By: D.M. Oberhaus
“Our fate is in our own hands. We become responsible for our history by reflection, but also by a decision in which we commit our life. In each case the act is violent and is verified only in actual exercise.”
– Maurice Merleau-Ponty
If we are at all justified in our nomenclatural designation of certain historical epochs as the ‘age of enlightenment’ or the ‘age of reason’, surely we are justified in the denotation of the present as the ‘age of attrition’. We are on the threshold of a massive paradigm shift: we now face unprecedented social alienation, subtle and outright oppression, and prospect of complete ecological collapse. Having noted this, it is my contention that the Occupy Wall Street movement was in fact a failure, yet a failure of invaluable import in combating these destructive forces. There were many triumphant moments in the relatively short existence of the OWS movement and we mustn’t fail to take these successes into consideration when considering the didactic legacy of OWS. In the foregoing analysis of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is not my intention to create a new manifesto for the dispossessed, but merely to point in the direction of a new methodology of insurrection, in the hopes of creating a theoretical foundation for total social war.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF OWS
The Occupy Wall Street movement was the brainchild of anarchists Kalle Lasn and Micah White, co-editors for the anti-consumerist, culture jamming magazine Adbusters. The movement was born in July of 2011 when Adbusters ran two ads promoting the occupation and posing the question: “What is our one demand?” The date was set for September 17th, Lasn’s mother’s birthday, and as the fateful day approached, suggestions for the movement’s demand came pouring in. Suggestions ranged from “Robin Hood Taxes” on financial transactions to a complete overhaul US constitution. As the movement continued to burgeon after the initial occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City, Lasn and White, in the anarchistic, non-hierarchical spirit of the movement, wiped their hands of any claim they may have had as its originators. On October 15th, 2011, roughly a month after the initial OWS encampment was established in New York, a global “Day of Rage” against the financial system marked the establishment of 1,500 Occupy encampments worldwide, with 100 in the United States alone. It seemed as though the insurrectionary spirit of the Arab Spring had spread across the globe overnight; the revolution was finally here.
As the movement continued to grow, the attention it garnered from the media and national governments increased in tandem; everyone wanted to know just what these anarchists sleeping in the tents downtown wanted. Yet the more the OWS movement was pestered to articulate its demands in any meaningful way, it seemed to be increasingly unable to do so. By leaving its motives ambiguous, the OWS movement hoped to garner support from as diverse a population as possible, yet this very ambiguity became the bane of the movement’s existence. By catering to everyone, it appeared as though the Occupy movement was able to effectively help no one. In retrospect, there is a consensus that the mantra around which the “99%” effectively rallied was ‘Money out of Politics’; at the time however, it was often unclear even to participants in the movement just what exactly they hoped to accomplish.
On November 15, 2011, NYC police entered Zuccotti Park, arrested several protestors (including a NYC councilman) and cleared the park on the grounds of the occupation representing a “health and fire safety hazard”. Although this eviction of the occupiers by the city initially seemed to be a crushing defeat for the movement, others contended that it provided a brief glimmer of hope for those involved in the flagging Occupation: the Occupiers had finally managed to expose the true ideological orientation of the State. Clearly, the State existed to protect private property (such as Zuccotti Park) at the expense of its constituency; surely the eviction of these peaceful demonstrators from Zuccotti would spark public outrage, hypothetically leading to a resurgence in support for OWS and sparking mass interest/involvement where there was previously only indifference.
Unfortunately, the mass indignation at the injustices inflicted on these Occupiers never materialized, so on December 17, a call for a ‘reoccupation’ was issued in a tactical briefing by Adbusters. This summoning for a reoccupation resulted in the attempted takeover of another private park, LentSpace, and police moved in to evict the occupiers that same day. Subsequent attempts to reoccupy Zuccotti took place on January 1 and March 17, 2012, the failure of which resulted in several arrests and generally marked the slow decline of the movement. In a last ditch effort to establish itself as a legitimate social force, roughly a thousand protestors took to the street to mark the one year anniversary of the movement, resulting in 185 arrests. In the fourteen months that have expired since the one-year anniversary rally, specters of OWS are to be found everywhere and ample time has been allowed for critical reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of OWS.
THE STRENGTHS OF OWS
Despite the ostensible failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it was not without its successes. One of the most inspiring facets of this social movement was its utilization of direct democracy via General Assemblies and its horizontal (non-hierarchical) structural organization. The General Assemblies of the Occupy movement functioned as a public forum in which demonstrators could have their voices heard using tried and true methods of horizontal organization. This is the origin of the ‘twinkle fingers’, one of four hand signals used to facilitate the GAs, and the infamous ‘mike check’ in which a statement is transmitted through mass chants. These methods were not the brainchildren of Lasn and Kalle, but rather have their origins in popular movements dating back to the American Civil Rights movement. These ‘horizontalist’ tactics have proven extremely efficacious, although they are not without their shortcomings, which are most ostensible when GAs grow larger – the anarchistic nature of ‘horizontalism’ is then really brought to the fore and it was not uncommon for GAs to devolve into shouting matches or general chaos. Clearly, effective large-scale horizontal methods of organization still need to be determined through rigorous trial and error – i.e., through action.
Furthermore, one of Occupy’s main triumphs was forcing the cornerstone of Western liberalism, the unquestioned public/private property distinction, into national discourse. It forced the state to show that it ultimately serves the interests of private property, not the people, which became overwhelmingly clear in the eviction of the Occupiers from a legal gray area – Zuccotti Park is technically a ‘public-private’ space. The government tried various ideological maneuvers to remove the protestors (founding their claims to the right of eviction on grounds of public health, assembly rights, etc.), until eventually the ideological foundations of the state (namely the valuation of private property over human life) were laid bare. Although this was one of the primary successes of the OWS, in retrospect it is clear that this revelation of the parliamentary Capitalism for what it really is was not taken far enough.
THE POVERTY OF OWS
The problem with OWS was not a failure in the realm of generating solutions; breeding resolutions to local problems was accomplished most admirably by its participants and surely supports the thesis of the possibility for human ingenuity in the face of adversity. The poverty of OWS was to be found in its inability to recognize the fundamental problem that the movement was railing against. Occupy Wall Street became a doctor that only treated symptoms, but refused to acknowledge their common origins in an underlying malady. As any good doctor knows, treating symptoms will temporarily relieve patient discomfort yet will do nothing to actually cure the patient; the symptoms will continue to manifest themselves so long as the disease which they denote continues to wreak havoc on the body. It is all fine and well to occupy in the name of women’s rights, money out of politics, or global peace, but this will only be effective once it is acknowledged that these wrongs are all mere symptoms of the root malady that is Capitalism. In fact, a failure to adequately acknowledge the fact that these are all a result of capitalism can exacerbate the very issue one is trying to remedy .
Lasn has taken note of a similar phenomenon called clicktivism, a phrase he coined to signify an activism in which people feel as though they are making a real difference by signing online petitions, when in reality this actually prevents real change from occurring by instilling a false sense of accomplishment in the clicktivists, which ultimately results in complacency rather than action born of indignation. People feel as though they are making a difference without having to make sacrifice. This is the same phenomenon that non-profits prey on in their campaigns; if you really want to save the environment, then stop supporting a socio-economic system which necessitates its destruction. You can rally against fracking all you want and donate your tips to Greenpeace, but if you’re sincere about the cause, you better be ready to give up the luxurious lifestyle made possible by the social structures you so deplore. The proverbial animal rights activists are going to have to give up their leather boots. What essentially happened with OWS is that the very clicktivism that Lasn has spent so much time decrying had manifested itself in a ‘revolutionary’ movement.
So where did Occupy go wrong? Let us begin with its most general area, which once again is a result of inappropriately diagnosing the underlying malady. The first major mistake for OWS was the occupation of Zuccotti park, which is technically ‘private public space’, in the sense that the park is not owned by the city but must remain open for recreation 24 hours a day by fiat. To occupy a public space (even a private-public space such as Zuccotti) in the hopes of remedying the ills born of big industry and the corrupt government it supports is ludicrous, unless the ultimate goal of OWS was to simply ‘make a statement’ by showing that the government favors private property over people via their eviction from the park. It is totally understandable how such an error could have been committed; visions of Tahrir still burned fresh in our minds and this was our opportunity for an American equivalent. Yet this was once again an error based on the conflation of the goals: in Tahrir, the goal was not primarily economic, it was political. The protestors were calling for the ousting of the Mubarak dictatorship. In Occupy, the goal was primarily economic; if you want to effect economic change, you can’t begin with the political (which is ultimately beholden to capital), yet this is essentially what OWS did.
The occupation of a public space gives no incentive to politicians or titans of industry to make a change. They knew we were incensed, but what were we going to do about it? Would OWS turn to the political leaders of the United States in the hopes of spurring them to end corrupt industry practices and effectively ‘get money out of politics’? Although many of OWS’ supporters thought that this would be an appropriate recourse to action, this was clearly an unrealistic fantasy entertained by those who still believe our government is of and by the people. To ask the statesmen to take the money which sustains them out of politics is absurd; to ask the captains of industry to refrain from buying legal privileges is even more so. Capital’s representatives are in no way beholden to the masses and understand that despite the ostensible plebian indignation, the masses are going to go home and consume their products at the end of another revolutionary day. If an angry anarchist armed with bongo drums sat down on the sidewalk outside your house and refused to leave (or stop playing the bongos) until you emptied your pockets and gave your wealth back to the masses, would you oblige him? Of course not! You’d call the cops to remove this deluded ‘revolutionary’ from your doorstep and this is precisely what happened to the OWS movement. In a state of affairs defined by the collusion of capital and the state apparatus, neither sector can be assumed to altruistically act on behalf of ‘the people’.
This leads us to the second decisive shortcoming of Occupy Wall Street: the failure to recognize that choices are only made out of necessity. Essentially what this amounts to is the tautological statement that until one is faced with the task of making a decision, they are not obligated to choose anything. The OWS movement failed dismally in this regard; not only did they fail to present a cogent choice to the State and Industry, they failed to demand a decision from those involved in the movement and the masses at large. This inevitably led to a phenomenon I will designate as ‘leisurely revolution’, and to the refusal by the State and industry to take the demands of the movement seriously.
By occupying a public space, OWS did not demand anything of its supporters. One could come and go as one pleased and no sacrifice was necessary in order to feel that one was truly effecting social change. The unfortunate reality of the situation was a massive inconsistency ; OWS saw days with turnouts of over 40,000 and days in which numbers dwindled to the but a few dozen. This is the result of leisurely revolution; the fashionable revolutionaries could come out and support this ‘counter cultural event’, be part of Something, then at night go home and consume the very products they had just spent their whole Saturday decrying. We filmed protestors calling Steve Jobs a bastard with our iPhone, we ran around in Nikes denouncing sweatshop labor- this is clicktivism manifest. All of this debauchery would’ve been ‘fine’ (in the sense of being capable of effecting change) had OWS’ demands been purely of a political nature; unfortunately for the movement, the demands set forth were almost entirely economic in nature and it is impossible to combat economic tyranny without disrupting the basis of this fiscal despotism, or without halting the flow of consumption which imparts so much power to the Capitalist elite so despised by Occupy.
Furthermore, Occupy Wall Street was a minority movement. The vast majority of Americans, while they may have agreed with the occupiers’ assertions regarding corruption on the Hill and may have even supported their demands for economic equality, continued to look on the movement with indifference. Why weren’t the masses rising up in indignation at the realization of their exploitation and oppression under the regime of the broken system that is parliamentary capitalism ? The grim reality is that Americans (and the vast majority of Western populations) are too damn comfortable. When I deem the majority of the American population ‘too comfortable’, this is not to suggest that the 50 million Americans living below the poverty line are comfortable. It is, however, pointing to the extreme ideological forces at work in our society, in the sense that we are infatuated with the myth of POUSM (Possibility of Upward Social Movement). So while the other 250 million Americans comfortably consume and continue to empty themselves into the very corporations that are raping humanity through 401k plans, stock incentives and other ‘investment’ opportunities, these 50 million Americans are victims of the Steinbeck syndrome . What incentive do the 16 per cent of Americans living below the poverty line have to pick up arms and force the dialectic of history? What incentive do I have to get off my IKEA faux leather couch, skip an episode of Breaking Bad and ‘fight the system’ ? That’s right – we have absolutely no incentive to do so; the impoverished because this would ruin their perceived chances of obtaining the living standards of the other 84%, the middle and upper classes because…well, c’mon – we have iPads, 1000 dish channels and internet porn, who’d want to disrupt that beautiful arrangement? We might be oppressed now, but luckily we live in the land of opportunity and know that if we work hard enough, one day we may be able to become an oppressor ourselves.
Furthermore, this false consciousness is recognized by industry; they are operating in a nation of consumers and they know that so long as their products are available for consumption and avenues are still available for ideological subversion (i.e., advertising), the masses will remain complacent and continue consuming. Do you really want to start a revolution overnight and see a real reaction from the heads of State and Industry ? Then disrupt the production of iProducts, Nikes, mortgages– the capitalist doesn’t see the bane of his existence, the masses do not see the bane of their own…
Wait a second, that’s exactly my point.
TOWARD A NEW METHODOLOGY OF INSURRECTION
I am not suggesting that one necessarily accept the Marxist conception of superstructural institutions determining and being determined by the economic base, yet if one rejects the fact that ideological, political and legal regimes are born of specific sets of economic social relations which they then reflect and modify, one must somehow account for our current modus operandi in some new, intelligible way. It is clear that if OWS rejected a Marxist analysis of capital, they failed to act upon a new guiding theory in its stead, with disastrous results. The ambivalence toward the question ‘Do economic social relations beget socio-political institutions, or vice-versa ?‘ was precisely OWS’ undoing. But chalk it up to beginner’s misfortune; the failure of OWS has effectively provided an answer to this question.
Clearly, OWS’ recourse to existing political institutions to remedy perceived social ills was an ineffective revolutionary methodology; we are operating in a social reality in which government is beholden to capital, not the other way around. There were some hints that this was in fact recognized by the movement, evident in OWS inspired bank sit-ins and other tactical maneuvers aimed at disrupting ‘business as usual’ as opposed to simply voicing discontent with placards. The most promising manifestation of civil disobedience occurred at the Oakland Occupy encampment, which called for a general strike on November 2, 2011 and resulted in late night clashes between roughly 7000 strikers and state authorities. The event culminated in the infamous Scott Olsen incident which sparked international protests in response to unwarranted use of State violence.
Footage of late night clashes on Nov. 2, 2011 during the Oakland General Strike
The occupiers at the Oakland encampment clearly understood what means were necessary to achieve the stated ends of the Occupy movement. It was not enough to voice one’s discontent; ultimatums must be issued by the movement not only to the captains of industry and the state they support, but to society at large. The masses, politicians and capitalists must be presented with a choice: either capitulate to the demands of the movement or suffer the consequences. For the state and industry, these consequences are the loss of profit, wealth and as a result, power; for the masses, these consequences are a short term disruption in the comfort born of specific patterns of commodity consumption, both of which are the result of a demand for socio-economic emancipation in a communal society. Surely, OWS issued demands – they were just left without anyway of enacting consequences born of a refusal to meet its demands or join the movement.
This is where Occupy Oakland had the right idea. The disruption of production through a general strike accomplishes two things – (1) each day that a strike is effective represents a loss in profit to the capitalist and (2) it forces the masses to take the movement seriously – each day a general strike is effective, it disrupts their patterns of consumption (which, under high capitalism, ultimately determines their existence as a social being) by making previously abundant commodities increasingly scarce as the strike continues. The general strike throws ‘the issues’ (namely, the social ills born of private property in the means of production) into the face of the general populace – they can no longer ignore the movement, as they were able to during the initial months of OWS – the movement now fundamentally affects their daily lives. A general strike polarizes the masses because it forces everyone to take a side on the issue; it has the capacity to mobilize vast portions of previously apathetic consumers. In short, a general strike has the potential to elevate what was seen as merely a lackluster counter-cultural protest into protracted social war. Through affecting everyone’s consumption in the locale of the general strike, everyone is consequently forced to not only acknowledge the issues raised by strikers, but to determine where, exactly, they as an individual stand on these issues.
As an important corollary, the general strike also accomplishes what OWS hoped the eviction of Occupiers from Zuccotti would accomplish: it lays bare the ideological foundations of the State and industry, yet in a hypertrophied condition. It presents the valuation of private property over human life in its stark nakedness; it exposes the effects of this ideology on the individual under the regime of consumerist capitalism. This was shown blatantly in the state’s alarmingly quick and automatic recourse to violence after a general strike lasting less than 24 hours in Oakland and involving less than 2 per cent of the city’s population; imagine if this was repeated and protracted on a national, or even international, scale – the populace at large could no longer afford to ignore the issue.
If one were to position one’s self in opposition to the movement, this is akin to stating that they value their consumption patterns more than human emancipation from ‘the chains of capital’, if you will pardon my rhetoric; neighbor confronts neighbor and a social discourse on this pressing issue is forced to the fore. Essentially, it imposes a choice to be made upon every strata of society: one can either fight against alienation and socio-economic injustice, or for a consumption pattern enabled by raping the environment and the exploitation of humanity. What may have previously been a polite argument between two individuals with dissenting opinions on the issue, which ultimately amounts to no real social change, now becomes a topic of heated contention which manifests itself in social, material reality. The masses are forced to consider the issue of a society founded on private property and take action based on their considerations, rather than casually debating the developments of OWS over a cup of Starbucks before returning to work.
Yet even a general strike is not going far enough to effect real social change ; the workers must take note of the lessons imparted to us by the events of May 1968 in France and occupy their places of employment. In the event of a general strike, the capitalist has several options for action. Typically, leaders of the strike and the capitalist hash out compromises and within a few days the workers return to business as usual, perhaps with slightly better working conditions, yet the overall relations of production remain unchanged – the surplus value they create is still appropriated by the Capitalist and their lives are still determined solely by how they choose to consume commodities. Alternatively, perhaps the capitalist has no desire to meet the worker’s halfway in a compromise and opts to simply hire scabs to fill in during his labor shortage- this is a particularly effective counterbalance to general strikes during a recession, given the swollen size of the labor pool that the capitalist can draw from. In this scenario, the striking laborers are out of work, the capitalist is still continuing to rake in profits and once again, the system carries on in accordance with its inexorable logic. Lastly, as in the case of the Oakland strike, the capitalist may invoke the state’s monopoly on violence to beat the workers back into their roles as labor-for-hire and once again, the system continues. These aforementioned scenarios of reform suggest that the occupation of places of employment and the control of production by the workers, known as autogestion, is of utmost necessity in exacting true social change.
I would like to end this treatise in anticipation of the irritated response that this critique will surely generate. To begin with, I am in no way suggesting that within the OWS movement there were no committed, sincere ‘revolutionaries’ to be found; this is quite obviously not the case. In fact, I was surprised at just how dedicated to the cause so many of the occupiers proved themselves to be in the face of mental and physical coercion by the state. Additionally, I am not attempting to suggest that the OWS movement never considered tactical maneuvers which would directly disrupt the process of production; this too would be a distortion of the truth. Not only did Occupy encampments around the globe organize bank sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience designed to disrupt ‘business as usual’, but OWS did in fact issue a call for a general strike on May Day last year. Unfortunately for the movement, this was too little, too late.
Furthermore, I would like to stress that this is not a call for violence; quite the opposite in fact. What I am suggesting is the peaceful occupation of places of employment by the labor force. It is my contention that this will pique the titans of industry to the extent that they will be forced to exercise violence against the working masses; in such a situation, recourse to violence will not need to be advocated, it will become manifest in the life-and-death struggle of the labor force. It is my express wish that this transition to an egalitarian society of associated producers could be realized peacefully, and I believe that this is also the wish of humanity at large; however, when one stands up for noble principles and is met with blows, does one cower and renounce those principles out of fear of corporeal harm? No; this individual answers to a higher calling, a vision of humanity free from the bondage of consumerist capitalism and the alienation it breeds. This individual rises up in spite of his adversary; if he is met with yet more blows, he will continue to rise in defiance until injustice weighs too heavily upon his chest. With his death rattle, the solitary individual issues a call to arms and others rally to defend his noble vision; they will meet blows with blows in the paramount struggle for authentic existence until at last their vision becomes manifest.
What I am hoping to convey in this critique of the OWS movement is the necessity for a guiding theory or methodology in social revolutionary movements; this is not an equivocal statement in the sense that it can not, and should not, be taken to mean engaging in action with a given positive terminus in mind. This is not what is implied by a ‘guiding theory or methodology’. Essentially, the positive terminus of a movement (which is inherently normative – ‘what should the post-revolutionary society look like?’) should be left ambiguous (in this way the means ultimately determine the ends, rather than vice-versa, which OWS accomplished admirably); however it is imperative that the negative terminus (or, the methodology of reconstructing society) is explicitly stated (i.e., the abolition of capitalist social relations and statist politics). The positive terminus can only be realized subsequent to the realization of the negative; this conception of revolution is fundamentally dialectical, insofar as the realization of the negative terminus in the abolition of parliamentary capitalism is the negation of a negation upon which the ‘transcendent’ post-capitalist society must be predicated. Occupy came on the scene knowing social change was long overdue; exactly what they wanted to change and how they were going to change it were left as open ended questions to be decided in the process. This is admirable and ambitious, and I fault no one on these ambiguities. The reason Occupy ultimately failed as a social movement was because despite the vast number of legitimate grievances brought before the 1500 General Assemblies globally, the movement failed to recognize each of these grievances as symptoms of a greater malady. What this amounts to is an abundance of positive termini (a world without racial prejudice, economic exploitation, etc.), all of which were predicated on an ill-founded negative terminus (‘money out of politics’). I also contend that many Occupiers joined the movement without a clear conception of exactly how parliamentary democracy relates to Capitalism and as such were effectively paralyzed when it came time to induce change. The demands of the Occupiers were clearly not being met with the help of the state, yet how to enable the movement to effectively penetrate the minds of the populace at large and create a social situation which could no longer be ignored by the oppressed or the oppressors was not addressed adequately.
It is my opinion that we have much to learn from the nearly 11,000,000 brave men and women who occupied the factories and universities in France for two fateful weeks during May of 1968. Through their efforts, one of the most advanced capitalist countries in the world was brought to a standstill and capital was only able to regain solid footing after the demonstrators capitulated to a ‘new’ state – new in name, but virtually unchanged in form. Whether we like it or not, we have inherited the legacy of ’68, but the weight of history is on our side; we must persist in critique and learn from the mistakes of our predecessors. It is not enough to call for a general strike, we must occupy our places of employment. It is not enough to demand new leaders, we must call for an end to hierarchical states. In short, it is high time that we pronounce the death of our latest God, the secular deity of Statist Capitalism and realize that we, the workers, are the true motive force of history. We are responsible for the deplorable state of humanity and the environment – accepting responsibility for our actions is long overdue. We can no longer afford to attribute the reality of man to immutable transcendent forces,be it Yahweh or Capitalism, suspended above us as if from a batten – humanity has birthed both and has shown us that it is capable of dismantling what it has created. Perhaps we have forgotten the limitless potential of humanity; let autogestion reign as we rediscover the creative beauty in destruction.
 It is my opinion that very few involved in the movement would cite this as a main goal for OWS