Occupy Wall Street has failed.
No doubt many will protest this judgement, noting that the unconventional movement did much to raise awareness or change the public discussion. Others will insist that Occupy has yet begun to fight, and will be back in the Spring, pitching tents and drumming on drums in a city plaza near you.
Yet by its own measure, the movement is a failure. “We will continue to occupy” the several Occupys assured us, “until our demands are met.” With the dispersal of the OLA camp, the last of the 24/7 presences are gone. The occupii exited with barely a whimper. The many homeless, who’d swelled the occupii ranks, simply returned to their usual places of encampment. The rest sought the refuge of that room above the garage their parents always keep ready for them.
Even had the physical occupations continued, the movement remained stalled so long as it was incapable formulating any specific goals to “occupy” for. Three months of Working Groups and twice-daily General Assemblies could not come up with a uniform list of demands, or even a “consensus” on whether to have any demands at all.
Occupying for Occupying’s Sake
The insistance on physically holding public spaces was based on a false reading of the “Arab Spring” and Tahrir Square protests. In Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria, where anti-government protests are quickly and brutally broken up, it was necessary to maintain a continuous presence. In America, where the government allows its citizens to protest quite freely, a 24/7 presence is neither required nor justified.
By protesting ’round the clock, the occupii acted like cargo cultists, blindly aping the Egyptians’ tactics, treating “occupation” as some magic talisman that brings about revolution.
Before very long, the occupations became about little more than the right to occupy. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech and peacable assembly was twisted into the right to commandeer public property indefinitely. In places like Oakland, factions of anti-police, anti-city hall malcontents hijacked the protests. The original bogeymen, bankers and politicians, were forgotten as the occupii directed their rage at cops, mayors and college deans.
How quickly it’s forgotten that the successful revolution in Tunisia was sparked by the death of a fruit vendor at the hands of the police. That the protestors in Tahrir Square endured beatings and stabbings by mounted pro-Mubarek thugs. That protesters in Syria are murdered daily, yet more keep coming out.
Here in the US, the occupii found it intolerable when Oakland restricted their protests to the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., rejected as insulting Los Angeles’ offer of free office space and farmland, cried ‘tyranny’ when New York asked for a few hours to clean Zucotti park. If the occupii want to know real tyranny, they should visit Argentina, and speak to the relatives of the 30,000 anti-government protesters who “disappeared” during the 1970s. They should visit the streets of Berlin, Budapest, or Prague, and imagine ‘occupying’ while a 36 ton T-54 trundles down at you. They should google the words “tiananmen square.”
Despite their vow to “fight like an Egyptian”, the occupii couldn’t stand up to some “nudging and bumping” by police horses. The entire movement seemed to melt when hit with a few ounces of pepper spray. These protesters aren’t tough like the Egyptians — they’re a bunch of occupussies.
We Are Our Demands
Although several regional groups did issue lists of demands, these all proved vague and overbroad. What started as a singular message — end corruption on Wall Street — was diffused until every pet cause, every simmering resentment, every inchoate dream, made the roster.
For the occupi cadre, the very concept of issuing specific demands was anathema:
[N]o single person or group has the authority to make demands on behalf of general assemblies around the world. We are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies…. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted.
The demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognize, so that they can … divert, co-opt, buy off, or … squash any challenge to business as usual.
The unwillingness to articulate concrete demands so frustrated sympathetic observers, they felt obliged to pitch in by drawing up suggested demands for Occupy to adopt. In the October 12th issue of Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi offered five, narrowly-targeted goals:
- Break up the “Too Big to Fail” monopolies
- Pay for your own bailouts via a miniscule tax on stocks trades
- No public money for private lobbying
- Repeal the carried-interest tax break
- Ban upfront bonuses for bankers
In a December 4th editorial, the L.A. Times offered its own list of five demands for OLA:
- Sweeping financial reform
- Makes taxes more fair
- Combat corporate influence in politics
- Address rising tuition and student debt
- Downgrade marijuana from Schedule I status
While the last two objectives might necessitate spin-off movements (Occupy UC & Occupy Humboldt County) the Times’ list was at least a step in the right direction.
The One, Real Occupy Demand
What Taibbi, the L.A. Times, and most of America failed to realize is that, for the occupii, formal demands are moot. For the occupii reject our present system of government as unworkable. Occupy was envisioned not as a protest or rally, rather a revolution. It’s one goal, one demand: to replace our current system of government with an anarchist, direct democracy. They truly intended to camp-out in public until the rest of the world agreed to scrap our current civilization and replace it with the occupii’ vision of utopia.
Anarchism is a revolutionary political philosophy, theory, and way of living that strives toward a more free and equal society without government, authority, domination, capitalism, or oppression. Key to the anarchist analysis is its unflinching criticism of authority, or of some people holding established power over others. Anarchism considers government in any form … unnecessary, harmful, and undesirable…. The General Assemblies and committees within Occupy are experiments in this kind of self-management.
The occupii reject as futile any attempt at working within a system that is “absolutely and irredeemably corrupt.” What’s the point of asking the government to reinstate Glass-Steagall or reverse Citizens United, when we’re on the verge of abolishing government entirely? “Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.”
Graeber proudly points to occupi’s adherence to five anarchist principles:
1) The refusal to recognise the legitimacy of existing political institutions — “acting as if the existing structure of power does not even exist.” Just as Ghandi urged the Indian people to flaunt British regulations on trade, the occupii flaunted city curfews.
2) The refusal to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal order — “[O]rganisers knowingly ignored local ordinances … simply on the grounds that such laws should not exist.”
3) The refusal to create an internal hierarchy, but instead to create a form of consensus-based direct democracy — “From the very beginning … organisers made the audacious decision to operate not only by direct democracy, without leaders, but by consensus.” To avoid either the co-opting of a “formal leadership structure” or a majority “bend[ing] a minority to its will”,”all decisions will, of necessity, have to be made by general consent.”
4) The embrace of prefigurative politics –
“Zuccotti Park, and all subsequent encampments, became spaces of experiment with creating the institutions of a new society – not only democratic General Assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centres and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organisation – a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old.”
Occupy = Anarchy
And now we understand. Occupy was never about something as mundane as ending corruption on Wall Street — it was about transforming society from the bottom up. The little occupy camps were demos of the future anarchist utopia to come. Once the American people saw anarchy in action, they’d realize that “if we are to live in any sort of genuinely [i.e. direct] democratic society, we’re going to have to start from scratch….”
Graeber admits that
We may never be able to prove, through logic, that direct democracy [is] possible. We can only demonstrate it through action. In parks and squares across America, people have begun to witness it as they have started to participate.
The occupii expected to transform society by showing everyone the wisdom & beauty of things like “Positive Speech,” a “less aggressive and more conciliatory type of communication” that avoids “negative statements which close the door to constructive debate.” Example: “‘Don’t touch that dog or it will bite you’ could be phrased as ‘Be careful with that dog because it could bite you and neither of us would like that.'”
Leaders would be replaced by “Moderators” whose job was to “bring together the general sense of the Assembly rather than follow a protocol, Ideally, this figure should not need to exist. (everybody should respect everybody).”
In fact, all the quirks of Occupy — the GAs, the hand jive, etc. — have long been hallmarks of the heretofore pathetically inconsequential anarchist movement. These “new forms of organization” are the anarchists’ very ideology, Graeber emphasized in a 2002 New Left Review article. “It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy. Ultimately … it aspires to reinvent daily life as whole.“ (Emphasis added.)
Offering a trial sample of anarchy in action is not the worst strategy, as good historical examples are hard to come by. Tenuous claims are made to assisting the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests, women’s ERA, and the downfall of Miloslovec. The disastrous Paris Commune of 1871 (see excursus below) is sometimes mentioned, but occupii tend to omit anarchy’s crowning achievement: its crippling, via obtuseness and intransigence, of the Republican coalition in the Spanish Civil War, ushering in nearly four decades of Franco’s fascist tyranny.
This article began with a declaration of Occupy’s failure. Its founders are convinced Occupy has already succeeded far in excess of their wildest dreams. ‘We’ve only just begun’, the occupii insist, ‘just give us more time, and we can change the world.’
Perpetual irrelevance breeds habitual indolence. Having puttered away for decades in obscure organic co-ops & peace centers, having attended innumerable & fruitless gripe sessions in UU community halls, the anarchists who started Occupy never learned how to act decisively or effectively. This September, they went virtually unnoticed, as usual, while engaged in their latest, futile fist-shake at society: a tiny protest near Wall St. Suddenly and unexpectedly, OWS made the headlines — courtesy of one cop’s injudicious use of pepper spray — and ignited a dense duff of accumulated resentment among the general population.
The occupii interpreted this spontaneous public outcry as an acceptance of their radical philosophy. “[I]f any significant number of Americans do find out what anarchism really is, they might well decide that rulers of any sort are unnecessary.” In that, they are mistaken. Ordinary people want direct, concrete action taken now, by leaders using the existing political and societal system. Ordinary people are not willing to wait until an alternate utopia grows “organically” at the speed of mildew. Ordinary people are certainly not ever going to join experimental tent communes. Not in a million years.
The clock has run out for Occupy. Media attention is an evanescent thing. In this game, dirty laundry is always trumps. Kim Kardassian and Ginger White did more do sink Occupy than any mayor or police force.
We can only hope that the radicalism and sheer idiocy of the occupii experiment did not overly tarnish the broader, sane movement to end corruption on Wall Street and in Washington. Now that Occupy has failed, ordinary people can take over, applying the sound principles of hierarchy, leadership, focus, and working within the system. The occupii should follow the army adage: either lead, follow, or get out of the way. Since you’ve proven you can’t lead, and refuse to follow, y’all know what to do.
(c) 2011 by True Liberal Nexus. All rights reserved.
Excursus — Occupy Paris, 1871 (after the jump)
Excursus — Occupy Paris, 1871
Many local Occupys fancied themselves the spiritual descendants of the Paris Commune of 1871. It is a fair comparison.
Beginning as a spontaneous protest against the terms of the peace treaty ending the Franco-Prussian war, The Commune quickly devolved into an orgy of radicalist fantasy. Led by “perennial iconoclasts” who unexpectedly found themselves in power, the Communards displayed no sense of urgency, wasting precious weeks convening councils and issuing proclamations, while the legitimate government rapidly marshaled forces to retake the city.
As the battles for Paris’ fortresses raged, the Commune “persisted in its zealous aims of reforming the world.” Out of a plethora of committees poured “a mixture of incredibly irrelevant trivia and serious attempts at righting social injustice” — the Church was dis-established, the national salon re-established. Bans were decreed on gambling, prostitution, pawn shops, baking bread at night, and urinating in public. Meanwhile, the national bank remained untouched, quietly siphoning off bullion to the government in Versailles.
Even as government troops advanced steadily through the streets of Paris, the Communards felt it a priority to expend copious time and manpower on toppling the Vendome column — a massive edifice honoring Bonaparte. One of the finals acts of the Commune was to reinstate the calendar of the 1792 revolution — issuing unread missives dated “23 Floreal”, etc.
The closest the communards ever came to “formulating any coherent programme” came in a grandiloquent proclamation:
The Communal Revolution, begun by the popular initiative … inaugurates a new era, experimental, positive, scientific. It is the end of the old governmental and clerical world, of militarism, of monopolism, of privileges….
The Paris Commune’s “experimental era” lasted 72 days.
(All quotes taken from: Horne, Alistair, The Terrible Year: The Paris Commune, 1871)
(c) 2011 by True Liberal Nexus. All rights reserved.