Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Anarchist DNA of Occupy

I was invited to contribute to the discussion on the #Occupy movement, from an anarchist perspective for the American Sociological Association journal, Contexts. The short essay appears in the Spring 2012 issue Other contributors to the #Occupy discussion include Ruth Milkman, Benjamin Barber, Mohammed Bamyeh, William Julius Wilson, and Deborah Gould.

Occupy has drawn inspiration from many of 2011’s insurrectionary episodes, including Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Spain’s indignatos, and Puerto Rico’s student strikes. Also important has been Latin America’s horizontalism and zapatismo. But, the most immediate inspiration for Occupy is anarchism. This should surprise only the oblivious: many activists have noticed that American youth are influenced by anarchism more than by Marxism. The first manifestation of this influence is the emphasis upon anti-authoritarianism. There are no leaders (or, more radically, everyone is a leader). Anti-authoritarianism gives Occupy a strength and resilience not enjoyed by most movements. Like a multi-headed hydra, when Occupy’s enemies attempt to chop-off one head — arrest a certain individual — others take their place. No one is in a position to order anyone else around — everyone must participate in all decisions. Corporate media simply can’t understand this paradigm and it’s frustrated by Occupy’s disavowal of spokespersons.

Occupy’s next debt to anarchism is a procedural structure and aesthetic. For OWS, direct, participatory democracy is the order of the day. Lacking official leaders, consensus-building is the only feasible option. Every General Assembly (GA) attendee must be able to accept a decision. The task is assisted by multiple working-groups that meet regularly to discuss nitty-gritty issues. Facilitation guarantees that everyone’s voice is heard, and hand-gestures visually involve everyone. These techniques have popped-up in countless post-1960s anarchist projects. The results of this process can be seen in leaflets circulated at Occupy Oakland, characterizing several of the GA decisions as anarchistic in character: rejection of government endorsements and political parties, equal treatment of GA speakers, preventing police from entering the encampment, and solidarity with striking workers and students.

The movement’s militancy derives from its name. In contrast to other movements, Occupy attempts to reclaim public space, to confront others with its presence, and to stay in the news. Its impatience with polite lobbying or voting has an anarchist flair. Historically, anarchists have encouraged citizens to seize (and decentralize) political power, peasants to occupy private estates and collectivize them, and workers to take over the means of production. Occupy plays with anarchist notions of expropriation and seizing ill-gotten property for individual and collective needs.

How does Occupy aim to accomplish such goals? Anarchists participating in the movement seek to keep it radical, pragmatic, and uncontrollable by authorities. Occupy Wall Street’s active militancy ensures this: daily protest marches and actions attempt to create constant disruption of business-as-usual, while remaining unpredictable. The movement’s prefiguration attempts to (as advocated by the Industrial Workers of the World) create a new world in the shell of the old. Occupiers provide for all their own needs. Instead of entrusting one’s life and daily requirements to corporations or the state, people do it themselves: creating sleeping arrangements, free meals, classes and workshops, a multi-thousand volume library, sanitation, first aid, and security. In this respect, the Occupy movement is utopian and practical — a better world can be created, not in the distant future, but right now.

Occupy has already enjoyed many victories, convincing countless people of the potential for radical social change. The mass media is now running stories on capitalism, social inequality, and direct democracy. Someone ought to thank Occupy for accomplishing in a few short months what sociologists have been unable to achieve over decades.

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