Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Occupy (II)

The encampments

Were the encampments necessary for Occupy to work? And what can or should Occupy do without them? As police forces in one city after another began to roll up the encampments, no question was more discussed within Occupy itself. The most common assertion (whether held seriously or only hopefully, I'm not sure) is that the encampments were a tactic, while Occupy is a movement, and that the movement could go on by changing tactics. I don't think that this is true.

First I'll go back to the beginning. Why did Occupy appear at all? A short answer might be "Because of the economic crisis and the resulting high unemployment" -- the Lesser Depression, or Greater Recession, or whatever you want to call it. All right. But why did it appear in that form? The first post I've written in this series tries to explain why the ordinary forms of politics didn't work. But what made Occupy appear as it did?

Political attempts of this type appear in very Darwinian-evolutionary fashion, complete with variation and selection. At the time when people were setting up the first Occupation, all sorts of other efforts were being tried. There were any number of one-day protests, which occurred and were promptly forgotten. There were nonprofits, other political parties, etc. There were even other encampments -- there were both short-term ones at the time and have been long-lasting protest encampments in D.C. since long before Occupy existed. Why did Occupy take off and those other efforts didn't?

In part it could be random, of course. Perhaps the graphic image of the ballerina on top of the Wall Street bull appealed to people, or the focus on Wall Street rather than a traditional political protest location was different enough to be interesting. It certainly wasn't planned -- the people who came up with the original idea for Occupy Wall Street had no idea what it would turn into (see, if you care, more description at the end of the post here). I'm inclined to think that there were two elements that made Occupy succeed (as much as it did) while other efforts disappeared without notice: the combination of encampments and General Assemblies. The first meant that Occupy was noticed, the second meant that it was an ideological threat.

First, encampments. A typical protest is a one-day wonder. People tend to measure the seriousness of a protest by how much people give up, or what risks they take, in order to achieve it. So of course people understand that the Egyptian protests whose protesters risked getting shot by the military were of the utmost importance. In contrast, showing up for a day and marching somewhere doesn't mean much. This is why the police in America typically don't shoot protestors any more -- not because they are benevolent, or because there will be legal consequences, but because this kind of repression boosts a movement. People who decide to live in a public square are making a much greater commitment than people who march for a day. They are symbolically giving up the very benefits of settled housing that the foreclosure crisis was taking away from people.

But merely living on the streets isn't enough. There are encampments of homeless people all over the U.S. -- some of them a good deal larger and more long-lasting than the Occupy ones. Homeless people aren't considered to be giving up anything that they could get; they simply can't obtain housing. Occupy encampments might have been seen this way if people believed that those in them really were on the streets because they had no other place to live -- but they didn't. (More about the middle-class profile of Occupy later). In any case, what really ensured that the Occupy encampment would be seen as political protest rather than desperation housing was the General Assembly.

The General Assembly is an outgrowth of anarchist ideas, though it carefully was not labelled "anarchist". In connection with an encampment, it is a direct challenge to the system, put in the most elemental terms that everyone understands. Most political organizations have hierarchical leadership, but there are any number of political groups where the membership meets and decides what to do next. Then those members go back to their private and work spheres after their meeting, and the important parts of their life happen. A General Assembly running an encampment has people, meeting directly in democratic consensus (putting off for the moment the inherent opposition between those two terms), deciding how they will live. To quote David Graeber, "You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature." The General Assembly changed protestors into creators, providing the food, housing, jobs, and direct political participation that the larger society was denying to people. And unlike a commune, the General Assembly was doing this right in the middle of the public square where everyone could see it and join it.

When Occupy started, the left-of-center activists in the U.S. divided fairly quickly into people who were active in Occupy (or wished they could be) and people who just didn't get it. Those who didn't get it were generally those to the center, who were indebted to the system as it was, and those to the far left, whose interest was in demonstrating their superior analytical understanding and in co-optation. And those who were active in Occupy and those who wished they could be quickly divided from each other based on who had a 9-5 job -- but I'm getting ahead of myself. In any case, the right wing pretty universally got it.

All of a sudden, right wing rhetoric about Occupy went into full David Neiwert-documented-style eliminationist mode. Occupiers were commonly described as bearers of lice, tuberculosis, and crime, as a disease vector that had to be stamped out. Local governments everywhere decided that the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, was one thing, but what about the grass? They were killing the grass! The political class of people who mattered had no trouble seeing Occupy for the challenge that it was. All of a sudden people on the right began to take an intense interest in public health regulations, grounds maintenance, and on the fair use of public space that none of them had been to in years.

And the full force of the police was called out in order to remove this menace to public order. Everyone reading this is probably familiar with the broad outlines of the police actions that took place. But it is worth re-emphasizing that the main encampments did not simply dwindle away or have people give up. Police destroyed them with mass evictions, hundreds of arrests, and pepper spray.

Everywhere, it turned out that public space -- or public / private space -- was not really public after all. The case of the small Occupy group that I was in might be a good example. We were in a public park that had been deeded to the town on the explicitly written condition that the town couldn't keep people from sleeping there overnight. But, the town decided, a tent was a structure, and a structure required a permit. And a permit couldn't be issued for that area, since it was a park. We could sleep there in a New England winter if we could sleep outside in a sleeping bag on a tarp. But if we kept our tents there, we were going to get arrested.

Why were the encampments so threatening? Let them sit there through the winter and slowly dwindle, some people publicly counseled. Some people in Occupy were quite surprised too. We could get this much notice simply by hanging out in a park? Good deal. I could come up with a number of reasons why they were. The threat to the public order of people publicly living unlike how our system says that they should. The idea that people might start to develop alternative power structures that owed nothing to the existing system. But mostly I think that the political history of the industrialized countries just sends up an emotional red flag whenever unemployed people start gathering in public complaining about having no jobs and not disappearing. The political class is highly motivated at a basic level to try to make that go away. If the intellectual ringhtwingers always think they're fighting the French Revolution, and the nuttier ones the Communist Party, America's more pragmatic political class is always looking out for people acting as they did in the Great Depression.

At any rate, what happened when the encampments were shut down? People in Occupy mostly said, all right, we'll find some other tactic. And they didn't. Without the encampments, what did people have? Protests, petitions, and electoral politics, just as before. And flash mobs. Flash mobs are even better than normal protests, I guess, because they are there in a flash and gone in a flash.

And people in Occupy had already started to discover something else about the General Assemblies. They were really pretty horrible for running anything except an encampment. An encampment has some very concrete jobs, done in some very concrete ways. Once they were gone, people were free to consider goals, projects, and process at length without having to worry about how the trash was going to be picked up. A General Assembly might still work pretty well if people go into with an already existing level of basic political agreement that the people in Occupy really didn't have. But as anarchist testbeds, seeing whether the people of America are ready to handle direct democratic consensus if they're thrown into it, the effects were pretty frequently tragicomic. And the 99% started to discover that they really weren't the 99%.

This is getting long as it is; more about the post-encampment phase in the next post.


  1. > Were the encampments necessary for Occupy to work?

    Well, in part (I) you said "Instead, Occupy settled on an existential challenge. They would break out of normal life and settle in the public square until the system was forced to recognize them".

    So in a way the encampments were All, at least according to you. So you've pretty well already answered your question.

  2. This is both a description and an argument. There are plenty of people in Occupy who wouldn't agree with me about the centrality of the encampments. So what I stated baldly in the first post I have to explain with some extended reasoning later, so that people who disagree know why I think what I do. That means a certain amount of repetition.