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What is the #Occupy movement?

A roundtable discussion

Hannah Appel, Erik Van Deventer, Nathan Schneider, Brian Dominick, and Jeremy Cohan.

Platypus Review 44 | March 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

Late in 2011, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a series of roundtable debates on the #Occupy Wall Street Movement. Speakers at the event held on December 9, 2011 at New York University included Hannah Appel (OWS Think Tank Working Group), Erik Van Deventer (NYU), Nathan Schneider (Waging Nonviolence), and Brian Dominick (Z Media Institute), with Jeremy Cohan (Platypus Affiliated Society) moderating. The original description of the roundtable reads as follows: “The recent #Occupy protests are driven by discontent with the present state of affairs: glaring economic inequality, dead-end Democratic Party politics, and, for some, the suspicion that capitalism could never produce an equitable society. These concerns are coupled with aspirations for social transformation at an international level. For many, the protests at Wall St. and elsewhere provide an avenue to raise questions the Left has long fallen silent on: ‘What would it mean to challenge capitalism on a global scale? How could we begin to overcome social conditions that adversely affect every part of life? And, how could a new international radical movement address these concerns in practice?’” What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Complete video and audio are available online by clicking the above links.


Protesters occupy the grounds of St. Paul’s in London, autumn of last year. Their encampment has since been removed.

Jeremy Cohan: Though in question, it seems as though #OWS is here to stay, with its capacious symbolism—“We are the 99 percent.” Is it fair to say that the #Occupy movement has entered into a “Phase Two”? If so, what is the nature of this new phase of the movement’s development? To expand: How has the occupation been forced to adapt to a changing set of conditions on the ground? What sorts of fresh difficulties do these new conditions pose for the occupiers? A moment of crisis can often be a moment of opportunity. What direction do you feel the movement should take in order to remain viable and relevant?

Hannah Appel: First of all, I disagree with the idea that the capacious symbolism of #OWS which has enabled anarchists, Marxists, and liberals, is only a temporary strength and will be eclipsed by a need for a narrowing of ideology. Liberty Square was fundamentally a place of experiment. David Graeber and others have referred to this kind of experimentation as “prefigurative politics.” What does it mean to make something new in the shell of the old? What does it mean to provide free school, free food, and free education? Another question about “Phase Two” is what will post-park places of experiment look like?

#Occupy, narrowly conceived as the occupation of space, is not over in Phase Two, but we also want to think about prefigurative politics, not as they are narrowly related to space, but as they are related to the imagination. How do we begin in Phase Two to think about the intersection of capitalism and racism? What would popular control of the financial system look like? What would it mean if personhood were less mediated by credit scores? How do we democratize economic analysis? All of these questions that have been posed from the beginning of #Occupy Wall Street come to the fore in Phase Two.

Eric Van Deventer: From the opposite direction, I would say that what needs to come out of this is an independent movement of the working class in this country, and I don't know what specific relevance occupations will have in the future of that. Foreclosure occupations are not really occupations. Yet that is exactly the kind of economically significant intervention that this movement can make. But the occupations of public squares don’t necessarily have the character of an attack on economic reproduction; they're highly symbolic. Occupations should not be regarded as the distinctive or necessary characteristic of any future action.

Symbolically, #OWS offers people an opportunity to discuss, to develop politically, and to articulate different ideas. These are all very important, but the strategy to prefigure democracy through structures that we set up voluntarily in a park is not the society I would like to see in the future. I would not like to participate in meetings for hours on end unless there's something important being settled. I don't think a lot of people have the time to do that. We need to allow people to participate who are not committed in that way, or who do not have the capability to be committed in that way, otherwise #OWS will become a self-selecting community. The movement needs to develop more clarity in terms of its politics. It needs to sharpen the ideas people have and understand the contradictions between different viewpoints.

JC: As one commentator notes in issue 41 of the Platypus Review (PR 41), there are striking similarities between the #Occupy movement and the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle: Both began in the last year of a Democratic presidency, were spearheaded by anarchists, were motivated by discontents with neo-liberalism, and were supported by organized labor. What, if anything, makes this movement different? How is it a departure from Seattle? What are the lessons to be learned from the defeat of the anti-globalization movement?

Brian Dominick: It is key is that, although the similarities are quite profound, the differences are where the advantages are. From about day three of #OWS, the council meetings, decisions by consensus, and the aspiration for direct and open democracy, picked up exactly where the anti-globalization movement left off. There is a perfect continuity there. The difference is that with #OWS, we see a movement, with only a minimal understanding of where it was heading, taking off and expanding in ways beyond what anyone could have believed in their wildest imagination.

EVD: Much of the continuity with the WTO council protests is in the focus on the intolerable world economy, and in that the registered discontent would be found in as broad a group as possible as a means to affect social change. But in order to change things, which ought to be our objective, we need to work through actual means of leveraging structural power in this society, which fundamentally comes down to class power; we should be looking to the working class.

JC: Some have characterized the #Occupy movement as sounding the tocsin for “class war.” Others recognize the fact of dramatic inequality, and want the #Occupy movement to spearhead a set of economic reforms. Others see #Occupy as transforming something beyond the confines of the “economic.” These perspectives point to radically different directions for this movement. Would you characterize this movement as “anti-capitalist”? Should it be? And, if so, what is the nature of these “anti-capitalist” politics? In what way does the #Occupy movement affirm or reject the political ideas of anti-capitalist movements before it?

Nathan Schneider: My anecdotal demography suggests that some people identify as anti-capitalist, some people don't, and a lot of people just don't know. That we haven't even been able to say the word anti-capitalist for however long and the fact we are able to have that conversation now is really vital.

BD: Again, I don't really want to say what #Occupy is, but I do think #Occupy will at some point figure out its stance vis-à-vis capitalism. The slogan, “we are the 99 percent, they are the 1 percent,” obviously has had major resonance: It's a great rallying cry. The concern is that the movement doesn't recognize that there are more than two classes, or, that class is a bit different from how much money you have or make, but that it has to do with the relationship to the means of production and it has to do with access to power. There is in our society, and there could be in any future society a coordinator class, a class that has tremendous power that doesn't necessarily make as much money or have as much wealth as the 1 percent. There are shadows of this class inside #Occupy. We know there are different levels of privilege. We know that looking at 99 percent as a monolith and not talking about race, gender, or the different gradations of privilege within a movement is going to be the biggest enemy of #Occupy—it can't just be the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.

EVD: I don't think at this point that #Occupy could be an anti-capitalist movement. We might agree that the majority of the movement subscribes to anti-capitalism, whatever that might mean, but #Occupy doesn't include any processes for developing that. To be opposed to capitalism would require that somehow you are part of a process that has the potential to overcome capitalism, which I think is possible through socialism. And people advocate different kinds of anti-capitalism, but many don't exist on a global scale or don't have an anti-capitalist worldview which includes a planned economy aimed at the overcoming of the tyranny of the market, the blind determination of structure, and the anarchy of production. For #OWS to be anti-capitalist in some way it needs to be contributing to such a development. It is developing consciousness in certain ways, however it is not preventing capitalism from operating.

I don't agree with the way others are theorizing classes, but I share some hesitation about the term the 99 percent. By speaking for the 99 percent the movement accepts the least common denominator, only uses language that everyone can immediately accept, and claims to speak for people it doesn't; it thus binds itself to demagoguery. It is not clear, for example, that the 99 percent are the same ones who would benefit from the overthrow of capitalism.

HA: There's no way that any of us, let alone anyone in the world, can speak for #OWS as a whole, to say that #OWS is anti-capitalist. “Ethnographically,” I can say people's orientations to capitalism vary widely. I want to hold many kinds of capitalism in tension. There are all kinds of ways to think about revolution, to think of capitalism as a theoretical and historical concept, but there is also capitalism in particular since the beginning of the neoliberal era. It’s very important to understand the specificity of capitalism in the last several decades, and that capitalism is very different from before.

If right now we could do meaningful campaign finance reform, fight for the separation of corporation and state, that would revolutionize the way we’ve been living in capitalism. However, it would not revolutionize it the way socialists want it to be revolutionized. One of the scary things about revolution is that it seems so big, so far away and certain orientations make it seem unattainable. I think one of the things #OWS is doing is opening up what the revolutionary imagination could be and asking what revolution would be like. What do small forms of revolution look like that don't necessarily allow capitalism to stage its own death just to be reborn afterward in a stronger way?

One division that emerged early on among the occupants concerned the need to call for demands. Some took issue with the content of the demands, arguing that if these are to be truly “representative of the 99 percent” they cannot assume a radical stance that would alienate a large section of the population. Others worry that demands focused on electoral reform or policy would steer the movement in a conservative direction. Some call into the question the call for demands in the first place, as these would limit, even undermine, the open-ended potential for transformation present in the #Occupy movement and could only close revolutionary possibilities.

JC: What, if any, demands do you think this movement should be calling for? And, more importantly, what kind of social transformation would you like to see this movement give rise to?

BD: Everyone reacted when the media asked about demands and everyone said we don't know what our demands are yet, or that we don't want to make demands. Movements typically start in one of two ways. They start with objectives and demands, which might come with legislative proposals that are fairly specific, or they demand rights that are not necessarily specific but concrete and understood. Those kind of movements pick up speed very quickly, get a lot of people involved, and it’s easy to articulate what the goal is, and they often achieve a lot. The other kind start with objectives that are fairly complex, which have more to do with structural change in the defining institutions of society. These movements are much harder to get started, they're much harder to get people involved in, and they don't catch fire very quickly.

With #Occupy is strange. It is a movement is on fire from day one and it’s not clear which of the types of movements it is, because the objectives aren't defined yet. Well, #Occupy is at that stage where participation is there, and the greatest advantage is that the objectives aren't known. What #Occupy is right now is an active group of people just starting to form objectives and tactics that are not just symbolic, but can create ways where you can start evaluating progress.

EVD: Demands are viewed differently by those in favor of them and those critical of them. The #Occupy movement makes demands all the time, as do all movements. The #Occupy movement demands an end to police brutality, which is what the Oakland port blockade was about. When the people were kicked out of the park, there was a motion put in to invalidate that order. There was a demand on the courts that the people should have the right to occupy the parks. When homes are given back to the people who have resided in them, that is a demand: The people have the right to continue to occupy their homes regardless of what foreclosure proceedings happened. Demands are a way that the movement communicates what it wants and it doesn’t have anything to do with asking power whether it concedes something. It expresses an intent to do something and in this way it overlaps with what you’re probably talking about in terms of objectives, but many of the people who are in support of demands don’t at all see it as a request.

If the #OWS movement starts issuing demands about particular bills in congress which are supported by Democratic legislators, it will be very easy for these politicians to co-opt the movement. But the absence of demands also raises the possibility that the movement will be co-opted. If we really don’t want the movement to be co-opted, which I think is of paramount importance, it is important to issue demands that will sharply differentiate the movement from the Democratic Party or the labor bureaucracy.

HA: Is #Occupy about systemic change? I obviously do not speak for the #Occupy movement, but it would be my hope that #Occupy is and will be about systemic change. Exactly how that will come to be articulated is, I think, a question of process.


Shepard Fairey’s #Occupy poster, based on his earlier Obama “Hope” image, proved controversial within the movement he sought to advertise.

NS: A lot of what this movement has done is produce a radicalizing experience. People come to the occupations and you don't hear anything about either Sarah Palin or Obama, they talk about their needs and hopes for their lives and families. There was a lot of value in not bringing the movement's message or orientation towards government and instead focusing the orientation towards the movement itself.

The documents produced by the consensus process of the general assembly are important to consider. The first document was, “Principles of Solidarity,” a document about what we stand together for as a community. The second one was a declaration, which was a call for occupations around the country and around the world. Again, they're not addressing government. It's saying government isn't what matters first of all. All these documents complained about things in government and the banks and so forth, but they addressed the people, assuming one another as the audience for this movement.

JC: What would it mean for #Occupy to succeed and can it?

EVD: Well, it hasn't defined any conditions for success so it can't really be evaluated to see if it has succeeded. It has succeeded in politicizing many thousands of people. It hasn't disrupted Wall Street to any great degree. It hasn't disrupted capitalism. It has disrupted the Port of Oakland and it may do so again. It's successful on those grounds, but in regards to the success of the movement, it needs to decide on the various visions of what it should do and evaluate success based on those things.

BD: I would like to see #Occupy continue to bring different people out of the various woodworks. #Occupy has accomplished a tremendous amount just by reminding us that there is energy. I don't think that major reforms are right around the corner but I do think the energy is there and the energy is the main ingredient of the first major step to make change.

NS: I think that this movement—and I do think movement is a fair term—is predicated on having watched other movements across the world change things and exercise the power of people in large numbers against the power of interests that are far too comfortable and far too powerful. What needs to happen for this movement to fulfill the hope that made it possible in the first place, that made these kids feel it was worth getting beaten up by the police, and what needs to happen if we want people to really take notice, is to follow through by bringing about serious positive change in the structure of power.

HA: For 13 weeks #Occupy has succeeded, but that's not to idealize it. There's really difficult stuff that we all continue to deal with. To the extent that we're all marginally sympathetic, I consider us all occupiers. When I say we, I'm not referring to some magical group I'm a part of and you are not—I’m referring to all of us who consider ourselves marginally sympathetic and critical. One of the key goals of the Platypus Affiliated Society has been the openness to criticism and even antagonism in the process of politics and I think #OWS is really bringing that to the fore for a lot of people.

And now going forward, I think that #Occupy will succeed if it recognizes that what we are dealing with is fundamentally global. This is a global movement and I think there is growing understanding of that within #Occupy. We've had visitors not only from the Indignados and others, but there is tremendous dialogue between Egypt and here.

Q & A

It’s interesting how emotional moments of interaction between the protestors and the police really energize the movement and bring many people into it. How do you the panelists think that tension will define or figure in the future of #Occupy Phase Two?

BD: I write extensively on this issue of police interaction with the protestors. A lot of people come out and say it's an injustice. It also has the effect of waking up those who are privileged and don't realize cops will beat you for any reason, as a large portion of society already understands. But the clashes with the police are a major distraction.

As a street medic during the anti-globalization movement, I was out there doing street medic work and constantly observing, watching, and dealing with the results of police interaction with activists. I strongly caution people from considering that interaction with police fuels a movement. I also caution people from thinking that police reaction to you has anything to do with the level of success. Police and mayors do not react to movements because they are threats to elites. It's possible they do, but not necessarily. I'm not a fan of the police and I'm not a fan of the idea that they are our interface with elites. I'm also not a fan of the idea that police are part of the 99 percent. I don't know where they fit in, but they're not going to come around anytime soon, they're institutionally opposed to what we're doing because of their allegiances with the 1 percent, yet it doesn't mean that any relations we have with them are conveying a response from the 1 percent except that they are the first line of defense.


On the question of models of social transformation: One of the popular tropes that emerged during the two months spent occupying Liberty Plaza is that many of the participants were working together to build a small scale model of what the future might look like. These occupants were looking to create a vision of the sort of society, in miniature, in which they want to live. Some radical thinkers of the past, by which I mean Marx, criticized this tactic of social change. Such authors have put forth the criticism that to build these castles in the air, utopians are compelled to appeal to the philanthropy of the bourgeois heart and purse. Applying this criticism to #Occupy Wall Street, doesn't one have to accede that most of the services provided at Liberty Plaza were still dependent upon donations which came from the society of exchange? If the means for the provision of these services are, in at least some sense parasitic, does this in any way compromise the legitimacy of such allegedly prefigurative communities?

NS: There is truth to that, the extent to which the general assemblies have a pretty hard time figuring out what to do with the half a million dollars or more which has come in, a lot of the people from within are really concerned about this and hope that, insofar as this is a prefigurative society, it isn't really that dependent on donations.

HA: I agree wholeheartedly with that critique and I also agree with what #Occupy is doing. I do not think those are mutually exclusive. I actually love Marx, but I think, historically, the biggest danger of certain kinds of Marxist politics is that they understand Marx in a certain way to the exclusion and detriment of every other possible strategy. They think that any strategy which isn't exactly aligned with an originalist interpretation of Marx—and I use that word intentionally—only looks like it is destabilizing capitalism when it is not. I don't think it is necessarily clear what it would look like to get to something like a Marxist revolution.

Whether foreclosure action is wonderful or it is only a gesture, private property is one of the cornerstones of capitalism. Putting people back in their homes is saying people should be able to own the homes instead of the banks. I'm not saying this is a radical critique of private property. But at the same time, the banks own those homes. Those people are effectively squatting those homes. There are more radical critiques of capitalism accidentally occurring in the #Occupy movement than appear to an originalist Marxist.

EVD: These actions are often ethically admirable. It's very positive that people are spending their time in this way, but it can be a distraction that diverts energy from political organizing. We should be aiming for a society in which the provision of goods and services is socialized at the highest standard, in the most sufficient way, which is something that individuals can't do, and can't voluntarily organize in small groups to do, which means that you need to seize the means of production. It means that you need the capacity of corporations organized in a different manner, in order to organize society differently. On the question of finance, it's perfectly apparent. In finance there’s already socialization of capital on the highest level and you would need to take charge of it on the highest level. There's no in-between step—you could provide loans to people, but that doesn't do anything about the power of finance as it exists. I think prefiguration is fine, but I'm not sure there's any way that you can see it as a bubble sort of merging into a larger sub-society, which will then be resistant to capitalism—I think capitalism would be able to overcome any such "bubble."

HA: I understand and am sympathetic to that argument, but without either romanticizing or abstracting something called a working class, it doesn't at all "distract" from political organizing, but it is political organizing. We've mobilized more so-called working class people—that’s a category I'm not comfortable with—in the context of political action. If at a certain point, on a grand scale, we are able to seize the means of production, that would be thrilling, but first what it means is a certain form of politicization—a certain form of political discussion that is inchoate. What I'm saying is that the means to mass mobilization aren't already known, but I think from participation we mobilize something a Marxist might call the working class.

BD: I do think there's a bit of a false dichotomy between these two ideas. The idea that this is a microcosmic prefiguration of society on a farm or in a park somewhere—that’s a straw man, something that people can decide to exercise as part of their activism, which is what #Occupy Wall Street did. The idea of the human mic, an interesting thing to watch for the people involved, it’s very empowering and it drew a lot of people in, versus the idea that we need to seize the means of production, that we need to take over the power of politics—I think that's also, in a way, a straw man or at least a bad idea.

The idea is that we can go into communities, build institutions, be engaged, participate in democracy on a small scale and build upward from the ground and challenge the top all at once, and that we do not need a vanguard to swoop in, take over the White House, and nationalize the means of production. We can seize the means of production on a small scale. We can build small institutions. I think we get dichotomized and that nobody here is advocating any of these things, except that we need to be engaged now, not waiting and just having discussions hoping we have that power someday down the road. We take it now where we can and look to take it down the road where we can.


On the double-edged sword of the openness of #Occupy: On the one hand, the whole advocacy for keeping it open is that the labor bureaucrats thus cannot co-opt us, but on the other hand, this openness is a way for the labor bureaucrats to stand for all this stuff they have no right to claim for themselves.

HA: That was an excellent point—that is a way that the lack of demands or lack of a clear ideology allows certain kinds of depoliticization. It allows the luster of looking like you're allied with #Occupy Wall Street but doesn't ask you to follow through. However, I think there's a certain form of leverage there. The union president has come out publicly and said "I am with #Occupy Wall Street," and you say, “Okay, here's the plan.”


To follow up on the question about what would it mean for a movement to succeed, I was wondering about the flipside of the coin. What would it look like if it were to fail? Not only in the most general terms of dismantling or fizzling out without having achieved social transformation, nor in terms of co-optation, which has been raised. What obstacles and dangers does the #Occupy movement face strategically, politically, and organizationally?

BD: The failure of the movement would mean it has failed to evolve. There are stages and we've said that we don't know what success would look like. But what what failure looks like, I think, is to take those steps, in evolving to the next stages. We're kind of at square one. Most movements make it to square one at some point. This movement has a really early and solid step on square one and has time to evaluate that and move forward, and not making it to square two would not exactly be something disgraceful but would be, as it goes, failing to evolve.

EVD: The problem that faces #OWS is in many ways the same problem which has faced social movements in the US for the past hundred years or so, which is that they get co-opted to one of the mainstream democratic parties, specifically the Democrats. If #OWS failed to take this opportunity to make clear its differences and divorce its constituencies from their historic support of the Democratic party, that would be a failure. If in 2012, a substantial fraction moved towards campaigning for the democrats and if others do not succeed in making very clear what is wrong with that, it will be a failure. In terms of the evolution, there may be evolutions in the framework of #OWS. If not, there will surely be other movements. There are important things that have to happen very soon. There has to be great growth of this kind of movement, but also a clarification. |P