#OccupyWallStreet Is Not a Protest. It’s Something Better.

Day 8 Occupy Wall Street September 24 2011 Sha...

Image by david_shankbone via Flickr

(Despite this post’s intentionally provocative title, I’m not really 100% confident about any of this. But I figured it was worth raising the issue and seeing what other people think. Observations and criticism very welcome, especially from those who are actually involved in the occupation.)

I was originally an Occupy Wall Street skeptic, for the reason that most left-leaning skeptics usually give: without any coherent demands or strategy, I figured the “occupation” could only marginalize itself and misallocate activist energy that would be much better spent elsewhere. Progressive commentators such as Matthew Yglesias,Doug Henwood, Mike Konczal, and Lauren Ellis, among others, have voiced similar complaints, and let’s face it: they have a point. Successful protests typically have predetermined strategies and goals — Occupy Wall Street has neither. If we are to judge the occupation as a protest, we must judge it harshly.

But we should not take the “protest” frame for granted, as most of Occupy Wall Street’s left-leaning critics do. In fact, I submit that this occupation is something entirely different, and much more important: it is a public, counter-establishment communal space.

By a communal space, I mean a physical area where members of a community can interact with one another freely and fulfill some kind of common social aim. Examples include churches, union halls, and various kinds of social clubs. These spaces are the soil from which successful movements grow: not only do they mobilize people around a shared set of values, but they also make them available for action predicated on those values. That is why the support of black churches proved indispensable to the civil rights movement. It is also why Chicago’s radical left was able to so effectively organize in the late nineteenth century: socialists and anarchists constructed a vast network of communal spaces, from Socialist Sunday Schools to so-called red saloons. Sure, Chicago leftists organized speeches and protests; but they also organized informal social gatherings, and even dances.

Modern communal spaces have either been co-opted by establishment forces or decimated. Fewer workers in labor unions, to name one important example, means fewer workers talking to one another at the union hall. Plus, outside of the workplace, more and more Americans are bowling alone. Fewer of us attend religious services, and the core that do are more likely to be politically conservative. In place of the old communities these spaces held together, we have autonomous, atomistic individuals. Those needs that used to be met through communal activities — needs like entertainment and spiritual fulfillment — are now more often met through solitary rituals of consumption.

Granted, it hasn’t all been bad. We have the Internet now, which allows communities to come together from across vast physical distances. But while the benefits of this new technology have been enormous, its impact on political activism has been kind of disappointing. ┬áThat’s because the big hubs of online left-activism (such as MoveOn and Organizing for America) are essentially amplifiers, not generators; they can’t build or lead new movements, but they can provide buzz and support for preexisting ones. Movements can only be born in communal spaces, not willed into existence through faux-informal mass emails.

That is not to say that this organic process does not occur in virtual spaces. Anonymous, born in the deepest recesses of 4chan, belies that claim. But Anonymous is far from a mass movement, and for good reason: 4chan only serves as the communal space for a marginal subculture. The case of Anonymous actually shows us the limits of movement-building within online spheres. To put it simply, if a virtual communal space appeals to a broad group of people, it’s unlikely to inspire deep commitment in vary many of them. And those virtual communal spaces that do inspire deep commitments tend be targeted at niche audiences. If you’re from one of those communities and you want to build a real movement, you must first engage people outside of your niche in a real-world communal space.

Which brings us to Occupy Wall Street. This project is a whole new type of hybrid animal: an attempt by online activists to establish a public, highly visible communal space in the real world. That’s why the occupation has no formal hierarchy or list of demands. It’s also why everyone is encouraged to participate, express why they’re there, and talk to one another. No surprise, then, that Matt Stoller got a sort of churchy vibe from the place — the local church is, after all, the quintessential communal space.

Look closely and you can see the occupation assume yet more of a communal space’s features in real time. There’s now a community kitchen and a community library. Academics are conducting on-site teach-ins. Visitors can learn about the occupation from the information desk, and even pick up Occupy Wall Street’s official newsletter, the cheekily named Occupied Wall Street Journal. Most crucially, the occupation provides a space around which to plan and orchestrate protests. Real protests.

This is what makes Occupy Wall Street so radical: counter-establishment communal spaces are so thoroughly marginalized that even instituting one has become a radical act. By framing this act as an “occupation” and heavily promoting it over the Internet, the creators of Occupy Wall Street have guaranteed themselves a large audience they can try to draw into this space. Better yet, they’ve spawned copycats, from Occupy Chicago to Occupy Prague.

The occupiers should be proud of these successes, but they should also recognize that they are only short-term gains. All of the various occupations will fade away eventually; Occupy Wall Street will only have been successful if long-term sustainable communal spaces take their place. If I were one of the Zucotti Park activists, I would start thinking about how to establish a permanent base somewhere else in the city, and how to continue drawing potential activists into that space. If they can maintain a little momentum even after the park finally empties out, then we might yet see an actual movement come out of this.

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6 Responses

  1. I don’t know. I mean, the fact that we have to spend so much time talking about what Occupy Wall Street “means” probably isn’t a good thing. The anarchists and socialists of 19th century Chicago knew exactly what they were doing when they established a physical community beyond the ideology; listening to interviews with the occupiers, it doesn’t seem like there’s a similar common purpose.

    What is interesting, though, is that the OWS folks seem to be operating from a sort of left-incoherence that is parallel to the right-incoherence of the Tea Party. Neither one is making much sense, but the appeals have emotional resonance. More interesting is the post-hoc attempts by wonks on both sides to attach concrete, reasoned policy proposals to the emotional appeals. I agree strongly with the left-emotional appeals as well as the policies folks are attempting to graft onto them, but it definitely seems like there’s a concerted effort out there to co-opt the occupation in favor of long-standing progressive goals.

  2. It is communal space (reminds me a bit of the old Arts Lab in London, or pubs or that matter) but it also has a particular purpose, that is to address the problem of unregulated global elites which have caused such horrendous damage to the mass of us and serve as a focus and inspiration for others to join the effort for change.

    They may have to move indoors in the worst weather if they’re not allowed to put up structures, but a big part of #OccupyWallStreet is to reclaim public space.

  3. I stand 110% with OWS. Which is why I am so distressed when I see plenty of the “left incoherence” Corey refers to above.

    A few days ago, I tried to address this with a very brief, concrete, repeatable draft declaration. It’s gotten some good feedback and is reportedly in use as part of Occupy Dallas. The draft is here:

    http://warmowski.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/submitted-to-occupywallstreet-for-consideration-new-and-improved-messaging/

    And its rationale is here

    http://warmowski.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/how-to-fix-the-messaging-for-occupy-wall-street/

  4. Just for the record, Zuccotti Park was already a place where people interacted with each other, and this tiny park was important to our community. People ate lunch there; my dogs liked to go there. I’ve had many lovely chats with tourists in the park; and I’m friends with the farmer’s market people and the street vendors. The park was a relaxed, friendly and safe place to spend a few minutes outdoors.

    Speaking of street vendors, their business is down due to the protest. The weekly farmer’s market is losing customers too; the atmosphere is noisy, unpleasant and a bit intimidating at times; I assume their customers just don’t bother. The farmer’s market has also seen a rise in theft since the protest started.. We are worried about the future of our farmer’s market and are trying to figure out something the community can do to help them.

    Even a tiny bit of green space is important, and these simple, human things are priceless in a city, perhaps more so with the destruction and seemingly endless construction after 9/11. The park was destroyed on 9/11 and used for construction equipment for a long time after that; we were very glad when it reopened.

    While no one has actually said so, many things I read suggest that OWS has somehow wrested something important away from power brokers, and this is not the case. Zuccotti Park was not a favorite lunch spot of the global elite. Particularly in a piece whose topic is the importance of communal space, it seems important to acknowledge that communal space has been taken away.

  5. After my initial doubts about Occupy Wall Street, and many of the same questions about the purpose and direction of the protest that are addressed in your commentary and the responses, I have come to see it in a new light. I am one of those people that struggles to make a living these days, yet still have hope that we will solve the ills of our society through our Democratic system, until that is, I saw how poorly our government was working in Washington, during the summer of debt ceiling and default issues, as well as in many of our states, etc.

    One thing that is now clear to me: While there may not be any “Tea Party” kind of mandate, and I do see much of that mandate as what led us to the problems we face today, first and foremost the movement is a reaction, and thus far a civilized counter action to what, something, that is seriously going wrong in our country. This is the first serious reaction by the masses, generally the ones not in power, and generally the ones that rely on their elected officials to do their bidding for them in the halls of government. What I have seen is a process of civil evolution. Perhaps, what I am seeing is the first instance when a society moves from a REVOLUTIONARY MENTALITY, where we want to destroy, take down, create violence,etc, to an EVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT. I see this as a movement where we are going to evolve our way into a better society.

    Naturally, it looks like the city has not learned any lessons from the Arab Spring. The spraying of mace in the face of four women, and then the corralling of 700 protesters and arresting them, will insure that the movement be trust into violence, thereby distracting and degrading the purpose of the movement. This is exactly the old line tactics that people in power use that don’t want to lose control of what they have.

    The bottom line here is this: The United States was founded on the principles of Democracy. We are a democracy with a bill of rights and an evolved system of laws that support and protect the statutes of a very evolved constitution. It is Democracy that rules the day and our lives, and with that democracy we have adopted a method of commerce we call Capitalism to allow goods and services to flow.

    What this movement is really about at the very core of it is that in the past two decades, maybe even back to the Reagan era, Capitalism, with all of it’s PAC’s and special interest money, has managed to work itself into our Democracy, so much so that it is now Capitalism that runs our democracy. Capitalism, by its’ very nature is Darwinistic, and with the capitalists’ making the rules and there not being any protective entity in place, the people that are least able and most vulnerable to the power of money, are the ones that are least able to compete.

    What I do seriously hope for is that this movement will remain intelligent, adhere to a high standard of behavior, and coalesce around a plan of action. I have written to a verity of people regarding this point. There are some questions and information to be had before we can effectively start making demands, and follow up with effective action within the system of our democracy. It is mostly about money, so naturally, considering all the money that the tax payers have been paying, it is necessary to learn where all this money has been going and where it is now. That means holding people in power and in business accountable, strictly speaking.

    In order to intelligently and effectively institute change within the our system, avoiding the traditional destruction of our society before we can begin to improve our situation, we need to hold a congress, a national forum, much in the way it was done by our forefathers. Questions of how to unite our two party system in coming closer to the center, how to get our economy stronger, how to get the banking system and wall street more in line with the mainstream, etc.

    There are some great minds in this country and around the world that would love to have an opportunity to perhaps take part in what would or could possibly one of history’s defining moments, not just for America, but for the world. There is just so much to do in this country and around the world that there is little reason that we should have the poverty and misery, and violence that we do have.

    For instance, we could centralize the recycling industry and hire hundreds of thousands of workers turning our trash into ingots of reusable metal, plastic, and glass, and put on the commodities exchange. Do we want to re-employ the millions of workers in need of jobs? Will here is a way that our tax dollars can do best. we create the infrastructure, make uniform packaging rules, supply every business and residence with a tri-compactor, create trucks specially outfitted to haul the containers to a central rail yard and off to a central processing plant. And guess what, while the worker is working he is paying into his Social Security Account.

    Here is an industry that we can start up with the unemployed, paying them a minimum wage, in the short run, and then on the long run turnaround, pay the workers a 3 to 5% commission from the profits. Another way to get people back to work and at the same time, make American industry competitive again, is to supplement small businesses that are having hard times, with the ranks of unemployed. For the duration of a persons benefits, that person will be placed with a company that needs labor, work for minimum wage and only have to pay one half of the minimum wage. On the business side, the business would have the ability to lower their prices by some percentage for the American public market.

    We can work on Social Security reform. Take it out of the hands the federal government for the most part, except to regulate and oversee. Not all things that the Republicans want to do is bad. With a combination of Republican and Democratic principles, I believe that we can have a very effective system. If you unify all the entitlement programs that we have in this country and pool them into one, contribute 50% of that amount to every individual, and along with each individuals contribution, put that money into an individual account which, under strict guidelines, will be managed by the owner of that account. The savings to the Federal government would be tremendous, just by doing this alone. Then each account can be operated to pay for a persons unemployment, disability, retirement, AND health care. One part of the the account is dedicated to paying for medical insurance, or health care provider. A person will have the option of paying a healthcare provider directly on account. Another part of the account will be set aside for long term retirement.

    Another provision is that when a couple have a child, that they will pay three percent of all money earned into the child’s Social Security fund. By the time the child is 18, there will be enough money in the account to pay for their education, and then some. Another provision would be the ability to invest 10% of the account into Blue chip stock and bonds, tightly regulated of course. With that, the money that accrues over time, goes back into the account and of that money, 20% can be used for what ever one needs or wants to do with it.

    That money that is in the special banks that hold these accounts, will be lenders to small businesses and home repairs only. The money that is made off the interest of these loans after covering 60%percent of those loans will be turned back into the general account funds. That means that the money that people have in those accounts will also make interest. There is more to this proposal, but my time is up.

    I can go on an on, and obviously have gone way over any reasonable response, but there you have it, It only proves that there are so many people out there with ideas, and we need only to tap into it and get people excited about fixing the mess.

    And that brings me to my conclusion, yeah, and that is that we made this mess, and we let the wolves guard the chicken coup. Now that we know that we screwed up, lets go way beyond and do the right thing with this movement, and that is to encourage the movement to the right things, to advise the powers trying to hold on to their beloved money, to back off and let the process go forward, not to instigate unrest, or violence, and in fact be a part of the solutions.

  6. [...] point, I hoped that Occupy would be the soil out of which a new “ought” would grow. By reconstructing the┬ápublic left-wing communal sphere, I hoped that the first occupiers had created an environment in which the next Big Idea could be [...]

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