Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

From experience with how people reacted to Wikileaks, I think that I understand how this works now. Occupy Wall Street seems to me to be an unreservedly good thing. But most everyone who comments on it prefers to think of it as a platform for What They Are Doing Wrong. If anyone reading this is still unfamiliar with it, there are some convenient links here, though you should probably start with the We Are the 99% Tumblr.

First, the archetypal, much-derided media response from Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times on 10/3/2011:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.


As I wandered around the park, it was clear to me that most bankers probably don’t have to worry about being in imminent personal danger. This didn’t seem like a brutal group — at least not yet.

Everyone loves this quote because it's so obviously and cluelessly corrupt. A reporter gets a call from the C.E.O. of a bank, asking whether he's in danger, so of course the reporter goes to check it out for him. You couldn't get a better illustration of the relationship between the wealthy 1% and the media. But there's another aspect that's less commented on. The "not brutal, not yet" phrasing functions to reassure the reader that this group of people could "turn brutal" any time that the C.E.O. gives Sorkin another call and tells him to report it that way. But there's also a certain obvious disappointment to it. Why aren't they being good anarchists and providing him with better copy? They'd better get some big black round gunpowder bombs fast or Sorkin will have to write about them as clueless hippies, which is not as good a career builder for him.

The mainstream left, meanwhile, is full of lectures about how these people should never have stepped outside without a list of demands and an organizational chart and a charismatic leader suitable for media profiles. Most of this stuff is too tepid to be worth quoting. Some of it is a bit better, but heavy on experienced people saying how Occupy is likely to fail without the advice and work of people like those experienced people: Rich Yeselson's article, say. One of the best and most sympathetic of them was David Atkins' Democrats: A necessary but insufficient condition post at Digby's blog, which I actually largely agree with. I certainly agree with:

Ultimately, the institutionalists need to allow the Occupy Wall Street protests to develop organically without attempting to convert them into electoral activism in any form. Supporting the protests is perhaps the most important thing progressives can be doing right now.

I don't so much agree with the contention that real change can only happen with Democrats in power, frightened by activists on the left into doing the right thing. That could have happened a couple of years ago. I think it's too late now. Real change can only happen when the system collapses in one way or another. Atkins' post is nicely symmetrical with Ian Welsh's "I’ll just note that Occupy Wall Street is necessary and insufficient. That is, the revolt of the students and the young intellectuals is necessary. It must occur. It is insufficient."

None of the above is to disrespect the Occupy movement. I’m a big believer that they’re doing something important and that they deserve props for putting themselves on the line. Their embrace of apparently leaderless leadership is a master stroke of organizing, and indicates they understand that any visible leadership will be destroyed, smeared or co-opted. This is all good, but it is useful for those of us on the intellectual margins to disengage our emotions, keep our hopes in check, and look at the state of play dispassionately.

This is better, but it still treats the people in Occupy as a way station towards the radical cadres that supposedly need to happen in the eye of the dispassionate, intellectual observer. Which, structurally, is no different from any of the other comments of the form "I admire their naive energy, but they'll only be what we need when they turn into X."

The most comical example of radical scolding was probably the "Anarcho-Liberal", as seen, say, in Bhaskar Sunkara's article here with Cyrus Lewis following on here:

Some things were broadly shared by “anarcho-liberals”: an anti-intellectualism that manifested itself in a rejection of “grand narratives” and structural critiques of capitalism, abhorrence for the traditional forms of left-wing organization, a localist impulse, and an individualistic tendency to conflate lifestyle choices with political action. The worst of both worlds, the “anarcho-liberal” can neither manage the capitalist state nor overcome it, and aspires to do both and neither at the same time.

That kind of piece is instantly familiar. The people we don't like should get a group name chosen by us, not one that they use. (Attaching "liberal" to anything means Very Bad Indeed.) If people begin to "proclaim a new politics of 'rhizomatic' and horizontally organized multitudes" (quoting from Cyrus Lewis) that means that they are anti-intellectual -- only people who read real leftist works are intellectuals, evidently, not poseurs who read Deleuze and Guattari. And of course these Anarcho-Liberals are individualistic and therefore unconnected to real political action. It would be so easy to write a parody counter-article, declaring people who write for Jacobin the "New Neo-Socialists", as people who must have a grand narrative even though it has proved false, as those with a condescendingly described gift for rigor in the service of nothing real, and with an incoherent attachment to mass politics while having far less connection to the traditional forms of left-wing organization like unions or political parties than Occupy does. But one paragraph is more than enough already.

What's actually going on? One of the best articles -- because it's an interview, probably -- was this one. Here'a a quote from David Graeber:

July 2nd. That was the first actual meeting. What happened was AdBusters put out this call for these protests. We had heard there was supposed to be a general assembly on July 2nd. So I just showed up. But it was a rally, not an assembly. Some Marxist groups had set up stages and megaphones and was making speeches and were planning a march. So we said we don’t need to do this. We pulled a small group together and decided to have a real assembly.

So we wandered over to another part of the area and began a meeting and people kept migrating over. But we had a problem because we only had six weeks. AdBusters had already advertised the date to 80,000 people. And their date was a Saturday. You can’t really shut down Wall Street on a Saturday. So we were working under some significant constraints. We assembled 80 or 100 people and formed working groups for outreach, process, so forth and so on. And we began meeting every week

Parts of this are instantly familiar from the Bush-era protests against the Iraq War, during which a lot of leftist hand-wringing occurred over whether people should march in protests organized by A.N.S.W.E.R. But something different happened here. One group put out a call, and the usual Marxist groups were there with their one remaining, antiquated skill set: stages and megaphones and march planning. And people just wandered off and organized on their own. The existing leftist leadership, such as it is, is ineffectual at all levels, and there is no point in following them any more. Graeber again:

You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.

Yes, exactly. Yes, it's easy to score cheap shots against this: it's idealistic, it's undisciplined, it won't last. Is it really more realistic to say that a list of demands for reform of the banking industry would do better? Or that people need to pass through this way station on the way to being good Democrats, good radicals, good whatever else has already failed?

It's not supposed to last. If Occupy Wall Street lasts, it will have failed. We have plenty of organizations that have lasted, long after they should have gone away. Occupy Wall Street's success is now, and has already happened.

ETA: police riot.

ETA: And here. I don't get the left's liking for Jon Stewart as reporter. If a comedian is the only person in the media who can say anything true, then that's not a good thing. But still, he's the only one saying it.


  1. Fortunately, i have a small group of protesters just down the street from me. They are a hardy bunch (we are beginning to feel the onset of winter), and at least once each night, around 2AM, i drive somebody (a different somebody) from the city down to the site to offer support and some hot soup or tea. There has always been someone there, and for this strange conservative city, that is really very good.

    I don't care if they don't have an agenda or demands. The presence speaks for itself: in a small park, across a narrow one-way street from the hub of finance and business, underneath a statue, ringed with sidewalks, and cattycorner across from the Tom Foley Federal Courthouse and Building!

    Anarcho-liberal? I don't resemble that remark.

  2. From the building, that's Spokane, I assume. Is there always someone up at 2 AM?

  3. They always have 3 folks awake and protesting during the overnight. By morning there are 15 to 20 on perhaps 300 square feet of park. It is inspiring.

  4. I went out last night to visit the protest. There is a major convention in town, the Washington State Employees Association/AFSCME, and i wanted to see if there was some support from them. It was quite inspiring to realize that there were 300 people out, including a large encampment on the Spokane Indian land/monument just a short block away. The sense of doing the right thing seemed authentic, and there was a great deal of acknowledgment form those driving by.

  5. One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”

  6. 'The people we don't like should get a group name chosen by us, not one that they use. '

    I'm not sure this is entirely fair; surely part of the work of analysis involves generating categories that can then be tested against reality (unless one can only use avowed identities - which seems problematic). Pretty much every left-current has a repertoire of 'in house' categories; 'vanguardism' on the anarchist side, or latterly 'autonomism' on the socialist side.

    I find both frustrating in that they end up being used as if people were committed to organisational arrangements as metaphysics, when in fact it's more a matter of different theorisations and judgements about effectivity. Insofar as they are useful, it's in postulating common structures to nominally different conceptualisations, which is surely a necessary moment in thinking through and beyond them?

    I agree that 'liberal' is chucked about childishly, but I'm not sure that means there isn't something to think about vis. formal equality, emphasis on the primacy and sovereignty of procedure and it's power to ratify and validate outcomes as good/best.

  7. Thanks, Anonymous, and Ross Wolfe. Ross, I have to admit that I didn't bother to click through to your analysis; your paragraph here was full of generalizations about who Occupy is -- "They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism", etc -- that didn't make it seem worth engaging with.

    Anon, I could get farther with the "Anarcho-Liberal" if the surrounding text didn't make me laugh every time. I think it's just the neener neener of "my grand narrative makes me an intellectual, while your belief in rhizomatic, horizontal organization makes you an anti-intellectual". I don't know what kind of analytical work you think is being done, but it seems to me pretty much equivalent to more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger calling everyone who likes Zizek a neo-Stalinist.

    There are a whole lot of anarchists in Occupy who used to be liberals. That's an interesting topic, if it were taken seriously. But if all it is is a reason to say that people are at once not radical enough and too radical (radical in *the wrong way*), and anti-intellectual because they read the wrong books, and unserious because they simultaneously are not liberal wonks and are not committed to the Marxist revolution that has been oh, so close, the last few decades ... well, really. I don't listen to Tea Partiers who say that Occupy is all DFHs. How is this really any more serious?

  8. "the usual Marxist groups were there with their one remaining, antiquated skill set: stages and megaphones and march planning"

    I agree with most of your post, but I wish we wouldn't reduce all Marxist groups to PSL/WWP.

    Some of us have been trying, since the first GAs, to make arguments in a democratic way, rather than use our organizational resources to make the shape of the protests a fait accompli, a tactic which has fortunately failed here.

  9. Thanks, Kal, and yes I'm sorry that I was too sarcastic there. But I've been to a number of protests of various kinds, and Marxists in the U.S. are in my experience encountered by left non-Marxists in three primary ways:

    1. The people who have the march permit all ready to go and want you to participate in their protest, which will be roundly ignored because all old-style march-from-here-to-there-and-listen-to-speeches protests are ignored;

    2. The guy who gives you a copy of the Socialist Worker and maybe asks for a donation;

    3. The people who write blog posts and comments saying Ur Doin It Wrong, and who have an advanced critique to prove it whose complete failure in the real world only means that it is even more important.

    So Marxists really have to pick up their game if they don't want to be seen that way.