After three visits to Zucotti Park, one of which included participation in the General Assembly, a lot of live-stream watching and online engagement with adherents, my feelings about Occupy Wall Street remain somewhat mixed, though not so mixed that I can’t endorse it.
After participating in a General Assembly and observing some of them online, I am fairly won over to the Horizontal Organizing and Collective Thinking practices used by the group, at least in theory. It has its faults, but I doubt that there is any formidable activist organization in New York where one can just show up and get as deeply involved in both generating activity and making decisions as is possible at #OWS.
I know that a lot of rads hate the process stuff, but I have never been sympathetic to them. It does seem to distribute power better and I like that there are built-in safeguards against the egotists and freaks that so relentlessly drive sane, self-preserving people from activism. I have a hunch this represents a culture shift in organizing that is likely to influence civic life permanently and for the better. That said, I am less enthusiastic about the people who seem to be predominating in the action-taking and decision-making.
Which brings me to the somewhat schizophrenic character of the New York occupation scene. When you originally arrive at Zucotti, it seems a bit like an anarcho-hippie encampment redolent of Thomkins Square in the 90s. There is always a very loud drumming circle and all the various things that go along with it, except you don’t smell pot or booze, both of which are banned by the group.
Around the perimeter of the park are people doing agitprop – mostly making or holding posters – who run the political gamut of all political tendencies that have been marginalized from two-party duopoly, including a fair smattering of conspiracy theorists and cranks. The park grounds themselves are covered with the camping gear of the actual occupants, which is alleged to be 600 people, though it does not look that large to me. The hive of activity seems to be the food line, and, in fact, from a distance anyway, food and agitprop-making seem to be the focal points of occupation life.
Now the strange thing is, once the General Assembly starts, the prevailing demographics seem to shift rather dramatically. Overwhelmingly the people most involved in the General Assembly – the people who facilitate, who offer reports from working groups and who pose questions, seem to be largely of the management class – though many are still students – which is betrayed instantly by their appearance and communication style, their savviness in directing discussion and giving instructions, and by the preening, extroverted style that marks many of today’s professionals and pre-professionals from both working stiffs and their stodgier predecessors. In other words, they look exactly like the kind of people who went literally insane for Obama in 2008 and many, if not most, probably did.
Though I find this class of people extremely unappealing as a matter of personal taste, their predominance, at least at this stage, is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of them have genuinely wised up and, more importantly, have skills and resources that less advantaged people frequently don’t have, as well as the patience for the grunt work side of revolt. But they also bring the baggage of their conformism, professional ambition and general trust in state authority, as well as religious faith in the inane strains of identity politics that have run interference for the ruling class since the 70s.
The result is that there is WAY too little evidence that this movement is ready or willing to do what the international movement with which it is aligned has done: which is unequivocally repudiate the whole corporatist racket, not just the financial sector, but also the fraudulent democracies that go with it. It is an outright lie to say that this agnosticism is not radically different from the other big players in this global revolt. In Spain, for instance, yes, they are politically heterodox, but they are united in their rejection of the dominant political parties. They have made not voting into a form of active protest by raising hell en masse during elections. Right now, it’s hard to imagine the New York General Assembly signing off on something like that.
The narrative that you get from liberals all over New York, that Obama means well but has been bullied by the right-wing or The System, is not at all uncommon among people who have embraced #OWS including its founding members. One occupation resident I spoke to estimated that about 3 in 10 people in the movement are very much in favor of Obama. Furthermore, the movement is on extremely friendly terms with Moveon.org – a top-down partisan Democrat campaign organization – and the most Dem-friendly factions of organized labor. Both the 10,000 strong march of a few weeks back and the marches to billionaires homes (which, by the way, only make stops at Republican bogeymen like Rupert Murdoch) were Move On/labor events with what managers would call a dotted line to #OWS.
Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be too much official confrontation activity coming out of the General Assembly or the established Working Groups. If you glance at the Occupation calendar you’ll see that Arts and Culture is the most active group in the batch. The others seem mostly dedicated to consciousness-raising and keeping the thing going. I didn’t hear much in the way of politics in the General Assembly I attended, which was dedicated to approving an emergency purchase of a $2000 generator and a $25,000 allocation for video production and streaming costs, the latter made largely in response to Spain’s call for a global rally on the 15th.
You could surmise that for at least some of the participants, #OWS offers a certain number of perks – a place to live and eat, a sense of meaning and belonging, and, also, for some, career development – and that they’re aware that all of this is being made possible by donations that have been flooding in since they started. As of last night’s General Assembly, the group had about $160,000 and it seems the rate of donations is accelerating. The Assembly did not applaud much last night but they certainly whooped and hollered when this sum was announced. It’s fine that they recognize the necessity of money to moving along. That the movement offers all kinds of sustenance is a good on its own and also necessary for its longevity.
But certainly the activists must also know that this funding dries up or flows depending on what they do. Right now, they have a very strong material interest in being something of a tabula rasa for fed up people, and it’s unlikely that they enjoy the cozy confines of their own asses considerably less than other Americans. Hence, for the moment, #OWS is, like the Obama ‘movement’, very much more about itself than about anything else. Since I think the global confrontation with the predator class is going to be long and also need a lot of technical savvy and resources, it might be ok to keep things a little open-ended for now to keep the money and the love flowing.
However, the risk here is obvious, and I don’t need to spell it out. Nonetheless, by wrapping itself in more genuinely true and confrontational signifiers than any other campaign in recent memory, and by hooking up with more confrontational movements elsewhere, #OWS has created the space for a lot of forward movement as well as some immunization from co-option with no strings attached. As organizations go, it’s about as porous as you will see in your lifetime. For those who are afraid of it taking a wrong turn, the best thing to do is to check it out for yourself.
NOTE ON EDIT: I recently updated this post with qualifying language about the social makeup of people dominating at the General Assembly. When I said professional class previously, that seemed to be interpreted as ‘professionals’; that is not what I meant. I was speaking of a social class and type, which is inclusive not just of managers but of their children.