With everything I’ve read about the occupy movement’s stance on leaderless, disorderly, unspecific action it would seem like it is crumbling before our eyes, but this is not the case – it is being refined. Critics tend to support the message against giant corporate rule of politics like most people aware of the movement (70% last I checked) but are wary of the tactics that are either too scary or incapable of making “real change.” Many are baffled as to why this “whole movement” can’t organize into a concrete program with a declaration of demands, or find some way onto the negotiation table, instead of letting the wave of outrage fizzle out. Such a view misses the revolutionary character of this movement that got so many people mobilized in the first place; no one goal or defined set of goals can be established because the shared sense out on the streets (as opposed to in a warm house) is that corruption in the present can’t be localized – it is systemic.
Before I elaborate on what that means I just want to point out that occupying has a long history as a tactic and though I (and just about everyone else) refer to a single movement, this is more of a method for putting bodies in a physical space than a unified group of activists. This inability to understand the logic and motivation of occupying by people not involved is the greatest danger to making the “real,” “positive” change that is necessary today. The very idea of a unified occupy movement – an entirely unfractured cohesive whole – carries along with it certain risks, risks which outweigh the potential diminishing of mass support from the “general public.”
As both a camper who left his house to occupy Oakland for nearly two months and is a consistent participent in the General Assembly to this day, I can truthfully state that occupiers disagree and argue to such an extent that the whole we speak of is nothing beyond the sum of multiple autonomous action groups, committees, caucuses, and people. The non-hierarchical structure and the aversion to negotiating with existing powers are part of the originality of this movement – its lifeblood – to take another direction forcing all members to follow would effectively kill it. The arguments that take place at GAs, encampments, and rallies/marches are of such a grand politico-philosophical significance that they end up polarizing those involved; this is not a problem however when dissenters of an action can simply walk away. It’s the convenience of occupy actions that all of it’s members need not be on board with what happens, and personal agendas remain just that: personal (or autonomous). You can come along for the ride or opt-out, but there is no line drawn in the sand as to where you stand beyond the action taken. This makes saying one is an ‘occupier’ somewhat of a dubious claim: what it means is as various as the number of people you talk to.
General Assemblies do pass and reject proposals that become endorsed as official occupy proposals and full consensus is celebrated, but often one person will vote ‘nay’ when facing imminent consensus on principle. Even proposals that aren’t passed give smaller groups ideas to work with in the future and connect interested individuals together. Existing activist groups also get an opportunity to widen their base and plug passionate bodies into their on-going work. In practice I see the GA as a hub to link people into groups of all kinds along with a center stage where speakers can use their rhetoric to attempt to persuade those in attendance. This body does not govern or direct, it is an experimental zone facilitating future actions and giving ideas with people behind them a chance to converge and compete. The 99% vs. the 1% narrative is a powerful one, but it is utterly ridiculous to attempt to to get 99% of a population to all agree on actions, principals for actions, and goals without marginalizing a big chunk.
The impulse to pull activity deemed outside of or illegitimate back into the general assembly to go through the consensus process can bog down efforts move forward with positive action and speedy mobilization. There is a strong resentment against a slow moving beauracracy by those who see committee organizers for hampering direct action. Such a move towards unification of all actions that employ occupying as a tactic or a symbol might be reflecting the rhetoric of a news reporter/zombie t.v. news watcher who is thoroughly enmeshed in mainstream society. They want to have a dialogue, but our answers don’t translate into categories they understand; we cannot speak as a whole and crystallize ourselves into a position with which to make demands or define ourselves. Ask someone what occupy is about and you’ll get as many different responses as people you ask; it’s not one thing it’s everything.
As for the systemic injustice claim, this is where the greatest divide comes in: revolution or reform? The genuine fright that people feel at the prospect of violent revolution is understandable, especially considering fascist, communist, and other populist uprisings in the past few hundred years that seek a total overhaul of the means of production. These surgical revolutions that aim for the head of the state and then implement their own vision for how a “just society” should be run are totally misguided in my opinion. However, the anti-vanguardist, insubordinate sentiment of occupiers keeps these theories from galvanizing people into a class/nation to wage warfare with another class/nation; the disorderliness and bickering actually keeps any one theory, ideology, leader, strategy (pick one) from forcing a spectacular revolution which would shed more blood than we could bear. I think the energy of this movement from the young and future-less (banished to debt slavery with only mindless jobs available) is aware of these dangers and this, perhaps along with the individualist culture we were sold, accounts for the stubborn rejection of official leadership.
The revolution as a great resounding event must be guarded against, but the revolutionary spirit, as opposed to the spirit of reform, is absolutely necessary. As we’ve all heard from the 99%ers: the banks are so powerful, corporations are so integrated in politics, the prisons are so full (and someone profits), and basic services (health, food, housing) are so hard to provide that this is a systemic problem and a revolutionary attitude is desperately needed. As I like to gloss it: the powers that be have gotten too big – the market forces are more powerful than the state, and the state has to play catch up to prevent a global collapse. Now (as before but more so), we get banks that freely commit fraud and make profits from complex equations, interest rates, and inflation – and it continues because they’re too big? This latest crisis in capitalism or a foreseeable one down the road (because, you know, it’s supposed to be normal now to have a crisis) could lead to a reaction on par with any violent revolution of the past, and this fact we are faced with ought to encourage people that we cannot go on this path without a revolutionary shift in the way we collectively relate, exchange, and produce stuff with each other.
A revolution can take place as a subtle shift in thinking and operating which would seem impossible to past generations. Rather than opting for full-blown class warfare (which might be only just as bad as a hot, flooded planet of starving wage laborers… which in some sense it already is), occupiers are making the change they want to see with the world. The tent cities can be seen as protests but also blue-prints for what a community could look like that does not enslave so many people, nations, animals, or whatever. A reform in line with occupy principles like, say, ending corporate personhood would be a real gain but the other dozens of atrocious, corrupt laws and practices would go on as the next oblivion facing the prey of the 1% looms. Chanting about how another world is possible and then building up a community where it’s people provide basic services for each other is revolutionary because communities are so scarce these days.
The leaderless rejection of hierarchy and the disorganization of certain occupies helps ward off both vanguardist parties and reformers who would settle for piecemeal change in a world headed for (and in some ways inside of) the abyss. Considered by political “realists” an obstacle for progress, this is actually the unique vitality the movement – along with its critical-activist spirit and the simple brilliance of the idea ‘occupy’: bringing back physical bodies into their own space. This vitality gravitates scattered individuals together to organize and make collective decisions to then act on both outside and inside the commune. The energy is there, the ideas are there, the model for life after capitalism is there; the only thing holding us back is police oppression.