Occupy’s Second Anniversary: Some Lessons

by Ben Campbell on September 18, 2013

Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street movement, with a few hundred protesters reuniting in lower Manhattan. While large by the fizzling Occupy standards, it is easy to forget just how big Occupy was at its peak. Perhaps the highpoint of the movement occurred immediately after its violent eviction from Zuccotti Park, when 30,000 gathered in New York’s Foley Square in protest, including unions and thousands of students who arrived in a demonstration that would foreshadow scenes in Quebec.

And Occupy all but disappeared shortly thereafter. At its two-year anniversary, it now seems a distant memory, perhaps simply the latest and largest in the global justice protests that erupt sporadically before all returns to normal. It is easy to blame Occupy’s demise on the repression by the state. Clearly the eviction from Zuccotti Park and other encampments was the key turning point, successfully coordinated so as to quash the movement’s momentum. But why was the largest social movement in years so dependent on a nondescript slab of concrete in lower Manhattan?

The importance of physical space brilliantly inspired Occupy Wall Street. “Wall Street” served as a simulacrum of capital, and through experience in a square mile of lower Manhattan the workings of the system, with its nexus of financiers and bodies of armed men, was clear for all to experience firsthand. Thousands were arrested and many more witnessed or experienced police brutality for the mere act of protesting the unpunished criminal actions of our new robber barons. In contrast, the island of Zuccotti Park came to represent “democracy,” a word meaning many things to different occupiers, but by all accounts preferable to the surrounding world of finance capital.

Yet with the absence of any clear goals, this physical space became reified as the goal itself, especially following the celebrated defense of Zuccotti Park one early October morning. When eventually torn from this physical embodiment, Occupy quickly lost all coherence. If Zuccotti was the central node in a representative map of capital, eviction amounted to a hippocampectomy. Occupy Wall Street was forced to stumble on as something of a driftless nomad, its following increasingly diminishing until it became a mere New York subculture — increasingly insular and with hardly a claim to represent “the 99%”. Outside of New York, without the immediate presence of finance capital, protests similarly focused on defending space, most short-lived and lacking even the limited clarity of purpose that had existed at Zuccotti.

Perhaps the one thing that bound this plurality of Occupies was their emphasis on process. This focus began, admirably, as a means to create an inclusive movement. Instead of proclaiming grievances, posters in advance of the occupation asked the question “What is our one demand?” On the first day occupiers set out to answer this question in their newly claimed space via consensus decision-making. Ideas were tossed about to the first use of “twinkle” fingers: “direct democracy”, “get money out of politics”, “end capitalism”.

Yet when the movement was unable to reach consensus, the question was dropped and the inability to reach a demand was embraced as a virtue. As Judith Butler would explain in Tidal:

when a company, corporation, or state is not considered a legitimate partner for negotiation, then it makes no sense to appeal to that authority… to appeal to that authority to satisfy the demand would be one way of attributing legitimacy to that authority.

Instead, the consensus process itself became the ethos of the movement, and so what started out as means to build a movement became ends in themselves. Occupy Wall Street’s adopted purpose thus became one of prefigurative politics.

The actions of the protest movement similarly changed with time. With time the key decision-makers in the movement came to reject “symbolic” actions, which were seen as ineffectual protest politics, in favor of “direct” actions. The ultra-voluntarist politics of direct action are of a piece with the politics of space, and amount, basically, to taking shit over. Action will be taken. This shift was based on a desire to objectively change conditions, rather than merely changing people’s minds. It ended up accomplishing neither. The irony was that much of Occupy’s growth could be credited to symbolic protests; Occupy was its most useful precisely in changing consciousness, particularly by returning to political discourse the subject of class.

swirl Occupy’s First Anniversary: “The swirl” of direct actions

What was lost with Zuccotti Park was any sense of the protest movement’s purpose or strategy. The leaders and theorists of the movement provided little, as they were primarily engaged in celebrating what was already happening. As the focal point moved further and further from lower Manhattan tactics thus became increasingly illogical. For instance, the David Graeber-inspired Rolling Jubilee, the central initiative of the second year of the movement, amounted to nothing more than a charitable fundraising drive to aid distressed debtors (it raised over $600,000).

More than anything, it was the lack of strategy that led to Occupy progressively losing the support not only of the broader public, but more importantly of its own activists. Without a physical space to defend, and nothing to show in terms of strategic advancement, occupiers could provide no clear answer to the question, “why am I doing this?” Increasingly, they stopped showing up. Sadly, this leaves Occupy Wall Street’s lasting effect not one of confidence, but one of demoralization. For tens of thousands of participants, Occupy highlighted their growing desire for a radical alternative, but also the absence of any form that might contain it.

We are presently suffering through an Occupy hangover, in which current more localized struggles pale by comparison. Nevertheless, the post-2008 reality of accelerated austerity makes continued flareups of protest overwhelmingly likely. The growth of these future struggles will depend on organizers who have learnt the lessons of Occupy — both of its rapid growth, and its equally rapid decline.

  • http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org Dola

    “It is easy to blame Occupy’s demise on the repression by the state.”

    Indeed, it has been a convenient excuse over the past two years. Hopefully this article by Ben is an opportunity for more people to ask a question that Marxist-Humanist Initiative posed in two meetings this summer, titled: “Why Do Popular Movements Vanish? And Do They Have To?”

    Leading the discussion during the second meeting, Andrew Kliman quotes from an essay written by David Graeber in New Left Review (2002):

    “Perhaps the best way to start thinking about these organizations—the Direct Action Network, for example—is to see them as the diametrical opposite of the sectarian Marxist groups; or, for that matter, of the sectarian Anarchist groups. Where the democratic-centralist ‘party’ puts its emphasis on achieving a complete and correct theoretical analysis, demands ideological uniformity and tends to juxtapose the vision of an egalitarian future with extremely authoritarian forms of organization in the present, these openly seek diversity. Debate always focuses on particular courses of action; it’s taken for granted that no one will ever convert anyone else entirely to their point of view. The motto might be, ‘If you are willing to act like an anarchist now, your long-term vision is pretty much your own business’. Which seems only sensible: none of us know how far these principles can actually take us, or what a complex society based on them would end up looking like. Their ideology, then, is immanent in the anti-authoritarian principles that underlie their practice, and one of their more explicit principles is that things should stay this way.”

    Kliman reflects:

    “What we have here is the notion of collective action taking place, without any collective thought taking place. ‘Keep your long term vision to yourself, keep your p.o.v. to yourself. That’s, as Graeber says, “your own business, it’s not our business.” The thinking in these organizations is that it should stay that way. “Ideology,” so called, should remain “immanent,” or only implicit. Not public, not discussed, and that should be so indefinitely; it should stay that way. What I’d like to suggest in light of that is that the failure of Occupy to develop theoretically wasn’t an accident. It was an expression of this viewpoint. From the perspective of an influential current within Occupy exemplified by Graeber’s thinking, the lack of theoretical development was no failure at all it was the way things should stay. But I don’t think that thoughtless activity, on the part of a collectivity, is going to be any more successful when all is said and done, than thoughtless activity on the part of an individual. …”


    As Ben writes, “when the [Occupy] movement was unable to reach consensus, the question was dropped and the inability to reach a demand was embraced as a virtue.” Perhaps reaching one or multiple demands at the beginning was unlikely at the outset, as many different people with varied grievances collected downtown. Does that mean we were from then on only capable of direct action – the holding of the square, various marches and, later, triage charity work? No. Theoretical development (not indoctrination into one dogma or another) taking place among people was and is needed, but that course was consciously circumscribed.

    I encourage people to watch the videos of those meetings and voice their thoughts.

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  • Steve K

    Good article. In addition to stifling the theoretical development of Occupy itself, the inability to discuss or make demands prevented the movement from being able to do meaningful outreach. To build a serious and sustainable movement, Occupy needed 1) to say to people that it was fighting for specific things that the system was denying them (full employment, workplace democracy, ending global warming, etc) and 2) to ask people to help it. From there the movement could have begun doing the nuts and bolts work of building a mass movement (tabling, canvassing), going into communities to find out who supported its agenda, getting their contact information, and then getting them out doing outreach, protests, and/or direct actions, and then maybe engaging in electoral politics. At a minimum, having more clearly defined demands and announcing them when the news cameras were all pointed at the occupations might have helped radicalize the general public’s discussions. We do need a movement that mimics much of he anarchists’ intellectual flexibility (there are a lot of issues that we don’t need to come to agreement about) and allows people the freedom to participate in the movement in pretty much the way they want to (allows artists, for instance, the freedom to get creative), but that movement also has to have a smart critique of capitalism, a compelling set of solutions to society’s problems, and a credible strategy for building and taking power. We can’t allow the anarchists to take the leadership reigns again, but that means that we socialists need to get off our rear ends and start making stuff happen.

  • Z R. Cunningham

    This pretty much mirrors my own experience with Occupy Wall St. I basically stopped participating in late March of 2012, though I have been a party to actions since then (mostly in 2012) and maintain connections with the milieu (or, as Ben puts it, subculture) that remains.

    The reason why I stopped participating on the level of organization is simply the failure by OWS to generate a real organizational apparatus. I spent a good three months trying to fix the Spokescouncil, a(n ostensibly) decision-making body secondary to the General Assembly created in mid-October 2011. It was originally intended to serve primarily logistical purposes for the park itself, but of course it was less than a month later that the park was no more. From there was a period of four months or so of collective confusion and disarray over what to do (precisely because of the “reification of space” which Ben discusses), contributing to the drop in participation, as well as foolish actions such as the attempt to take Duarte Square on December 17th 2011. It was during this period that I attempted to shift the Spokescouncil from its weird non-position (after the eviction it was strictly speaking purposeless), and (along with others of course) failed.

    There are a lot of reasons for this failure. Partly it was OWS’s consensus process. Here I want to go a bit beyond Ben’s analysis: the problem was not simply consensus process as such, but even more so the bastardization of consensus by which Occupy operated. Personally I have mixed feelings about consensus democracy, but even if you are a full-on partisan for it you should be able to recognize that OWS (and Occupy more generally, though this is something that varies by which Occupy we’re talking about) had a remarkably terrible consensus process–the way in which “blocks” turned it into straight up voting (with a 90% threshold, and as many rightly pointed out this is simply not how consensus is supposed to work) is only the most egregious example (the way in which facilitation was utterly unaccountable is another problem that I’ll come back to).

    Another reason was the more general problem of OWS’s lack of ideological cohesion. This is an interesting problem, and, perhaps due to the nature of hindsight, I’m not sure if it could have been avoided/rectified: part of me thinks that the very nature of OWS as a massive, spontaneous (and of course ephemeral) process necessarily entailed ideological conflict (only the most prominent being the anarchist/liberal divide) as a reflection of the heavy atomization and isolation of US society more generally. (The absence of marxian socialists is one major x-factor I can think of–but considering the nigh-universal condescension by marxists in regards to Occupy I can’t help but think that this, too, was unavoidable.) But, again, another part of me suspects that this is an example of too-easy rationalization in hindsight.

    This organizational failure came to a head at the beginning of April 2012 when the Facilitation working group announced that, because they had determined the GA was not a safe space (not untrue), they would no longer facilitate it, a de facto disbanding of the GA. It’s worth noting that OWS was not only the first but one of the very few Occupies to straight-up get rid of its GA; those other places which no longer have them (and some are still around) by and large saw a more gradual dissolution.

    This is not an exhaustive analysis (for example I’ve left out class contradictions, which were present even on a geographic level within the park; its remarkable that this sort of geographic distinction was also present, though in a different way, in the occupation of Syntagma Square in Greece in May-June 2011; I suspect a similar phenomenon was part of M15 in Spain and, of course, other Occupies in the US–which typically lined up with disdain for the GA as such as an embodiment of upper-middle-class elites), but, yeah. Good article, Ben.

  • http://thecahokian.blogspot.com/ Ish

    A friend and comrade has also written a two-year anniversary piece on Occupy.

    “if we proclaim that there is a unbridgeable division of classes that make
    up the nation, and our goal is to abolish that division, then it is a
    betrayal of mission to compromise with those who would cover up that
    antagonism and ultimately betray us.”


    • http://www.thenorthstar.info/ Pavel Dubrovsky

      that’s cool. do you have any comments on this story or were you just here to post a link?

      • http://thecahokian.blogspot.com/ Ish

        Sure I’ll make a comment.

        I think there’s a danger in ascribing the apparent end of the Occupy movement to an inherent fault in the Occupy movement itself. There are some useful critiques here: surely the obsession with process and the limits of consensus and over-horizontalism deserve analysis.

        But I think I disagree that the lack of elaboration of goals killed Occupy. I found Occupy’s refusal to embrace demands, and its discussion about why it refused to do that, one of the more interesting and revolutionary discussions in a mass movement that I have witnessed.

        It’s a little counter-intuitive but I’ll use an example from this very 2nd anniversary of Occupy in NYC. The day’s events down in the formerly occupied Zuccotti Plaza were sad and lackluster. At some point in the afternoon I witnessed a completely pathetic attempt at holding an assembly, people’s mic and all —despite the fact that all 15 people attending could easily have heard what was being said — that was a vivid illustration of how time has moved on. II wasn’t able to go uptown, but the Occupy demo in midtown was by all accounts relatively well attended, lively, spirited, and fun. The downtown events did not have demands, the uptown one was organized around the so-called Robin Hood tax. Now it’s nice that the uptown demo was fun to be at, but its adoption of an essentially reformist demand was to my mind a political setback. The realism of such a demand represents a pulling back from the sky’s-the-limit ideals of so many whom Occupy awoke to action. It was the optimistic and revolutionary openness of the original Occupy that allowed it to turn become a conjunctural moment of rupture. And that moment seems to have passed.

        It’s clear that those politicized in Occupy can’t just go through the motions of recreating the past. But I think Occupy’s simplicity — fight for a better world for the majority of people — was deeply inspiring and that’s a core message Occupy’s veterans should now be figuring out how to keep alive and relevant.

        But I don’t think Occupy committed suicide. The repression was actually very important in ending the movement, as were the elections and the subsequent re-commandeering of national discussion by the bourgeois parties. The worldwide popular uprisings that started in the Mediterranean all look more complicated now. Americans have returned to their passive routine. These things are not Occupy’s making.

        • http://www.thenorthstar.info/ Pavel Dubrovsky

          i’m of two minds on this. i agree fully that police repression was extremely important in ending occupy, but i also think that the relentless focus on maintaining physical space allowed it to turn increasingly inward and talk about itself and not the conditions that created it. that inward focus, the inability to come to any kind of stand about what it was about (ethical capitalism? a clean version of neoliberalism? the gold standard? – these were some of the questions being mooted here in the uk) and unwieldy governance structures that shielded unelected non-leader leaders from any real accountability led to its increasing irrelevance and weakness when faced by state attack, whether in the us or uk.

          but it would be a mistake, imo, to reject occupy and its artifacts tout court. the fact is that occupy was the first thing seen on its scale in the us or uk for decades. traditional socialist means – front groups run by centralised bureaucracies that manipulate rules of procedure to control things they could never have brought into being by themselves – could not have permitted a movement of its size to grow and the proof of that is the simple fact that no such movement had come into being by those means. sadly, socialist groups are more parasitic on movements than anything else and that is because they see movements as a means to their own ends. occupy was different.

          and occupy, although it has fizzled and withered under the weight of organisational models that could not scale and coordinated attacks by the state, was successful in changing consciousness both in its direct participants as well as the broader public. this is very important and should not be underestimated. we don’t know yet what the legacy of occupy will be, whether it was a dead-end or whether it was the first in an escalating series of popular movements to challenge capitalism in the wake of the the current crisis. my feeling is that it is the latter and that we need to learn how to scale a movement so that we can make the next leap.

  • Ken Morgan

    Millions of workers unemployed, facing eviction, homelessness,with older long term unemployed workers regarded by the system as being permanently unemployable, and still there are those who defend Occupy not making demands! Incredible.

    This logic would suggest that those engaged in the battle for workers rights in the 1930′s should have never demanded legislation protecting those rights and recognition of their unions? Those participating in the struggle for racial equality in the 1950′s and 1960′s should have never demanded an end to segregation and civil rights legislation? Those protesting against the Vietnam War should have never demanded “Out Now?”

    I don’t want to come across as entirely negative. On the contrary. The Occupy movement was one of the most exciting events in my lifetime. The original organizers, to their credit broke lose from the bounds, of “we can’t do anything until the unions begin to move,” or the fear of being considered ultra left. They saw a myriad of problems that existed and still do. The problem was the movement offered no solutions, on how to advance the struggle.

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