of bringing in large numbers of people, and spreading geographically very quickly. The problem comes when these groups have to act in accord and represent something that has captured the public imagination. We can see this now with the Black Lives Matter movement. Formed in response to a series of uprisings against police brutality, BLM is similarly decentralized, with no accountable leadership beyond the admins of the original website. BLM has a tighter focus, but it is also coming up against questions of what its relationship should be towards the police and how it should relate to the state in general and electoral politics in particular. As with Occupy, as with any movement there are currents within it who hold higher aspirations for human liberation. But without a clear analysis of capitalism and an adjoining program that can build power and win reforms it seems headed directly into the old currents of activism and DP political machinery.
It is easy to mock the more ridiculous aspects of Occupy. In fact this was a favorite past time of many of its most loyal adherents at the camps. It is also easy to dismiss it out of hand as being insufficiently class based. But many of those who were stirred by the actions of the camps shared a strong imperative to “do something.” It makes sense then that the somethings that they latched onto consisted of whatever was closest at hand in existing American politics. It is up to us then to develop a new current, and advocate for an alternative to activism and the NGO complex, and to articulate a clear theoretical understanding of capitalism and how to abolish it. Only with a proper map can we hope to get anywhere from here.