Occupy: Caught in the headlights
Daniel Harvey reviews: Mark Bray, 'Translating anarchy: the anarchism of Occupy Wall Street'. Zero Books, 2013, pp342, £15.99
For those who were active in libertarian and anarchist circles in 2010-11, it was impossible to get away from a certain tactical orientation that became absolutely ubiquitous: ‘Occupy everything’.
In large public meetings that made me, and many people, want to pull their hair out at the roots in frustration at the lack of any political sense whatsoever, there was always a contingent who saw the tent and the sleeping bag as part of a magical solution to turn flagging protests into prefigurative revolutionary moments. In particular, I remember Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group being very excited in a meeting at the University of London Union building in Malet Street, at the prospect that some anarchists camping in Parliament Square, combined with his version of the People’s Assembly, would by their example alone usher in what sounded like a new system of soviets throughout the country.
This was, of course, in the context of the European and Arab upsurges which centred on occupations - like Tahrir Square in Egypt, but also in Europe in the Puerta de Sol in Madrid. Then there were the occupations in universities throughout Britain in response to the hike in tuition fees in mid 2010. Activists in New York seemingly were having similar discussions to those in Britain at the time, and in the summer of 2011 they hatched a plan to occupy Wall Street in response to the massive bank bailouts following the 2008 financial crash. The Canadian anti-consumerist group, Adbusters, called for a protest which subsequently became an occupation of Zucotti Park.
At this point, Mark Bray, then a graduate student in New York, turned up, a veteran of more than 10 years of similar actions going back to the Seattle protest in 1999. He did not think very much of what he saw. The political level was very low in his opinion, and overwhelmingly liberal in terms of the demands people were presenting. These were as simple as re-regulating the banks, abolishing ‘corporate personhood’, or just increasing taxes on the wealthy. However, he went away for a week, thought a bit, and strangely came back to put himself forward as a media spokesperson for the encampment.
What brought about this transformation is a little unclear, but from the sound of it the media hype the camp generated in New York was leading to a continuing upsurge in interest from people outside the usual activist milieu, and turning it into a potentially semi-permanent and rare vehicle for promoting anarchist politics. And he could not pass that opportunity up.
However, there was a dichotomy, as he saw it, between the people involved as organisers at the core of the project and those who were new, inexperienced or just passing through, who did not have anything approaching a developed anti-capitalist critique. But the former were not directly advocating anarchism anywhere in their slogans or materials: they employed bland, populist slogans about the 99%, mutual aid and direct action.
When Bray first had to field questions from a member of the press, he was asked whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. He says in his book that he hesitated - a bit like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights - and after the journalist suggested he might be an “independent”, decided to run with that. As a result, this book really feels like an extended theoretical justification for this early instance of bottling it politically, at being unable to openly declare his long-held, deeply read and researched anarchist political beliefs in front of a hostile world.
He developed the view, however, that, due to the media’s fundamental inability to comprehend, let alone present fairly, any understanding of anarchist ideas if described as such, it is better to demonstrate them in practice under different and more liberal-friendly terms. The large general assemblies at the centre of Occupy became the chief propaganda tool for persuading onlookers of the democratic aspirations of the movement. These scenes were related through television and readers will recall the clips of lots of generally quite young people sitting in large circles waving their hands up or down to indicate agreement or disagreement with a speaker. They also featured the ‘people’s microphone’, where everyone in earshot repeats the speaker’s words to a wider audience, a custom that developed as a result of police bans on amplification equipment.
The narrative given by the author provides a pretty convincing account of the degeneration of the Occupy model, and will seem quite predictable and familiar to many. In the first place, there is the obvious tension between the almost entirely transitory composition of the general assemblies and the core of activists in the camp. Bray notes that they hardly ever attended these meetings, which endlessly devolved responsibilities to the various working groups. These dealt with the planning of actions, the press, accounting, the ‘people’s library’ and everything else. On the other hand, he also manages to identify the limits in the consensus model of decision-making, which was used universally in these assemblies. Every decision had to be agreed to by 90% of those present, making it very easy for small minorities to derail them and turn them into “shit shows”.
This term highlights the obvious tension in using the appearance of your decision-making body as a tool for propaganda - the semblance of smooth operation becomes more important than the actual addressing of people’s needs. This concern for appearances made excluding ‘troublemakers’ almost impossible, because naive “liberal libertarians”, in his words, defended their right to speak regardless. Nonetheless, it seemed successful in the first month of the camp’s existence, and plenty of newcomers were involved. But at the same time, a new federal structure of working groups was created behind the scenes, which turned the decision-making assembly into a rubber stamp. Bray describes how after a few months core activists would laugh at the idea of even bothering to seek approval from the assembly. The working groups too became compromised, as a clear hierarchy developed between groups of activists concentrated in each. The ‘direct action’ and ‘press’ groups dominated by anarchists effectively developed a veto over the actions of the whole of Occupy.
Other than this structural decay from within, Bray can, and does, point to the obvious negative impacts of police repression - being thrown out of Zucotti Park in mid-November was one key moment. But this does not form the centre of his analysis, and on this point we can be grateful for the author’s fairly systematic critique, which gives us a good sense of Occupy’s internal dynamics, even though the political conclusions he seems to draw are bizarre and very contradictory.
The phrase, ‘translating anarchy’, relates to Bray managing to develop during the course of his Occupy experience a political theorisation similar to the Mandelite conception of how radicals should relate to reformists in a ‘broad’ formation or party.
This is, I suspect, his way of justifying to himself why he and his comrades toned down their anarchistic language in order to draw people into the movement and experience the process for themselves. In this way, anarchism, he believes, can seem like common sense to people who are instinctively hostile to “authoritarian organisational forms”, and see anarchist methods of direct action as more useful than working through the existing political process.
In this respect he has quite a high opinion of his own skills as a media link. He describes how he has deliberately used wording that can be interpreted as advocating either liberal methods or radical action. He also states ways in which he thinks he managed to employ language in order to discredit liberal notions in general. On evictions, he made a point of emphasising his claim that they were often illegally carried out by bailiffs acting on behalf of banks, in order to show that the law is applied unequally and so reinforce the structural associations between capitalism and criminality. In reality, the videos I managed to find of his contributions from Zucotti Park seem incredibly dull, and have a tiny number of views on YouTube as a result - less than 100 after being up for over two years.
At the same time, Bray has quite a visceral distaste for “authoritarian Marxists” - he blames them for adopting “broad and inclusive” fronts to entice people in and then convert them to their sectarian politics. The irony of this appears to be lost on him - it is, after all, exactly his own method. He has mentioned more than once - and especially in talks about his book to anarchist audiences - the dozen or so Occupy organisers he interviewed for it who converted to some kind of liberal politics. But what about the thousands who went through the politically meaningless “shit shows” and were thoroughly turned off by the sham that the democratic process became by the end of it?
In a way, his concluding chapter, ‘Like ectoplasm through a mist’, describes this political failure. Many of the Occupy organisers hoped to slip in their radicalism among the foggy and confused political terrain they inhabited. They were trying to be all things to all people - and meanwhile their vaunted ‘democratic process’ was in reality hideously bureaucratic, relying on a typically Bakuninite ‘invisible dictatorship’. Bray seemed to know how to do this very well, gaining significant influence and publicity from the very start.
In terms of what he comes up with by way of solutions, it all sounds a bit hit and miss. He identifies the weaknesses of Occupy’s consensus decision-making, yet seems to imply that its ‘democratic process’ could be made to work if only it could be scaled up to the level of society as a whole. He also identifies toward the end of the book the need for patient, class-based organisation, as opposed to the relentless drive for stunts demanded by the direct action group to keep the attention of the media. He demonstrates how this practice unnecessarily put people in danger of arrest and police violence. He even manages to defend the idea of anarchists forming some kind of bloc to push their politics - although quite how this fits in with his general approach of concealing those politics is left unexplained.
The core point must be the failure of the political method itself: pretending to be an empty vessel for other people’s demands, while at the same time claiming to advance a principled perspective of your own using this disguised form. Convincing people is about having the arguments out in the open rather than policing your own discourse, and that of others, in order to play to the cameras.