When I watched this video back in 2009 I lost hope for the "occupation movement." When anarchist grad students in California (I know that's not entirely accurate) took up the mantel I thought it was neat, but silly. Then Tahrir happened. Then Madison happened. Then Madrid happened. Then Occupy Wall Street happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. And this is about to happen. Now I'm confused.
This is not a negative post. I'm not going to tear apart the weaknesses of the Occupation movement (which are many) or poke fun at the contradictions in its history. Rather I want to start the conversation about occupations by trying to tell the story of this tactic and begin to see what is so compelling about it, though I will have to omit some of the most crucial elements of this to save space. As an opening of a "ruthless critique" I want to sketch a more sympathetic genealogy to uncover the ways that these protests fit into and alter the current historical landscape. I am doing this purely from the history I've gleaned from my activism and I'm almost certainly missing crucial moments. If you know of anything I'm missing please tell me so in the comments. I need to also note that the US occupations are very diverse actions with peculiarities in each location, but there are still, I believe, general trends that must be noted. Much of the coverage talks about these as spontaneous protests, but OccupyWallStreet has been in planning since July and the upcoming "Stop the Machine" protest in Washington, DC is being carefully coordinated by established organizations - they are far from out-of-thin-air. We need to understand how this is more than a hashtag.
It's hard to tell where the idea of an "occupation" originates. The word itself is vague. It could mean OccupyWallSreet or the occupation of Iraq. Today people often refer to the sit-down strikes of the 1930s as "factory occupations," or the lunch-counter sit-ins by SNCC as "occupations." The new left tactic that is likely most closely related to today's tactic is the student sit-ins that largely targeted administration or other campus buildings. But these tactics, while they do involve controlling space with bodies, are fundamentally different than today's "occupations." The point of the older actions was disruption, an "occupation" in the contemporary sense is not. The disruptive actions of old meant to create a physical barrier to some injustice. Sit-down strikes were conventional strikes that were particularly resistant to scabbing, sit-ins broke color lines and made it difficult to maintain segregated service and the student sit-ins tried to shut down campuses. The student tactic actually proved least effective precisely because it was not very good at shutting down the campus. The failed sit-in at the University of Chicago makes this strikingly clear. There the university did their best to ignore the action, leaving the students barricaded in the administration building for three weeks, as one veteran of the UChicago occupation told me a few years ago, "we just got tired of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
The current "occupations" are not disruptive. Camping out on Wall Street does not in anyway affect the daily workings of Goldman Sachs. Important birthplaces for this tradition are, like many activist practices used today in the US, two largely anarchist influenced and UK based movements (two lineages which also have to be more deeply explored) that developed under neoliberalism. First are encampments involved in anti-war and anti-nuclear movements during the 1980s and second is climate work which began in 2006, in particular the "Camp for Climate Action." These movements largely developed as a simple extension of traditional protests. While marches and demonstrations disperse after a scheduled time, often with a chant of "we'll be back," encampments don't disperse. This has two key goals: first it creates opportunities for continual coordinated actions and exciting political discussions and second it is a living symbol of refusal (more on these two points in a future post though if you want an idea of what I've got to say see my article about Madison, Wisconsin that I've linked to before). They do not form a barrier to an injustice and they do not rely on that for their success.
author: Guy Smallman
These marginal movements (in the sense of mainstream attention) are part of the genealogy of one of the most striking components of the current occupation movement, the intense stress on direct democratic decision making process. The anti-nuclear movement and environmental movement are often credited as the parents of the focus on decision making process and the sophisticated mechanisms to achieve it that can seem so baffling to many outsiders. Though the history is certainly longer, it is true that the specific techniques in use come from this period (see David Graeber's Direct Action and Francesca Polletta's Freedom is an Endless Meeting). In large part however, these did not come from the encampments but from the disruptive parts of these movements. Dangerous, drastic actions were undertaken by small, tightly knit groups of at most a dozen people (often called affinity groups), who had a rapport with each other (making consensus easier to achieve) and conducting at times life-threatening actions. For larger actions the notion of a spokes council was developed which means each affinity group sends a representative to a larger council to make some larger scale decisions but mostly to share information regarding the "diverse" tactics to be used a a protest. The protests at Seattle in 1999 were perhaps the apogee of this method.
An important point to make about this method is that it's extremely bad for ideological discussions. These movements did not feel the need to reach ideological unity. Individual affinity groups are sites of intense discussion and ideological debate but agreeing on the need to stop logging or atomic testing does not require agreement on the labor theory of value. Consensus and spokes councils are not about theory, they're about getting things done.
These techniques were also a matter of safety. It would be irresponsible to have a majority vote to u-lock your necks together on a construction site. If you don't want to do it then it may ruin the action when you start freaking out when cops start using an angle grinder next to your jugular. The spokes council structure also helped protect against infiltrators for the more illegal actions like those undertaken by the Earth Liberation Front. The techniques of direct democracy have a very material history in a very different context than the current occupations. One of the most important stories behind the recent occupation protests is this dissonance.
The "general assembly" technique that's being used is heavily indebted to the spokes council model and consensus methods, which are now being applied to mass, open-attendance decision making. Speaking from my own experience over the last week here in Las Vegas (see:occupylasvegas.org), obvious problems arise. Without a consistent rapport or even consistent attendance it's difficult to develop trust, comfort with open confrontation of problematic power dynamics, and efficient discussions. In many ways, meetings like this are less democratic than if they were run with Robert's Rules of Order. That's not to say I think they are useless, as a matter of fact I think that they have become uniquely suited to the nature of these protests.
To see this we need to think about the sociological changes between the origins of these techniques and these more recent movements which only began in earnest with Tahrir Square. The former involved small groups of self-identified radicals who largely agreed ideologically, the latter is a mass movement of ideologically diverse (and often incoherent) people who can be described as "indignants" (which should not be taken derogatorily). This change also marks, for me, the dividing line between the first wave of occupations in response to the crisis, on campuses in NYC and California, and this new wave that began with Tahrir. The best evidence of this is comparing my opening video with the one immediately above. The general assembly method serves three purposes peculiar to this new context.
First, it gives indignants a space to voice their grievances. This was the purpose of "the people's microphone" in the Capitol in Wisconsin and will likely be evident if you attend a general assembly meeting (an occupation is probably coming to a town near you!). The collective voice of a meeting will often resemble a person with Tourrette's syndrome whereby a clear line of debate is interrupted by a spirited denunciation of bankers or politicians that is only barely related. People who have spent the years since Lehman on their couch becoming increasingly exasperated with the direction of society finally find a receptive and sympathetic audience. The result is often cathartic and enthusiastic glee.
The second purpose of the general assembly is to give each new indignant that shows up an easy way to feel a sense of ownership and control of the protest as well as a straightforward way to get more involved. In contrast to the social movement left, led by non-profit industrial behemoths like MoveOn.org and Greenpeace, professionalized organizations that value expertise and activist-cred, the general assembly technique has no barriers of credibility and is resistant to forms of expertise. This causes some obvious problems but it does prevent people from feeling out of place and leaving with a feeling that protesting isn't for them. More than this, when someone interjects a specific thought or expresses enthusiasm for one aspect of the protests, other people in the assembly can easily direct them to the appropriate working group or leaders to help out in this regard. This can lead to feelings of glee and helps folks feel at home enough to literally set up camp.
Third the inability to have ideological discussions actually seems to help keep the movement going. There are so few people involved with clear ideological positions that any attempt to form blocks would be sectarian and splinter the group. On a deeper level, as we've already discussed here at permanent crisis, the Left has no viable politics that respond to the current crisis. Without this, any attempt to achieve that, through whatever method, would only stifle the energy of those involved.
Occupiers are conscious of these issues (I think even the third to a degree) and they're a big part of the popularity of the general assembly. It's important however to show the novelty of these and that they are largely foreign to many of the historical motivations of this technique. It is a very inefficient form of collective governance and highly susceptible to informal hierarchies and nearly impossible to have ideological discussions. The general assembly therefore is less about democracy in this sense of governance and more about democracy in the sense of openness. What's more, this openness seems to be precisely what is called for at this historical moment, creating a multitude of ways for people to express their indignation and feel empowered to do something about it. The potential is there for this to be an opening, an opening of a new mass of politicized individuals from which a movement that might make significant changes can be built. Though we still have no idea how to do this.