04 October 2011


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.


  1. If we treat this "protest" formally-- which it seems is what Earl wants to do-- I simply do not understand what urban camping does, how it acheives its goals. Earl compares it to strikes and sit ins but within the form of both of these a logical goal could be reached. A strike takes the productive process hostage and halts the creation of capital until the workers' demand are met or the strike is broken. A sit-in forcibly, though politely, integrates a segregated space, provoking the state to uphold the equality of citizens. Occupying Wall St. or the financial districts of other cities hopes to indirectly shame bankers into paying higher taxes and submitting themselves to greater regulation. This strikes me as entirely performative and utterly ineffective. The point, it seems, is to "do something" no matter what that something is or how effective it is. A perfect example of this is an interview with a participant on NPR. THe participant was asked what are your goals; she answered: "We don't have goals we have a process." A highly typical anachist and postmodern fetishization of form over conent-- who cares if our goals are reactionary, we arrived at them through concesus!

    With regard to goals of this campout, it seems from what I gather that the most radical edge of what they are seeking is greater financial regulation and enforcement of tax laws. This is the radical left in 2011 and it is the platform of centrist Democrats.

    The fact that this ideology is posing "the people," the 99%, against a conspiratorial, wealthy minority of financiers is deeply troubling. This personalizes the systemic domination of the capitalist system and does so in a way that is classically reactionary.

    The idea that a) the problem lies with "Wall Street" and not
    businesses that have been underpaying people for years and busting
    unions, which in turn creates the conditions where the credit card and
    home refinancing are necessary is to completely miss the point, b)
    that by "occupying" the space of the Wall Street, you would impact
    capital flows at all, at all, at all betrays a fundamental
    misunderstanding of capitalism, c) the notion that a urban camp out
    can acheive anything more than spectacular victimhood-- beatings
    etc.-- is farcical. What are you going to shame them into not pursuing
    profit? Is Goldman going to go out of business and lose millions of
    people's life savings because loiterers are provoking a
    confrontation with the police? The movements that toppled the middle
    eastern autocratic regimes were a) dealing with unpopular autocrats
    and not businesses, were combined with general strikes, were
    absolutely massive, and had actual political goals. (Goals that were
    to acheive what already exists on "Wall Street"-- political democracy,
    a legal public sphere, end to torture, etc. etc.)

    The fact that unions are joining them could either be encouraging for
    the enlightenment they could bring to the protest, or depressing
    because of the benightedness of the unions if they fall into line with
    the above problems. This is all window dressing, in my opinion, by the
    unions. If they were serious about actually dealing with the problem
    that the occupiers think they are dealing with the unionists would be
    fighting in their places of work.

    I don't see how "the people," "the 99%," or "the consumer" is a critical standpoint, particularly with regard to the banks. What do they demand? Greater regulation of banks that would deny poor people credit? Loan forgiveness? To what end? I don't see the dialectical opposition between the 99% and the banks. The problems of a focus on banks has been problematic since Proudhon and I know that I don't need to enumerate why to you. The contemporary economic woes are a problem of the incapacity of most people to consume and not one of access to credit or excessively high interest rates.

  2. to clarify (and I made some minor edits to my post to make this clear) I agree that this tactic does not disrupt anything. I want to bring out the ways the current movement is a clash of conflicting and contradictory histories. The Sit-ins of the new left may be inspiration but they're not part of the tactics more specific history. Instead we're seeing a convergence of what I might say are three things. First are peculiar anarchist traditions influenced heavily from the UK anarchist tradition and, though I didn't mention this in the post, autonomia Italian Marxism (which heavily influenced British anarchism). These folks were the leaders of the first wave of occupations that happened at the New School, NYC and California. Second is the base, not the organizations (though that's starting to change for better or for worse), of the centrist liberal establishment, SEIU, Democrats, MSNBC. Most of these people have never been politically involved. I think the organizations will never fully sign on to this because it is so chaotic and they need to be in control. The third tradition is the image (and a very mythologized image without much attention to the material reality) of oppositional populist movements in the Middle East and the anti-cuts movements. The materiality of this influence needs to be further developed.

    Sorry if the way I wrote my post wasn't clear enough. I'm trying to weave together a lot of different thought threads.

  3. Without disagreeing with any of the content of Frank's comments, it seems premature to me to conclude that Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations are a dead end or "reactionary". Those are both real dangers for the reasons Frank spells out, but protest is always a dynamic process. If the occupations were to remain exactly as they are now, then nothing would come of them - but the only certainty is that their current shape will not persist.

    Focusing on the protesters themselves, their (deeply inadequate) self-understandings and goals, misses the significance of protest, which is how it affects other political actors. Up to this point, the only significant political actors on the terrain thrown up by the crisis have been the mainstream neoliberals (Paulson, Obama, Bernanke) and the Tea Party. Neither of these groups has understood the crisis, even one-sidedly. However, the majority of the population is not represented by either one. Thus far they have remained silent.

    What the occupation movement might be able to do (tho it has thus far fallen far short) is to mobilize some part of that silent majority behind significant restrictions on finance capital, and perhaps even behind a program of greater corporate regulation and social equality. As I argued in detail last month, bringing finance under control is by no means sufficient to resolving the crisis, but it is absolutely necessary to a resolution.

    As I also argued there, if the movement that wins these reforms does not also successfully produce a broader and deeper understanding of the real source of our economic problems, then no matter its victories it will ultimately fail. The hostility to theory that Earl identifies in the occupations is thus a very troubling sign. But unlike the consciousness of the mainstream neoliberals and the Tea Party, the consciousness of those attracted by the demonization of finance - for the first time in this crisis - gives us something to work with. It's up to us to try to channel this discontent in a way that would be adequate to the historical circumstances, which we cannot do by simply condemning it.

  4. Essentially, Walker, then what you arguing is that we should not be too critical of the Occupations because they might be transformed into something fundamentally different and at that point we may be able to support them (or they might become more reactionary). I don't find this convincing. We should engage with them as are in the present not as we hope they will become in the future. My attitudes is that if they become something fundamentally different (that is in fact left wing) I will have no problem supporting that fundamentally different movement.

    I stick by my claim that the populism of the Occupations is reactionary. It personalizes capitalism into a specific group "the 1%" and argues against the this group, composed entirely of financiers-- they are not camped out in Redwood WA. The "99%" present themselves as an "us" and as "the people" attempting to fuse together real fissures in society. Since the overcoming of feudalism, such a rhetoric has ceased to be revolutionary. Their demands amount to a reconstitution of the Fordist Welfare state-- i.e. a move backward in time to an imagined better period. (In this way they are not formally that different from the Tea Party. ) In fact, they seem to be arguing that this 1% of financiers has been weakening the productivity and blocking the access to employment of otherwise "productive" people. This vision of the world has all the hallmarks of reactionary populism.

  5. that should be Redmond, sorry.

  6. I won't repeat Frank's comments, which I essentially agree with, but I would like to highlight that the "Occupy X" stuff shares the same populism as was common in the anti-globalization stuff. This isn't to say that an anti-capitalist element wasn't present, but it was typically either a certain kind of anarchist milieu (with some autonomist Marxist elements mixed in) which existed alongside a populist anti-finance milieu whose definition of the problem sounds an awful lot like that coming from traditional anti-Semitic "big bad banker" ideology. For the latter the problem is not capitalist production, but Good Production versus Bad Speculation.

  7. I have no problem being critical, as I think my writing has already shown. The problem I have is with dismissing this movement out of hand as incapable of developing in a positive direction and for that reason immediately alienating its participants and supporters by condemning it.

    The misrecognitions of capitalism that have been pointed out are certainly a concern. But many if not most of the people who accept them could be brought around to a more complex understanding. The impulses of most of the people involved here - toward equality, democratic control of the government, a subordinate finance sector, and (less widespread) toward internationalism and a structural understanding of capitalism - are fundamentally progressive. These are completely different impulses than those animating the Tea Party and the mainstream neoliberals, and they offer possibilities that have been foreclosed for a decade. To expect a revolutionary orientation to somehow spring fully formed from the barren terrain of neoliberalism is deeply unrealistic.

    Making something of this would require actually working within the movement rather than condemning it from outside, but if we aren't interested in practical politics, what's the point of doing this?

  8. I agree with Walker, which does not mean I don't see the same problems that Frank and Chris do. We can't think of this a movement that could really accomplish what it's setting out to accomplish, and I mean that generally not simply because of its peculiar failings. This is a spontaneous expression of mass consciousness, not a concrete collective will. This is not people collectively trying to get stuff done, this is people collectively saying that they're indignant. Unfortunately considering where we are historically I'd say that's a major step for the US. Mass consciousness does not need to be sophisticated or absolutely progressive for its expression to be a good thing in terms of moving forward that consciousness

    To me there are a number of pertinent questions:
    1) Why is this action so compelling to people?
    2) What does that say about the shape of the current historical moment?
    3) How did it spread so fast?
    4) How will this change what kinds of arguments and visions make sense to people?
    5) What forms of organized struggle can be used to advance the movement after this dies down?

  9. "The people" against the 1% may be reactionary, but all political movements need enemies to dialectially define themselves against and take sustenance from. An easily understandable dichotomy is not surprisingly much more compelling to many more people than a complex analytical position directed against a slippery conceptual object like capitalism.

  10. For my part, I am self-consciously hesitant about things like this in part because I know I get excited to see even a small amount of movement. I've also seen protests that fail to materialize into anything concrete. All things considered, what came out of Seattle in the 90's was much, much more widespread than this is... for now. And the anti-globalization stuff in the developed countries never came near what it was in other places.

    This is where I think that Frank's point about the events in the Middle East and North Africa are really important to keep in mind. Much the same analysis could be made of the MST in Brazil or the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the events in Argentina in 2002-3, which went much further than anything since.

    I'm not even sure Earl's questions are the right ones because they assume 1) it is compelling to more than a tiny fragment of the population (100,000 people in NYC would still only be 1/2 of 1% of the city.), 2) it gives us more insight than we already had about the current moment, which as a statistical nullity I don't think it does, 3) that it has spread so fast compared to... the Coffee Party, say, which blew up and fizzled, or that 4 and 5 assume something to exist which doesn't (yet).

  11. With regard to the issue of scale that Chris raises, one must remember that the many anti-Iraq war demonstrations dwarfed the present occupations, but nothing came from them, in part because there was a steadfast refusal to set goals beyond begging the powerful not to invade. I think the same thinking, or a vastly smaller scale, is occuring with the occumations.

    I agree with Jack that a dichotomy can help organize people, but a vastly better one would be "captialists" as opposed to the 1%. The 1% is a critique of their income and their duty to the nation state (through taxes and regulation) and not a critique of their social role. Additionally, the financial focus of the protests treats one group of people among many wearing the "character masks" of capitalists as synonymous with all of them. In particular it attacks those that are seen to be making money "unproductively" i.e. making money from money and not from producing things. This vision misunderstands the basic function of banking as moving money capital among sites of productive or commodity capital. Marx for example goes on at length to demonstrate that interest on a loan is not money made from money but a quotient of the surplus value produced by the debtor. My ultimate problem with "the people," or to use the German term the Volk, vs. the 1% who are wealthy bankers and control the state and economy is that it is just a hare's breath from anti-Semitism.

    I am hopeful that the Unions are able to expand the object of critique to capitalists (or the bosses) but am not counting on it. Or at least focus this occupation movement's spectacular victimhood into pragmatic reforms of laws.

  12. I don't know that any one is condemning the protests taking place. But there is a very real problem here with going along with them in their present form. As Frank has pointed out, the misapprehension of the problem as being with the bearers of capital, rather than capitalism, carries with it certain risks. We don't know how far or in what ways a critique based on unproductive activities would play out. Certainly history should make us wary. Moreover, though I also agree with Jack that "An easily understandable dichotomy is not surprisingly much more compelling to many more people than a complex analytical position directed against a slippery conceptual object like capitalism," it is precisely this slippery conceptual object that we must grasp to formulate an adequate response. So long as capitalism is understood as an unsavory pursuit of profit (from the NY Times Tuesday: “‘I believe I am not represented by the big interest groups or big money corporations, which have increasing control of our money and politics,’ she said, adding that she was not against capitalism per se.” ) we will fail to grasp the nature of the problems we face. There are likely many ways to approach developing a more accurate consciousness of capitalism as a social form, but I think an important one would be to point out to the protestors that capitalism is a totality, that the appearance of a 99% against a 1% belies the fact that 100% are all equally part of a single system of social mediation. This system may appear alien, objective and dominating (From the NY Times, Tuesday: “‘The monetary system is not working,’ he said. ‘The banks are here to steal from us. Everybody is in debt whether it is medical bills or school loans. People are getting fed up with it.’”), but it is in fact the product of our social relations, specifically the product of labor as the form of social mediation. This does not discredit their critique from within, but nor does their critique from within, so long as it does not recognize the historical specificity of labor under capital point to a way out. Walker will likely reply that this is all fine and good, but the abstract nature of the critique poses a real obstacle to social organization and protest. But I wonder if it would be the abstract nature of the critique that would cause resistance or the implication that us-against-them is ultimately an insufficient form of protest. (Also from the NY Times, Tuesday: “‘So there is a tension between this emotionally powerful movement and the emptiness of the message itself so far.’”)

  13. A key point that the quotes that AB offers reveal is that the indignant feel that they are having a pound of flesh extracted by userous bankers.