Occupy Wall Street protesters hold a general assembly meeting inside an enclosed site near Canal Street on Tuesday, November 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
It is becoming something of a refrain among the well-meaning multitudes now energized by Occupy Wall Street that the movement needs to shed its radical origins so as to actually get something done. “If they can avoid fetishizing the demand for consensus,” James Miller wrote in late October in the New York Times, “they may be able to forge a broader coalition that includes friends and allies within the Democratic Party and the union movement.” According to some activists, groups like Van Jones’s Rebuild the Dream are poised to turn occupiers into Obama voters. Especially as the 2012 election season starts, the thinking goes, it’s time to get real.
This actually reminds me of long debates about planning that took place in the NYC General Assembly before September 17, and then again during the early days of the occupation. Many people—myself included, though I was there to observe as a reporter—first arrived with some preconceived agenda about what needed to be done given the current political situation and how the occupation should do it: abolish corporate personhood, or enact a Tobin tax, or (as crasser signs would say) “Eat the Rich.” They complained that the anarchists, along with assorted autonomists, libertarian socialists and so forth, were hijacking the movement’s progress by bogging it down in process. But, after a while, after enough long meetings, they started to come around.
For some who were experiencing it for the first time, the General Assembly became a cathartic opportunity to unload long-pent-up polemics. Perhaps never having really had their political voices heard off the Internet, newcomers would interrupt the agenda and turn the people’s mic into a soapbox. With practice, though, that would change. They’d find that hewing to the process was better than making off-topic speeches. They heard stories about the assemblies in occupied squares in Egypt, Greece and Spain firsthand from people who had been there. Helping shape the daily decisions of the Occupation started to seem actually more empowering than trying to tell Obama what to do.
The anarchists’ way of operating was changing our very idea of what politics could be in the first place. This was exhilarating. Some occupiers told me they wanted to take it home with them, to organize assemblies in their own communities. It’s no accident, therefore, that when occupations spread around the country, the horizontal assemblies spread too.
At its core, anarchism isn’t simply a negative political philosophy, or an excuse for window-breaking, as most people tend to assume it is. Even while calling for an end to the rule of coercive states backed by military bases, prison industries and subjugation, anarchists and other autonomists try to build a culture in which people can take care of themselves and each other through healthy, sustainable communities. Many are resolutely nonviolent. Drawing on modes of organizing as radical as they are ancient, they insist on using forms of participatory direct democracy that naturally resist corruption by money, status and privilege. Everyone’s basic needs should take precedence over anyone’s greed.