By Greg Godels
September 28, 2021
Ten years ago, September 17, 2011, protesters settled in Zuccotti Park in the New York City financial district, a privately held park owned by Brookfield Office Properties and named after its former chairman. This action acquired the simple, straightforward, but somewhat misleading moniker, “Occupy Wall Street.”
While the specific motivations of the congregation are debated, there is a general agreement that the 2007-2009 economic crisis, and especially the failure to punish its perpetrators, was an instigation. Occupy became a phenomenon, even a brand in the era of memes, social media, and ultra-consumerism. Occupy-like copycats sprang up around the country and in different forms of activism.
In its initial form, Occupy was an open invitation to gather in a public or semi-public space and hold it. The participants resisted a program, organizational structure, or leadership. Like previous efforts at anarchist levelling– so-called “radical” or “participatory democracy” — everyone was nominally of equal voice and stature. And like its anti-structure antecedents in the New Left, the Zapatistas, the anti-Globalization movement, the Indignados, etc., one can only wonder how its spokespeople, organizers, “facilitators,” or anti-leaders, are democratically selected in the absence of some structure.
The common thread that runs through all of the celebrated anti-hierarchical organizations is a semi-religious confidence in spontaneity. All worship at the altar of this elusive idea, despite the fact that there is no successful historical precedent to support faith in its success.
Though the Occupy movement succumbed after two months to a brutal assault by the coercive forces of the US ruling class, it left a popular slogan that continues to be embraced by a large sector of the US left: “We are the 99 percent!”
The Ten-Year Retrospective
Not surprisingly, various estimations of the value of Occupy are springing up on the 10th anniversary of the initial occupation. They range from the romantically naive, crediting Occupy with spurring every struggle since 2011, including the minimum wage fight and the teacher strike wave of 2018, to the coldly skeptical viewing of Occupy as an opportunity lost to “performative acts” or merely an historical “blip.”
Michael Levitin, writing in The Atlantic contends that Occupy “made protesting cool again… it brought the action back into activism…” In fact, protesting has never been “cool;” it requires a sacrifice on the part of participants. More importantly, it should conjure a commitment beyond an event, a performance, a statement. Protesting requires the uncool tedium of building a movement that can grow sufficiently to tackle the unequal power of the rulers, a goal difficult to achieve without leadership, organization, and structure. The “1%” is more than the economically privileged; the “1%” has also accumulated massive power largely immune to the incantations of a general assembly.
Micah L Sifrey, writing in The New Republic, references a somewhat chastened Occupy Wall Street organizer, Jonathan Smucker from his book:
Occupy wasn’t just a success in putting class back on the American agenda.
It was also “a high-momentum mess that ultimately proved incapable of mobilizing beyond a low plateau of usual suspects.” As he wrote in his book Hegemony How-To, “We were not merely lacking in our ability to lead the promising social justice alignment that our audacious occupation kicked off; many of the loudest voices were openly hostile toward the very existence of leadership, along with organization, resources, engagement with the mainstream media, forging broad alliances, and many other necessary operations that reek of the scent of political power.” Because Occupy’s general assemblies were so time-consuming and so easily hijacked, much of the real work and decision-making went elsewhere, “into underground centers of informal power,” he writes.
It’s possible to look at Occupy as an experiment for its time– 2011 was the year of the rise of Spain’s anti-austerity movement, the Indignados. Occupy came shortly after the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution which sparked the Arab Spring. All shared the elements of non-violence (by protesters), spontaneous or near-spontaneous risings, absence of a clear program, an allergy to hierarchies, and cross-class engagement. None were led by traditional leftist parties or ideologies (apart from a nebulous connection with anarchism). And– a conclusion that none of the commentators want to accede– all faded away, leaving the balance of power essentially unchanged.
Occupy did demonstrate the power of social media and internet communication. Old-timers were in awe at the ease and speed that people could be rallied around actions and events. Time proved that the new technologies came with a downside: action came almost too easily and with minimal commitment or understanding. Activism often sprang from the same emotional immediacy as going to a concert or movie. One commentator called Occupy “exhilarating” — a kind of political Woodstock?
Arun Gupta, writing in In These Times, casually notes: “Every movement reaches the end of the road, and a decade later Occupy-style protest has smacked into a dead end.”
Yes, Occupy-style protest is exhausted today, but Gupta’s dismissing that demise with a shrug reflects a measure of political immaturity. Any movement bent upon challenging inequality, injustice, capital, or, most importantly, capitalism, cannot accept a dead end as an inevitability. Quite the opposite, any movement promising success must stay the course if it holds out any hope of winning against an unprecedented accumulation of power in so few hands and a long history of falling short. Occupy lacked that vision.
Gupta writes of the “authenticity” of Occupy and the satisfaction drawn by its participants. Insofar as it served as a “pre-school” for a generation of young people deeply scarred by student loans, poor job prospects or unemployment, and deeply disappointed with the political establishment, Occupy was a worthy introduction. Insofar as political elders, movement veterans, and theorists accept Occupy as the road forward and offer no alternate routes, they bear much of the responsibility for the collapse of the movement.
Clearly, many feel strongly that the legacy of Occupy is worth fighting over. Witness the statement by the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, claiming Occupy as its own. Or the debate in The Nation: “Was Occupy Wall Street More Anarchist or Socialist?”
Undoubtedly, Occupy served to introduce thousands of young people to collective action, to resistance to the rich and powerful. With “the 99 percent” slogan, many saw social life in the US through a rudimentary lens of class division for the first time, a reality denied us by our education system, our media, and our leaders.
But “the ninety-nine percent versus the one percent” construction was far too simplistic and far too crude to capture the differences or reflect the structure of twenty-first century capitalism. It failed to explain the divisions that kept the ninety-nine percent or its various strata and classes from uniting against the one percent. It failed to fit this simplification into the dynamics of the two-party system– a system of control fundamentally owned by the one-percent and its allied strata– while denying effective power to everyone else. It failed to offer a road map either inside or outside of that decadent structure.
In short, “the ninety-nine percent” was analytically far too blunt of an instrument to advance Occupy beyond well-intended street theater.
What was needed was a deeper class analysis that more accurately distinguished between the exploited and the exploiters. If they would have bothered to look, Occupiers might have found that more profound analysis in Marxism-Leninism.
Occupy follows a long trajectory of “new” radicalism in the US shaped by subtle, but long-festering anti-Communism. Since the purging of Communists and their allies from US social and political life in the post-war era, every version of revitalized resistance pays subtle, but uncompromising homage to the religion of anti-Communism– a silent loyalty oath. From the student-based New Left to Occupy, it was understood that the limits of tolerance ended at the door to authentic Marxism-Leninism.
Instead, every emerging movement ostentatiously showcased its commitment to “democracy” in stark contrast to the caricature of Communism and its alleged soulless hostility to the individual. The cult of the individual and a utopian “participatory” democracy is meant to demonstrate a breed of radicalism distinctly different from the Cold War image of Communism. Thus was born a kind of individualistic, petty-bourgeois anarchism characteristic of US activists from early SDS to Chomsky and to Occupy.
Where anathema to the lessons of over a hundred and fifty years of Communist and socialist (and anarchist, as well) practice were not purposely obscured, different outcomes ensued. The Chilean student movement, though concurrent with the Occupy phenomenon, is a case in point. Though virtually ignored by the media and the US left, Chilean high school and university students demonstrated from 2011 until 2013 for educational reform.
Unlike Occupy, the protests were highly organized, welcomed democratically chosen leadership, and constructed a coherent set of demands. In addition, the students engaged and were joined by the Chilean labor movement. The left political parties collaborated and enjoyed growth from their engagement, particularly the Chilean Communist Party. The successful socialist candidate for president in 2013, Michelle Bachelet placed educational reform at the top of her agenda.
Students again sparked the August 2019 protests that continued through the next two years, with over a million Chileans in the streets on October 25, 2019 in Santiago alone.
Unlike Occupy, the Chilean student protests of 2011 led directly to the empowerment of the left, electoral gains, and a referendum opening the way to a new constitution.
The political maturity of the Chilean movement and its successes serve as a stark counterpoint to the shortcomings of the Occupy model of resistance.
To its credit, Occupy broke the pattern of movement quiescence during a Democratic Party administration. For decades, anti-war and reformist protests only took on a mass character when the Republicans were in power. The anti-war demonstrations of the Bush administration were never duplicated, not even when Obama engineered the troop surge in Afghanistan. The dominant liberal and social democratic wings of the left fear antagonizing the Democratic Party torchbearers, unleashing street heat only when Republicans are in power. Allergic to electoral politics, the anarchists at the core of Occupy fearlessly and determinedly pressed forward during the Obama years.
Nonetheless, after two months of intense media attention, exhilarating public theater, and sincerely felt protest, the Occupy movement was swept away by military-like operations of the police. With no deep moorings, no road map, and no lieutenants or captains, the movement was shattered into many pieces. Some, in frustration, sought to change the Democratic Party; some sold their souls to the social-change-industry of NGOs, foundation grants, and non-profit social engineering; some returned to academia; and some, out of cynicism, simply dropped away.
An unlikely chronicler, loyal Democrat Robert Reich, noted perceptively that a contemporary right-wing populist movement, the Tea Party, expressing outrage against the powers-that-be from a different perspective, found much more success in shaping the political terrain. With its focus on performance over program, form over content, spontaneity over organization, Reich could understandably not see any hope that Occupy would change the course of history.
Well before Reich’s skepticism, V.I. Lenin railed against spontaneity in his classic polemic against the enemies of organized leadership, in What Is to Be Done? Lenin mocked actions that came to be called “participatory democracy” as examples of “toy” or “primitive” democracy. While they appear to be ultra-democratic, they actually inhibit serving the cause of the people with their endless obsession over procedure.
Occupy ran aground on the shoals of procedural sectarianism, organizational chaos, and the lack of a programmatic compass. Will the lessons be heeded or will the US left continue to flirt with “toy” democracy over substance, cultural expression over political engagement?