The Audacity of Occupy Wall Street
A mantra that pings around Occupy Wall Street is that the Occupation is creating within the quadrants of Liberty Park the society it wants to see in the outside world. This claim has struck some as naïve: after all, union pizzas don’t descend from heaven; they are paid for by dues collected by union leaders. But the idea isn’t really to be segregated and self-sustaining. As Yotam Marom, a 25-year-old organizer who is affiliated with a participatory socialist collective called the Organization for a Free Society, puts it, “We’re creating alternative models of the world we want to live in while also using those new institutions as a staging ground to fight for that world—that’s what’s radical and cool about occupations.” Academics call this “prefigurative politics,” a term that describes acting as if utopian democratic practices exist in the here and now. Its precedents include Gandhi (We must be the change we want to see in the world), European autonomism, the anti-nuke movement and, most recently, the anti-globalization movement, especially its anarchist tendencies.
On the ground at Liberty, prefigurative politics is manifest in the directly democratic process that guides the nightly General Assembly as well as all working groups and caucus meetings. In fact, the principle of horizontalism strongly influences all social relations there. When I dropped in on the library one day it was being staffed by Bill Scott, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh; Steven Syrek, a graduate student in English at Rutgers; and Briar (“gender pronoun: it!”), an undergrad at NYU who was debating whether to drop out of school instead of racking up more debt. In another context they might have been stacked up vertically (professor, TA, student), but at Liberty they were all just putting stickers on books.
Anyone who shows up can participate on equal terms in the General Assembly and working groups; there is no membership, and proposals must pass by consensus. Anyone can block consensus out of “serious ethical or safety concerns,” and if those aren’t resolved by amendments or clarifications, a vote is taken for modified consensus, which requires 90 percent support. A number of procedures and group norms—from the “progressive stack,” which privileges minority speakers; to the practice of “step up, step back,” which calls on participants to be aware of how often they speak; to daily meetings of the Facilitation working group—guard against the breakdown of these processes. They can be slow, frustrating and sometimes ugly—and who has time for all these meetings?—but overall the crowd seems mostly satisfied with what has gone down so far. (“We’re at least as effective as the US Senate,” one organizer told me.)
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More than any other quality of Occupy Wall Street—except perhaps for the ubiquitous drum circle—it is these anarchist practices that have elicited the most hand-wringing from establishment leftists. Some, like New School politics professor James Miller, worry that OWS will recapitulate the failures of the New Left. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Miller warned that an obsession with participatory democracy could allow violent militants or ideological extremists to hijack the movement, and he darkly cited the French anti-globalization manifesto The Coming Insurrection, a text he calls a “touchstone for the anarchists in Occupy Wall Street,” as evidence of the movement’s potential to descend into nihilism. The Coming Insurrection is, indeed, a worrying text; it predicts the total collapse of modern society, instigated in part by local cells of revolutionaries who exploit moments of crisis (e.g., Hurricane Katrina) in order to replace late capitalism with autonomist units of life. But few Occupiers I met at Liberty had even heard of the book, and the idea that it laid the template for Occupy Wall Street seems largely to come from Glenn Beck, who has been obsessed with it for years and sometimes attributes Obama’s actions to its philosophy.
More to the point, from day one the Occupation has been scrupulously nonviolent. Its emphasis on autonomy and consensus has tempered rather than emboldened the fetishization of militancy. Nobody is coerced into a direct action, and much deliberation is given to how direct actions could affect the most vulnerable in the group—like undocumented immigrants and the Occupiers, those who sleep at Liberty and have developed a surprisingly close relationship with the beat cops who patrol it.
Does callous revolutionary fervor exist in and around Occupy? Sure, there are flashes of it—for example, at a recent debate about Occupy Wall Street at Bluestockings bookstore, Malcolm Harris, an editor at The New Inquiry journal, responded to a question about whether anarchist tactics could achieve free higher education by saying that “a free university in a capitalist economy is like a reading room in a prison” (boos and obscene gestures ensued). But most OWS activists I spoke with forcefully rejected the idea that the movement should or would heighten crisis to provoke revolutionary struggle. “I’m not for increasing the immiseration of people around the world who are starving. Who are we to say, Let it get really bad?” asks Yotam.
OWS organizers are, moreover, acutely aware that the movement’s extraordinary potential lies in its ability to bring together a range of participants who coalesce maybe once in a generation: anarchists and Marxists of a thousand different sects, social democrats, community organizers, immigrants’ rights activists, feminists, queers, anti-racist organizers, capitalists who want to save capitalism by restoring the Fordist truce, the simply curious and sympathetic. Republicans like Eric Cantor have denigrated Occupy Wall Street as “a mob,” and the right-wing press has raised the specter of “anarchism” to distinguish OWS from populism. But it is, in fact, the movement’s emphasis on direct democracy, derived from anarchism, that has allowed such an unwieldy set of actors to occupy the same space. Early on, it was the consensus model that enabled a handful of people of color to block language in the movement’s Declaration of the Occupation of New York City that they felt falsely suggested a postracial America. “It was a very scary experience. It was still a majority-white space, and we were four visibly brown people—one wears a turban—standing up to say, No, this can’t happen!” recalls Thanu Yakupitiyage, a 26-year-old immigrants’ rights organizer. But the block held, and the language was amended, and instead of bolting from Liberty (This is just a bunch of white folks in the park, she originally thought), Thanu helped establish OWS’s People of Color working group—which, among other goals, tries to make sure that minorities are represented in every other working group and caucus.
Likewise, the movement’s malleable and open nature has created space for a range of supporters and affinity groups, like the Occupied Wall Street Journal, now published in Spanish and online, and OccupyWriters.com, a collective started by Nation writers Jeff Sharlet, Kiera Feldman and Nathan Schneider, which has gathered some 2,000 signatures and published short dispatches and vignettes by Lemony Snicket, Alice Walker, Ursula K. Le Guin and others. True to spirit, anyone who identifies as a writer can sign the OccupyWriters.com petition, and the original organizers are taking a step back from the project to make way for new blood, including from outside New York. These media endeavors may not work per se under the auspices of the New York General Assembly, but they’ve lent their creative energies to the mix—helping to break through the establishment press’s early condescending coverage.
At the moment, the movement’s energy is overwhelmingly directed at keeping this fusion of forces alive, to focus on what unifies—the common belief, for example, that capitalism is out of control and that the political system has broken down—rather than what divides; and to debate without hard preconceptions a range of solutions. As Kobi Skolnick, an Israeli-American activist who comes out of the peace movement, put it, “Socialism is a great idea. Anarchism is a great idea. Moderating capitalism is a great idea. We can’t afford to have an either/or mentality anymore.” It’s a message that even Occupy Wall Street’s revolutionaries can get down with, for now. As Alexandre Carvalho says, “We are on a path that goes to revolution, but it can pass through reform.”
In this early stage, the movement seems both extremely fragile and extremely potent. The threats of police action, internal rancor, negative public opinion and burnout all loom; like the winter, some of those perils are unavoidable. But so far the Occupiers have pulled off a remarkable feat—to summon all the specters of left history and yet slip past the fatal noose of infighting. Who knows how long this will last? If it does, perhaps the culture of anarchism will be remembered as the left’s exonerator instead of as its hangman’s knot.
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