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.
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.