It feels most apt to mark the 10th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street by reviving a debate that is resistant to resolution, open to endless disagreement, and primed for messy expressions of political ideology. How very Occupy!
If you had asked me at the time whether Occupy was more anarchist or socialist, I would have answered, without missing a beat, that it was an anarchist movement. Though I most likely wouldn’t have said “movement”—I would’ve said “moment,” out of respect for Occupy’s anarchistic departures from traditional organized politics. Of course, I would have also said that socialists were among the many thousands of people who participated in Occupy with great commitment. Some of my best friends today are socialists from Occupy!
I still believe Occupy was more anarchist than socialist, and that this was a good thing, even if the movement’s rejection of representative structures and formal demands made it vulnerable and difficult to sustain—reliant as it was on maintaining physical sites that needed constant protection from violent police eviction. Over the years, I’ll grant, Occupy has found a place in the socialist legacy, especially for those who were too young to have joined at the time. Occupy is recognized as having “changed the conversation” on economic inequality and having birthed many of the activist constellations that would fuel Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns and the expansion of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Such an outcome, I would have said in 2011, would constitute a co-optation by electoralist interests, a reversal of Occupy’s radical rejection of party politics. In 2021, I’m less interested in purity. But while I can admit that democratic socialism is the tendency that won the day in shaping Occupy’s place in history, I submit that we lose a lot by erasing Occupy’s anarchist forms.
I reported on the protests as a stringer for The New York Times, while at the same time aligning myself with an anarchist cadre that helped orchestrate the Zuccotti Park occupation. My gig with the Times ended when the far-right Breitbart “exposed” the already public fact of my support for the encampment—the so-called revelation was based on a video of a debate on, in essence, whether Occupy should be more anarchist or more socialist; I was arguing on the anarcho-communist side. And I was terribly drunk.
I was present for the pre-Occupy meetings that stretched long into the summer nights in Manhattan, in which a few dozen people made plans to occupy Wall Street. The late, great anarchist anthropologist David Graeber was there; so, too, were several activists who had taken part in the square movements that had emerged in Spain and Greece that year. The Egyptian Arab Spring was not yet a revolution undone. The international context matters here: We aimed not simply to protest Wall Street’s turpitude but to act in concert and solidarity with a spread of global revolutionary eruptions.
Even prior to its inception, Occupy was anarchist in structure: burdensome consensus-based decision-making, no (official) leaders, and a commitment to creating untested political spaces. The insistence that the means of our undertakings be consistent with our desired ends and that we establish radical political forms of life in the present is decidedly anarchist. But there were other ways the movement/moment was situated firmly within the contemporary legacy of anarchism in the US: It was overwhelmingly white, lacked a sufficient analysis of class struggle, and targeted capitalism but failed to understand the world-ordering force of capital as, in the words of the late Cedric Robinson, “racial capitalism.”
These flaws are not unique or intrinsic to anarchism. We can disagree over the extent of Occupy’s anarchist or socialist bent, yet it should be obvious that the movement was grossly deficient in its abolitionism. Occupy was inspired by the Arab Spring and Europe’s square movements but failed to adapt to an American context, shaped as it is by a history of slavery and Indigenous extermination and dispossession. Even at the time, some of us bristled at the idea of “occupying” already stolen land.
The Indigenous-led climate struggle and Black liberation uprisings in the years since have taught us better. The 2020 George Floyd protests were a reminder, far more powerful than Occupy, that rupturous rebellions are worthy even when they don’t translate smoothly into legislative undertakings.
It would be a great shame if Occupy’s anarchism—its embrace of utopian and confrontational space-taking, horizontalism, and political experimentation—were ignored in its retelling. We should remember: “Occupy” was and is a verb. I do not want young people to miss that legacy and thereby foreclose a political imagination that goes beyond electing better politicians and making legislative gains. For those of us who embraced Occupy’s anarchist forms as inherent to its content, it was about living the politics we wanted to see in the world, albeit on a stretch of drab concrete in Lower Manhattan where middle-management bankers now eat their sandwiches.
The signature figure of Occupy Wall Street was the debtor. Student debt, medical debt, rental debt, credit card debt, mortgage debt: So many people were underwater. The financial wizardry being done in the buildings surrounding Zuccotti Park both created debt and transformed it into financial products. Following the trail of inequality led many to indict the entire system—and to seek its replacement. Electoral politics seemed to offer little: It had enabled and expanded this system. Thus, when protesters occupied the park, they observed self-governing practices. People sought consensus, not majority rule; they tried to lift up marginalized voices first. The movement could have taken an anarchist direction and tried to build a new society in the shell of the old. But 10 years later, the legacy of Occupy is best seen in the reemergence of a socialist movement, the roots of which were planted in the inhospitable soil of Zuccotti Park, a public-private square that itself was a byproduct of tax credits and debt financing for commercial real estate.
A coalition developed through Occupy that formed the foundation of so much socialist organizing today: precarious semiprofessionals and the younger members of a deindustrialized proletariat, many of them involved in the service sector and caring professions. Though gulfs in education, country of origin, and often race separated these two groups, their interests aligned thanks to the nature of the capitalist system in the early 21st century, which put downward pressure on both. Indebted professionals had lost status and suffered material deprivation; the deindustrialized working class had endured wage stagnation, rapacious employers, and high rates of eviction and housing instability. Virtually no political figure spoke for them.
Occupy produced an unusual fluidity between theory and practice that characterizes the best movements. Many who were involved will recall the General Assemblies, but Occupy’s forms of direct action drew public attention to the injustice of the state’s priorities. The magnitude of the police presence that surrounded the occupations and the violence that police conducted against the Occupiers—many of them unhoused—highlighted how massively municipalities had invested in their police forces at the expense of even basic provisions for ordinary residents, such as public bathroom facilities (a constant struggle for the Occupiers).
In time there would be dozens of occupations across the United States, including in Philadelphia, where I made my home that fall. I was trained in the labor movement, and like many others in organized labor, I was involved in the occupations but, at times, maintained a condescending skepticism toward them. I was frustrated by how inward-facing the occupations seemed, relentlessly focused on process and horizontality rather than on specific goals and success. I often pointed out in conversations that the Occupy movement was among the smallest of the anti-systemic movements that were taking place around the world—those in Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Hong Kong, to say nothing of the chain of events that toppled governments in North Africa and the Middle East.
These sorts of comparisons were correct in a narrow sense, but ultimately pointless. With impressive swiftness, Occupy transformed US politics in a way the labor movement was failing to do. Inequality and the mass indebtedness it produced became accepted as fundamental problems. It was thanks to Occupy that Bernie Sanders’s first run for president achieved an unlikely measure of success, and Sanders regularly acknowledged the rhetoric of the Occupy movement, especially that of a working-class majority—“the 99 percent”—opposed to a predatory minority of the rich. Though no major party emerged from the movement (as, for example, Podemos came out of the “movement of the squares” in Spain), the existence of avowed socialists at every level of office derives from the coalition of the precarious and the new working class and the analysis of inequality that Occupy put forward.
Social democratic and socialist politicians have come to understand the need to construct a base of support among the growing number of people alienated by traditional politics. As the communist journal Endnotes observed, anti-government protest across the world has grown by 11 percent every year since 2008. The visions of Occupy—and of Black Lives Matter and the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd—put pressure on electoral politics, but the Occupiers really desired jubilee and abolition. They were, in the words of Karl Marx speaking of the Paris Commune, “storming heaven.” The tactics keep reappearing, as when, in the summer of 2020, unhoused Philadelphians occupied a portion of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to demand housing. They drew attention to the crisis and succeeded in negotiating with the city to transfer more than a dozen vacant homes. To scale up these movements, to move these actions into mass action—to turn, for example, a world in which a perpetual housing crisis is taken for granted into one in which the universal provision of housing is considered common sense—is the political challenge of our era. Occupy laid it at our feet. We are all in the movement’s debt.