(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. That’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.