Mainstream liberals and the Institutional Left frequently criticize the Occupy movement for its lack of public spokespersons and its lack of clear demands. But according to David Graeber, it came very close to having those things — and to being just another protest that fizzled out after a few days.
Graeber, an anarchist University of London anthropology professor, showed up for a preliminary meeting held in early August to prepare for the next month’s Occupation. As he recounts, it was shaping up as a typical top-down movement controlled by the usual suspects of the Institutional Left. Adbusters, which posted the original call for a September 17 Occupation, New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, and the Workers World Party (which created the International ANSWER coalition at the outset of the Iraq War in 2003), between them pretty well had things sewn up.
My guess is that had those groups kept control, Occupy would have had all the public spokespersons and demands anyone could want — and would have been in the news for maybe a week.
Fortunately, Graeber and some friends began talking with other “horizontals” — Wobblies, veterans of the Greek and Spanish protests, etc. — who, like him, had been hoping for something on the libertarian model of the Spanish indignados’ protest. They quickly coalesced into a General Assembly and bypassed the power grab of Workers’ World et al.
Those who object miss the point. A large share of those participating in OWS have learned that playing by the normal rules of “progressive” politics — getting out the vote and organizing pressure groups — doesn’t work. They tried that in 2008, electing the most “progressive” president of a lifetime with the biggest majority since LBJ, and a Democratic super-majority in Congress. And then they were betrayed as Obama revealed himself to be either totally ineffectual or, worse yet, a conscious stooge of Wall Street.
As Graeber says, “Clearly, if progressive change was not possible through electoral means in 2008, it simply isn’t going to possible at all. And that is exactly what very large numbers of Americans appear to have concluded.”
So this time they’re not playing by the old rules. What, exactly, are they trying to accomplish? I believe their significance has to more to do with their form of organization itself — a distributed, self-organized network — as a model of the society they hope to build, than with any concrete demands. In Rowan Wolf’s elegant phrase, “the organizational model … is the carrier wave of the movement.”
As Graeber points out, it’s their lack of specific demands that gives them strength. Despite op-ed jabbering to the contrary, it’s hard to miss what their main focus is: Hatred for Wall Street, for the concentration of wealth, for crony capitalism, and for the unholy alliance between Big Business and the state.
That common set of values is the basic operating platform of the movement. Beyond that, the specific agendas built on that platform are beyond counting. It includes everyone from libertarian communists to social democrats and conventional liberals to left-wing market anarchists like me, and quite a few Paulistas who want to abolish the Fed.
Occupy, with its organizational style and the cultural memes it propagates, is a source of strength for all those individual agendas. The loosely allied subgroups are modules operating on a common platform. The very fact that so many different groups share a common brand, united only by their enmity toward plutocracy, is the movement’s source of power.
That’s the same stigmergic model of organization used by the open source software community. The basic platform can support as many modular utilities as there are developers. The utilities themselves reflect the needs and concerns of individual developers. Likewise, there are as many sub-movements piggybacked on Occupy as there are reasons for hating Wall Street, ways of being affected by it, and walks of life among the Occupiers.
In Occupy, like other stigmergically organized projects ranging from Linux and Wikipedia to al Qaeda, nobody needs “permission” from “leadership” to try out ideas. And whatever idea works for one node instantly becomes property of the whole network. “Occupy Our Homes,” which sprang up almost overnight, is one example of such stigmergic innovation. Other groups are likely to arrive independently at innovative ideas, like flash-mobbing the homes and country clubs of politicians, CEOs and plutocrats. As they used to say in the civics textbooks, Occupy is a “laboratory of democracy.”
If you want to see “leadership” and unified agendas, go back fifty years and look at GM or the CBS evening news. We don’t need it. “Leadership” is so 20th century.