Nothing is more striking about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which in a political instant has swept through not only the United States but the world, than its origin. It seemed to come out of nowhere, like a virgin birth. There were, of course, organizations that played a critical initiating role, which is gradually being acknowledged and rightly honored (see, for example, Nathan Schneider, “From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Everywhere,” October 31). But it would be wrong to assign paternity in any ordinary sense to them, and they indeed disavow such a claim. On the contrary, the core activists in Liberty Plaza founded on the spot a decentralized, nonviolent pattern of “leaderless” self-organization that made every participant, old or new to the process, a “founding father” (or mother). The movement, you could say, was father and mother to itself. To join it was, immediately, to become it.
This feature was underscored when, in response to a police ban on megaphones, the occupiers deployed their now famous human microphone, in which an individual speaker’s words are repeated by all within hearing, inventing a new animal, a speaking crowd, who thus become the voice of their joint action.
This indefinite open-endedness of origins was carried forward in another conspicuous novelty of the movement: its lack of a list of demands. According to some reports, early efforts to frame such lists went nowhere. If so, the failure became a virtue. It was not a new set of policy ideas that was being born—the world was already overloaded with these, unacted upon—but a new spirit: a spirit of action, without which all the demands in the world are a dead letter.
What we might call the demand for demands, so prominent in early media reactions, was based on a fundamental error. It confused demands and content. A movement—like a book or an article—can have content without demands. Demands are a later stage that comes once the content is developed and, above all, once the movement is strong. This movement was born rich in unmistakable content. As everyone who cares to look knows by now, its members are crying out “Enough!” to a corrupt political, economic and media establishment that is hijacking the world’s wealth for itself, immiserating ordinary people, sabotaging the rule of law, waging interminable savage and futile wars, plundering the world’s finite resources, lying about all this to the public and threatening Earth’s life forms into the bargain. As for the development of leaders and demands, Anonymous, one of the precursor groups, offered a prescription in keeping with the spirit of the movement: “If you are looking to contact one of our leaders, go to the nearest mirror and peer deeply into it. It may take some time, but, eventually, one of our leaders will appear with answers to all of your questions.”
An understanding of Occupy Wall Street’s beginnings and continuing structure perhaps offers a clue to an issue that promptly began to roil the movement: what its relationship to established groups, especially the Democratic Party, should be. Almost immediately, top Democrats, including President Obama and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, weighed in with friendly and supportive comments. (Obama said, “The protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.” Pelosi said, “The message of the protesters is a message for the establishment in every place.”) Newspapers of moderate bent eventually jumped on board. The New York Times sang the praises of the occupation in an editorial. Older leftish movements like MoveOn threw their support behind it. Even the counterattack was surprisingly feeble and off-balance. No sooner had House majority leader Eric Cantor called the occupation a “mob” than he turned around and admitted the nation knows that “folks at the top end of the income scale…make too much and too many don’t make enough.”