A sympathetic reader of these books will end up with the slightly exasperated feeling that Occupy wasted its chance as a political movement.
You’ll be shocked to learn that a recent book review article in the Financial Times concludes that the Occupy Wall Street movement wasn’t particularly successful.
More interesting than this conclusion, though, is the brief look inside three new books about OWS to see what the putative leadership wanted to accomplish:
David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist who by his own account played a key role in organising OWS, writes in The Democracy Project that it was “only when a movement appeared that resolutely refused to take the traditional path, that rejected the existing political order entirely as inherently corrupt, that called for the complete reinvention of American democracy, that occupations immediately began to blossom across the country”.
Instead, for Graeber and others, what mattered was the process and the procedures that were adopted by Occupiers, not whether or not they ended up accomplishing any sort of political goal, traditionally understood. In other words, if you feel like OWS wasted its chance as a political movement, that might be because you have the mistaken impression that OWS wanted to be a political movement.
This all sounds very familiar to me, as I wrote about the problem of not having clear goals back in November 2011. Then, about ten days later, I wrote the following:
I’m still not willing to go so far as to suggest that they need to have a fully worked-out platform. Instead, I simply want to argue that they ought to be working toward some goals or ends.
But it’s noteworthy that the organizers of the Occupy movement have seemed to explicitly reject the idea of formulating political goals or ends from the first. If you haven’t read this profile of David Graeber, the anarchist anthropology professor who was instrumental to the establishment of the movement in Zuccotti Park, I highly recommend it. Graeber very clearly eschewed the concept of formulating goals when others were attempting to think of some — and that spirit resolutely remains within the movement.
One reason for avoiding the formulation of goals or ends, I’d suggest, is that these things can be accomplished. Indeed, they allow for the sort of co-option that [Glenn] Greenwald has written about more recently because they allow the established democratic system to respond to some of the things that the protesters want. And then, from the perspective of anarchism, the movement has failed. The protesters — who see the system responding to the demands at the heart of their protest — go home and the anarchists — who want, at bottom, to see the system fail (or perhaps just seriously weaken) — are left out in the cold.
This is, of course, why I think the movement ought to start trying to formulate some goals: I’m not an anarchist; I’d like to see the democratic system respond to the (very legitimate) complaints that the Occupy protests have brought to the attention of all the people who have somehow failed to understand the plight of so many for so long.
It sounds as though these three new books on Occupy support this conclusion of mine, but don’t necessarily see it as some sort of problem or missed opportunity. I wanted OWS to become a political movement and to accomplish … but, of course, I wasn’t an Occupier. My hope for OWS was different from that of its organizers.
So, just as I did back in January 2012, when I wrote a sort of farewell to Occupy, I feel like a major opportunity to push for societal change sailed right by us … in no small part because a small group (comprised mostly of anarchists and Marxists) thought the process itself was going to end up being much more important than any goal or outcome:
A whole lot of people were paying attention at one point, and they were asking what this whole thing was about … but they didn’t really get an answer that made sense to them. They were told that occupation was the point, or that no one was in charge so it was about whatever you wanted it to be about, or that it was too soon to formulate any goals, or that working within the system would only mean legitimation of the system. And so a whole lot of people found something else to look at and to think about.
Occupiers got the process — for a little while — and they eschewed any goals or outcomes … and now we have neither.
Yep. Awesome/sucks, right? I have huge sympathy and empathy for the Occupiers’ POV, but I suspect a shit-ton more might have been achieved with even a little more ideological flexibility on the part of Graeber, et al.
But what do I know. I was an armchair revolutionary at best. Viva la status quo.