At the height of Occupy Wall Street’s efflorescence, when the enragés who took up residence in Zuccotti Park succeeded in raising the battle standard of the 99% for the entire world to see, I sat down for an interview with Frances Fox Piven to help make sense of what was unfolding before us. Although I thought I knew more than my fair share about the theory and practice of social movements in the U.S., as a child of the End of History, I had never really been part of one. I was born in the early 1980s, during the dreadful dawn of “Morning in America,” so aside from my days as an undergraduate global trade summit-hopper I learned almost everything I know about this stuff from books. The occupation of Zuccotti Park went on for days, days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. It looked as if an honest-to-goodness social movement was breaking out in this country for the first time in my life. To be sure, I was elated. But to my surprise, that elation was often overcome by a sense of foreboding. I looked at all of the silliness that accompanied the encampments and feared that the movement (I still hesitate to use that phrase) would self-destruct before it made even a small dent in the power of the 1%.
As is her wont, Piven was effusive in her praise for the protests. But she also reminded me and anyone who read the interview that when it comes to assessing the strength and development of social movements, it’s best to not get caught up in the exigencies of the moment and to take the long view instead. All the great movements in history, she reminded us, do not progress in a linear fashion, ever onward and upward until the final battle has been won. They grow and develop unevenly, moving by fits and starts, hitting peaks and valleys along the way. They may produce moments of collective euphoria, as in those first few weeks in Zuccotti Park, but they also inevitably bring with them periods of discouragement and demobilization.
There’s no question that the Occupy movement is currently mired in one of those periods of discouragement. Despite professions to the contrary among its truest believers, ever since the nationally-coordinated police assault on Occupy encampments last fall, the movement appears to have completely lost its sense of momentum and efficacy. Efforts to bring about a “spring awakening” in New York and elsewhere have proven to be stillborn, exemplified by the failure of the various May 1 “general strikes” to jumpstart the movement or to broaden its appeal beyond its activist core.
Although this all has been rather disheartening to witness, the current ebbing of Occupy’s fortunes presents us all with a crucial opportunity to engage in critical reflection and analysis of where we’ve been and where we might go from here. Such a project seems even more urgent in light of the growing strength of anti-austerity forces elsewhere, particularly the spectacular rise of SYRIZA in Greece and the burgeoning student movement in Quebec, Canada.
If the Occupy movement in the U.S. is to have any chance of fulfilling its considerable promise, we would do well to assimilate some of the lessons our sisters and brothers abroad are teaching us, even though they call into question many of the movement’s most cherished verities. Last fall was the time for unambiguous solidarity, despite any misgivings one may have had about the movement’s often questionable political orientation. Now is the time for immanent critique.
The media was quick to anoint David Graeber as the spokesperson and leading theoretician of the new radicalism, but I’d argue that that honor rightfully belongs to Marina Sitrin, who for years has articulated the theory and practice of the “horizontalist” spirit that is at the heart of the Occupy movement. Recently, Sitrin participated in a symposium on the state of the contemporary U.S. left at Dissent magazine’s Web site. In a critique of Michael Kazin’s plea for the new radicals to articulate a clear vision of a new society and a program for how we might obtain it, Sitrin offers a concise statement of the horizontalist rejection of demands, representation, program, and the party form. I was willing to give this perspective a hearing during the early days of the Occupy movement, particularly because it seemed as if its adherents had succeeded where those of us on the socialist left had failed, and miserably at that. But today it seems curiously out of touch, particularly when the radical left is on the verge of state power in Greece and Quebec students have fashioned a broad social upheaval out of their relatively limited campaign for free public higher education.
Sitrin’s vindication of horizontalism neatly captures a number of weaknesses in its basic orientation that have hindered the development of the Occupy movement as a political force capable of winning power for the 99%. Here I want to focus on three of them: the false dichotomy between direct and representative democracy; the false opposition of “bad” state versus “good” society; and the confusion of organization and leadership with domination.
Democracy is Direct and Representative
Sitrin opens her argument a critique of the crisis of representation in contemporary “democracies”:
“The intention of the thousands of assemblies taking place around the United States, as well as in Greece and Spain, where I have been most recently, is to open spaces for people to voice their concerns and desires—and to do so in a directly democratic way. These movements emerged in response to a growing crisis, the heart of which is a lack of democracy. People do not feel represented by the governments that claim to speak in their name.”
No argument here. The popular will is everywhere sacrificed to the demands of the free market, and until recently it looked as if this situation was invulnerable to any sort of political intervention or amelioration. The fact that Occupy spoke first and foremost to the crisis of representative democracy is probably the main reason why its message resonated beyond the ranks of the perennial activists, those diehards who will turn up for any action or protest no matter how ill-conceived or poorly organized. The resonance of the “people’s mic” and the endless discussions about every conceivable topic is particularly salient here. All of the institutions of contemporary society, particularly the workplace and the polity, systematically deny those subject to them a chance to articulate their interests, needs, or concerns. The fact that the various encampments offered people a space in which to just speak their minds, interminably if they wanted to, satisfied a widespread and deeply-felt need to be heard in public in a direct, unmediated fashion. This was one of the most positive and liberating aspects of the encampments, and the movement has suffered dramatically from their loss.
Where Sitrin and the horizontalists generally go astray is their construction of a false dichotomy between representative and direct forms of democracy, as if they were mutually exclusive and couldn’t possibly coexist within a single institutional space. In the many conversations I had with the devotees of direct democracy in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere, I found that the concept had become an article of faith, enshrouded in an ideological fog that prevented the movement from addressing the myriad weaknesses of its process. There was very little discussion the ways in which it frustrated the process of collective will-formation, particularly when the aspirations of a segment of the movement ran afoul of the tightly-knit cadre group running things behind the scenes. Any suggestion that the movement might consider adopting certain structures of representation or delegation opened one to charges of thoughtcrime and bad faith.
There’s no reason why organs of direct democracy couldn’t be inscribed within a larger institutional configuration that allows for representation and delegation at higher geographical levels or in policy areas that require a certain degree of technical expertise. This has been a perennial aspiration of revolutionary movements in the modern era, which have typically sought to replace the bourgeois state with a commune of communes. This is the sort of approach that seeks the establishment of what Staughton Lynd, in his unjustly neglected book on the Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, called “bicameralism from below,” a relationship of constructive tension in which representative structures are continually checked by autonomous organs of direct popular participation and control. This strikes me as the only reasonable approach to thinking about charting a way out of the crisis of democracy and building new institutions worthy of the name.
Bad State/Good Society
The state has always been an object of fear and vilification in the American political imagination and the U.S. left has never really occupied a space outside of this ideological consensus. Opposed to the pernicious state is civil society, a virtuous realm of free association untainted by the machinations of power or interest. So it’s no surprise that the horizontalist vision as articulated by Sitrin and others has resonated so strongly in the contemporary U.S. radical milieu. In many ways, it represents a recrudescence of some of the most problematic aspects of the global justice movement, whose “activistism” was grounded in a moral discourse that cast the state in purely one-dimensional (i.e. repressive and authoritarian) terms.
Horizontalists like Sitrin unwittingly follow in the oleaginous trail of the “civic republicans” of the 1990s, whose championing of civil society and non-governmental organizations against the state provided useful communitarian cover for liberals and social democrats eager to jettison their previous commitments to social welfare and collective security. Many local Occupy projects have taken up the communitarian mantle, and Sitrin cites them approvingly:
“Here, basic necessities such as food, legal support, and medical care are coordinated. Novel actions have included the occupation of homes in the United States to prevent evictions and of cash offices in hospitals in Greece so people do not have to pay the newly imposed cost of health care. Towns and cities across the United States have created barter networks, generated alternative adjudication processes, and instituted free childcare. I know of one village in Northern California where people are using an alternative currency and another town outside Albany, N.Y., that has set up a free medical clinic. This is all self-organized horizontally.”
The fact that Occupy activists feel compelled to replace the social welfare function of the state is not an indication of our strength, but rather our weakness. As Corey Robin has written, any left project worthy of the name seeks to free people from the need to answer the bell, the need to endlessly attend to the exigencies of everyday social reproduction so that we can get on with the truly important things in life. There are certain realms of activity that should simply be part of the background noise of society so that individuals are not burdened by the relentless pressures of choice and responsibility. In holding up efforts like these as examples to be emulated, horizontalists become left-wing advocates of the “ownership society,” the right-wing project to end the state’s social welfare function and thrust responsibility for managing every single aspect of our lives, from saving for retirement to paying for college or health care, into our own hands.
The horizontalist rejection of the state in its current form is an impulse that I share. But in completely rejecting engagement with state power, they fail to grasp that another kind of state is possible, one that allows for a significant amount of space for popular participation in decision-making and social provision. Recall the argument made by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programin which he reminded his erstwhile comrades in the German socialist movement that “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.” Not only is such a socialization of the state possible, it’s necessary. If we are to adequately confront our overlapping social and ecological crises, the task will no doubt require a significant mobilization of state power to reshape production, investment, and social relations both nationally and globally. Simply put, by rejecting the state we leave the most powerful institution in our society uncontested, leaving it safely in the hands of the 1%.
The student movement in Quebec, under the dynamic and radical leadership of CLASSE, has forcefully rejected the communitarian approach. They have called not only for the repeal of the provincial government’s proposed tuition increase but also the progressive introduction of free public higher education in Quebec. The student movement made a brilliant strategic decision to make demands of the state that not only speak to the immediate needs of the people but point toward a broader transformation of their society – and of the state as well. In doing so, they’ve succeeded in bringing ever-wider layers of the population into the movement, something that Occupy has thus far been unable to do.
Arendt or Luxemburg?
It has been somewhat strange to witness Occupy activists embrace the success of SYRIZA in Greece and CLASSE in Quebec as examples to be followed, particularly when many of these same activists had hitherto devoted themselves to a rejection of the state, political parties, demands, and “vertical” models of organization. Sitrin sounds the refrain that has become so familiar to us in recent months:
“The point of reference of the movements is not the state or politics conventionally defined. There is no desire to take over the state or to create a new party…democracy is the crux of Occupy politics, and democracy practiced in such a way so as to upend vertical political relationships and expand horizontal ones…The question for the future is not how to create a plan for what a better country will look like, but how to deepen and broaden the assemblies taking place and how to enhance participatory democracy in the process.”
One of the chief ironies of the encampment phase of the Occupy movement was that their effectiveness was often attributed to their putative horizontalism, when in reality they demonstrated the absolute need for a living movement to have some sort of centralized, institutional space to tie together its disparate currents and tendencies. The encampments gave the movement an address, a material and institutional location that made it relatively easy for new recruits to rally to the banner and to maintain their attachments once they had done so.
In many ways, the encampments were a substitute for a prefiguration of the new kind of party we want to build: an umbrella-like formation that allows for radicals of different persuasions to come together in a pluralistic and egalitarian institutional space. The problem with the encampments was that they were strictly identified with specific patches of ground. Once the police decided they had seen enough, that space was broken up and the processes it had given birth to had no way to continue onward. Regardless of the myriad problems with the General Assembly meetings, the spokescouncil structures that were created to deal with those problems just gave rise to new problems, or rather spread the problems from one body to another without dealing with underlying tendency of either space to frustrate the process of collective will-formation. The encampments pointed the way toward a new kind of organizational model that might allow us to meld the horizontal with the vertical, to create an institutional space that encourages the creation of a pluralistic and egalitarian internal culture with a greater sense of common purpose and action.
On the vexed question of organization and leadership, the current moment presents us with a choice: will we be the followers of Hannah Arendt or Rosa Luxemburg? Although many people in and around Occupy characterized it as the latest instantiation of the anarchist impulse, Arendt was the unacknowledged presiding spirit of Zuccotti Park. As she argued in her book On Revolution, modern politics has become an instrumentalist project devoted primarily to protecting the positions of interest groups and state bureaucrats. It closes off nearly all avenues for popular participation and substitutes the expertise of elite technicians and party politicians for the direct action of the people. She also denounced the centrality of the “social question” in modern politics, because the intense conflicts that inevitably follow from it would threaten her idealized, autonomous political space that she wished to keep untainted by considerations of social or economic interests. But in evacuating the social question from the political sphere, Arendt drains politics of much of its substance and turns it into little more than a forum for speech-making and other modes of public performance, a kind of public theater where one’s virtue is judged by others who are similarly free from the need to go to work or do much of anything else. Inevitably, political life becomes the province of a self-selected hard core of political actors, while everyone else attends to the demands of everyday social reproduction.
The similarities to the dynamic that prevailed in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere should be immediately apparent. Arendt’s embrace of the popular organs of the revolutionary tradition, from the various “societies” that sprung up during the radical phase of the French Revolution, to Thomas Jefferson’s republic of wards, to the Paris Commune, the Russian soviets, and the German räte, is certainly admirable. But like the horizontalists of today, she makes a too-strict dichotomy between these organizational forms and structures of leadership and representation, particularly the party.
Ironically, Arendt holds up Rosa Luxemburg as a leading avatar of her preferred revolutionary tradition. This move is ironic because Luxemburg, perhaps more than any other figure in the history of the Left, understood the necessity of combining the horizontal and the vertical, spontaneity and organization, mass movement and party.
Luxemburg is often mistakenly cast as an unalloyed devotee of spontaneity, direct action, and insurrection. It’s certainly true that she often spoke eloquently of the power of direct, unmediated expressions of popular power, and this tendency constitutes an important aspect of her political thought. But a close reading of her work, particularly her well-known essay The Mass Strike, shows that Luxemburg sought to encourage the construction of a more complex dynamic in the internal organization of a radical movement. Spontaneity, direct action, and mass participation was effective only insofar as it furthered the project of building powerful and durable forms of political organization capable of exercising leadership over the movement as a whole – and vice versa. Horizontal and vertical, spontaneity and organization, egalitarianism and leadership were not mutually exclusive categories for her. Properly understood, they should be put into a mutually constitutive relationship that could propel the growth and development of a movement capable of challenging the combined forces of the bourgeois state and capital. As Luxemburg observed, the chaotic, spontaneous mass strikes that broke out across Russia during the years leading up to the revolution of 1905 “are becoming the starting point of a feverish work of organization…from the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting rise again, like Venus from the foam, fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions.”
Most of these strikes began as localized and rather limited struggles over wages and working conditions, but they developed (in conjunction with the agitational work of socialist parties) into general confrontations with the ruling class. The parallels with the rise of SYRIZA in Greece and the Quebec student movement are clear. By raising a set of seemingly limited and “reformist” demands that seek to address the dire situation confronting their country, SYRIZA has managed to attract growing numbers of Greek workers to their party, putting them on the verge of taking state power in crucial elections on June 17. CLASSE began by raising relatively limited and small-scale demands around the question of education and have managed to fashion a fully fledged social movement in the process.
Both SYRIZA and CLASSE appear to have built an unusually democratic and pluralistic institutional culture, which has played no small part in allowing them to attract a wide range of militants and establish legitimacy as the leading organizations in their respective movements. SYRIZA is a coalition of radical Left parties and political formations from a diverse array of traditions ranging from Eurocommunism to Maoism to Trotskyism to radical ecology. The party makes its decisions on the basis of consensus by its participating organizations, allowing them all to maintain a degree of autonomy while facilitating unity in action. It has grounded itself in social struggles while also pursuing state power through electoral activity, making it practically the only Greek political formation that has any legitimacy in the eyes of the popular movements. Unlike the other parties, they can hold popular assemblies without exposing their activists to violentattacks from citizens enraged by the austerity program. In Quebec, CLASSE is a loose coalition of student organizations with varying political orientations and traditions of militancy.
As Peter Hallward has written, the painstaking project of education, agitation, and outreach that CLASSE enacted in the weeks and months leading up to the strike allowed it to pursue a militant strategy while maintaining the continued adherence of more moderate organizations and individuals to the broader movement. The student movement has also adopted the General Assembly (GA) as its basic unit of decision-making, but unlike the chaotic and utterly impotent GAs of Occupy, theirs allow for both mass participation and decisiveness in action, including the election of delegates to higher decision-making bodies. Again, Hallward:
“At every pertinent level they have created general assemblies, which have invested themselves with the power to deliberate and then make, quickly and collectively, important decisions. Actions are decided by a public show of hands, rather than by an atomising expression of private opinion. The more powerful and effective these assemblies have become, the more active and enthusiastic the level of participation. Delegates from the assemblies then participate in wider congresses and, in the absence of any formal leadership or bureaucracy, the ‘general will’ that has emerged from these congresses is so clear that CLASSE is now the main organizing force in the campaign and able to put firm pressure on the other more compromise-prone student unions.”
While Occupy has hitherto chosen to follow in the footsteps of Arendt, SYRIZA and CLASSE have followed the example of Luxemburg. Even accounting for the vast differences in political institutions and political culture between Greece, Quebec, and the U.S., the relative effectiveness of each approach seems rather clear. Our counterparts elsewhere are moving forward while we’re stuck trying to figure out why Occupy remains mired in stasis, or why the radical energies unleashed in last year’s Wisconsin uprising have given way to defeat, demobilization, and despair.
It was always strange to me that Occupy adopted the name that it did. I can’t think of many other social movements in history that named themselves after their signature tactic rather than their social base or their vision for a new society. The call for a May 1 “general strike” unconnected to any particular social struggle or social base brought to mind Luxemburg’s perplexity at the tendency of certain militants to put tactics above strategy, process above program. As she wrote in The Mass Strike,
“It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations…If anyone were to undertake to make the mass strike generally, as a form of proletarian action, the object of methodological agitation, and to go house to house canvassing with this ‘idea’ in order to gradually win the working class to it, it would be as idle and profitless and absurd an occupation as it would be to seek to make the idea of the revolution or of the fight at the barricades the object of a special agitation.”
Occupy was correct in rejecting the one-off symbolic action and adopting an ongoing, open-ended struggle as its basic tactic. But because this tactic wasn’t part of a larger strategy grounded in a specific social struggle with clear demands, the loss of the encampments meant the end of the activity. Occupy’s “if you build it, they will come” approach to political activity succeeded brilliantly in jump-starting a movement where everyone else had failed, but it hasn’t been able to sustain itself and build momentum over the course of even a few months.
I close by turning once again to Luxemburg, whose keen grasp of the dynamics of popular movements is deeply relevant to our time. “Occupy” does not (or should not) signify a specific encampment or even a specific tactic to be used in the course of mass struggle. As Luxemburg observed, “It is absurd to think of the mass strike as one act, one isolated action. The mass strike is rather the indication, the rallying idea, of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades.”
Change the phrase “mass strike” to “occupation,” and it becomes difficult to determine whether these words were written in 1906 or 2012. The interlocking political, economic, and social dynamics that summoned the occupations into existence and have fueled the movement’s grievances will not, and cannot, be solved within the parameters of the present state of affairs. The cause of the 99% is the rallying point for a generation, a movement worthy of our commitment, our struggle, and even our joy. Our problems aren’t going away anytime soon. What’s needed now is a refoundation of the Occupy movement in the light of our weaknesses and the lessons being taught by our counterparts abroad.
Another Occupy is possible – and necessary.
The North Star’s roundtable: