Occupy Wall Street: Sharing reflections on a fifth anniversary (1)

If Occupy Wall Street began with the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City on September 17th, 2011, it quickly spread to other cities in north america and beyond, making it the largest “anti-capitalist” protest movement on the continent since the 1960s.

To describe Occupy as anti-capitalist is of course already to invite criticism, for the movement was and remains the subject of considerable criticism from more traditional “leftist” organisations who saw in it little more than the expression of a middle class discomfort before its own growing impoverishment.  At best, the movement could inspire a renewal of reformist, social-democratic politics (e.g. the Bernie Sanders campaign within the Democratic Party), or disappear into self-satisfied irrelevance, due to a lack of political program and organisation (e.g. Slavoj Žižek’s criticism of Occupy).

Such readings of Occupy are however caricatural, for they rest upon a number of rather grotesque assumptions: that the notion of the “middle class” as a social agent is clear, when it is far from being so; that sociologically and/or economically, those who occupied public squares throughout the united states were all from the middle class, and that this class identity was the dominant political force shaping the course of the movement, when this is anything but obvious, if not patently false; that Occupy was a movement, and not a plurality of agents, movements, singular and collective, with very different aspirations, aims, methods, etc.; that what is an anti-capitalist politics is itself unambiguous, an idea that usually presupposes and suggests a rather mechanistic, linear understanding of social relations/processes, when any social formation is complex, including capitalism, with no single foundation or cause, and which cannot thus be contested and challenged by focusing upon one dimension of those relations (e.g. to address exclusively the relation between labour and capital as definitive of capitalism leaves aside all of the many social relations necessary for commodity/spectacle production and the reproduction of that supposedly central relation); that the distinction between reform and revolution is clear, both theoretically and practically, when it is not …

Occupy was plural from its inception.  And if anything held it together as a single movement, it was not an ideology or organisation, but a moral indignation, a rage (against the “1%”) and the insistence on not programmatically proposing reforms or alternatives, but on living them.  In other words, Occupy (along with all of the “occupy movements”, beginning with the “Arab Spring” of 2011) was an exercise in prefigurative politics, which is a theoretically anemic way of saying that what was at stake in the movement was an ethics, that is, a way (or ways) of being in the world that dispensed with representation both in politics and economics (under capitalism, the two are in fact inseparable).  That the many occupied squares failed in elaborating and making real a politics of mutual aid and direct action has of course a great deal to do again with the fact that the movement was never homogeneous and that different political imaginaries were at play, not all so obviously sympathetic with “anarchist” or “anti-authoritarian” ideals.  (What these ideals are by the way is also a matter of dispute).  But also, and this should never be ignored, by mid-November 2011, the movement was physically suppressed across the country.

(Such a reading of Occupy takes us beyond David Graeber’s contention that the movement’s greatest contribution lies in the appropriation and rehabilitation of a more radical notion of democracy.  However, what such a view ignores is the very problematic nature of democracy, in whatever guise it takes.  Anarchists do not criticise and reject political power, only to then embrace a particular form of that power: democracy.  Unless “democracy” is interpreted as a refusal of power (e.g. Jacques Rancière), the uncritical apology of this concept is unjustified.)

In a sensitive reading of Occupy, Bernard E. Harcourt* made a similar point in describing the movement as an example of political disobedience.  Whereas civil disobedience “accepts the legitimacy of the political structure and of our political institutions, but resists the moral authority of the resulting laws”, political disobedience “resists the very way in which we are governed”. (47)  Occupy, in its most radical expression, refused “to compromise with political power, to conform to conventional politics, or to play by the rules”, thus fashioning a “new form of political engagement, a new kind of politics”. (46)  The movement refused to articulate any specific demands, demands that would have to be addressed to State authorities, that could be ideologically appropriated/mediated by existing political actors, that would need to be carried by movement representatives, and that would ultimately call for a sovereign decision both from within the movement and, if implemented, a State sovereign decision; in sum, all that would have destroyed Occupy as an experiment in leaderless, horizontal, autonomous self-government, and more profoundly, all that Occupy rejected in refusing sovereignty itself as a politics of violent domination.

As Harcourt states the matter, Occupy “deliberately resisted … the privileging of choice. … In the West there is a premium on deliberate decision making, on reason, on intentionality, on sovereignty.  To make a free, knowing, deliberate and intelligent choice is the very epitome” of the sovereign self. (60)  To assume the possibility of choosing oneself, individually or collectively, is to include and exclude, to act through the violence of sovereignty that establishes the identity of self/state, a regime of order.  And in refusing to make demands, in refusing the decision of power, as Carl Schmitt referred to it, was to refuse sovereignty and thereby, today, to challenge the structures of domination that organise State-Capital.

What emerged in the occupied squares of north america in 2011 were fleeting examples of autonomous, permanent collective self-creation, examples that remain part of the horizon of any politics of freedom.

(*Bernard E. Harcourt, “Political Disobedience”, in Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience, University of Chicago Press, 2013).


With this post, we inaugurate our harvest of articles about/interventions in Occupy to share.  We begin with a letter from activists involved in the Tahrir Square occupation in Cairo, the occupation where at some level all the contemporary movements of occupation began, addressed to the Occupy movement (The Guardian 25/10/2011), followed by a film record, Occupation Nation …

To all those across the world currently occupying parks, squares and other spaces, your comrades in Cairo are watching you in solidarity. Having received so much advice from you about transitioning to democracy, we thought it’s our turn to pass on some advice.

Indeed, we are now in many ways involved in the same struggle. What most pundits call “the Arab spring” has its roots in the demonstrations, riots, strikes and occupations taking place all around the world, its foundations lie in years-long struggles by people and popular movements. The moment that we find ourselves in is nothing new, as we in Egypt and others have been fighting against systems of repression, disenfranchisement and the unchecked ravages of global capitalism (yes, we said it, capitalism): a system that has made a world that is dangerous and cruel to its inhabitants. As the interests of government increasingly cater to the interests and comforts of private, transnational capital, our cities and homes have become progressively more abstract and violent places, subject to the casual ravages of the next economic development or urban renewal scheme.

An entire generation across the globe has grown up realising, rationally and emotionally, that we have no future in the current order of things. Living under structural adjustment policies and the supposed expertise of international organisations like the World Bank and IMF, we watched as our resources, industries and public services were sold off and dismantled as the “free market” pushed an addiction to foreign goods, to foreign food even. The profits and benefits of those freed markets went elsewhere, while Egypt and other countries in the south found their immiseration reinforced by a massive increase in police repression and torture.

The current crisis in America and western Europe has begun to bring this reality home to you as well: that as things stand we will all work ourselves raw, our backs broken by personal debt and public austerity. Not content with carving out the remnants of the public sphere and the welfare state, capitalism and the austerity state now even attack the private realm and people’s right to decent dwelling as thousands of foreclosed-upon homeowners find themselves both homeless and indebted to the banks who have forced them on to the streets.

So we stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatised and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios and police “protection”. Hold on to these spaces, nurture them and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labour made them real and livable?

Why should it seem so natural that they should be withheld from us, policed and disciplined? Reclaiming these spaces and managing them justly and collectively is proof enough of our legitimacy.

In our own occupations of Tahrir, we encountered people entering the square every day in tears because it was the first time they had walked through those streets and spaces without being harassed by police; it is not just the ideas that are important, these spaces are fundamental to the possibility of a new world. These are public spaces. Spaces for gathering, leisure, meeting and interacting – these spaces should be the reason we live in cities. Where the state and the interests of owners have made them inaccessible, exclusive or dangerous, it is up to us to make sure that they are safe, inclusive and just. We have and must continue to open them to anyone that wants to build a better world, particularly for the marginalised, the excluded and those groups who have suffered the worst.

What you do in these spaces is neither as grandiose and abstract nor as quotidian as “real democracy”; the nascent forms of praxis and social engagement being made in the occupations avoid the empty ideals and stale parliamentarianism that the term democracy has come to represent. And so the occupations must continue, because there is no one left to ask for reform. They must continue because we are creating what we can no longer wait for.

But the ideologies of property and propriety will manifest themselves again. Whether through the overt opposition of property owners or municipalities to your encampments or the more subtle attempts to control space through traffic regulations, anti-camping laws or health and safety rules. There is a direct conflict between what we seek to make of our cities and our spaces and what the law and the systems of policing standing behind it would have us do.

We faced such direct and indirect violence, and continue to face it. Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces: by the government’s own admission, 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down. Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us. But at the end of the day on 28 January they retreated, and we had won our cities.

It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose. If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose. Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted “peaceful” with fetishising nonviolence; if the state had given up immediately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back. Had we laid down and allowed ourselves to be arrested, tortured and martyred to “make a point”, we would be no less bloodied, beaten and dead. Be prepared to defend these things you have occupied, that you are building, because, after everything else has been taken from us, these reclaimed spaces are so very precious.

By way of concluding, then, our only real advice to you is to continue, keep going and do not stop. Occupy more, find each other, build larger and larger networks and keep discovering new ways to experiment with social life, consensus and democracy. Discover new ways to use these spaces, discover new ways to hold on to them and never give them up again. Resist fiercely when you are under attack, but otherwise take pleasure in what you are doing, let it be easy, fun even. We are all watching one another now, and from Cairo we want to say that we are in solidarity with you, and we love you all for what you are doing.


Occupation Nation


This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.