Alternet ran an article last week titled “What Really Caused the Implosion of the Occupy Movement: An Insider’s View“. Multiple people asked me to write up a response here. I already wrote a retrospective article for the site a couple months ago, which you can read here, but I do have some comments on this article.
The first part that struck me was that it’s encouraging people are still thinking about OWS this far on. There was a sense as soon as maybe a year and a half later of OWS as something that had completely flashed out; that was going to have its effect on the populace, an undeniable effect if nowhere near the full one that was desired by the occupiers, and become an invisible source of cultural vernacular left to etymologies and dry historical books sold or at least priced and placed on card tables at the Left Forum in smaller quantities each ensuing year.
But the underlying grievances that fueled OWS have only been exacerbated since the encampments were broken up and the starting pistol for the second wave of postmortems after the hasty ones scrawled off in the immediate aftermath may have begun with this article.
The article itself is very much in the style of OWS and particularly the “leadership”, the people who had a definite craving for sitting through long planning meetings, the people who academically couldn’t call themselves leaders but would insistently remind people such to make sure any listeners would know they’d pondered the possibility. I quote:
I’m a leader, and people know it, but no one says it. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not the only leader, of course — there are many. In this room, we’re a wide range of people. Some of the folks go back to the Global Justice Movement, but most of us have met in the middle of the whirlwind, building the kinds of relationships you can only build in crisis or struggle. Some of the room is seasoned and experienced, some very new to this type of thing, but all of us have demonstrated leadership early on (some before the thing even really started) and come in with lots of relationships. Between us we lead a number of working groups, drive some of the major mass actions, play formative roles in much of the media being pumped out, and more.
There’s not a lot of talk about tactics or the nitty gritty of organizing and of course, as I pointed out in my memoir of the movement Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead, there was a distinct sense of a split in the park between the people actually running the day to day operations of the park and the people who seemed to think they were running the park operations who were in fact in meetings constantly. Some very important work was done in these meetings, yes, but a lot of what went on was overly theoretical. I stopped going to Info group meetings after two or three of them because nothing was getting done that was important to running the info kiosk at the front; the number of people working the table was always small enough where it was easier to make decisions on the ground with whoever was present and in the case of the info table, most decisions were pretty common sense and because all volunteers weren’t spending equal amounts of time there, any group decisions couldn’t quite account for the finer points of moment to moment operation.
Author Yotam Marom’s analysis in the article hits some of the major issues. Yes, the occupation had no coherent endgame. Yes, the anarchist principles on which the park was organized created problems both of accountability of the people who were, if not leaders, at least in far more privileged positions regarding the financial windfall of the park and still have not released the open books that were supposedly kept of the park’s finances (looking at you Finance and Accounting Working Groups). If I ever met Yotam I don’t remember it, though his description of meetings in apartments sounds like the side of the park, or, perhaps more accurately stuff that wasn’t in the park, that I purposely avoided. The appeal for me was the liveliness on the ground and the almost fully functioning city that arose out of donations and people willing to sleep in public.
The major errors I see in Marom’s breakdown of what went wrong are mostly in omissions. Marom, like most of the people who were going to meetings, missed half the occupation, the half that still exists in small pockets, the public imagination. Because OWS had no endgame, I feel hesitant to call it a success or failure; it clearly wasn’t meant to create a new political party in the US, state eviction from the park was pretty much a foregone conclusion from day one; what was surprising was that we were able to hold the space for as long as we did so we could engage the public in radical politics and break open the sense that the entire US political spectrum ran from Democratic Candidate on the left to Republican Candidate on the right and that the failings of capitalism weren’t the fault of the larger population but of an incredibly small elite-the 1%. This got across to the people who were ever going to pick up on it. Marom makes the mistake of presuming the best possible end result of OWS would involve it extending beyond the benefits of the seized public/semi-private space that were used for outreach to establish the counter-narrative.
This is gonna sound like heresy to the more self-serious folk in the Occupy diaspora, but OWS was the park(s). That was the strength and the thing that meant it wasn’t gonna last forever. There are literally hundreds, possibly thousands of left organizations in the US plotting this thing or that thing that exist on the internet or in small meeting groups. These things exist kinda like Jane Austen book clubs in the larger scheme of things for the most part; people with like interests can meet and indulge themselves away from the public eye. This isolating aspect of the left is unfortunate, but then the functional far left in the US has been decimated repeatedly in ways that the far left in countries in Europe hasn’t. This, however, creates a problem with public outreach. There isn’t a sense in most far left organizations or meetings that the people who show up to meetings have any place there besides to listen to the people with more free time and/or a more obsessive interest in the subject lecture at them. OWS, because of its nature as a pop-up town, gave the people who weren’t verbal intellects or frustrated academics shit to do and a place within the functioning whole; there was a sense of actual community and of something being accomplished. We may not have been able to pay people but we at least were able to offer the dignity and benefits of identity that come with feeling as if the work one is doing isn’t pointless. That was a major component that is missing from all other left organizations that I feel has been left out by the people who were at the meetings all day.
I have said before and I will say again, psychologically what was going to dominate the main OWS encampment if the police hadn’t come was the sense of paranoia the left had at encountering its own relevance like an unexpected blind date, a mounting paranoia that was only partially justified. Some people stepped into the light of sudden relevance with the awkward leap of not having seen a slightly larger drop while descending stairs. The differences between what was wanted by the differing parties and the growing value of Occupy as brand (a growth that has largely dissipated in the interim) would draw in the vultures. Small time hustlers saw crowds and confused tourists who weren’t sure what to do with their vague misgivings about the establishment than to throw money at appropriately branded tchotchkes, not revolution; people who otherwise would’ve had little shot at professions in fields like journalism saw their opening; there are far more of these in America than committed anarchists, communists, or less specifically defined “organizers”. The US, at least at this point in time and probably at least since the end of WWII and earlier, is a community of individuals hoping to “make it”, dominated by an aspirational ideology with an interchangeable center for a culture that exists after sincere belief in the relevance of ideology.
One line in the article seems to suggest a mountain of issues that Karom never quite unpacks fully but that someone like Slavoj Zizek could have a field day with; perhaps the thing that makes the otherwise well written article feel unsatisfying is the sense of something rote and unexamined, a hole covered over with a makeshift thatch rug of explanation. The line:
“We race to prove we are the least privileged, because this is the only way we can imagine being powerful.”
The paragraph surrounding it mostly restates/develops this thesis. The thing left unexamined, probably necessarily: the performance of empathy that revolves around the creation of intellectual portraits of what constitutes victimhood, part of the heart of the left as currently constructed, the thing that creates its basis to claims of moral agency, is of course a Gordian knot. It can’t allow for success without the building block of hipocrisy insofar as any success would diminish the victim identity that the legitimacy of the initial action was founded on.
It’s Christianity through the lens of Nietzsche with all the problems Nietzsche pointed out in The Genealogy of Morals, what Marx would’ve called a contradiction at the heart of Christian morality. The moral fall narrative that accompanies the seizure of power has to be lived in order to make the necessary political changes; the seizure of power is a means of framing debate that seems to supercede other considerations. Power divorced from any other elements, artificially isolated as though it were in a lab, exists most effectively as a tool of aggression against the optimism and notions of egalitarianism that might exist in the minds of the populace. The action of revolution, of establishing the system that will organize everything when this system collapses into turmoil, is being thrown around like the hot potato it is. We haven’t seen enough of history to know the plan to implement but have seen enough to know the early explorers tend not to live very long or end up having to borrow money to buy potatoes as Marx did.
What will the morality after the Christian-Nietzschaen epoch resemble?