The 7 Sins of Occupy

by Charles Lechner of Occupy Wall Street Labor Outreach Committee and Organizing 2.0 on September 22, 2012

This was written before the celebration of Occupy Wall Street’s one year anniversary. I chose to delay it, thinking it might be, um, contentious. But now that #S17 is over, it’s introspection time again….

Horizontalism: The word itself is borrowed from a specific Argentinian experiment that ended quite a few years ago, but not before generating excitement in literally dozens of grad schools. Some experts will tell you (and tell you and tell you) all about the emotionally cathartic yet long lasting benefits, but most Argentinians are long past it. Let’s join them.

Keep in mind that various cultures have long familiarity with inclusivity, participatory democracy and consensus. But the insider-jargon word ‘Horizontalism’ alerts one to the presence of a fetish, where form precedes function, and where the only sure outcome is the departure of most participants.

Direct Actionism: There’s lots to be said for the phrase ‘direct action gets the goods.’ Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA) is a time honored and incredibly successful tactic used by protest movements around the world. In contrast, Direct Actionism is the knee jerk desire for public action that carries the sexy scent of danger and self-sacrifice. This can mean marching around without a permit playing cat and mouse with the cops, sweating inside giant puppets or screwing with the straights in short-lived lobby occupations.

But where NVDA starts with strategy and mass movements, Direct Actionism starts with tactics and what are often smallish groups of young, white, male leaders aching to recreate a certain scene from Les Mis.


99% Hypocrisy:
The economic crisis caused by financial elites hurt almost all of us, even if not quite 99%. But the meme itself, lifted from US Uncut/Agitpop, was a unifying call that resonated with a majority of Americans. In the name of this majority, Occupy crafted a movement seemingly designed to be accessible to the smallest sliver of the homeless/hardcore activist population. This started with the infamous ‘tortoise shell formation’ on day 1, when observers of the initial Zuccotti Park occupation were mostly exposed to the backs of people sitting in close-knit circles, trying to hear what was being said. It continued with hours long meetings that often accomplished little except to credential the unofficial leaders. Those who stayed until the end were often those who didn’t have a job or family expecting them at home.

They hypocrisy is presuming to speak for others attracted to your cause, but repelled by your organizing practices. When people show up and stay, listen to them. But if they leave and never come back, LISTEN TO THEM TOO.

Wacko Contamination: Well-meaning people from many backgrounds joined Occupy, hoping to lend their voices to a genuine people’s movement. Some of them suffer from psychiatric disorders that often lead to marginalization. Unfortunately, Occupy did not marginalize them as well. This means that folks obviously and transparently unable to behave appropriately in community were given the floor for misbehavior ranging from self-centered ramblings to physical violence. Repeatedly. And not just in formal, public meetings called to conduct business; such behavior took place in all sorts of situations (churches allowing occupiers to sleep overnight, smaller work group meetings, social events, daily distributions of metro cards, etc.).

This would be inappropriate at a methadone clinic, let alone a serious movement addressing the power and might of finance capital.

But don’t blame the sympathetic victims of misaligned brain chemistry; blame everyone else for not demanding boundaries.

Elitism: One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media and social capital, text messaging and chat software, they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shit done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other.

This isn’t really very different than how powerful elites operate in the real world. But in the real world, leaders are less likely to talk about transparency and horizontalism, and more likely to have to stand for election, hold a title, or at least be subject to being written about. You know what’s worse than regular same-old elites? An barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can’t ever be called to account.

Fear of Money: Movements need money. And that money needs organizations to flow through. Sadly, the fear of money and organization as the root of all evil paralyzed serious work while enabling some of the worst tendencies. An all-volunteer collective tried to manage the process only to be repeatedly accused of failing at it. The money that was raised was used in part for what seems today to be nonsensical – housing homeless people and giving away metro cards. What part of holding Wall St. accountable was that for?

A healthy movement would just do, as a matter or course, what other movements have done in the past – designate trusted people to raise funds, make decisions about budgets, and work closely with others doing the same. Using money is not the same thing as being taken over by the nonprofit-industrial complex. Our failure to handle money responsibly weakened Occupy considerably.

Pre-figuratism & the Church of Process: One of the hallmarks of OWS was how quickly supporters were willing to jump off the powerful, fast moving train for holding banksters accountable on to the creaky, dangerous fixie of building the new world in the shell of the old. It’s a noble idea – instead of dealing with billions of misused tax dollars, let’s farm, take over parks, and hold meetings where crazy people get equal time with everyone else. Because in the fyooture, listening to incoherent babbling at a business meeting will fill one’s heart with smug ‘aren’t we politically advanced!’ feelings.

(Note: I’m all in favor of supporting traditionally oppressed groups; but that’s not the same as putting the margins in the center.)

The abandonment of reality based politics in favor of individualist utopianism matches quite well to some occupiers personal utopia: small groups doing what they like to feel good about themselves. For those of us still aiming at Wall St., that utopian vision is a nightmare. It is “an opiate of the masses”. Activists smoke it in a way that distracts them from the here and now. From winning.

Crazily, I think Occupy Wall Street was and should be about winning.

PS: This is written in a snarky style that some opponents of OWS will surely enjoy. I’m very active in OWS, primarily with Tech Ops, and expect to remain active in the future. But I think there’s a way of bringing together like-minded folks inspired by OWS who favor a more… goal-oriented or linear organizing model.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Manuel Barrera September 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Excellent review of the problems that, if addressed, will make Occupy a tremendously stronger force than the simple promise it gives now. I was glad to hear at the end that your tone was intended to be “snarky”, ostensibly to help in communicating to some parts of the Occupy audience, because being “all in favor” of marginalized groups is not the same as actually being “in favor” of defending and supporting them; much like some people feign a “love” of children, but always are first to prevent their participation when “adults” are talking. That said, I completely agree that the best way to de-marginalize those oppressed people with various chemical and psychological difficulties (especially in communication) is to set and expect behaviors that actually facilitate communication and then holding everyone, equitably, to them.

Without getting too far into the issues of participatory democracy, let’s just say, that the Greeks, the Colonial revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, and the Cuban revolutionaries all came to similar conclusions from direct experience and, especially in the three former, the ruling classes or bureaucratic layers that eventually emerged twisted those democratic processes to their ends for maintaining class power. It didn’t have to happen that way, it just did. The more we become conscious of the dangers that “smallness” brings within a movement, the more likely we can avoid mistakes like elitism, “direct actionism”, and “horizontalism”. To do that, I also agree, requires unity in working hard to help each other do what it takes to build a truly mass movement and one that benefits from important political and democratic principles.
It’s really too bad that those of us who resonate with this kind of analysis may largely be in very faraway places from each other. It is important that the North Star provides an avenue for common discussion, but I also agree that the time is now to find “a way of bringing together like-minded folks inspired by OWS who favor a more… goal-oriented or linear organizing model.”

I wonder when the time will be ripe to hold such a face-to-face “congress” of the forces desiring to build such a mass and “goal-oriented” movement? My romanticism tells me that it would be symbolic and attractive to hold such an event in Chicago (with perhaps the securing the invitation of the CTU)? A coalition of the “willing” among teachers, other unionists, Occupiers, anti-racist and women’s liberation activists connected with such marginalized groups as Palestinian/Syrian/Arab revolutionaries and immigrant rights/undocumented worker activists, even if initially small, would be a tremendous breakthrough. Anything of that sort would be a welcome change.
Solidarity forever,
Manuel

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Manuel Barrera September 22, 2012 at 3:17 pm

to my previous comments, I would add this: http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/53304.aspx
all over the world and including our own North Star efforts, we are beginning to see the need for true alliances of the revolutionary forces. We need this kind of unity as it becomes ever clearer that the reformist, pro-capitalist “progressives” will move steadily and even headlong to the right. A sane and reasonable socialist-revolutionary alternative can emerge and we can at last provide a way forward for the working and oppressed masses in a way that, despite any “correctness” we may have about the world as smaller units, will galvanize and coordinate the efforts of our class in our struggle against the scourge of capital.

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Ruth Anderson September 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm

In Los Angeles, Clay Claiborne printed out flyers with occupiers’ photos and names on them, denouncing the people named in the flyers.

The self-described “Unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, has been pushing a scare campaign based on Chris Hedges’ alarmist “Cancer” tirade about the so-called “black blocs”

At the same time, in characteristic macho mode, Proyect, has denounced the hoodies-and-masks contingent as a mere gang of “Bart Simpsons,” i.e. punks who could never fight like real workers and are not worth taking seriously in any way.

You have to ask what the real urgency of the cancer scare is, the actual punks in question being punked.

I’m all for “linearity” as opposed to “horizontalism” or whatever abstraction is currently getting them hot in the graduate schools. But with linearity come sectarianism, coercion, betrayal, conspiracy, power struggles, and, above all, bosses.

Anyone who wishes to participate in the new, more linear left had better be prepared to defend herself–by any tactic from noviolent protest within the protest to the application of defensive force–against assaults from all quarters, including factions of organizers who may themselves constitute a black bloc of sorts within the hierarchy of the new movement.

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admin September 22, 2012 at 3:25 pm
Louis Proyect September 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm

At the same time, in characteristic macho mode, Proyect, has denounced the hoodies-and-masks contingent as a mere gang of “Bart Simpsons,” i.e. punks who could never fight like real workers and are not worth taking seriously in any way.

Joe V. doesn’t seem to have a clue about pop culture. Bart Simpson does not have the reputation of being a “chicken” but rather that of a wanton property-destroyer and brat. In years past, when I was a kid in fact, there was a comic strip called The Katzenjammer Kids that portrayed the same kinds of antics, like tying a firecracker to a cat’s tail or putting salt in their mother’s coffee. In other words, politically the same thing as breaking a Starbuck’s window.

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Ruth Andersn September 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Joe V?

I didn’t say Proyect called the Barts chicken–but in the exchange I read, he did contrast them unfavorably with strikers in Flint, Michigan defending themselves with pipe wrenches.

What was the point of that if not to say that the Simpsons couldn’t fight like real workers–or like the hypermasculine Louis Proyect?

How do the Katzenjammer Kids wind up as a mortal threat to the post-Occupy Left? And if they aren’t a mortal threat, then why all the Chris Hedges-style hysteria about “cancer”? And what would you call them but “punks”?

What a waste of time.

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Louis Proyect September 22, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Joe V.: I didn’t say Proyect called the Barts chicken–but in the exchange I read, he did contrast them unfavorably with strikers in Flint, Michigan defending themselves with pipe wrenches.

Me: Unbelievable how dense Joe can be without even trying. The contrast with the Flint strikers was not over fighting ability but over mass support. The Flint strikers held mass meetings of thousands and were backed by the two major left parties in the U.S.A., the SP and the CPUSA. They were both transparent and accountable. I favor self-defense of the sort mounted by the Flint strikers not juvenile delinquency of the black bloc support. That should have been clear to everybody with at least a 3rd grade reading level.

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Ruth Anderson September 23, 2012 at 1:05 am

Incredible. The exchange to which I am referring was specifically about “violence” and Mr. Proyect referred to the Flint in a glancing one liner with reference to that word period. The rest of this is sheer embroidery.

As to the “Joe V.” business, I suggest that the next time Mr. Proyect thinks there’s a monster under the bed he get a man to look under it with a flashlight.

From what I’ve seen, despite being a trifle long-winded and a lousy proofreader, Mr. Vaughan is entirely capable of handling his own fights.

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Arthur September 22, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Occupy in Melbourne Australia copied a lot of the worst aspects from above description of Occupy Wall Street (although advocates claimed to be basing it on experience from Spain).

Its important to understand that a lot of this stuff was explicitly and consciously a reaction against the practices of lemmingist groups that had been regarded as “the left” and were deeply hated by many/most of the people who wanted to organize a movement that actually challenged the ruling class in the interests of 99%. As Lenin remarked, anarchism is a punishment for opportunist sins.

The aspect that struck me as most damaging was the rejection of majority decision making at general assemblies. Instead of learning how to hold serious debates that actually respected minority views and enabled wrong tendencies accepted by the majority to be challenged and eventually corrected by a minority this reinforced a paralysing “consensus” perfectly suited to corporate NGO types maintaining the status quo.

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Ruth Anderson September 23, 2012 at 1:08 am

“The Flint” should be the “Flint workers.”

Shades of Joe Vaughan. I am out of here.

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Adam Wadley September 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm

The Occupy Movement clearly has a lot to learn, and there is a lot of wisdom here.

Our challenge is to come up with an alternative organizing platform that speaks to enough people that it gains legitimacy in their eyes. we must also de-legitimize the state’s authority and the private property claims of the corporations. Our problem is that we can trust neither the state or corporations, or NGOs, and it is unclear to what extent they operate together in a totality of capitalist hegemony (I would argue that this is true to a great extent).

We can’t stifle voices that don’t want to be workers- this is not a call for laziness and incompetence but a call for the destruction of the line between labor, production, and consumption. It makes sense that people don’t want to work for someone else. To be sure, the black bloc can be infantile and irreverent, often enthusiastically, and I realize that they don’t have everything right. But we can learn a lot from children, and those of us born into the world and in our early 20s have come of age in a world of 9/11, global war on terror, financial crises etc. So we don’t trust the system at all! This is a legitimate concern and acting like we just need stronger unions is not a palatable argument to people like me.

I am not a black bloc anarchist. What I am advocating for is a conscious foray into a more radical politics, that distances itself from all of the institutions that police us in the modern world- corporations, the state, consumerist culture, religious dogma, etc. I realize that this can be alienating, but unless we take a cohesive and principled stance, we will be perverted by elements that are too conciliatory to the powers that be.

As I said, in my view our primary objective is to come up with a way of organizing that is less hierarchical than, say, corporations and the state, which are clearly authoritarian, and that can gain in legitimacy enough to be a place where societal drop-outs can go to discover a new way of being.

Our challenges are that today’s political dissidents are divided in ideology and that there are so many different kinds of oppression that foregrounding them all is difficult. But we can’t forget about our genderqueer comrades, members of the human family in peripheral, fundamentally exploited regions, those torn apart by imperialist war, etc. If we want to speak to the world, we have to realize where people in the world are coming from, and for them, the collapse has already begun, so that to seem to be fiddling around trying to get quantitative adjustments from the domination system looks like pathetic pseudo-reformism.

Lastly, as a white male I would like to take the smallest of issues with the critique of direct action. I won’t dispute that white males like myself can be domineering or that some direct actions are alienating, masturbatory gestures. But stigmatizing my identity category has a negative impact on people like me who are trying to keep such issues in mind, but are demoralized by the constant chorus that white males take up too much space. I am a part of this movement too, and I want my ideas to be heard like anyone else’s. I know that I have advantages due to my racial/gender/sexuality identity, but I try to keep those in mind and would prefer if a negative stigma were attached not to my identity category, but to problematic behavior like authoritarianism, disrespect, and unilateralism.

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David Berger September 27, 2012 at 12:32 pm

“As I said, in my view our primary objective is to come up with a way of organizing that is less hierarchical than, say, corporations and the state, which are clearly authoritarian, and that can gain in legitimacy enough to be a place where societal drop-outs can go to discover a new way of being.”

For openers, this has been a fantasy from the utopian colonies of the early 19th century to now. It can’t be done. We live under capitalism until we overthrow it.

David Berger

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