The Occupy Wall Street protests have been collecting demands from people in order to create their own list. In their words, their demands are “a process” intended to allow people to “talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies … [and] zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination.” I contributed the three demands I think they should consider focusing on over at Good Magazine here.
Here’s a really moving We Are the 99 Tumblr where people across the country are writing their stories on a sheet of paper and sharing them. This recession has scarred generations of Americans for the foreseeable future and yet few in power are really rattled about it.
There’s been a lot of back and forth, especially from liberals, about what the protestors are trying to do in their occupation. Where are their finely-tuned lists of concrete demands? What are the action items, spokespeople and who are the key influencers they need to reach?
Matt Stoller went and wrote about the Occupy Wall Street and found that:
Most of all, people there are having fun. What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, “we matter.”….There’s a deep fear of official spokespeople beginning to monopolize and misinterpret the non-hierarchical model of community protest.
Nathan Schneider has an Occupy Wall Street FAQ designed to explain the protests to confused liberals. Excerpt:
So nobody is in charge? How do decisions get made?
The General Assembly has become the de facto decision-making body for the occupation at Liberty Plaza, just a few blocks north of Wall Street…Get ready for jargon: the General Assembly is a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought…Working toward consensus is really hard, frustrating and slow. But the occupiers are taking their time. When they finally get to consensus on some issue, often after days and days of trying, the feeling is quite incredible. A mighty cheer fills the plaza. It’s hard to describe the experience of being among hundreds of passionate, rebellious, creative people who are all in agreement about something….
What are the demands of the protesters?
Ugh—the zillion-dollar question. Again, the original Adbusters call asked, “What is our one demand?” Technically, there isn’t one yet…Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there—which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand.
These are good descriptions of the practices involved, but it is worth expanding this on the theoretical level, for the theory behind the unique nature of the protests is important to understanding it. People don’t live and act out theory scripts, though understanding why this is different than conventional liberal politics might be helpful for those confused. Especially as a lot of larger, different organizations are likely to come into these protests in the upcoming weeks it is worth understanding the ideas behind how this started.
(It’s also good for this blog to catalogue this, as I’ve also been having some meta-discussion over beers with Corey Robin about whether or not a small-a anarchism is going to be a necessary part of the intellectual left-liberal toolkit going forward. It is a discussion that started over whether, and why, James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is a must-read for young progressives. That will hopefully turn into a larger project.)
I’m not deeply-involved or well-versed (to say the least) in small-a anarchist techniques of assembly or creating autonomous zones. Instead I’m just going to give a lot of blockquotes, most involving David Graeber, who is involved with these protests and the Seattle 1999 protests (and whose new book on debt is great). Hopefully these will give some context for liberals who are confused about what is going on with the protests, even if it ultimately doesn’t convince them.
Is it in fact a chaotic mess? From the Indypendent’s review of Graeber’s Direct Action, his enthography of the similarly-executed 1999 Seattle protests:
In Direct Action, Graeber fleshes out an argument that he has made elsewhere: The ideology of the alter-globalization movement was contained in its practice. What seemed to outside observers like a chaotic mish-mash of messages at protests staged by Marxist groups was actually a conscious choice to allow a diversity of viewpoints to be expressed. And what seemed like a tedious attention to meeting process was the result of a commitment to direct democracy and rejection of a politics of representation in favor of a politics of participation. Instead of focusing solely, or even largely, on ends, the global justice movement focused on means, attempting to live out its ideals in the present and sneak moments of liberation on the sly.
While anarchists formed the avant-garde of the global justice movement, they generally did not try to convert other protesters and sympathizers to an explicit belief system. Instead of pushing a party line, they spread practices, advocating the adoption of affinity groups, consensus-based decision-making and spokescouncils. Graeber argues that the Direct Action Network, the most significant organization of the global justice movement, while short-lived, was extraordinarily successful in diffusing a directly democratic model of organizing.
There’s a conscious focus on the methodology to create an explicit space of real, direct democracy. The main concern is the methods used for the expressing the actions of the community. To me, with all due respect, the lazer-focus on the explicitly proper methods to the exclusion of all else reminds me a bit of cartoony High Liberalism Theory. The kind of theory where the point is to obsess on the proper type of auction for buckets of goods on the deserted island so wine snobs, beach bums and the hard-working shoemakers all are equally well off, instead of confronting the vicious, feudal hierarchies of power that actually exist.
But it isn’t just both the methods and the focus on methods that is unique. There’s an actual occupation going on in the park. And, as Stoller pointed out, it is designed to be fun. Is there something deeper about both the communal and festival spirit of the protests? It can be read as a reaction against the atomized, privatized forms of capitalism as it evolved into modernity. From Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (FAA):
It is common wisdom among anarchists, autonomists, Situationists, and other new revolutionaries that the old breed of grim, determined, self-sacrificing revolutionary, who sees the world only in terms of suffering will ultimately only produce more suffering himself. Certainly that’s what has tended to happen in the past. Hence the emphasis on pleasure, carnival, on creating “temporary autonomous zones” where one can live as if one is already free. The ideal of the “festival of resistance” with its crazy music and giant puppets is, quite consciously, to return to the late medieval world of huge wickerwork giants and dragons, maypoles and morris dancing; the very world the Puritan pioneers of the “capitalist spirit” hated so much and ultimately managed to destroy. The history of capitalism moves from attacks on collective, festive consumption to the promulgation of highly personal, private, even furtive forms (after all, once they had all those people dedicating all their time to producing stuff instead of partying, they did have to figure out a way to sell it all); a process of the privitization of desire.
Put those together – an experiment in radical democracy, a living alternative to the inequities of financially-driven capitalism – it ends up providing a working alternative to the system of domination that permeates Wall Street and the financial capitalist economy. This shows that another system, indeed the negation of Wall Street model, is possible right at the heart of the machine. FAA:
When protesters in Seattle chanted “this is what democracy looks like,” they meant to be taken literally. In the best tradition of direct action, they not only confronted a certain form of power, exposing its mechanisms and attempting literally to stop it in its tracks: they did it in a way which demonstrated why the kind of social relations on which it is based were unnecessary. This is why all the condescending remarks about the movement being dominated by a bunch of dumb kids with no coherent ideology completely missed the mark. The diversity was a function of the decentralized form of organization, and this organization was the movement’s ideology.
This is a policy wonk blog. What’s their meta-level distrust of policy wonks? Where are the graphs? Why aren’t they writing white papers on how to reform Wall Street instead of experimenting with radical democracy? This is a very conscious decision. FAA:
Mainstream social science actually isn’t much help [to us], because normally in mainstream social science this sort of thing is generally classified as “policy issues,” and no self-respecting anarchist would have anything to do with these.
against policy (a tiny manifesto):
The notion of “policy” presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others. “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By partici- pating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs.
So in this case, the question becomes: What sort of social theory would actually be of interest to those who are trying to help bring about a world in which people are free to govern their own affairs?
Both the rejection of wonk policy, leaders and spokespeople contrasts them with more organizational techniques of movement liberals and traditional vanguardism on the left (“…any anarchist social theory would have to reject self-consciously any trace of vanguardism. The role of intellectuals is most definitively not to form an elite that can arrive at the correct strategic analyses and then lead the masses to follow…”).
The question is how did we get here, where there is so much focus on process? Jodi Dean has some thoughts:
Once the New Left delegitimized the old one, it made political will into an offense, a crime with all sorts of different elements:
- taking the place or speaking for another (the crime of representation);
- obscuring other crimes and harms (the crime of exclusion);
- judging, condemning, and failing to acknowledge the large terrain of complicating factors necessarily disrupting simple notions of agency (the crime of dogmatism);
- employing dangerous totalizing fantasies that posit an end of history and lead to genocidal adventurism (the crime of utopianism or, as Mark Fisher so persuasively demonstrates, of adopting a fundamentally irrational and unrealistic stance, of failing to concede to the reality of capitalism).
That link is from Doug Henwood, who argues:
Certainly the location of the protest is a statement, but when it comes to words, there’s a strange silence—or prolixity, which in this case, amounts to pretty much the same thing. Why can’t they say something like this? “These gangsters have too much money. They wrecked the economy, got bailed out, and are back to business as usual. We need jobs, schools, health care, and clean energy. Let’s take their money to pay for them.” The potential constituency for that agenda is huge….
An agenda—and an organization, and some kind of leadership that could speak and be spoken to—would violate these rules. Distilling things down to a simple set of demands would be hierarchical, and commit a crime of exclusion. Having an organization with some sort of leadership would force some to speak for others, the crime of representation.
But without those things, as Jodi says, there can be no politics….Occupiers: I love you, I’m glad you’re there, the people I talked to were inspiring—but you really have to move beyond this. Neoliberalism couldn’t ask for a less threatening kind of dissent.
I think I’m with Henwood. What’s your take?