Occupy sees rebirth of American radicalism

[The following was written on April 30, 2012 for the French journal Contretemps for an audience unfamiliar with Occupy’s birth, ideas, and spirit.]
For all its many faults, Occupy succeeded in mobilizing more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire American socialist left has in four decades combined. It quickly grew into what can only be described as a nationwide upsurge or uprising, an elemental outpouring of rage and hope that has irreversibly altered the American political landscape for the next decade. The evictions have not destroyed Occupy but scattered it, forced it to evolve politically and organizationally by linking up with workers and oppressed peoples where they live and work, and inspired a range of new grassroots initiatives that do not call themselves “Occupy” or link themselves with it organizationally but would not exist without Occupy’s heroic example.

What follows is an overview of Occupy’s dynamics and development and the reaction of the socialist left to this process.

Birth of an Uprising

From the beginning of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) on Saturday September 17, 2011, the corporate media, the progressive community, and the socialist left speculated about Occupy’s demise. Occupy was on its last legs before it was even born. They focused on allegedly serious difficulties: first the lack of demands, ideology, or agreed-upon political strategy, then Occupy was too middle class, white, straight, and male to gain traction with workers, women, LGBTs, and people of color who make up most of the 99%, and now they point to Occupy’s eviction from the encampments.

News of Occupy’s demise has been greatly exaggerated, a pattern familiar to any fan of Karl Marx whose ideas have been declared dead more often than anyone else’s in world history only to be resurrected time and again.

OWS succeeded against all odds because it refused to be browbeaten into making demands, obtaining permits, or playing by the rules of the ruling class. Its militant defiance, tenacity, heroism, and self-sacrifice on behalf of the 99% in the face of repression transformed it into an uprising of the 99%.

New York Police Department (NYPD) repression did for OWS what Bloody Sunday did for the Russian revolution in January 1905 (thankfully no one was killed). Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna’s pepper spray rampage on Saturday, September 24 ended the isolation that marked week one of OWS and allowed it to link up, maintain close contact with, and merge with the masses in weeks two and three.

In response to Bologna’s assault, Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union (TWU) officially backed OWS and TWU activists and officials joined a Zuccotti Park rally on Friday, September 30 against police brutality, one day before the infamous Brooklyn Bridge arrests. TWU’s mostly black members seemed bewildered and exhilarated as the park’s mostly white crowd of 2,000 hippies, hipsters, punk rock kids, students, and ex-students carefully and loudly repeated their words via the People’s Mic as they slammed police brutality, Wall Street banksters, and the union-busting political establishment. After their speeches, the entire park marched to NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza to meet a second, smaller rally organized by activists in the professors’ union.

This is how the activist core of OWS began to organically unite with the 99%, a process intensified by the 700 Brooklyn Bridge arrests the next day on Saturday, October 1. On Tuesday, October 4, over 30,000 marched after work from a union-sponsored rally at Foley Square to Zuccotti Park, birthplace and base camp of OWS. Almost 2,000 marchers broke away from the march’s end and tried to break through NYPD barricades protecting the New York Stock Exchange which was only one block away. Only pepper spray and batons stopped them from reaching their goal.

When New York City (NYC) Mayor Michael Bloomberg began paving the way to evict OWS from Zuccotti Park in early and mid October, NYC’s unions promised solidarity and mobilized their members to flood the park with bodies to block the impending eviction. Before dawn on Friday October 14, thousands of union members were in the park when Bloomberg blinked and backed down from what would have undoubtedly been an ugly, brutal confrontation between the NYPD and 4,000 occupiers.

The cheer that erupted when the announcement went out that OWS would not be evicted that morning was the same kind of ecstatic, victorious roar heard in Egypt’s Tahrir Square when Vice President Omar Suleiman unexpectedly announced the resignation of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The Arab Spring reached U.S. imperialism’s economic nerve center in an ironically familiar yet strange form: occupation.

The Demand for Demands

The demand for demands came early in OWS’s development from three quarters: the corporate media was eager to categorize Occupy in conventional terms and declare it an unmitigated failure when the 1% inevitably refused to grant any demands; the liberals sought to hitch the Occupy bandwagon to the Democratic donkey by eschewing its anti-systemic elements in favor of bite-sized reforms; and the socialist left held that workers and oppressed people would only mobilize if they saw Occupy as a means to win tangible gains for themselves.

The opposition to OWS adopting a formal list of demands was not confined to a small core of anarchists, it was much broader, coming from liberals, revolutionaries, counterculturalist hippies, radicals, and (newly) militant reformists for sound strategic reasons. Adopting a list of demands in the early stages of OWS would have played into the corporate media’s hands, limited its appeal to those who would directly gain from the fulfillment of said demands, and, most importantly, reduced Occupy to a traditional protest, thereby robbing it of its magnetic appeal to millions of people sick and tired of ineffectual, boring, and predictable protests “demanding” (really begging) the 1% do something in our interests instead of theirs. Attempting to adopt demands in fall of 2011 would have ignited a destructive war between OWS’s revolutionary, reformist, and prefigurationist elements and blunted Occupy’s revolutionary-utopian edge in favor of reformist-economist half-measures.

As Malcolm X put it: “The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.”

The majority viewpoint prevailed on the demands question and a formal list of demands was never adopted. The socialist left’s doom and gloom predictions of failure and defeat unless demands were issued were blown out of the water as OWS exploded in size precisely because it lacked set demands. As the 99% woke up and took action, they brought their own demands into Occupy. Haitian immigrants marched across the Brooklyn Bridge under their slogan, “Occupy Wall Street, not Haiti.” OWS protests against the execution of Troy Davis featured signs reading, “I’ll believe corporations are people when the state of Texas executes one.” Each march, protest, and action carried with it either implicit or explicit demands over a huge range of issues that could never be adequately addressed in a set of demands, issues such as lifting the tax on millionaires in New York state, the end of habeas corpus contained in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, foreclosures and evictions, fracking, or the influence of corporate lobbying groups like ALEC.

Occupy Wall Street's One Demand: JOIN US!

In the final analysis, Occupy did make one demand – join us, OCCUPY! – and it was directed not at the ruling elite, but over their heads, at the masses, who responded with unprecedented speed and vigor to the call. Within the first month of OWS, occupations sprang up in over 150 cities and towns across America, even in the traditionally right-wing Republican South.

Occupy’s Class Character

Occupy is more than a movement and less than a revolution. It is an uprising, an elemental and unpredictable outpouring of rage and hope from the depths of the 99%.

Occupy is radically different from the three mass movements that rocked American politics in the past decade or so: the immigrants’ rights movement that culminated on May 1, 2006 in the first national political strike since 1886, the Iraq anti-war movement of 2002-2003, and the global justice movement that began with the Battle of Seattle in November 1999 and ended on September 11, 2001 with the destruction of the World Trade Center, a few hundred feet from the birthplace of OWS. All three were led by liberal non-governmental organizations. They sponsored the marches, obtained the permits, and selected who could and could not speak from the platforms of the rallies. Militant, illegal direct action tended to be the purview of adventurist Black Bloc elements or handfuls of very committed activists.

NYPD Gives "No Child Left Behind" New Meaning

Compared to these three movements, the following differences stand out: Occupy is numerically bigger in terms of active, ongoing participants and, most importantly, far more militant and defiant. Tens of thousands of people are willing to brave arrest and police brutality. The uprising was deliberately designed by its anarchist-influenced initiators to be an open-ended and all-inclusive process, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the failed conventional single-issue legal protest model. The People’s Mic, invented to circumvent the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) ban on amplified sound, means that anyone can be heard by large numbers of people at any time.

One of the most important elements that makes Occupy an uprising and not merely a movement is its alleged leaderlessness. Of course as Marxists we know that every struggle requires leadership in some form, and Occupy is no exception. The leaders of Occupy are those who put their bodies on the line at direct actions and get deeply involved in the complex, Byzantine decision-making process Occupy uses known as “modified consensus.” Occupy’s leaders are those who make the proposals at planning meetings, working groups, and General Assemblies (GAs) that attract enough support to determine the uprising’s course of action.

The people leading the uprising are those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifices for it. Far from being leaderless, Occupy is leader-full – full of new ideas, initiatives, forms of organization, and collaborative projects, some daring, others prosaic, all initiated by occupiers themselves without direction from above or anyone’s permission (meaning autonomously).

Occupy Wall Street's Class War Camp, fall 2011

 

Occupy is self-organizing and self-led by its most dedicated participants. “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” is not just a chant, it is a way of life for Occupy’s leadership. This reality affected the class character of encampment participants, who tended to be either what Karl Marx called lumpenproletariat (long-term homeless, hustlers, drug addicts, and others who have fallen through the cracks of the capitalist edifice) or highly educated (white) students, ex-students, and graduate students. The former joined the encampments not just to eat and sleep in a relatively safe place but also because they hoped the uprising would win real, meaningful change. The latter tended to dominate Occupy’s convoluted decision-making process and what motivated them was identical to what motivated the lumpenproletarian elements: hope that Occupy would win real, meaningful change. Many of these people are saddled with tremendous amounts of personal debt, have worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or were unable to find work in their field despite their expensive, extensive educations. They were destined to be secure petty bourgeois or well-paid white-collar workers before the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis claimed their futures and put their backs against the wall.

Determination is what revolutions are made of.

This is the material reality underpinning the determination of Occupy participants to keep coming back despite repeated arrests, beatings, and setbacks. Their determination is what revolutions are made of.

The class character of Occupy’s core participants has remained remarkably consistent despite the evictions, although the homeless people tend now to be street kids (runaways, outcasts) rather than the middle-aged. Occupy has given them a home, a sense of community, solidarity, and camaraderie that they refuse to let go of, which is understandable given the experience of being young, homeless, and alone on the street with no family to turn to. An additional layer of people who quit their jobs and uprooted themselves in order to occupy during the encampment phase returned home, but they remain ready to drop everything to re-occupy the moment a sustainable occupation develops.

Together, these layers act as itinerant revolutionaries, a ragtag precariat reminiscient of but radically different from the Wobblies of the early Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who also wandered the country, ready at a moment’s notice to be brutalized and arrested defending freedom of speech from the 1%.

Occupy’s Animus: Direct Democracy and the 99%

Direct democracy is highly addictive, especially in a country run by two gangs of murderous thieves disguised as political parties, where political discourse is a shouting match between partisan hacks reciting tired lines written for them by the 1%. For the first time in their lives, occupiers were listened to intently and intensely by huge crowds and repeated word-for-word via the People’s Mic. No idea or suggestion was dismissed, no matter how seemingly utopian or outlandish; after all, the national media dismissed OWS as utopian and outlandish before the uprising spread so fast that even Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney feigned concern for the 99%.

Occupy’s watchwords – direct democracy, direct action, horizontalism, and “leaderlessness” – are different expressions of the same political content: only we can truly represent ourselves; elected representatives can easily misrepresent their constituents; trust no one to do anything on your behalf, do it yourself.

This sentiment is the direct result of what Lenin described as the masses learning through their own “bitter experience,” the accumulation of political lessons through trial and error. They elected a “change” president and watched him continually backstab his supporters for four years on behalf of the very lobbyists, special interests, and corporate behemoths he ran against during the presidential campaign, hence why no Occupy in the country would ever elect a leadership of its own, in any form. The last thing any occupier wants to do is create a division between representatives and represented that could be abused to misrepresent and betray them. Once was enough!

This desire for direct as opposed to representative democracy is so strong that occupiers are willing to sacrifice the timely decision-making and efficiency that comes with elected, accountable leadership in favor of an imperfect, frustrating political process governed by horizontalism. The universal emphasis within Occupy on horizontalism is not a smokescreen enabling an empowered minority or clique exploiting the “tyranny of structurelessness” to assert informal but nonetheless real control; rather, it is an attempt to create a classless, hierarchy-free prefigurative infrastructure of resistance much as the hactivist group Anonymous has. A horizontal society is one without class, racial, sexual, or gender divides, without an oppressive state machine; horizontalism is both a political strategy and a moral code that compels occupiers to be the change they want to see. It is without a doubt a progressive impulse, and Marx surely would have recognized its communist implications.

Derided by the socialist left for being vague, populist, or class collaborationist, Occupy’s rhetoric of “the 99%” is synonymous with Lenin’s vision of a revolution accomplished by the narod (the people), which historian Lars Lih rightly notes has an emotional punch in Russian that the English version lacks. Add early twentieth century Russia’s peasantry, students, and all of its oppressed national and religious minorities together with the working class as Lenin did and it would probably be numerically close to the 99% espoused by Occupy.

Lenin’s vision of revolution was fundamentally inclusive, not exclusive, and the same is true of Occupy.

Nowhere is Occupy’s intransigent inclusivity more evident than in its call for a May 1 general strike. Wisely billed as “a day without the 99%” in a conscious attempt to tap into the legacy of the May 1, 2006 “day without immigrants” boycott, Occupy’s view of what a general strike is consists of no work, no school, no shopping, no banking, no housework, and thus, a general strike is not just for workers but for the entire 99%. Although fundamentally un-Marxist, Occupy’s vision of a general strike is more of an experiment and an aspiration than the result of a tactical fetish emanating from dogmatic anarchist ideologues. The socialist left’s objections to the May 1 general strike call sound to occupiers like the orthodox Marxist objection to the general strike when it was first championed by the anarchists more than a century ago: “general strike is general nonsense!”

The Socialist Left’s Role

The best way to get people to stop listening to you is to tell them that their hopes, dreams, and aspirations are fantastical nonsense. (This is especially true in a revolutionary period, when unlikely possibilities become realities and the impossible comes within reach.) Since the beginning of OWS, the socialist left has done exactly that, raising irrelevant ideological objections and arguments, vainly hoping that its correct political line, superior theory, and wonderfully sound ideas would somehow lead to mass influence and make it relevant to Occupy’s direction, as if patient explanation and not agitation and organization would decisively shape the struggle.

Confronted with the closest thing they have ever seen to a revolution, the self-declared experts on revolutions past and foreign found themselves hesitating, confused, out of step and out of place as Occupy boldly forged ahead, ignoring their warnings about the necessity of demands, the evils of including rank-and-file police in “the 99%” concept, and what can not or should not be done. In short, the socialist left played a rearguard instead of a vanguard role, remaining marginal rather than becoming central, grudgingly marching to the beat of the Occupy drum. Some socialists did this even while pretending that Occupy vindicated their perspectives and tactics when the opposite has proven to be the case time and again.

After ignoring OWS for nearly two weeks due to deep-seated skepticism and suspicion, the socialist left finally took Occupy seriously when the rest of America did in early October. In most places, it confined itself to a few Occupy working groups (out of dozens; OWS at its peak had 80, only a handful of which had any socialist presence) and wasted much energy fruitlessly navigating the restrictive “modified consensus” process in GAs, as if they were Occupy’s main political arena or decisive in determining its course and character.

After the evictions, the socialist left remained silent on the most burning question confronting occupiers: whether to re-occupy public spaces or abandon the tactic in favor of other initiatives? Instead, it took its usual cautious “it remains to be seen” wait-and-see approach, furiously denouncing daring moves such as the abortive Oakland convention center occupation and the NYC fare strike as ultra-leftism, substitutionism, and elitism. These incidents were used to preach about the need for a “mass action” strategy, as if they and not Occupy were the experts on mobilizing workers and the oppressed.

The reality is that the socialist left has, a few exceptions aside, taken no bold steps or initiatives of its own that could win it respect, credibility, or wider influence among occupiers. There has not even been a serious or organized discussion about the new tasks Occupy has created for the socialist left, much less how to rise to the occasion and overcome the dysfunctional, irrelevant state of the American socialist movement. Most (but not all) socialist groups seem content to plod along as before, unchanged, convinced that an abstract working class down the road will somehow create a mass party that they will be a part of; meanwhile, the human material for such an effort is being created independently of the socialist left’s influence through the Occupy process.

Occupiers and Unions

Occupy quickly won the respect and endorsement of many union leaders because it consistently mobilized to support workers through marches and other direct actions.

Within week one of OWS’s birth, socialists in OWS’s labor working group helped organize occupiers alongside locked out Teamster art handlers to infiltrate and disrupt art auctions by their employer, Sotheby’s. This created a precedent and occupiers soon organized feeder marches to previously planned postal worker union rallies and picket lines organized by Verizon workers represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) allowed OWS to use its offices for storage since its headquarters is a few blocks away from Zuccotti Park. TWU was the first union to come out in support of OWS and its bus drivers protested the seizure of buses by the NYPD to jail and transport occupiers at protests.

Union support gave Occupy legitimacy, resources, and much-needed legal protection; the October 5 rally was 30,000 strong because NYC unions secured permits. With each passing week, more and more union members — teachers, construction workers, nurses, transit workers, carpenters — appeared in Zuccotti Park, arguing, debating, singing, and holding signs alongside occupiers, appealing to tourists and passersby to join the uprising. White women with blue hair stood side by side with white men in hardhats and black women in scrubs demanding everything from single-payer health care and total legalization of America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants to taxing the rich and ending capitalism.

All of this happened in less than 21 days.

On the West Coast, Occupy won the respect of union leaders in much the same way as OWS did in NYC, although relations between the two became tense when Occupy Oakland (OO) called for a port blockade to shut down the West Coast’s docks on December 17 without the support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) leadership or rank and file. The call was an attempt to strike back for the eviction of OO using the same tactic that succeeded in shutting down Oakland’s docks on November 2. That day, a crowd of over 10,000 physically blocked the port’s entrance in the evening, causing management to declare the port unsafe for work and close it.

Former U.S. Marine Scott Olsen Nearly Killed by the Main Enemy at Home

The November 2 general strike was called by a 2,000-strong OO GA as a response to the Oakland Police Department’s (OPD) near-fatal injury of Marine Corps Iraq war veteran and occupier Scott Olson on October 25 as they violently cleared peaceful protesters from the street.

 

U.S. Marine Reacts to Scott Olsen's Near-Death Experience

The country was outraged that a Marine who served two tours in Iraq and escaped with his life nearly lost it peacefully protesting the misrule of Wall Street robber barons. The specter of a general strike that appeared first in February 2011 in Wisconsin when tens of thousands of union workers occupied the State Capitol building to block an anti-union law seemed to take flesh-and-blood form in the November 2 general strike, despite the fact that it was neither general nor a strike.

The turnouts at the December 17 West Coast port blockades (which were originally called as a general strike but quickly downgraded to port blockades/community pickets) were smaller than previous mass actions. This reflected Occupy’s weakness as local police departments and politicians exacted revenge by evicting encampments across the country and the hostility or indifference of union leaders up and down the coast to the action.

Occupy and the unions have strengthened one another and forged a relationship stronger than the occasionally bitter disagreements over general and fare strikes. Union leaders realize that without the threat of Occupy action, it is likely that ILWU Local 21 would have been crushed by grain shipper EGT which was on the verge of opening its non-union port terminal under the armed protection of the U.S. Coast Guard; instead, Local 21 got recognition and a very bad contract.

Compromising to live and fight another day is far better than wholesale destruction. Just ask the Libyans.

Despite the tensions between union leaders and Occupy, union leaders by and large recognize that Occupy represents the union movement’s past and its future (assuming it has one). Occupy’s militant, creative, indefatigable, and uncompromising spirit is what built the AFL-CIO in the first place. When that spirit left the unions with the divorce of the socialist and union movements in the 1950s, both were fatally crippled. Only 11% of American workers are in unions today and there are numerically fewer organized socialists now than there were in 1898 despite (or more accurately, because of) the overabundance of tiny and tinier socialist groups who refuse to merge with each other much less with the working class.

This sorry state of affairs is not a coincidence but the inevitable result of that long-standing separation. Occupy is the single best hope of bridging that divide and has, to a large extent, filled the vacuum where a vibrant, popular, and healthy worker-socialist movement should have been (in places like Britain where the Labor Party, RESPECT, unions, and other popular organs of resistance mediate the rule of the 1%, Occupy has enjoyed less success).

Although Occupy strengthened the unions, it cannot overcome the union movement’s problems, nor can it single-handedly reverse the balance of power between labor and capital. The NYC unions that played the role of midwife to OWS’s birth are being hammered and getting weaker. CWA remains at work without a contract as does TWU, which still has not recovered from its loss of automatic members’ dues payments and heavy fines imposed after its illegal 2006 strike. The UFT is losing its fight against merit pay and privatization (although socialists in Occupy the Department of Education are doing all they can to halt that slow slide towards defeat). Sotheby’s locked out Teamsters appear to be in the kind of long, bitter stalemate that unions experienced in the mid 90s “war zone” in Decatur, Illinois before they were defeated.

The challenges facing Occupy pale in comparison to those facing the unions. In many respects, Occupy is in a better position to meet its challenges because it is not weighed down by its own bureaucracy or government oversight (through the National Labor Relations Board machinery), cares nothing about being jailed, and is open to almost any strategy or tactic. Its fluid organizational forms, ideology, and animus are strengths born of the extreme weakness of the union and socialist movements, neither of which show any indication of being ready, willing, or able to undertake the sweeping, dramatic internal reforms necessary for their revival (or perhaps survival).

Conclusion: Occupy the Future

Occupy marks the rebirth of American radicalism on a mass scale. Not since the 1970s have so many taken action against the state and capital.

Generation Occupy, being closer to 30 than 20 years old on average, after going through and learning from the Battle of Seattle, the defeat of the 2002-2003 anti-war movement, the nightmarish Bush years, the 2006 undocumented worker upsurge, the forgotten 2008 anti-bailout protests, the Obama betrayals, and the 2011 defeats in Wisconsin and Bloombergville, accumulated the necessary political and organizational experience to launch OWS, a great gamble that paid greater dividends than what AdBusters dreamed of when they called in summer 2011 for 20,000 people to descend on Wall Street armed with tents and camping supplies.

Occupy is the American edition of the Arab Spring. The long-term weakness of the union movement and irrelevance of the socialist movement stamped it with a non-dogmatic, non-ideological anarchist character, allowing anyone with daring and ambition the freedom to seize the initiative and shape it as they saw fit (Occupy the Hood, Occupy Our Homes, and, in a very different way, the 99%Spring are all examples of this).

The cadres being forged by Occupy and its nominally unrelated offshoots will be the decisive force in radical politics in the coming decade, just as the IWW and the Debs-era Socialist Party blazed a trail in the early twentieth century for the CIO and the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee paved the way for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s. Similarly, the human infrastructure of battle-tested activist networks that spearheaded the revolution that brought down Mubarak in Egypt grew out of the difficult Palestinian solidarity work and anti-austerity organizing of the early 2000s.

Even if May 1 completely fails to live up to the grandiose rhetoric of a general strike and a day without the 99%, we should remember something else Malcolm X said: stumbling is not falling. The 99% have finally woken up and we are just starting to get action.

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2 Comments

  1. hmmmmm
    May 11, 2012 at 10:22 pm · Reply

    “Union leaders realize that without the threat of Occupy action, it is likely that ILWU Local 21 would have been crushed by grain shipper EGT”

    Factually incorrect.

    • Pham Binh
      May 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm · Reply

      Baseless assertion.

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