OccupyWall Street movement

The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, by David Graeber, Allen Lane, RRP£14.99/Spiegel & Grau, RRP$26, 352 pages

Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics, by Kalle Lasn and Adbusters, Penguin, RRP£19.99/Seven Stories Press, RRP$29.95, 400 pages

Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience, by WJT Mitchell, Bernard Harcourt and Michael Taussig, University of Chicago Press, RRP$15, 152 page

When the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters issued a call to “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) in 2011, the response took everyone by surprise – including the Occupiers themselves. Anti-capitalist activists and their sympathisers flooded the streets, starting in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan and spreading quickly to St Paul's Cathedral in London and cities across the Anglo-American world. Largely supported by the public, they also captured significant media attention.

In retrospect, the real surprise is that all this did not happen sooner. Anger with banks and the mess they had caused had been boiling for three years. Recall, for example, the (thwarted) attempt by the US House of Representatives – not normally an anti-Wall Street body – to impose a 90 per cent tax rate on bonuses by bailed-out financial companies.

That the protests proved shortlived is explained in part by the relative speed with which the Occupy encampments were cleared by shamefully thin-skinned authorities. A more profound reason was yet another surprising fact about the Occupy movement: while it suddenly and unexpectedly held the establishment’s attention, it chose to be silent.

Nobody doubted what the Occupiers were against. Whatever else divided them, they were united in their disgust with a financial capitalism that had sacrificed the rest of society to the “one per cent” at the top, and at the politicians who had betrayed the 99 per cent they claimed to represent. But to the frustration of critics – even sympathetic ones – the movement never stated what it was for. In the battle of ideas around the significance of Occupy – and the entire politics of protest in the wake of the crisis – this is the most paradoxical thing: what the Occupiers find most transformative about their protests counts for their detractors as the principal reason to dismiss them.

As a new crop of Occupy-related books shows, it was a conscious choice to forswear a concrete policy agenda – a choice that in the eyes of Occupiers themselves was vindicated by the course of events. David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist who by his own account played a key role in organising OWS, writes in The Democracy Projectthat it was “only when a movement appeared that resolutely refused to take the traditional path, that rejected the existing political order entirely as inherently corrupt, that called for the complete reinvention of American democracy, that occupations immediately began to blossom across the country”.

Graeber’s book includes a diary-style first chapter that, without apparent irony, recounts his and fellow activists’ role in creating a “leaderless” movement around the Adbusters appeal. His complaints against the political and economic order are all familiar and often warranted: the corruption of US politics by money; the concentration of wealth and power by the top layer of society; and the increasing number of students trapped in debt.

But the veteran anarchist seems strangely incurious about the Occupiers’ ideas for solving these problems. What moves him are the procedures of participatory democracy they adopted: general assemblies; working groups; the “people’s microphone” (the crowd repeating speakers’ words – a technique born out of a police ban on PA systems in Zuccotti Park); above all, decision by consensus. If the system is irredeemable, this is where the action is – in the creation of a “genuinely democratic culture” outside of it.

Other writers echo his view. “Those who incessantly have wanted to gift the movement a reasonable set of demands …failed to understand that the Occupy movement was precisely about disobeying that kind of conventional political grammar,” writes Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago scholar of politics and contributor to Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience. Harcourt distinguishes “political disobedience” from traditional civil disobedience, although OWS surely witnessed some of that too. Civilly disobedient activists, he writes, accept the consequences of breaking selected laws in order to highlight the injustice of those laws; political disobedience refuses to engage with the existing political order at all.

OWS’s choice to sever any connection with normal politics seemed to heighten its aesthetic experience of “resistance”. Columbia anthropology professor Michael Taussig’s Occupy essay offers a particularly breathless take: “We looked at each other eye-to-eye in those days, never quite knowing what the next enchanted moment would bring. We were bigger than the buildings, and instead of being physically compressed and mentally scripted, like the poor bastards in the offices all around us, we lived moment by moment, sparks flying from a knife grinder’s wheel.”

In lieu of traditional political action, then, the Occupiers were and remain self-consciously engaged in aesthetic “meme wars”, a concept that inspires the title of a book by Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters and, appropriately enough, credited jointly to the loose activist group of which he is part. This, perhaps, explains why both The Democracy Project and Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience devote as much attention to the Zuccotti Park drummers as to the working groups on such issues as student debt.

More than 40 years ago, Albert Hirschman distinguished between “voice” and “exit” as different strategies for resolving grievances. Occupy chose to turn voice into a means of exit. A festive, expressive and artful refusal to engage with existing institutions is, of course, a way to express one’s opinions but it is more fundamentally an attempt to step out of the existing political order. Individual Occupiers may have wished to do so for a panoply of different reasons: as an act of rejection with no ulterior expectations; as a revolutionary act, in the belief that it really could bring down “the system”; or as an attempt to put on display the alternative system the protesters called for. For the movement as a whole, this last motive figures most prominently.

Meme Wars, beside its arresting spoof ads, is replete with calls for living with more solidarity and less consumerism. Writing similarly on Zuccotti Park, Taussig hails the coming together of “a community defining itself through a new language and sense of collective”: this, he reflects, is a problem for politicians and experts who “want to channel the messianic and transgressive impulse into their own need for pathological fame and power”.

The aesthetic, self-expressive value of the Occupy movement is undeniable – and clearly inspiring for many. If those disempowered by the political rot and economic false dawn that led to the crisis found Zuccotti Park to be a place of therapy, of re-empowerment, that is something to celebrate. But that is not the political role Occupy claims (and on which even its therapeutic function depends).

The more the movement withdraws from actual politics into what it sees as a “liberated” social sphere, the more difficulty it will have in playing such a role. It is not even clear that it can withdraw. Several of the authors let slip remarks showing that the flaws of mainstream society resurfaced inside the “liberated” communities. OWS was not free of antisocial behaviour; nor was the “horizontal” decision-making unbacked by force, as Graeber claims. (Those too much at odds with the movement’s broadly agreed values or otherwise disruptive were escorted out of meetings.)

Moreover, efforts to create an alternative social reality remain parasitical on a political economy they reject. Unlike the core of the movement – anarchists such as Graeber, for example – most of its supporters did not turn up because they rejected the bourgeois promises inherent in the American dream or European social democracy. Rather, they came because they were cheated of those promises. Both Graeber and Adbusters ask them to change their expectations rather than insist that they be fulfilled. It is only because Occupy prioritised process over substance that this conflict did not have to be addressed.

There is parasitism of the material kind, too. The solidarity expressed through pizza orders for OWS from sympathisers far afield was only possible because of an economy that makes cheap deliveries available and credit cards usable through a call to downtown Manhattan. And Adbusters and Graeber are not above publishing with Penguin and Random House – presumably integral parts of the “system of class power that has effectively fused together finance and government” – Graeber’s words.

A sympathetic reader of these books will end up with the slightly exasperated feeling that Occupy wasted its chance as a political movement. It had friends with great influence on policy making – economists Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Haldane, to mention just two. Occupy could have put its “people power” behind a few clear, concrete, policy proposals such as student or mortgage debt restructuring, higher bank capital ratios or specific tax reforms – more progressive direct tax rates, for example, or the elimination of such outrageous loopholes as the tax discount on carried interest. The success of Tobin tax campaigners in Europe shows that politicians are responsive to anti-finance sentiment.

Granted, campaigns such as Strike Debt have grown out of OWS but they no longer have the numbers in the street to make themselves heard. A greater willingness to engage could have secured the movement a more permanent voice – a voice that would carry weight when decisions are made, rather than a voice merely talking to itself. Those of us who think that the system is ours to reform will see this as a missed opportunity to fix the problems that brought people to Zuccotti Park in the first place.

Meme Wars partly escapes this charge. It is subversive in useful ways, including a number of questions that all economics students should ask their professors. But it repeats errors in the other books, such as the fallacy that the existence of debt entails an imperative of (damaging) economic growth. Even a stagnant economy would feature debt, if only because people borrow and save at different stages in their lives.

All the books postulate a kinship with other protests around the world, the Arab uprising in particular. On the level of tactics and inspiration this may hold. But there is something indecent about comparing Occupy with those who put their lives on the line in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the Middle East to make very specific demands for the sort of liberal democracy that the authors here seem to find corrupt beyond repair.

It is sad, too, that none of the books mentions Stéphane Hessel, the French second world war resistance hero who died this year. His pamphlet “Indignez-vous!” inspired the indignados of Spain, a movement with which Occupy can claim a certain kinship. But Hessel’s defence of postwar social democracy bears out that our political system, far from being the source of all our ills, did once secure the common goods whose passing Occupy decries – and could therefore be made to do so again. It also proves that one can be indignant and constructive at the same time.

Martin Sandbu is the FT’s economics leader writer

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