Occupy’s death was not inevitable. Occupy could have become a sustained organization which refocused itself on its core attracting theme of class warfare, and continued growing. In order for that decision to even be made, Occupy would have had to overturn its decision-making model of consensus. For that to have occurred, a faction within Occupy needed to emerge, a faction ready to challenge consensus , and a faction which could also have fought for the transition from vague encampment to explicitly-purposed organization. If this had happened, the USA could have an immense and strong coalition against austerity instead of the noticeable void of Occupy’s collapse. In fact, the USA could even have a functioning third party by now.
But Occupy did not change. No one organized effectively to change it. It died, and we remain in the weak and powerless position of having no mass organization of the working majority, when we could actually have one presently. Worst of all, there is literally no one to blame but ourselves.
It’s pretty much the worst outcome I can imagine.
First: organizing an internal opposition
Socialist groups often have a “ho-hum” attitude about the rise and fall of Occupy, as if its decline was inevitable (this is called determinism). That’s sad because I think they were some of the only ones who could have redirected the movement, but they failed to even try.
Socialist groups believe that they are a sort of stable anchor that persists through the rise and fall of movements, growing out of each. But of course socialist groups had no substantial growth out of Occupy, and what little growth they had was not retained. This is probably because their interaction with Occupy was completely incompetent, and just as confused and lacking in strategy as the movement itself.
I had hands-on experience in a socialist organization which had its own meetings during Occupy (these meetings in a meeting room away from the encampment). They constantly discussed Occupy, and things that were wrong with it. I agreed with their criticism but they entirely failed to raise these issues in the movement itself. Part of my Occupy-salvation strategy involved (1) gathering the socialists who had these criticisms together, and (2) using this team to launch a forceful, coordinated intervention into Occupy to fix its problems.
It seems that in my locality, Occupy Philly, most of the socialist groups had indeed formed an alliance by which they attempted to influence the movement in general. This was the Occupy Philly Labor Working Group (OP LWG, a mouthful). So Part 1 of that plan was accomplished – the factional entity existed – but Part 2, where it actually fought to change Occupy – did not happen.
The LWG in Philly did some positive things, like launching some more traditional demonstrations based on class issues. However, neither the OP LWG, nor the direct-actionist OP Radical Caucus, did the most important things that they should have done. They did not provide a lead for how the movement should reorient itself. The LWG mainly responded to debates within Occupy as they emerged, rather than attempting to reframe the debate entirely, and save the movement from its clear trajectory of self-destruction. (To anyone who says the police killed Occupy, I must insist no, we made the job of the police very easy and really did it for them; we killed Occupy.)
For my part, I attempted to convince the local branch of my socialist group that we should argue within the LWG, which we participated in, for the LWG to stand up and fight for the changes which everyone in the LWG already believed in anyway. This idea was basically stonewalled, part-democratically and part through an argument that leading figures in the LWG were scared of this, and “this is just the way it is,” which I should not have accepted. (On the first anniversary of Occupy, I quit that group, because there is no reason to work with people who democratically reject their stated basic purpose of spreading socialism by leading in movements.)
I also heard about an individual who went around doing things like getting a petition signed to end consensus. I was never able to track him down. I attempted some similar things on my own, but my efforts were stifled by the fact that they were essentially breaks from my group’s democratic centralist discipline. (Too bad I didn’t quit then, not later, and continue trying.)
But that was the critical thing that needed to be done: an internal opposition needed to be formed which was prepared to forcefully raise and debate the critical issues of the movement – not just to debate the issues which the movement itself raised, but to raise the macro-strategic and organizational fights that needed to be raised. This would be the hypothetical team which could have then argued for and carries out the next steps, whether gathered through the socialist groups, or independently without them, through Occupy’s sea of humanity.
Second: overthrowing consensus (and how!)
The socialists argued that actually raising their issues would have only alienated them, but that has never stopped them before – I always see socialists intervening with their ideas in various movements.
Occupy seemed heavily dominated by anarchists, which I think was the main thing making the socialists skittish in Occupy’s case. I do not believe this domination was as thorough as people seemed to think it was; instead it was more of a case that anarchists were enjoying their status as movement-initiators and had won some initial organizational debates.
The real, critical thing that would have saved Occupy, as stated above, would have been transitioning from confused encampment to a class-war organization. But even though such a decision would probably have enjoyed wide support in Occupy if it could have been raised, Occupy’s structure prevented it from being raised or discussed fairly.
Consensus was responsible for, or at least reinforced, (1) Occupy’s massive dwindling as normal people (real 99%ers) could not take part in excessively long consensus meetings (2) Occupy’s dismissal of anyone who was not sleeping at the encampment, as consensus is so time-consuming you can really only participate if you live there anyway (3) Occupy’s domination by anarcho-cliques and thus anarcho-politics, due to #1 and #2.
I still think a concentrated effort to overthrow consensus at the GA’s would have succeeded. A real movement against it there would have shattered the false legitimacy of all the other factors.
But how do you even overturn consensus?
Obviously you develop a set of arguments about why it is negative – mainly its alienation of the working masses – but how do you start in one decision-making process, and from that process, decide to enter into a different one?
No, I do not think we should have worked through consensus to end consensus. This would have been entering their quagmire and playing their game. If consensus is not legitimate, then we do not respect it before-or-after we overthrow it. The political space between two decision-making processes is a beautiful realm I call “chaos.”
In chaos, decisions tend to be won by people voting with their feet, moving toward the thing they support. What the majority wants, what it ultimately will do, cannot be ignored, and the minority must either split (which they are often unwilling to do) or admit defeat and go along with the new process.
I am confident that a majority could have been swayed against consensus, toward classic majority democracy. But no one tried, or no one tried effectively, because there was no coordinated opposition faction.
Third: from encampment to organization
With an opposition faction formed and consensus defeated, this next part would have been a piece of cake.
Now it’s true that Occupy did have some other issues – we had an intersectionality overload. Actually I think what went wrong was the way we handled it. People kept bringing up issue after issue after issue which, while progressive, was not precisely the purpose of Occupy. (Remember, it was Occupy Wall Street.) That being said, all these issues could have been synthesized into a coherent movement, but it seems like people were more interested in snarkily attacking people who did not agree with them than actually trying to find a productive intersectionality synthesis.
Still, with a coordinated faction, this problem could have been easily overcome. We could have insisted that class warfare was the main attraction of Occupy (which everyone knew and agreed with whenever I said it) without dismissing the other issues at all, but merely insisting that “99%ism” had to be the focus through which all the other issues were interconnected.
Occupy could have then easily evolved into something like Class War in Britain, or Option Citoyenne in Quebec, or what US Uncut is attempting to be in the US (but without Occupy’s momentum and numeric muscle).
This coalition, open to any progressive issue but founded out of class anger, could have then become a needed alternative to mere “solidarity with unions,” whose structures and leaderships are generally so authoritarian and bureaucratic as to completely repel any mass volunteer motion. It could have been a real fighting movement for the working class not tied to the limits of formal union membership.
Option Citoyenne is particularly important to bring up because it merged with a previously-formed union of different socialist tendencies to form the party Quebec Solidaire, which stormed the polls.
And then, with a broad party constructed, possibly around socialism, or left-populism or whatever, who knows what would have been possible? A united current of revolutionists could form within that party, pushing it to ever-greater heights, all the while winning real reforms, through both elections and mass struggles (which it would have the organized numbers to launch itself). It could achieve changes like universal healthcare, wage increases, a halt to empire, and all the stuff we want and demand. And from there – the next American Revolution?
Post-mortem: what now?
The psychological trauma of knowing that Occupy could have snowballed from Occupy to a Coalition, to maybe a Party possibly leading into the Revolution, but did not do any of these, is just too much to fucking bear. I took up smoking afterwards, and even tried World of Warcraft. Many people I know dropped out of politics entirely. Some kept their formal affiliations with socialist groups but basically drifted out of any real active participation. Others quit completely over various seemingly-unrelated issues. Socialist groups continue zombie-walking through their politics-as-usual of working in small local coalitions and following the trends from issue to issue. They seem to be successfully pretending that nothing happened and there is nothing wrong with this. Depression reigns.
Socialist Alternative is admirable for their “opening shot” of socialist entry into electoral politics, in the form of Kshama Sawant’s and Ty Moore’s city council campaigns. The tragic thing is that they should not have to start from zero the way they are being forced to. There should be a whole party by now, or at least its initial construction process.
What did Occupy do, positively? It helped shift consciousness to the left. A November 2012 Gallup poll said that 39% of Americans now have a positive view of the word “socialism.” Merriam-Webster announced that “socialism” and “capitalism” were the most-looked-up words of 2012, too.
But that mass-consciousness remains unorganized. In fact, I’d say there are even higher barriers to organizing it now than before, precisely because of Occupy. “A second Occupy” will not flare up because people are so burned by the first one that they will absolutely refuse to invest their time and emotions in a second run – unless a strategy – and not just any strategy but an effective, intuitive strategy – is developed in advance, and promoted as the justification for trying again.
I think the best strategy now is to organize a mass, united socialist party – not as a distant possibility in the talking stages, but an organized campaign to work on building it, in the here and now. I helped start such a campaign and it is called Campaign for a United Socialist Party.
Another alternative possibility would be the Option Citoyenne/Class War/US Uncut route. But I think people are tired of protesting and seeing it go nowhere, tired of not building actual institutions of popular power.
I’m with Jodi Dean. Name her commander, and make me a soldier in her army. Build the party.