Occupy Anarchism

“A kind of anarchism of direct participation has become the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements in America in the last half century.  There is a lineage even longer.  Decision-making by consensus is of Quaker inspiration, as if to say: Speak and listen, listen and speak, until the spirit of the whole emerges.  In its recent incarnation, anarchism is not so much a theory of the absence of government but a mood and a theory and practice of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government.  The idea is that you do not need institutions because the people, properly assembled, properly deliberating, even in one square block of lower Manhattan, can regulate themselves.  Those with time and patience can frolic and practice direct democracy at the same time—at least until the first frost.”  Todd Gitlin, Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (NY: HarperCollins, 2012; pp. 80-81.)

“There was a graver problem with leaderlessness than the fact that it made it awkward for outsiders to know who to speak with.  By rejecting leadership continuity, the movement remaining in motion, mobile, able in principle to adapt to new circumstances.  But it also rejected the formalities, even the informalities, of accountability.  When it made mistakes, it didn’t know what to do about them.  It was prone, in difficult hours—and all movements, like organizations and marriages, have difficult hours—to thrash around” (Gitlin, 103-104).

[I]n keeping with the movement’s anarchist, antiauthoritarian thrust, there was a strong sentiment that, as naturalist Garbiel Willow told a New York Times reporter, ‘Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond.’ Demands conferred legitimacy on the authorities.  Demandlessness, in other words, was the movement’s culture, its identity” (Gitlin, 110).

“The movement’s great majority rightly understood nonviolence not as negation, the absence of destruction, but as a creative endeavor, a repertory for invention, an opening, an identity. . . .Certainly, the tactics can grow stale with repetition, but committed and creative practitioners can renew it.  The Occupy movement has been, so far, a seedbed of creativity.  Its future rests in no small part on whether it can continue to learn from experience, deepen its tradition and funnel it into new soil” (Gitlin, 127-29).

Communities governing themselves in assemblies. . . . The radicalism of the core movement helped explain what baffled so many observers—the absence of formal demands and programs.  As a guiding principle, what the radicals wanted was direct democracy.  It would have been absurd to demand that the authorities create direct democracy.  The authorities have everything at stake in resisting such a demand.  If you were going to have direct democracy, you had to launch it yourself, directly.  You had to infuse the spirit of do-it-yourself with world-changing zeal, and vice versa.  Political-economic decisions were too consequential to be made by anyone but all the persons concerned—the stakeholders, to use the current lingo.  The radical core wanted a world run not by exclusive committees but by assemblies of the people” (Gitlin, 133, 138).

“The Occupy movement wanted to win reforms and to stay out of politics.  At the same time.

Movements are social organisms, living phenomena that breathe in and adapt to their environments, not objects frozen into their categories while taxonomists poke and prod them.  The come, go, mutate, expand, contract, rest, split, stagnate, ally, cast off outworn tissue, decay, regenerate, go round in circles, are always accused of being co-opted and selling out, and are often declared dead. If they are large, they contain multitudes, and contradict themselves.  Outsider movements struggle to finesse these tensions, to square circles, striving to hold into their outsider status while also producing results” (Gitlin, 141).

So, if economic life is to be made substantially fairer and more decent, and plutocratic power is to be reversed, an enduring movement is essential.  Such a movement may not be sufficient—it isn’t humanly possible to know that—but surely it is necessary.  Occupy’s thrust is popular, which is essential, but popularity itself does not change the world.

What does?  In the longer run, both institutional change and changes of heart and mind.  The movement needs structures that flex and learn, train leaders, generate actions, recruit supporters.  It needs to be a full-service movement—one that invites participation at many levels.  For overmortgaged and underwater home-owners, it needs campaigns to corral the banks that have them in lock.  For the civilly disobedient young, it needs appealing direct actions.  . . . Whoever oyu are, it needs to prmotoe activities tailored to you.

In the medium run, say five years, networks of activists—the inner movement—need to devise an infrastructure that sustains them, recruits them, focuses their intellectual and strategic life, generates sustained pressure on power, keeps movement tensions manageable, and not least, make significant progress toward driving money out of the political system” (Gitlin, 165-66).

“Historically, coalitions of outer-movement and inner-movement groups have accomplished what individual groups could not” (Gitlin, 208).

I don’t want to belabor this material.  Gitlin wrote his book in the spring of 2012, when Occupy was still alive—if on life support.  I will let his comments speak for themselves, with only three observations of my own.

  1. It is striking the extent to which Occupy captured the imagination of the left.  Its fragility—and its inability to make a dent on the plutocracy it was trying to disrupt—were obvious from the start.  Yet the left is so starved for any kind of “movement” that it took up Occupy as a savior.  Gitlin bends over backwards to be sympathetic, even as he repeatedly points out all of Occupy’s flaws.  His sympathy is to be applauded, not sneered at.  But this ember cannot be stoked into a fire.  There just wasn’t enough there—and never was.
  2. The point about inner and outer movements is well taken. Some serious pressure from the left on the Democratic Party is sorely needed.  So the dilemma remains: when should the radical left stand firm, when should it fall into line behind the Democrats.  Disdain for electoral politics is suicidal, as the triumph of Trump shows.  But being continually blackmailed by the threat of “their being worse” is a formula for snail’s pace progress.
  3. So the only answer is to organize, to build larger and stronger coalitions. Anarchism is no help in that case.  Assemblies are fleeting if they are not constituted as institutions.  The people governing themselves in assemblies is a useless, even frivolous, goal.  It doesn’t pass the sniff test.  It’s a happening, not a politics—and is of a piece with the gestural politics that is so delicious to the avant-garde.

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