Open Questions on Organizing the Occupation

6 Oct

Tuesday we voiced some concern with the content of the ‘We Are the 99%’ line coming out of the new protests, today we offer tentative thoughts about the form. Anyone paying attention knows that there is a serious debate within and around OccupyWallStreet about whether its commitment to a “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought,” as one participant describes it, is an asset or a liability. Obviously it is something of both. But that is not saying much of anything.

In an attempt to ‘understand the theory behind Occupy Wall Street’s Approach‘ Mike Konczal, over at Rortybomb, has helpfully summarized the high-end debate, in which figures like David Graeber and Matt Stoller have extolled the virtues of the horizontal organization, consensus-orientation, and rejection of representation, while Jodi Dean and Doug Henwood have objected that the obsession with process makes “political will into an offense” (Dean’s phrase) especially by seeing representation as oppressive and by seeing the prioritization of demands as exclusionary and dogmatic. We are inclined in Dean and Henwood’s direction, though it is very likely the case that the initial power of OWS has been its openness, and ability to channel many many competing interests and voices.

Our worry is, in a way, less grand. If representation is rejected, then what to do if/when active support becomes very large? The Occupy movement could become a victim of its own success. That is a small worry. A deeper worry is that mastery quickly becomes drift. Reluctance to impose a common will on a situation very quickly means the events control you. This is a bit what seems to have happened with the police – not in the sense that a better organized protest would not have been tricked by the police. But rather in the sense that the protests have become about police brutality and dirty tricks because they are immediate and concrete – the one thing that everyone there can agree on without difficulty. While relations with the police are no doubt problematic, it would be a mistake to let them become a distraction for protests about Wall Street and the economy. To be clear, we are not defending the police. Rather we are pointing to the way that making the process the demand gives tremendous weight to the immediate environment of that process (relations with police, stores, protest culture) relative to the broader economic and social structures against which the protests are aimed. And a resistance both to representation and to giving priority to some claims over others gives that environment all the more power as a de facto source of claims and ‘demands.’ Those are tactical liabilities, whatever theories happen to be at play.

Again, these are tentative thoughts, based on participation in one of the marches and reflection on the impressions of many others. But after today (Wednesday’s) demonstration of major and growing support, these are issues that will only become more pressing.


3 Responses to “Open Questions on Organizing the Occupation”

  1. George Finch October 6, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    Thanks for putting this together, especially the links to the theories behind it and a better picture of the people who put this occupation and creation of public space together. I was wondering why they choose Wall Street and not D.C., and now I know and have a better understanding of where they are coming from and why they are avoiding pushing policies and the like, at least for now.

    I share their distrust of the legislative process to create ‘meaningful change’, but not necessarily because of the money; rather, it is the very nature of the process in this country; it forces compromises and makes it easy to kill bills, witness the recent health care legislation, ugh. The best way to overcome this morass is with disruptive movements as Francis Piven Fox documents, but they had concrete goals and change agendas.

    Also can see why they do not have an agenda or leaders in the traditional sense. It hasn’t worked recently. Their focus is on the process of creating community and public space that can give a face to anger and dissent. So it is useless to admonish them about not having priority claims and the like. Ain’t going to happen.

    But the focus on means rather than ends, processes rather than products, and creating what they believe is true democracy is a tough movement to maintain, and not having an end game other than to spark interest and participatory democracy can leave the power and economic structure in tact. I assume they hope that viable opposition to the power structure will emerge, as well as alternative socioeconomic forms and structures. Good luck.

    It would not be wise to discount their energy, passion, and commitment and the idea of creation public space instead of tired old marches. Who knows they may be rocket booster that allows other movements to take off. Time will tell, but it is running out.

  2. Susan Rosenthal October 6, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Young movements adopt juvenile tactics – that’s not the problem.

    The problem is assuming that only one way is the right way. That’s a huge turnoff because most people have enough of being told how to think in their daily lives.

    In order to achieve democratic debate over goals and tactics in society, we must first achieve this in our organizations.

    Any form of authoritarianism, including the anarchist kind, will doom the movement to fail.

    We need a sober examination of what we are up against and what we must do to create the social fairness we all crave. And the more minds and hands that are involved in the process, the more success we will have in growing the movement.

    • juvenile October 12, 2011 at 10:36 am #

      What on earth is “authoritarianism of anarchist kind”? It is a paradox.

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