Understanding the Theory Behind Occupy Wall Street’s Approach

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?

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67 Responses to Understanding the Theory Behind Occupy Wall Street’s Approach

  1. Randolph says:

    I agree with Henwood too. Thanks for your thoughtful post on this subject.

  2. I agree with Henwood, too. But there are also realworld structural problems.

    I was heavily involved in Indymedia LA–did the vast plurality of written content production from the collective, including a media criticism magazine–and tried to advance a model that would encourage/allow the production of content by a broad range of progressive groups and individuals. My proposal was to use anarchist organizing principles, but allow for ideological diversity of progressive views. The ideological purity crowd would have none of it, but no one wanted to make the exclusionary argument in open meetings, so it was all decided in secret, facilitated by the whole “tyranny of structurelessness” thingie that still lives on with a vengeance.

    This was back in 2000-2002. There was a tremendous window there for Indymedia to become a HUGE progressive media site, with the LA site as a test, but we never even had a serious discussion of the possibility. It was the Peter Pan problem: no one wanted to grow up. There were trust fund types and other comfortable folks playing at being free. They could afford it. They were a minority, but when you need consensus to sneeze, that’s all you need for terminal paralysis.

    Not saying this will happen again here, but it’s a very real danger to watch out for, and one more strong reason to head Doug’s advice.

  3. Regarding Henwood, I disagree. I think it’s a mischaracterization of what the protesters believe in. There is nothing about the anarchist background of many of the protestors that would preclude an agenda nor an organization. Anarchist organizations (yes!) regularly issue statements. No, they don’t have a “leadership” but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be delegates speaking for the group as a whole. And hierarchy is certainly not about a list on a piece of paper – that is just a ridiculous statement.

    If Henwood is looking for their “agenda,” he can find it here:
    http://nycga.cc/2011/09/30/declaration-of-the-occupation-of-new-york-city/

  4. Rob Wohl says:

    Having once identified with the anarchist left and then slowly drifted towards boring, traditional social-democratic reformist liberalism, I’m deeply skeptical of this sort of radically democratic activism, although I seriously respect anyone who’s actually in the streets right now. There are a number of reasons why, and they’re interrelated, so this might be a little disorganized, but I’ll try to explain.

    First, I don’t necessarily accept the notion that a non-hierarchical organization is more democratic than something with a hierarchical structure. A totally consensus-based decision-making process privileges those with time, energy, and a firm grasp of theory that grants certain individuals an aura of authority in meetings (and I say this as someone who was able to totally dominate SDS in college meetings with theoretical razzle dazzle). A protest movement or political party with a formal structure and concrete demands invites and allows time constrained people (workers, parents, basically anyone other than semi-professional student-radicals) to make decisions about whether they want to buy in and contribute their limited resources to a cause than a “temporary autonomous zone” where people are expected to participate in lengthy discussions of goals, tactics, dreams, and theory. Moreover, when debates emerge, a system where representatives debate and ask for votes from a wider group actually gives more agency to the rank-and-file than a consensus system, which privileges (generalization coming) the affluent white men who have been brought up and trained to engage in political discussion.

    A sub-point here is that consensus is by no means more democratic than rule of the majority. I realize that Lenin’s ghost has made much of the left terrified of ever oppressing anyone, but the reality of collective action is that it’s extremely difficult to please everyone. To an extent, discussion and compromise are good things, but waiting for 100% agreement among everyone leads to a huge status-quo bias, which should be totally unacceptable to anyone claiming to be a radical. Do we accept that the Senate is more democratic than the House? Was the diet of the Polish Confederacy more representatives of the wishes of the majority than the British Parliament? I think that sounds kind of silly. The point of collective action is action, so debate must eventually end. That frees everyone to do their job, enact a decision, and if necessary, reconsider that decision. I’d say this is true for both states and sub-state political bodies. (And again, it’s important that participants be left some time to have a life beyond politics).

    Second, I think the kind of rhizomatic, carnivalesque activism that has characterized a lot of the left since the 90s ignores two of the central aims of the left: the equitable (maybe equal) distribution of material wealth and the extension of popular control into areas of civil society traditionally organized through raw domination (the workplace, the family, etc). The redistributionist project can only really be carried out through outright violence that contemporary anarchists seem unprepared to engage in (expropriation of land, factories, etc) or by establishing permanent, bureaucratic institutions that can confront the established power of Capital (unions, the social welfare state, the progressive tax code, and in a certain sense, a central bank seriously committed to full employment. You could also imagine other ones, such as the basic income that Peter Frase has been advocating so articulately). If you aren’t seriously committed to redistribution you ignore the fundamental truth that political power requires a material base. Moreover, by working to establish totally pure democracy (though as I’ve said, I disagree that consensus-based anarchotopias are optimally democratic) in “temporary autonomous zones,” anarchists ignore the imperative of democratizing the existing spaces of civil society. By setting up these temporary zones of liberation, which are typically set apart from the spaces in which we live our every day lives, often by rings of riot police, the anarchists tacitly accept the neoliberal contention that capital’s unrivaled dominance in the workplace and the political sphere is final and inevitable. It also cedes countless other institutions – the church, the family, the courts, the press, popular culture – to the traditional forces of reaction.

    In a lot of ways, you could say about this sort of activism what Marx said about religion, that it’s an “opiate of the people.” Marx didn’t mean that the ruling class had drugged the masses, but that faith was a sort of painkiller, a way to create a temporary yet absolutely profound sense of liberation that failed to address the root cause of alienation, deprivation, and oppression. Similarly, anarchism gives participants a sense of liberation, but because it fails to mount a structural critique or establish machinery for mounting a long campaign, the sense is ultimately fleeting. It’s worth noting that many theorists of this sort of thing are quite open about the largely psychic benefits participants get out of this kind of activism. Now, in the same way that religion has often been wedded to radical politics, I’d like to think you could probably inject this sort of spirit of participatory democracy into more traditional institutional politics to salutary effect. But without descending from the noisy sphere of street protest into the hidden abode of policymaking, the left can’t offer much more than a high.

    That said, I’ll certainly be in Freedom Plaza on October 6th trying to find out if something real is building.

    • jnagarya says:

      That goes down like a fistful of nails.

      Want to reach and persuade the majority? Then drop the dense in-group/elitist jargon and buzzwords and buzz phrases and speak in the language of the majority. The majority hasn’t time to “plug in” and learn a FOREIGN nomenclature in order then to perhaps have time to determine whether they agree with the undefined/non-existent GOALS of this “movement”. The result: you all continue to talk only to yourselves, with your backs to the world, never reaching or persuading the majority.

      As for Seattle 1999: what little was communicated to “the masses” (elitist/dehumanizing cliche abstraction noted) was a turn-off. Alienating to “the masses”. There was no sense of anything beyond pointless “carnival” and destruction of private property. That only persuades most to write you off, shut you out, and look elsewhere for GOALS they can underatand, accept, and toward which work.

      So drop all the goalless abstract “anarcho[blah-blah-blah]” hogwash, speak plain English to others’ undersanding and concerns, and act in the real world in which the vast majority reject your fundamental premises — whatever those undefined/-disclosed premises are.

      That from a 1960s activist who saw firsthand how the antics — so-called “political theater” — of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had the opposite effect of that claimed for said antics. In short: in order to end US invovlement in Vietnam, it was necessary to reach and persuade the majority to that view. Instead, said antics alienated those it was necessary to reach and persuade, thus prolonged that involvement.

      As was said above: the sort of “activism” described in the article is “good” for a temporary high based upon ego-based self-regard; but ultimately a waste of precious time, because the vast majority rejects such obfuscatory and elitist blather because they have to work for a living, so haven’t the time to figure out what the hell you all are talking about.

      KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid.

    • You are right on the money! Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  5. Great discussion. I just posted this to Doug Henwood’s blog, but it can’t hurt to have it here, too–Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, which was a response in the early 1970′s to feminist tendencies to ‘process to death’:
    http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

  6. Miracle Max says:

    A few stray thoughts . . .

    It is mistaken to view this as a self-contained uprising; it’s a moment in a larger process. Witness the coalescing of unions around the event. Where it leads has yet to be determined.

    Lack of structure, leadership, formal decision-making process can obscure actual control being exerted by unelected, self-appointed leaders (who can be good or not so good).

    A group like this is constitutionally incapable of uniting around a limited set of demands. So expecting that to happen is delusional.

    I like the Graeber formulation about policy, and I’m a policy guy. I just couldn’t say where it leads.

    Whatever makes the level of activity expand is all to the good, since that’s the only source of pressure on the political system.

    Inviting Radiohead to perform is a mistake. It ends up diluting the crowd and purpose of the event with kids who just want free music. Plus, Radiohead sucks.

  7. lark says:

    There are so many problems alluded too here. One of the multitude that strikes me is that policy wonks have failed to act democratically. The dominance of a technocratic elite is part of the neoliberal program. A good expression of that is the lack of democratic legitimacy that was part of the construction of the EU and continues to plague the EU as it tries to solve the debt problems. You have to put the small-a anarchists insistence on process in that context. Mainline liberals are too often technocratic and unaccountable elites themselves.

    I think this protest is in its infancy and its main role right now is to exist, in public space, for a long time. That will raise new questions and issues as part of a dialectic process. What will push the political space towards more effective organizations is the ongoing nature of the unemployment crisis.

    • Rob Wohl says:

      I totally agree that it’s essential to work against the unaccountability of contemporary policymakers, but I think the left’s hostility towards “technocrats” is misplaced. I think having a lot of experts adopting a problem-solving mindset to address social problems and being ready to create new institutions is totally salutary to good (and democratic) government. The problem of the neoliberal era is that the working class organizations that once held the machinery of the state accountable have been thoroughly debilitated. The mainstream center left haven’t governed poorly because they’re technocrats, but because they’ve been captured by the financial elites that are actually organized enough to wield influence in politics. The key to more democracy isn’t dismantling the apparatus of technocracy, but making the technocrats more accountable to the will of the majority and giving the public more of a role in identifying the problems that need tackling.

      I also think you’re right about this being the beginning of something bigger, or at least I hope you are, so it’s too early to complain about the seeming aimlesness of the protesters (and the fact that unions are now joining in is a fantastic sign). But to attract widespread support and then actually score some actual victories, I really do think they’ll need to coalesce around some concrete goals and be willing to move into the realm of more traditional politics and work with the actually-existing liberal left. At this stage, I think the internet is just concerned that the ole post-modern anarchist ideology will get in the way of that.

      • Matt says:

        Rob, your point about how the erosion of the Labor movement has contributed to the elevation of Left-Neoliberal technocracy I think is dead on. That very same erosion may also explain the appeal of Anarchism to many young radicals. In his book [i]The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left[/i], James Weinstein comments that, “When the Left fails to create viable movements that offer a place to act on the left’s own behalf, anarchist ideas have had a lingering appeal, especially to newly radicalized young people.”

        Anarchism and Left-Neoliberalism both seem to place great emphasis on the individual, though in very different respects. With Left-Neoliberalism it’s individuals acting within the market. For Anarchists its the kind of participatory democracy that’s been outlined here. When I’ve talked with friends who are Anarchists about the union movement, they usually consider it as compromised or weak, if they have considered it at all. I also think it ties into your previous comment about the psychological satisfaction derived from their kind of activism. They’ve internalized the radical individualism of modern American society and can’t really imagine a different, more collectively oriented, mode of activism.

        I find it really promising that Unions are starting to get involved in the protests and that a devout policy-wonk like Mike is giving the organizing theories of the protestors their due, rather than just dismissing them as posturing kids. Well see where it goes, but regardless, I think this kind ecumenicism and dialogue on the Left should be encouraged.

    • jnagarya says:

      Elitist rant against elitists who wear a different label.

      Do you not “get” that “the masses” (sic) you hope to reach haven’t a clue as to the meaning of “dialectic” and “dialectical process”? That “they” are not sympathetic to that which to them is wholly FOREIGN and incomprehensible?

      If you want to continue to fail to catch on; want to continue to alienate the interest and attention of “the masses” (sic), then continue with the self-indugent technoblah-blah-blah against techno[blah-blah-blah].

  8. Frank says:

    I think Henwood’s idea better reflects the views of the people I talked to. (I visited last night.)

    I talked for the longest with an unemployed Army reservist who had traveled from Indiana to take part in the protest. He told me that unemployment for returning troops from Iraq was near 35%. He said that, where he lived in Indiana, frustration with politicians from both parties had never been higher. He had slept in the plaza for a couple nights, but had to get back home for reserve duty, so he was leaving.

    Another protester had recently lost her job in New Jersey. She told me that she came to visit Zuccotti Park when it didn’t interfere with her job search too much. She said that a friend of hers who worked for a Wall Street firm as an accountant for $40,000 per year also planned to join the occupiers. According to her, he has been stuck in the same job at a stagnant pay level for years because more senior employees are too anxious to retire.

    At 6PM there was a teach-in called “How to Tax Millionaires.” A woman of about 25 gave a brief speech about how 136 millionaires in Congress were opposing the “Buffett Rule,” and she urged us to sign fax forms to demand that they at least allow the legislation to be considered. We also had a good discussion about tax havens, UK Uncut, and the need to equalize taxation on labor and capital gains.

    Can the GA/consensus model solve our deepest economic problems? No. But the protesters I met were hard-pressed, conscientious people who just wanted to see a fairer sharing of societal benefits and burdens.

  9. Paul Meinhardt says:

    One great plus is that the “festival of free thought” leaves no easy point of attack…since there are no demands, no policies and no “squishy” ideological buttons to push. Just by pointing a massive finger at Wall Street is enough. It grabs media attention by offering an exciting public mystery. It asks the world, “What’s happening on Wall Street and why should we care?
    Pauli M…pmeinhardt@optonline.net

    • jnagarya says:

      And the world is too busy to get so far as asking that question, let alone seeking apparently-non-existent answers to it.

      The majority, in other words, haven’t the time/luxury to steep themselves in forbiddingly opaque jargon purpurting to be some sort of “theory”.

      The jargon is a self-interposed wall of incomprehension interjected between your small group of smug elitists and the vast majority. When you lose them, they move on to something that makes sense to them.

  10. SIMON says:

    I have to say that my uncrysstalized thoughts have been summed up extremely well by Rob Wohl. Anarchism, IMO, is a very helpful way to view international relations, that is, the state is illegitimate. Yet its focus on eliminating hierarchical relations unfortunately falls into the same kind of utopian thinking that I think the left must absolutely avoid. It is not that I disagree with their concept of the state, but that as Rob said, totally consensus based decision making just gives rise to other inequalities of power based on individual preferences for organizing working etc. Additionally, the fact that this decision making process is inefficient makes it all but inevitable that other actors who are happy to form more authoritarian structures soon pose a threat. One of the reasons it is impossible for me to be on the radical left is that I am ultimately a pessimist, and with respect to politics and human organization believe strongly that power and domination are inevitable, and that no politics can ever deliver humans from the absurdity of the limited human condition. What seems so great about social democracy is that it allows us to focus on relieving suffering, rather than freedom.

    • SIMON says:

      I also think anarchism is painfully silent on the things that people actually need to survive, like healthcare, food, entertainment etc. The focus on freedom seems silly, especially considering that ultimate freedom is probably illusory. In fact one of my largest complaints with Chomsky is when I heard him affirm free will. One of the things that so great about Rawls, Dworkin etc is their focus on luck egalitarianism, the fact that so many things (perhaps everything) happen to us out of our control.

      • jnagarya says:

        The only ultimate is that there are no ultimates.

        What do you mean by the abstract word “freedom,” as compared and contrasted with the meaning attached to it by this or that individual teabagger?

  11. Taryn H. says:

    I was really taken aback by the Left’s scorn of and anger towards the protesters: “They’re ineffective!” The statement, and the bizarre emotion behind it, undercuts itself – if they were truly ineffective, they’d be ignored. Actually, they’re very effective thus far.

    The question is whether they’ll actually be able to translate this energy into lasting change. I think those involved with Seattle believed they were very effective. At this point, it seems too early to reach any conclusions – right now they’re mobilizing (and in that they seem surprisingly effective – they seem to be growing rapidly). I think they will formulate concrete demands, but that, of course, remains to be seen.

    I personally was very impressed with your suggestions for concrete demands – as far as I know you were the only person on the Left to do so (everyone else was satisfied to be for or against). I think this is a unique opportunity for the progressive intelligensia to be useful.

    So, I hope this post doesn’t mean you’re done. I think they’re just getting started.

    • jnagarya says:

      “. . . if they were truly ineffective, they’d be ignored.”

      They are being ignored, foremost because their words and actions are incomprehensible to the vast majority.

      How long has the “occupation” been going on? It was only reported, for the first time, today, on local mainstream TV news. It didn’t help that they could not report what the purpose or “demands” are. Yet again it looks like Seattle 1999: purposeless and pointless.

  12. Dan in Euroland says:

    This statement: This shows that another system, indeed the negation of Wall Street model, is possible right at the heart of the machine.

    Exactly how do these kids show that another system is possible? How much food do they produce in a year? What production processes do they use for their iphones and ipads? Do they use a consensus based mechanism to determine the production of these goods?

    The best take on these protesters was The Last Psychiatrists’s.

  13. Erase all the debts? How about we do something more reasonable. Rescind the rule of law that enables banks to declare a default whenever a human being asks for a change in terms to an existing loan. It’s really that simple.

    Canceling debt is stupid, continuing to charge double digit interest rates on credit card and student loan debt is ridiculous as well. http://www.swarmthebanks.com http://www.bankprotests.com

  14. Peter Dorman says:

    This is a fascinating and important discussion. Like Rob, I have a history in the anarchist world, in my case the late 60s up to the early 80s. I know where the ideas behind the Wall St. Occupation are coming from, and I’m sympathetic to them, but I also see the problems that eventually caused me to change my own approach.

    I agree with Simon that freedom is not everything – it’s not even freedom. We have lots of needs to meet, many of them grubby and material, and if the choices available to us don’t allow us to live reasonably comfortable, healthy lives, a freedom confined to “decision-making” is not worth much. Sometimes, if you are convicted of something, a judge will give you a choice between a big fine and time in jail. Jail rates a lot lower on the “freedom” scale, but if you can’t afford the fine you’ll take it. This, it seems to me, is a deep, foundational problem with doctrinaire anarchism. You could try to resolve it by saying that there is no tradeoff, ever, between freedom and material well-being, but who really believes this?

    A second problem is that direct action as an ideology (rather than a tactic) is borderline solipsistic. Its underlying thought-justification is “if I do this maybe lots of other people will too”. Maybe yes, but also maybe no. The problem is that simply assuming this justifies a too-broad identification between what makes you feel good (the carnival of the oppressed) and what you judge to be politically effective; it erases the boundary between them. In other words, it comes close to being a politics built on narcissism. I know that’s harsh, but there it is. The operative question becomes “what can I do to not participate on any level with the horrible stuff going on around me?”, but that’s ultimately about me and not the people on the receiving end of the horror. I’m not advocating the opposite extreme — sacrificing oneself on the alter of a political machine that promises to liberate the abstract masses — but surely there is space in between that balances the need for personal integrity with responsibility toward others (including distant others who are often much worse off than you are).

    When people ask me these days what my political philosophy is, I usually say I’m a reformist anarchist, and I don’t mean it facetiously. I want to do what I can to make the world more equal (at a high quality of life) and less hierarchical. This often means trying to change government policies, since extending social insurance, democratizing finance, reducing harm to the environment and other reforms would push us in that direction. I absolutely agree that we need to keep a watchful eye on the organizations we create in order to make political change and push for as little hierarchy and as much transparency as possible. In small-scale politics I think the direction action model is often the best.

    If there were a single word that sums up how I’ve changed my outlook, it’s “mediations”. I now see society and its needs as far too complex to be addressed in any immediate way; mediation of all kinds are necessary and inevitable. Political structures are mediations. Economic institutions (markets, firms) are mediations. Political programs are mediations. Media are mediations. (Is this redundant?) Take these nice anarchist values and work through and against the mediation of your choice.

    • Matt says:

      Peter, could you possibly elaborate more on what reformist Anarchism means to you? How would you distinguish it’s ultimate goals from the democratic socialist position put forth by Gøsta Esping-Andersen that universal social insurance can be a first step in the process of lessening and ultimately eliminating the commodity status of workers? What’s the difference between framing these reforms as the beginning of a transition to socialism versus anarchism? Sorry if the answer is something obvious. I’m not to well-versed in Anarchist thought.

      Also, I’d like to revise my comments in the reply above to Rob. Reading it again, it seemed more than a little condescending toward the Anarchist position, as though I was attributing their beliefs to some kind of mental disorder. My basic point was that a move toward Anarchism is entirely predictable in a society where there is no strong institutionalized Left. People pursue an individualistic politics because they have made a not unrealistic assessment that they are on their own.

      And for those just outright dismissing the protestors, well, what Digby said:
      http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/protesting-in-real-america_25.html

      • Peter Dorman says:

        There really isn’t a good short answer, Matt, but here goes. One way is to say (what I tried to say in my comment) that what anarchists want for people — individual and collective freedom (both negative and positive), equality (economic, social, political), universal opportunities for self-realization that people actually take advantage of, a high quality of life — can be approached bit by bit. Reforms can be evaluated according to whether they tend to increase them. For instance, a reformist anarchist would want environmental policies that maximize participation, raise awareness, are transparent, etc. I like the laws that give ordinary citizens the right to sue the EPA on the grounds that it is not fulfilling its mandate. I would not be happy with a process that allowed technocrats to decide behind closed doors what environmental practices should be mandated, even if they are impeccably trained. In the theoretical and policy work I’ve done on occupational health and safety, I’ve always kept my eyes open for ways to increase the role (and power) of front-line workers and other members of the community. At the national level, if I had been able to influence the Obama administration in 2009, I would have recommended to let health care wait a bit and focus on changing labor law, to shift the political economy away from the rich and give millions of people the opportunity to act collectively on their own behalf — the gift that would keep on giving. All of this is far away from the anarchist utopias I used to dream about, but the goal is to give as many of us as much of this dream in the world we actually inhabit.

        From a more “academic” standpoint, I’d recommend going back to John Dewey, who I think worked this “reformist anarchist” ground in his writings and activism, especially post-1920. (He was seriously compromised prior to this.) I think there are some big problems with Dewey, but he had the right idea overall. JD would not be impressed with a process in which individuals just wrote down their own personal “demands”, and the whole list is presented as “what the demonstration is about”. He believed, as I do, that the world is complicated, and our only hope to understand it and engage in what he called “intelligent action” is to learn from one another and systematically measure our ideas against experience. BTW, this role for learning from experience is why I’m happy to say I’m a reformist. If we can do it, it’s so much better to try stuff out, see what happens, revise and try again.

  15. Peter Dorman says:

    Sorry: a followup to provide a practical example of the importance and inevitability of mediation.

    Occupy Wall Street doesn’t want to have a single individual speaking for the group. I understand the motivation behind this: we must all gain the ability to speak publicly for ourselves. But here is a story from the not-too-distant past.

    I was involved in the campaign against NAFTA. It was a broad and loose coalition with no overarching organization. There was no single spokesperson, but a plethora of public voices saying lots of different things.

    In the runup to the Senate ratification vote, a debate was scheduled on nationwide TV. The pro-NAFTA side was represented by Al Gore. The anti side was also selected by the White House; it chose Ross Perot. Perot’s politics were anathema to most of the people I knew: he was stridently nationalist, hostile to Mexico, manipulative rather than supportive of labor and generally ignorant of economics. He not only got creamed, his amplified voice obliterated all of ours.

    In retrospect it is fairly easy to see what went wrong. Given the structure of communication in this country (a set of mediations), it was inevitable that one or a small number of speakers would represent us. We should have organized this ourselves in a democratic and accountable way. If it were up to us, we would have chosen someone like Ralph Nader to go up against Gore, and the legacy of the anti-NAFTA struggle would have been entirely different. Since we did not do this, we allowed our opponents to define who we were.

    It’s important to be active and risk making mistakes, and it’s also important to learn from your mistakes.

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  17. Dan Kervick says:

    Technocracy and neoliberalism are not the same thing. There was a technocratic elite before the neoliberal revolution and there was one after it. What neoliberalism did is bring in an elite with an excessive faith in market solutions, privatization and deregulation. They have dismantled the capacity of our government to act in the economic sphere to protect equality, security and incomes, and to engage in countercyclical public investment and hiring, while at the same time permitting a stupendous growth in inequality and concentrated private ownership that is now a threat to our democracy. This has left the informed “liberal” casualties of this era with little to do but whine about the Federal Reserve, and delude themselves with warmed-over Friedmanite and monetarist theories about the evils of “tight money”.

    Anarchism or “left libertarianism” is to my mind part of the problem, not the solution. To the extent that anarchists are disposed to displace the neoliberal elite – just because they hate governments, hierarchies and orders of every kind in a kneejerk way – they might be useful. But the capitalist market system, even the ideally “free” ones of libertarian thought, tend naturally toward instability and inequality, as part of their normal functioning. They need strong government regulation in order to serve the public good. The problem we have faced is a lack of effective democratic governance, organized within a powerful, democratically well-founded, institutional government that can keep the corporations and hustlers under their thumb. We have needed more laws and more regulatory oversight, not less. Libertarians and anarchists just don’t get that. Their hatred of government is a war on the only thing that can sustain democracy and take on the power of concentrated private property.

    If you want to see exhibit A in the enfeeblement of the left during the rise of neoliberalism, look no further than the so-called libertarian socialism of the Chomsky era, which has seduced two generations of left romantics into belief in a dreamy, government-free paradise where injustice and inequality dissolve under a quasi-religious ethos of non-domination.

    If people are serious about defeating the entrenched power of the financial and corporate elite, and ending the rule of private money, they have to aspire to become the government, not end government.

    • jnagarya says:

      Well and elegantly said.

      The cure for excessive de-regulation and the consequent evils is re-regulation. That’s apparently too obvious for those who subscribe to the absolute elimination of the fundamental regulation that is gov’t itself.

      The human race has already been there; it learned from that, and as consequence instituted gov’ts to constrain the excesses of the sociopathy that is greed. A specific example:

      John Adams saw greed as the central — but ineradicable — human flaw. And recognized that it is not in the nature of greed to regulate itself; but that unregulated it devours everything else, then devours itseslf. Thus he devised a separation of powers — “jealousies” then, “greed” today — which resulted in three co-equal contenders against each other.

      Thomas More had stated the same understanding hundreds of years before Adams, in this exhange with his son-in-law, Roper:
      _____

      William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

      Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

      Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

      More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Deviil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

      This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s. And if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

      Yes, I’d give the Deveil benefit of law: for my own safety’s sake!

      from “A Man for All Seasons,” screenplay by Robert Bolt.
      _____

      Do “Anarchists”/”Libertarians” really believe the false notion that law is in opposition to freedom? If so, then from where do they get their ideas of specific freedoms?

      They get them from established law, beginning with the Constitution. Freedoms, rights, are secured in law — see, as example, “Bill of Rights” — and protected by law — see “Bill of Rights” and gov’t enforcement of law. And it is law which provides remedies to violations of rights — see Judicary.

      Lacking those one has only individual force v. individual force, or lawless gang v. gang, and nothing resembling sense or justice. Do “individualist” “Anarchists”/”Libertarians” — extremists — really believe they are faster on the draw than all the other cowboys putting on the same act?

  18. I think some of the criticism here miss the point a little bit. First and foremost I don’t think you can criticize the way a protest is organized on the same grounds as you would more directly participatory politics. This protest in particular is “static” which I think makes it particularly well suited to the kind of anarchist organization that’s at it’s core. After all, the main thrust of Henwood’s post is now outdated becuase he was not patient enough to let the mechanism driving the protest do it’s thing. I also think there is something to be said for the carnavelesque aspect of the protest–again, something that functions only within a “protest”–that Greaber highlights (though I do think that anarchists stretching back to at least Kropotikin kind of fetishize the middle ages)

    Anyway, that having been said I share a lot of the criticism that many of the commentators have but I’m less inclined to dismiss the whole thing entirely. I think the “wheres your economy”: point is somewhat valid. I think that modern anarchism is a kind of negative image of libertarianism. LIbertarianism has a utopian theory of economics, but no theory of politics while anarchism has a utopian theory of politics but no theory of economics. I also think that both movements are the product of neoliberalism but I think there is an important difference that stretches back before the left/right neoliberal consensus took hold. Today’s anarchism is a direct decedent of the SDS etc but also the whole hippy commune experiment* both of which tried to reconcile the individual within the “collective”. Libertarianism on the other hand simply “frees” the individual via the marketplace.

    I feel like it is pretty clear which utopian project is the ethical one or the truly utopian one. So while it is legitimate that the “movement” deserves a fair amount of criticism of methods I don’t think cynicism about the ideological position itself is warranted. Its a foundation to build ideas on. The irony of Graeber’s work is that he is articulating a theory of a theory-less movement. The movement needs that. It also needs policy wonks who start from a position asking questions like “How do we get individuals to realize themselves through politics/society instead of consumption?” I mean, at its core the anarchist ideology is simply an ideology of transformative radical democracy, which should be fairly uncontroversial as a starting point. While policy wonks obviously aren’t working within a context where they can insist on revolution you can still use it as an ideological ideal. If nothing else an ideology of pure democracy gives one a framework from which you can criticize and pose solutions to the dominant (apolitical) paradigm of neoliberalism. This protest, like all protests, is a symbolic statement which means the best it can achieve is to draw attention. That this protest has not garnered a whole lot of attention about what it stands for (pretty basic stuff) but rather it’s methodology is I think it’s biggest achievement.

    As a side, the other thing I think it super interesting about this protest is that it’s been “patient” while your typical Saturday afternoon protest comes and goes without anyone really noticing there has been a slow build of media attention (helped along by Tony Baloney) and it is now spawning off other long term protests around the country. It’s an interesting model.

    *Since I can’t go five minutes without referring to Adam Curtis movies, his new documentary “Machines of Loving Grace” spends a lot of time talking about the structural problems of the “depoliticized” commune movement which are along the same lines as the problems P Roseberg talks about with indymedia, it kind of leads to a tyranny of individuals with no counteracting force to prevent it.

  19. SIMON says:

    @ Andrew. As I said before, I don’t discount the moral status of the anarchist position of radical democracy. Yet as you point out, it has no theory of economics, especially an economics compatible with our modern world and everything people expect from it. This, I believe, is MORE damning than what its opposite ideology (libertarianism) suffers from (the lack of politics). People need to eat, get medical care, communicate in order to be able to do anything else whatsoever, and politics can’t provide this. I also tend to agree with old school conservatives (and perhaps Foucault) in that power holds society together and that there is no alternative. Libertarians think they are free if there is no government interference in the market, anarchists if there are no private property, but the unfortunate reality of the human condition is that we are always constrained.

  20. marwan says:

    There is an impulse out there to want to corral and domesticate the OWS folk behind a list of wonky policy demands. I have this impulse too. But I need to kill the inner liberal policy wonk and let this movement make its absurd and absolutist non-demands as long and in as militant and confrontational ways possible. We never get the kind of lasting policy changes we want without the energy of impossible demands behind it. The policy demands are the booby prize for when we’ve lost utopia.

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  25. Holly says:

    Where does the “Wise Democracy” movement fit into all of this? There are acres of practice and research on this, but one basic idea is: 12 to 24 random (one-time, not elected) folks are gathered for a few days to address an issue, hearing from as many “sides” and “experts” as possible. Following discussion within the group, a report (which may include minority opinions) is issued as guidance to a larger group. Currently that’s usually to help in making ballot decisions (Oregon has instituted such a system for its initiative system)–but I can see this kind of process fitting into a non-hierarchical setting like OWS–and might even be a bridge between the wider philosophical views that have been discussed above.

    What blows me away is that people in such groups have come away without even knowing the ideological politics of the others!

    This seems to me to be a way for individual wisdom (REQUIRING diversity and inclusion) to become collective wisdom (leading to coordinated action in areas of agreement)–with a minimum of organization and bureaucracy (and without the paralysis of consensus-finding within a large population).

    I am not an expert in Wise Democracy, so check it out for yourself: Two resources I value are http://www.co-intelligence.org/CIdemocracypolitics_theory.html (The Co-Intelligence Institute) or NCDD.org (National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation).

    I plan to be part of OccupyPDX to have my voice heard–I hope to see y’all there!

  26. SIMON says:

    “Wanting to abolish authority in large scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel.” -Engels I can’t help but agree. I doubt any anarchist civilization in the future would have CT-Scans and Iphones.

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  32. 11again says:

    I believe that there is the inkling of something truly special, new, and unique in the recent occupation movement! It seems to me that the true potential of this emerging movement is that it’s about much more than simply getting attention. It’s about directly reclaiming privatized spaces! This new method of civil disobedience (which I call: living occupation) is to demonstrate directly just how much space has been privatized–even in public places there are laws against erecting temporary sleeping structures, etc. Living outdoors is not simply metaphorical; it’s what oppressed people all over the world have to do. The people who are choosing to live outdoors as a part of this movement are, by that very practice itself, changing the social meaning of space.

    I’ve expressed all of this more eloquently here: http://11again.wordpress.com/2011/09/29/this-struggle-is-global-this-occupation-is-alive/Namely, I believe that the occupiers have found a new way of doing civil disobedience.

  33. This is a very interesting discussion and in many ways a rehash of the classic argument between the class struggle anarchists – personified by Murray Bookchin and his “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism” book – and the ultra-leftist faction that would congeal around the journals Anarchy, Fifth Estate and later Green Anarchist. Important polemicists included Bookchin, Bob Black, John Zerzan and others. The short story is that the lifestyle faction triumphed, though outposts of the class struggle group persist (for example, the remains of the IWW, which has endorsed OWS).

    Anyway, no substantive comments, only a stray observation.

  34. Pingback: Thoughts on the Wall Street Occupation « Shrine of Dreams

  35. After a few years and 10 banking protest blogs later, I stumbled upon the answer while watching Conan Nolan on KNBC in Los Angeles late Sunday Night. His guest, Jerry Nicklestein, said something as an aside that I found quite profound.

    Nicklestein said, “Restructuring a debt requires a default first”. There it is. The root of all banking evil. Change that one little sentence to “Restructuring a debt DOES NOT require a default first, and we can change the world, for the better.

    I believe that is the answer.

    The question however, becomes more important. How can we expect protestors who are personally angry, and motivated by their own internal thoughts, to reach out and care about what is hurting those around them?

    How does the movement graduate from not much more than a 2011 version of the 2008 Obama love in? The answer is it may not, because the protestors believe they are acting selflessly, when their motivation is not main street, but their own personal hurt.

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  38. rjsigmund says:

    i thought about this for a while…they should have no theory or demands…just to occupy the space is enough….having a goal just sets them up for defeat…

  39. Ross Wolfe says:

    Occupy Wall Street still contains many problematic aspects, but it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. 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

  40. We who are joining the occupation recognize that our current protest is, as the blogger states, a “less threatening form of dissent.” The task of the movement, as it grows, will be to find ways to materially inconvenience the System through acts of civil disobedience. Many of us see this as our last chance to save America from descending into a cesspool of its own making.

  41. ripley says:

    It’s interesting to me, a few days later, to re-read this and see all the discussion of health care, food, etc as something anarchists are bad at. When in fact the signal achievement of the longer-term camps has been their ability to provide exactly those things.

    The question of where those things come from is worth asking, but doesn’t, I think, undermine the reality of the experience in the camps which is also important in multiple ways. I’m sick of the so-called gotcha “you all use ipads” point. The issue isn’t the ipads, the issue is who gets paid for them and how they get made, which you could manage through regulation (no gotcha there) or reorganization in a few different ways.

    Also, for many, the experience of the occupations in themselves can be a transformative experience: the experience of getting food and health care because you need it, rather than because you pay for it, or providing those things because you have them or you know how, rather than because someone pays you. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say these people have no economics, but I think their economics may be rather different.

    I also feel like I’m missing anarcho-syndicalism and a whole other slew of anarchisms in what seem like caricatures of anarchists as necessarily individualist and incapable of dealing with industry or a certain level of organization (if not bureaucracy).

    • RanDomino says:

      You have it exactly right, thank you. Anarchism’s answer to capitalism is Gift Economics, which functions exactly as stated here and is based on fundamental human nature regarding community and mutual aid.

  42. Ross Wolfe says:

    This issue was dealt with best in the rigidly non-hierarchical women’s movement back in 1970 by Jo Freeman: “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”

  43. RanDomino says:

    I don’t know what I can say, other than that Anarchist praxis already has answered these concerns. Those who criticize it would do better by asking questions and learning rather than simply issuing bold dismissals from staggering ignorance of Anarchism.

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  46. Priscilla says:

    Interesting article. I just have one question, If the banks are charging no interest rates for the rich people to borrow loans, wouldn’t banks lose money this way?

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