How Occupy reinvented the language of democracy

  • September 17, 2013

People & Protest

The movement taught millions the language of autonomy, horizontalism and direct democracy. The question now is not whether it failed, but what’s next?

Exactly two years ago today, on September 17, 2011, some five thousand activists swarmed into Lower Manhattan and — after being physically repelled from Wall Street by the NYPD — set up camp in Zuccotti Park. Over the course of the next two months, as the call to Occupy Wall Street resonated around the globe and inspired protests in over 1.000 cities and 82 countries, the leaderless anti-capitalist movement achieved what no left-wing mobilization had managed to do for at least a decade: it actually changed the parameters of the public debate and revolutionized our political vocabulary. The movement has long since subsided, but the language of the 99% lives on.

Today, it remains fashionable to chastise the Occupy movement for its refusal to appoint leaders, formulate political demands or come up with a clear political program. Leading social movement scholar Sydney Tarrow did just that in a 2011 Foreign Affairs essay, in which he argued that Occupy was little more than a call for attention, or what he calls a “we are here” movement. In a blog post for the Huffington Post yesterday, former labor secretary Robert Reich echoes that same tired critique all over, arguing that without the “essentials of political organization, discipline, and strategy”, the movement can’t be sustained and will ultimately fail to bring about lasting social change.

There is usually surprisingly little mention in any of these critiques of the federally-coordinated crackdown on the movement by America’s militarized police force. It’s unclear how any amount of political organization, party discipline or movement strategy could have overcome the systematic sabotage undertaken by the US police state — including widespread NSA espionage and even a top-secret FBI plan to assassinate the movement’s “leaders” with sniper fire. Nor do Occupy’s liberal critics ever really develop a clear explanation of just how adopting the failed and co-opted methods of the Democratic Party could have made the movement any more successful, given that even the country’s most liberal President and Congress in a generation remain wholly enslaved to the interests of Goldman Sachs and Wall Street.

As Leonidas Oikonomakis and I argued in a recent paper, these institutional critiques continue to miss the point. Occupy was first and foremost a symptom of the crisis of representation against which it arose. The emergence and resonance of its leaderless organizational form and its rejection of the political establishment should be attributed more to the failure of the present system than to the political orientations of the core activists themselves. The only reason the anarchist and horizontalist principles of Occupy’s early organizers resonated so widely is because the capitalist and institutionalist principles of liberal democracy have so utterly disqualified themselves that no one really believes in them any more. No leftist can still credibly claim to take the Democratic Party seriously as a vehicle for social change. Autonomy is simply our only alternative.

Far from a mere call for attention, Occupy was a truth-teller in the vein of today’s whistleblowers. It was the boy who broke the political spell of the Emperor’s new clothes; a movement that revealed the “democratic” façade of the capitalist state to be naked and full of pretense. The obvious and predictable reaction on the part of the establishment was to point its finger back at the “naïveté” and “inexperience” of the little newcomer who had just revealed the utter vacuity of its own democratic pretensions. But despite the obvious growing pains of the country’s first serious anti-capitalist movement in a generation, it nevertheless managed to get the truth out — and now no one can deny it any more. The mask of democracy has fallen. We do not live in a democratic state. We live under a thinly veiled imperial bankocracy that systematically benefits the interests of the 1% over those of everyone else.

In this sense, Occupy’s most immediate victim was not the capitalist system per se, but rather the ideological illusion that this capitalist state of affairs is somehow the only way to organize society, and — much more perniciously — that it should therefore be considered the only appropriate basis for the struggle for social change. In this sense, Occupy’s critique of representation and its reinvention of the democratic narrative virtually killed off the last remnants of party and state fetishism within the grassroots movements of the anti-capitalist left. Occupy’s horizontalism did not so much smash the vertical structures of the institutional left — reformist and revolutionary alike — but simply dissolved them through its emphasis on radical equality and open-ended inclusiveness, and its revolutionary vision of the directly democratic urban commune.

By occupying Wall Street instead of making demands on Capitol Hill, the movement propeled a new diagnosis of power into the public discourse. In today’s Empire, sovereignty does not reside with public officials but with private capitalists — and with investment bankers most of all. Vying for state power or even making demands upon the thoroughly co-opted political class is pointless when the state itself is so utterly symbiotic with finance and so structurally dependent on capital for its own survival. What Occupy taught America and the world through the sheer force of example was that for the 99% to become wound up in a political game whose rules were fixed by the 1% a long time ago, would imply becoming involved in the active process of defeating itself. The main challenge, then, still lies ahead: the 99% now needs to figure out ways to harness its own constituent power and to transform the democratic impulse of the squares into lasting forms of autonomous and horizontal self-organization.

Of course Occupy was not without its problems in this respect. Those who actively participated in the movement are often more aware of the fundamental flaws, pitfalls and challenges of direct democracy than the movement’s ignorant institutional critics seem to realize. But two years hence, there is no doubt that Occupy has provided us with a new political grammar and a radical vocabulary with which to reinvent our critique of global capitalism and from which to begin constructing our own revolutionary alternative to bankocracy. Occupy taught millions of people the language of autonomy and horizontalism, of direct action and prefigurative politics, of consensus decision-making and participation — and, most important of all, it helped reinvigorate that long-lost hope that there is an alternative, that another world is possible.

In a word, Occupy achieved a major victory when it reinvented the language of democracy and dramatically reset the parameters of the public debate — and it subsequently suffered a major defeat when it was violently evicted from its temporary autonomous zones in a cynical federally-coordinated police crackdown. The question now is not so much whether the movement failed or succeeded (a question whose answer depends entirely on the subjective definition of the movement’s objectives), but rather: what’s next? It’s self-evident that Occupy reinvigorated anti-capitalist struggles in the US and across the world. But how can we now create the autonomous spaces (both physical and social) within which to carry on our experiment in radical democracy and from which to re-launch our disruptive direct actions against the 1%?

It is the continuously unfolding answer to this question — much more than the mainstream’s thorough misunderstanding of the movement’s nature and its objectives — that will determine the future of the 99% and its struggle against the finance-state nexus that has come to dominate our lives. Occupy Wall Street was really only just the beginning. An endless struggle still lies ahead of us. It’s time to move on.

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