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You are here: Platypus /Giving voice to Occupy: An interview with John Leveille

Giving voice to Occupy: An interview with John Leveille

D.L. Jacobs

Platypus Review 134 | March 2021

On February 9, 2021, D.L. Jacobs interviewed John Leveille via Zoom. Leveille is an associate professor of sociology at West Chester University, where he specializes in sociological theory and social movements. His book Searching for Marx in the Occupy Movement is based on nine months of participation in and observation of Occupy Philadelphia and analyzes the movement’s rise, organization, and ultimate demise. What follows is an edited version of their discussion.

D.L. Jacobs: Tell me about how you became interested in Marxism and then also in Occupy. How did you get involved, and why did you choose to write this book?

John Leveille: My interest in Marx goes way back. I would like to say it goes back to my working-class roots, but that might be an affectation of sorts. I am from the working class. My father worked in a factory his whole life — sixth grade education, the whole nine yards — and I worked in factories to survive in high school and college. In college, I was exposed to Marx and was turned on by Marx. He seemed to make a lot of sense. And then I went into the mental health field. So, before I became a sociologist — I’m a sociology professor — I was in mental health. I have a couple of master’s degrees in psychology from Columbia, and I worked in that field as a therapist and administrator, as well as a clinical director and various positions in the field for about 10 years. Eventually, I got increasingly disillusioned with the whole mental health project, with the whole conceptualization of mental illness. Throughout that time, when I was working in the field, I’d go home and read these critical studies — not necessarily Marxist, but critical works on mental illness — until I got turned on by Foucault. I read Foucault inside and out. I know Foucault really well. I decided to go back to get my PhD, and then I realized I didn't want to go into psychology. I wanted to criticize psychology, so that's what I did. I went for my PhD with a dissertation on the history of psychiatry which was specifically a sociological history of the rise and fall of psychoanalysis within American psychiatry, but there wasn’t a shred of Marxism in there. It’s kind of funny: Marxism rippled through all of my interests and passions, and I’ve been involved in tons of protests and the like throughout the years, but it didn’t really coalesce into my work until the Occupy movement or a little before. I’ve been teaching theory for about 30 years now, but in terms of doing research and writing directly related to Marxism, it’s only been in the last 10–15 years. When I started doing Occupy Movement research, I really didn’t know much about social movement literature and sociology. So, I dove into the literature, and I’m pretty proficient in it now. I kick myself that I didn’t do that way back when, but when I did the literature review and social movement studies to try to make sense out of the Occupy Movement, there was a glaring hole. There was no Marxism in mainstream American social movement literature. Marxism is just dismissed, right? I was pulling my hair out, saying, what the hell is this? Obviously, many Marxists have written on social movements, but if you look at the mainstream sociology of social movements, Marx is just dismissed. And I thought that was crazy. That was one of the impetuses for me fashioning the book on Occupy as I did.

DJ: The title of the book is Searching for Marx in the Occupy Movement. What Marx were you looking for, and what parts of Marx did you seek to recover or find absent in the movement?

JL: First of all, regarding that title: my editor insisted that I put the name Marx in the title. I didn’t really care, but actually I was surprised on the edit because I thought Marx would be taboo in American literature, so I was kind of happy that they required that. I had to fashion the title around Marx and Occupy. So, we felt around with it; it’s sort of a collaboration between the editors and myself, but it was my title, and, of course, it’s a double entendre. My analysis is quasi-Marxist, and the movement, in some respects, was quasi-Marxist, either implicitly or explicitly so. There were a lot of Marxists running around in the movement, of course, but there were more anarchists and liberals than Marxists. The standard bearers of the Stalinists would go out: anytime you have a leftist movement, you’d have these old guys with great white hair, and they pass out Stalinist literature, the orthodox kind, but they weren’t very prominent. The Marxist people involved with the movement were really, I think, more in line with the Platypus kind of orientation about Marx: not being content with rigid orthodoxy and trying to reconstruct it, like I am. I think one of the interesting things about Occupy was that you had this battle between the anarchists and the Marxists — the quasi-Marxists — and trying to conceptualize, trying to clarify, trying to articulate, an ideology that’s cohesive in some respects. And I don’t think I ever really pulled it off, and I think part of that has to do with the reality that right now there’s not a clear and universally accepted and articulated version of Marxism that’s potent, at least.

DJ: That’s a very important part of Platypus as a project. We like to say, “Admit everything, but concede nothing,” meaning that there are all sorts of different kinds of Marxism today, but what do they potentially all have in common in terms of their history, meaning, where did they come from? You were mentioning anarchists and sort of quasi-Marxists. You mentioned horizontalism a lot in the text and different kinds of organizational forms. Historically, this could be taken as a response or reaction to Marxism. In one of the first footnotes in your text, in the introduction, you mention Marxism’s being a “disaster in practice”[1] and you also have sections talking about hierarchy or authoritarianism in that sense.[2] What parts of Marxism did you think either showed themselves to be returning?

What parts of Marxism do you think could have benefited Occupy? In other words, parts of Occupy very much look like responses to the history of Marxism. Horizontalism is, in many ways, a reaction to the history of Marxism’s party-building, Leninism.

JL: Well, you know, Marxism has a very complicated history. In the early 1900s in America, you have anarcho-Marxism — you know, Goldman and everybody else. So, there is a reaction against the hierarchy and the like that you can find in Marxism itself — but you still need to organize. And you know, if you don’t have some sort of organization in a movement, it’s not going to go very far. I think one of the points that I was making in my book was that we should think of Occupy more as an expression-driven movement than an interest-driven movement.

DJ: Can you talk more about that? On the back cover of your book as well, you say, “Occupy was as much an expressive moment as it was an instrumental one.”[3] It expressed modern contradictions as well. You talk about things that you thought had changed from Marxists’ time.

JL: I think it is expressing the contradictions of post-industrial capitalism. Marxism has to be reconstructed — and I’m not blaming Marx. I think he’s brilliant, but, he’s writing in an industrial capitalism in the 19th century. You didn’t have iPhones, right? He missed the mark on a number of key points. I think we need to recognize that and address that. What key points were missed, and where should we go from here? I mean, there are lots of different key points. He missed the point about the state. I don’t think he thought of it as being as flexible and enduring as it was: passing social welfare laws that kept capitalism going in the United States and Europe. But the key thing, I think, has to do with the essential conflict. That’s what I talked about in the book. The class conflict: I don’t think it is the key conflict. There are a number of key fundamental dialectics in contemporary capitalism that I don’t think he could have envisioned, and one of them —and this is one of the key points in my book — is an elevation of self, of identity. I’ve written lots of essays about this in various contexts, about this elevation of self, and this ties my Marxism into my earlier psychological stuff. I’m an anti-psychologist. In some respects, I very much like Althusser’s work. I mean, if you talk about my orientation, it’s really someplace between Althusser and Adorno — which seem contradictory, right? But as a lot of people — Frederic Jameson and others — have said, it’s not contradictory to think of people like the structural Marxist and the humanist Marxist as being in contradiction. You know, Frederic Jameson writes about Gramsci and Althusser and says that they’re basically the same thing because they’re at different kinds of angles. That’s kind of where I’m at. The point is in history, the self becomes prominent, and it gets elevated, it gets disembedded, not unlike what Erich Fromm talks about. I don’t know if you know who Erich Fromm is?

DJ: Yes.

JL: Well, I don’t subscribe to this. I reject psychoanalysis in that I reject all forms of psychology, but I think Fromm’s kind of analysis was in some ways on the mark: the idea of the self’s getting disembedded in the modern world. A lot of conservative scholars, like the philosopher Charles Taylor, have talked about this, and even Durkheim, who was definitely no Marxist, warns about the modern world’s producing this glorification of the self: you could call it the reification of the self. The tension has to do with the self: this “universal self” versus capital. Marx is writing about the horrendous ways that capitalism works, maybe not in terms of his economic analysis, but in terms of what I think is philosophical analysis. I think he’s right. Capitalism is a mechanical beast that is incredibly creative and destructive; it destroys its relations, etc. But it’s powerful, right? You have this elevation of the self, and then you have capital, and I think that’s the fundamental tension. And I think that’s what we reflected in the Occupy Movement.

DJ: In the book you mention Siegfried Kracauer, the one-time teacher of Adorno , and so I wanted to read a quote. This is from The Mass Ornament, which is referenced in the book:

The adherents of this position reproach capitalism’s rationalism for raping men, and yearn for the return of the community that would be capable of preserving the allegedly human element much better than capitalism. Leaving aside the stultifying effect of such regressive stances, they fail to grasp capitalism’s core defect: it rationalizes not too much but rather too little. The thinking promoted by capitalism resists culminating in that reason which arises from the basis of men.[4]

So, Kracauer seems to be suggesting that the antinomy you identify is the product of the inability to act on the potentially emancipatory aspect of capitalism, which could be infinite transformation. But since we experience it in an estranged way, it just comes across as oppressive. Coming back to the question of Occupy: did you see the Occupy Movement as expressing this antinomy or bringing it forth or putting it in a new light, or even pointing towards how it could potentially be overcome?

JL: I see it as unarticulated. I mean, this is part of the issue. This is how I framed the Occupy Movement. It was an expressive movement that didn’t have the cognitive pieces, if you will, to put together, to make sense of the moment from a Marxist — if you want to call it that — perspective. It was expressing a yearning to try to resolve these kinds of thorny problems, but it was stuck. Yes, as long as you stick with that uncritical and unreflective embrace of this 20th century conceptualization of self as a disembodied self with universal properties — as long as you keep that — you’re not going to get beyond. You’re still blocked, I think, from being able to critically understand what’s going on. Of course, that suggests or implies something rather dangerous, because I’m not saying that we should deny people rights or anything else, I’m saying we need to reconceptualize this whole notion of being and self in the world today, and we have to go beyond it. That’s why I kind of gravitate towards Althusser. As long as you focus on the self, even in protesting against capital, you’re still stuck in the framework of capitalist reasoning.

DJ: Do you think that in a sense that returns us to the canonical contradiction in Marxism of the relations versus the forces of production? Marx’s point is that basically people’s sense of self is that of the relations of society — the bourgeois subject — and industrial production sort of outstrips that, so we experience this as kind of dehumanizing.

JL: Well, yes and no. I mean, this goes back to Marx’s timeframe, right? You know, I think Marx is writing at a time when the ascent of contradiction that he saw was generally right: the contradiction of his time was between labor and capital, for example in the South. My interpretation of Marx — at least the younger Marx — is that he had this humanistic sense of the self being born out of the Enlightenment, but we’re living in a different time, and I think that the self has fully blossomed, and it doesn’t have anywhere to go now. “Blossomed” is not the right word: I would say it’s more like a weed right now. It comes back to the logic of capitalism. This goes back to Adorno. The logic of capitalism bears down upon us and causes us to think and be in certain ways, and part of that way is individualism. Capital requires us to think in fragmented terms, in terms of equivalences, and it blinds us from seeing the connections or relations: the totality is right, and I think this is what is going on.

DJ: You talk a lot about the famous slogan from Occupy, “We are the 99%,” and also the contradictory character of that. In other words, who are the 99%? Who is the “we”? I think you have a whole section on it.

JL: It’s a slogan, right? I mean, if you look at the membership, I gave some data in the book about some polls and surveys that were done. I know firsthand from hanging out with these guys, right? Yeah, we weren’t the 99%. They were the unemployed — you know, sociology and philosophy students at the local colleges working as baristas. It’s not to say that they weren’t the working class. That’s not to say that there weren’t poor black people involved or that there wasn’t a variety of peoples, but the claim is that we are the 99%, right? I don't think I read about this, but I think it was more to assuage any kind of concerns of the protesters, and it was an effective tool. I think it was more popularly received immediately. If you look at public impressions of it in the United States when it first happened, a lot of the polling showed that people were in favor of it, but as it went on, for various reasons, including the crazy right-wing press, the public impression of Occupy went down and down and down.

DJ: In the history of Marxism —not just Marx but also Lenin’s time and then Adorno’s time as well — there’s always been this question of class’s relationship to democracy. In other words, the class is not identical with democracy; it might even be democracy split in a certain way. This is how I took your discussion on “We are the 99%.” You bring it up as expressing the contradictions of capitalism. So, I was wondering to what extent you thought what had come of Occupy was pointing towards some kind of organizational outcome, that maybe was taken up, maybe wasn’t. You end by talking about the influence of Occupy on politics — Bernie Sanders is a classic example.

JL: Occupy created all these different little friendship groups and cliques and it integrated, broadly, many people on the Left, and a lot of people involved in Occupy got plugged into various kinds of things, whether it was mainstream politics with Bernie’s supporters or AOC supporters or whether it was more leftist and radical kinds of movements like Black Lives Matter. As much as there’s a massive tension between black protesters and white persons at Occupy, there is a connection between Black Lives Matter and the Occupy Wall Street movement, but I don’t know if that addresses with your question.

DJ: Did you think that there were paths not taken after Occupy? I mean, this is ten years out, and there’s a lot of Occupy — I’m not saying the movement, obviously, but there are the people who were involved, and then there’s the influence. Bernie Sanders, for example, basically takes the slogan of the 99% — he’s instantly talking about the millionaire and billionaire class in his first presidential campaign — but there were also some people post-Occupy who believed that they were “sheep-dogged” into the Democratic party. So, I’m thinking of the more anarchist side of Occupy.

JL: The anarchists really got pissed off. I mean it: with Occupy, at the end, they were in your face. They were the Black Bloc kind of guys, the Antifa kind of guys.

DJ: I will put it in another way as well. After Occupy, the next year, we get Obama…

JL: Right, it had been absorbed. You know, when I was doing the research on Occupy, I used to see MoveOn people running around all over the place. I really, as a leftist, hate MoveOn because it’s a major co-opting kind of ring entity, and while some parts of Occupy have been co-opted into the mainstream, I think a lot of people aren’t. The Left is big out there, right? But in this country today, with the institutional mechanisms and the structures and financing of the society, it doesn’t create a lot of hope that that any kind of leftist movement — whether it’s chaotic and crazy as Occupy or even a more established and formalized bureaucratized movement of a conventional sort — could really take hold.

I’m not optimistic, basically, about the future of this country and the future of the Left in this country. The two-party system, from a radical perspective — and this sounds silly — but from a radical perspective, I think that the Left Democrats should create a Left party. I mean, it sounds like a modified reform, but I think that would open up a space for radical Leftists because right now, you have the radical Right both in power and on the streets, and the radical Left has been co-opted, marginalized or dismissed by the Democratic Party. There are no mechanisms in place in a two-party system for any sort of Left or radical Left that really have a voice outside of the streets, because in the streets it’s not going to happen. Americans are, you know — we’re talking about the far-fascist Right kind of stuff now; that’s where we are on the political spectrum. So, I’m not very optimistic about the future. But in terms of the influence of Occupy: there are a lot of people discontented on the Left who don’t have a voice and end up voting for people like Joe Biden. I voted for Biden, of course, because, you know, the vote is between Biden and insanity. I’m not happy about it. I’m not very optimistic about it.

DJ: I was an undergrad at Temple University in Philadelphia when Occupy Philly happened, and I remember at least the experience was one of thinking, maybe we don’t have to rely on the Republicans or Democrats. We could do something else. And I was just thinking of the last 10 years, and it’s like, well, the next year Obama was voted in to stop Mitt Romney who was considered the worst thing at the time. Then we have Trump in 2016, and Trump himself thought he was following Occupy. If you actually slog through his book, he ends by saying that he thinks both Occupy and the Tea Party are right — this is what he says at the end of his election book.[5]

And now we have Joe Biden, and I was just thinking, if you were to tell me 10 years ago that this is going to lead to the election of the Vice President of the person who’s being protested in 2011, I would think, how could have that been stopped? That’s why I was asking about paths not taken.

JL: I think there’s a dire need for a Left party in this country, a third party, but obviously the institutional mechanisms in place, not to mention the financial mechanisms in place, won’t allow it on the Left. It might allow it on the Right, but not on the Left. So, given that, I do think that the energies could be put into local and regional kinds of third parties in major cities. Philadelphia could have a socialist mayor. If you look at the polling in Philadelphia or New York, I think from a strategic perspective, grass movements kind of stuff, a third party could happen. How far it could go? I think there would be limits because of capital. There’s an enormous concentration of wealth in this country, and they’ve gotten completely wacky in the last 30 years. Capital in this country is just fascist kind of stuff. I don’t think they would let it take off, but in terms of what could happen and what should have been done, gaining control of cities and the like.

DJ: Since Occupy, there’s been a Neo—Social-Democratic movement. There was Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos, SYRIZA, the DSA.

JL: The DSA has grown a lot in the last 10 years.

DJ: I bring this up because for a lot of Millennials, the relevance of Marx to them was that it looked like it was a return to the contradiction between capital and labor that you had mentioned would have been potentially anachronistic. Do you think there’s been a return to that way of understanding the contradiction, or is it more superficial?

JL: Well, this whole idea of labor versus capital I think is anachronistic. I really don’t think it’s the essential contradiction. When Marx is writing, when he was talking about unions being the vanguard, basically, he wasn’t thinking about public unions, right? He wasn’t thinking of firemen and teachers or the police. He was thinking about people working in factories, privately-owned or stock-owned factories. But if you look at unions in the United States, the biggest and most powerful unions in the United States, they are public unions: teachers, firemen, SEIU. The nature of the union in that situation is not embodying the contradiction between labor and capital, because the publicly funded teachers’ union is not going against Capital, right? It’s going against the State, so you’ve got a different opposition. The whole framework by which Marx articulates the contradiction between labor and capital is not relevant today. You mentioned the idea of Marx’s famous contradiction between the forces and relations of production. Marx is thinking about factories. That’s one of the key dialectics, Marx says: industrial capitalism is going to be found as a result of putting more and more poor workers together under the same roof — 10,000 workers under the same roof — and then you have these massive factories and machinery and the like, and that that’s the essential contradiction. You have 10,000 workers under the same roof: a light bulb goes off, and they say, “Hey, we can shut this place down, and even more.” That’s a little bit different than workers at McDonald’s, or workers at Home Depot. There aren’t 10,000 people under the same roof.

DJ: Don’t we have strikes today? Public unions go on strikes.  

JL: They’re going on strikes for wages or benefits, but essentially, it’s not going to coalesce into this thing about capitalism as the source of the problem. Private property is not their issue: the state is not the landowner, if you will, or the capital owners. So basically, the bourgeoisie are getting off scot-free. This is part of the issue, because the conflicts are around them, and they are just gathering their wealth and collecting the wealth and doing horrendous things.

DJ: So, you find that they are too mediated through the state – “suspended through the state,” maybe.

JL: I think we need to reconceptualize this whole idea of the state and the place of the state. I think Marx was right. In my reading of Marx — Lenin would probably disagree — Marx was thinking like Trotsky: international. The movement has to be international. It has to transcend borders. And of course, the bourgeoisie don’t want that. They want these little countries because they can control them; it’s easier for the bourgeoisie to control and maintain their powers with the state system as it is. The whole idea that money can fly, capital can go across borders, but people can’t. The bourgeoisie is international, so the movement should be international in focus. If you think about Occupy and their inklings and desires about this, people often times talk fondly about the Zapatistas or whatever. You know, you’re bringing in the internationalism of it, but at its heart it didn’t really go very far. I’m a big fan of internationalism in terms of protest movements. Especially nowadays, because we have to go beyond class: capitalism is the source of the problem, and the contradictions embedded in capitalism are fundamentally the source of the problem. I think it is the individual who is the key thing, but it’s not only the individual: for example, you have the environment. I think Marxists need to focus more on developing theories of the environment as well.  There are Marxist theories of the environment, but they’re old-school theories. I haven’t read any kind of Marxist theory of the environment that really bowled me over. It has to do with the idea of nature. I forget whether I wrote about this in my book, but really at the heart of this, it has to do with nature and the divide between culture and nature. The environment is part of nature. The human body is part of nature, right? Yeah, and the self as embodied is part of nature, right? And you have capital versus nature. Capitalism doesn’t have any mechanisms to effectively address the relationship between nature and culture.  So, we need to get beyond that. Unfortunately, capitalism is so powerful, it creates certain ways of thinking about nature and capital, including notions of self, that prevent us — I’m thinking about Lukacs here —from being able to address it.

DJ: So, you know for some people who might be reading this interview, they might not have even been out of middle or elementary school at the time of Occupy. For them, this is an event that they might not have much memory of, but I was wondering, do you have one big lesson from Occupy that you wish you could be channeled, in terms of your experience and what you saw and what you read on it, to people today in 2021?

JL: I think about the organizational structure of the Occupy Movement. The whole idea of horizontalism. It is warm and fuzzy in some respects, it is crazy in other respects.  If you wish to effect significant change rather than simply being expressive of discontent, I don’t think that works. Contrary to people like [Frances Fox] Piven and [Richard] Cloward — sociologists who argue that we should avoid getting involved in hierarchies in movements because that replicates the problems of the order we’re fighting — I do think that there needs to be an organizational structure. It doesn’t have to be conventional, necessarily. And Occupy actually tried it; they had rotating leaders and all this kind of fun stuff, but kudos for them for trying these kinds of things. But I do think there has to be more of a formalized kind of structure. Although again, the United States will bust it up, right? You know, you have 16 spy agencies running around — U.S. government spy agencies, and they will never allow Occupy to keep going, if it was formalized, and if it was potent. I think there is a decent size of the American population that supports the popular claims of Occupy, including the anti-capitalist stuff. It’s not given voice, and it’s prevented from giving voice. But in terms of the organization or movement, there are alternative organizational structures. The people at Occupy knew this, and they debated this stuff, but if you think about the way it was structured, it was based on a group kind of format where all the groups are assigned a task. So, you know, this is the food group, etc. If you think about other kinds of protest movements that have been out there, there are different ways of organizing. That’s one kind, these task-oriented groups, but you could have a movement that doesn’t assign tasks to individual groups. I was involved with the Clamshell Alliance. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them?

DJ: Tell us about that.

JL: This was in the 70s. And this was the first major anti-nuclear protest movement in United States. And we had a target in New Hampshire. They were building a nuclear power plant called the Seabrook Power Plant, and the Clamshell Alliance was a protest movement throughout New England. There were all these different affinity groups throughout New England, 10 or 15 people who got together and as part of a group would all coordinate, and then we would go protest against the Seabrook, embracing nonviolent civil disobedience. One time we attacked the site; some people had grappling hooks, and they tried to pull the fence down. Running around the marsh and getting pepper sprayed and all this crazy stuff. The plant was built, but it was actually an effective movement in the sense of raising and elevating the anti-nuclear sentiment. So, it was effective. I think it was successful in that sense, but the point I’m making here has to do with the organizational structure of Clamshell. The groups weren’t task-oriented.  There were all these different groups in New England — just friends basically — 15 people or so who got together and had meetings, and then they would send a representative of each group to the general meetings. Then at the general meeting, they would figure out what they wanted to do and then they came back to the groups. But the point is that the groups were not task-oriented.

DJ: There was an organizational structure.

JL: Yeah. It was an alternative, right? And this is actually more in line, if you will, with the classic anarchist kind of sentiments in Occupy. They talked about the different kinds of possible structures, and they settled on the task-oriented kind.

DJ: But the resistance to structure, in a sense that you mentioned in your book, didn’t follow the inspiration of the World Trade Organization protests or the Zapatista movements, and those protests themselves were inspired by, or at least they were influenced by, late-60s kind of student activism. We did an interview with Max Elbaum and an interview with Mark Rudd. They were both in the SDS, and they both were called anarchists in Seattle. And there’s a feeling that something wasn’t channeled in a certain way, that maybe even the wrong lessons were learned from the 60s. And in their cases, it sounds as if organization would be one of those wrong lessons that was passed down.[6],[7] My experience of Occupy was that there is a certain common sense to the horizontalism, like, “Oh, we know what happens if you try to do any hierarchy; it leads to something really bad.” I guess my question is, did you see any of the history of the Left weighing on Occupy in terms of how people thought about what organization should be, what politics should be, how to organize political groups?

JL: I mean, there is a lineage. I think there is a pretty clear connection between the Seattle WTO protests and Occupy. I don’t think that Occupy or the more recent protests, kind of lost something as you’re suggesting. I think they just picked up the ball and didn’t go beyond it, didn’t go beyond the WTO protests. And the question is how to go beyond it. If you want to have a sustained movement, you have to have organization of some sort or another. I hate to sound like a bureaucrat, but this is a reality. I mean, when I think of Occupy, I think of finances. Any movement need resources. And one of the key resources that a movement needs to be sustained is financing, right? This is just a commonsense thing in a lot of respects, and Occupy Wall Street actually had a lot of money. Occupy Philly didn’t. They had like twenty, thirty thousand dollars running around, but they were stuck because they were so trenchant in their commitment not to get plugged in and not to get co-opted, and so they couldn't use a bank. They didn’t want to. They didn’t want to register as an organization with the IRS. These are mechanisms of the capitalist state that control and subvert movements, right?

DJ: But they also might be ones that a socialist movement has to take up anyway, and the question is how to mediate and deal with those contradictions rather than trying to avoid them.  

JL: The way to do it, I think, is to create a legitimate front. It sounds so pragmatic, but creating the mechanisms within your organization that allow for more radical kinds of activities; this is what the right wing, the fascists, are doing. The January 6th insurrection on the capitol was funded. It was funded by rightwing nonprofit corporations indirectly. So, it can be done, but you just need more sophistication in terms of the legalities of it. You have to be careful, because it can easily get co-opted once you start writing up charters and the like, but I do think that Occupy needed to have a charter of some sort, a designation as an IRS entity, though that imperils it to a certain degree because it negates the very essence of what it’s all about. The whole question is how to sustain it, how to sustain that movement, and in the forms it chose, it couldn’t be sustained.

DJ: It seemed like it ended with a crisis. You have two chapters on this; it fell into schisms, as you call them, right? “Dissenters,” the pragmatics, the responsible, etc.[8] And I was thinking that in a lot of ways it mirrored or repeated crises in previous movements. You mention Adorno, who has a famous critique of the student New Left; it’s a sympathetic critique because he does want the students to succeed, but a critique of them in terms of pseudo-activity. And I was kind of reminded of that when you mention one of the dissenters saying, “You guys think too much!” or “We need to act!”

JL: Yeah, you have a couple things there. The schisms are the classic stuff of movements, especially the new social movements. I write about it a little in the book. If you look at new social movements, schisms — you can call them dialectics, dialectical contradictions — constantly appear. It’s in the nature of the movements today, the post-industrial movements.

DJ: It’s there in the whole history of Marxism, historically. I was just teaching Reform or Revolution last week, the classic Rosa Luxembourg pamphlet, and she says, thank God for the reformists she's polemicizing because they’ve given an object that the movement can then reflect on and transcend, whereas it seems like since maybe the mid-20th century, whenever there’s a schism, it ends up being fatal for new social movements.

JL: I think you’re right. The schisms in the 20th century ended up not being very good. Like, when a schism happens, things are falling apart. Again, it goes back to the idea of sustaining a movement over time and my pessimism about this. You need resources and financing, you need a whole bunch of things, and the United States is not right for it. It is actually ripe for a radical change, I think, and when you get unstable conditions, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

DJ: It looks like the radical change is coming from the Right. That’s what you were just mentioning.

JL: If America does become unstable — even more unstable, that is, because it is already going that way — it opens up the door. In effect, a vacuum gets created, and right now, of course, it will likely be filled by the radical Right – the fascists. But if the instability sustains itself, that’s going to allow for the possibility for the Left of some sort or other to reconstitute itself on the street. It’s a strange kind of thing in America right now because when we are talking about leftists now, we're talking about major cities. We’re not talking about the countryside, we’re not talking about Kansas or Alabama, but we’re talking about the coasts. We’re talking about blue America. It’s really a divide between the two Americas. And so, if America gets unstable in one way or another, if America divides, then the Left is going to be a resurgent Left because a meaningful Left would be a potent force in any kind of blue country. If United States split into red and blue, the Left will be a lot more powerful.

DJ: You’re talking about in Democratic Party-majority areas.

JL: Yeah. If the country divided right now, I think there will be a chance for a meaningful Left to arise, and whether it would be institutionalized right away or whether it would be a vital social movement, I don't know, but I think it would be sustained.  I don’t think it’s sustainable in this country.

DJ: I mean, could it be somehow a combination of what you were just calling blue and red countries? I’m thinking of just how much the two parties right now seem to be all over the place. Take Mitt Romney. During Occupy, he’s the austerity guy: 47% of the country is never going to vote for me. You remember this bombshell, and then all of a sudden today he’s talking about things like extending childcare credits past what the Biden plan is. It seems different than what he was at the beginning of the decade, and I’m just thinking, does it have to be that the Left is a break from the Democrats? Because it seemed like Occupy was not trying to break from just the Democrats or just the Republicans but trying to break from the two parties together.

JL: This is one of the arguments I’m trying to make in my book. I don’t think Occupy should be thought of on the continuum of Left and Right, however you conceptualize Left and Right. This again goes back to what we talked about before: this idea of expressivity and the inability to articulate — I don’t want to say a third way because that’s a term many people write when they say that we need a new kind of politics that breaks the Left and Right, and it’s not in the middle that we’re going for. Occupy, obviously, didn’t want to go in the middle; it wanted to go another way. Again, in a two-party system, you don’t have institutional mechanisms that allow for this voice to be sustained. If you had a multi-party system, you can have it. While Occupy is obviously not like the Green Party in Europe, the Green Party is a vital and dynamic and major player in certain countries including Germany today. And actually, I don’t know if you ever look at the Green Party platforms of Europe, but their platform is very similar to Occupy Wall Street’s platform. So, it’s the structures that are in place in American capitalism that don’t give me a lot of hope that the sentiments of Occupy can be can be sustained over a period of time.

DJ: Our name, our group Platypus, comes from the story of the Platypus originally looking irrational to Engels. A young Engels didn’t believe it was a real animal until he saw it at a zoo and then realized, “Oh, this animal, something I thought was impossible, could be true.” We try to give the analogy that perhaps a Left today would be like a platypus in the sense that it wouldn’t be recognizable to us currently. You were just talking about the Right and Left continuum. And so that’s why to me, maybe the Left wouldn’t be like a split from the Democrats or a split from the Republicans. It might be a split from both of them and involve people who are just kind of apolitical today, who have nothing to do with either and don’t participate in that sense. And I thought Occupy, in a lot of ways, reflected that kind of potential, however fleeting.

JL: Yeah, I think you're right. And again, it goes back to my pessimism. I mean, there is no institutional space that would allow this alternative to be established either in the political arena or the cultural arena. I had actually thought that Occupy might lead to some of those little radical factions blowing stuff up right after that, you know five or ten years after Occupying because of this lack of space. Obviously, I was wrong on that but it was right here.

DJ: That’s what the Weatherman ended up doing.

JL: I thought there were going to be some factions of Occupy doing that. There’s a lot of anger in the movement, but it didn't happen. Which is kind of surprising to me. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t happen, to tell you the truth. I agree with what you just said about needing an alternative, if you want to call it that, or different kind of orientation that goes beyond the two-party way of thinking. We haven’t really talked about race or gender in this whole thing, which is kind of interesting.

DJ: I thought it came up in terms of schisms. In terms of something that seems like a repetition. In the 60s, a lot of social movements ended up having a schism based on race or gender. SNCC is a famous example of this. In that case and having read both your book and Michael Gould-Wartofsky’s book,[9] it seems that towards the end of 2011, Occupy started to have internal, internecine in-fighting over questions of microaggressions, over questions of race or gender or certain people speaking over other people: Is this “white-dominated?” Is this being “male-dominated?” Would you like to talk about that?

JL: It’s interesting in that class was not really front and center in any of those debates. It was race and gender — which is, you know, appropriate and relevant — but the way in which it was managed and addressed contributed to the schism. The question is how and why that happened, I try to talk about that a little bit in the book.

DJ: Any serious organization is going to raise that question again, because you might have people who are voted in, who represent certain dominant sociological groups, and we would hear, “This is white; this is male.” This seems to be something that’s passed down from the 60s and really is an inhibition to organizing.

JL: Well, my spin on it, going back to my whole notion of history and the self — this contradiction of equalities and self — as long as we stay on this notion of the idea of the individual, in this case individual equality between races or genders, as long as we have this framework, produced by capitalism, then we’re stuck in a box that we need to go beyond. When you decide on producing the self, this produces responses and social policies and the like which I think are wrong-headed. You are trying to establish equality in practice using this conceptualization of the disembedded self as I described it. It’s wrongheaded. It elevates the self and then it produces this quagmire that you see. We need to abolish this whole self-conceptualization. |P


[1] John Leveille, Searching for Marx in the Occupy Movement (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 3.

[2] “Specifically, [Lenin] argues for the role of the intelligentsia as the intellectual vanguard of the revolution who must teach the public about their true oppression and about what they should do in response. Both in practice and in theory, one sees the horrors produced by such formulations — formulations that are in contradiction to the argument put forth in this book. It is of note here also that the problem with [Lenin’s] analysis lies largely in embracing an instrumentalist view of the theory.” John Leveille, introduction to ibid., xxviii, footnote.

[3] Ibid., back cover.

[4] Siegfried Kracauer. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 81.

[5] “As for the Occupy Wall Street protesters... [t]hey are angry at the banks and they should be. They are angry at the government and they should be... One thing the Tea Party folks and the Occupy Wall Street people can and should agree on is tackling the rampant problem in the Obama administration of crony capitalism...

Likewise, I think the Occupy people and the Tea party can agree to get rid of the corporate welfare that gives tax subsidies to oil companies. How does that make any sense? Oil companies make billions. Why should the taxpayers have money taken out of their hard-earned paycheck to hand over to the oil companies, many of whom are in cahoots with OPEC? That's stupid and unfair as anyone can clearly see.” Donald Trump, Time to Get Tough (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2015), 188.

[6] “For one thing, there was a fetish of ideological purity in the different trends of the New Communist Movement, a certain kind of voluntarism that attempted to leap over objective conditions. These problems affected our generation and glimpses of them came through again around Seattle in the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. We were also afflicted by rigid ideas about organization. Both led to various kinds of sectarian squabbling. There was also a general underestimation of how much serious theoretical and strategic assessment needed to be done regarding the society in which we live. A kind of American anti-intellectualism affected the New Communist Movement even as it promoted slogans like Lenin’s ‘Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.’”  Max Elbaum, “Up in the Air: The Legacy of the New Communist Movement” Platypus Review (June 2010) <https://platypus1917.org/2010/12/01/up-in-the-air-the-legacy-of-the-new-communist-movement/>.

[7] “It makes me very uncomfortable. The only value of the Weather Underground, it seems to me, is to learn what not to do. So when I see people making the same damn mistake, it upsets me. Last week I was in Pittsburgh and was arguing with some young people there who were involved in the G20 demonstrations back in September. They were a tiny faction of the six or eight thousand people there. About 200 of them wanted to march without a permit. They wanted to wear bandanas, and to show their militancy. They would not abide by the general agreement of nonviolence. So what I see is the need these people have to express their opposition rather than to think strategically about what will build the movement. This is the error we made. We went from organizing, which was essentially what built Columbia SDS, to swallowing an entire theoretical framework about revolution and anti-imperialism, militancy and support for the Third World, revolutionary solidarity, etc., all of which we took in the direction of self-expression. With the Days of Rage we believed that if by fighting the cops we showed people how militant and serious we were they would join us. But that does not build a movement. Today’s anarchists are making the same mistake.” Mark Rudd, “You don’t need a Marxist to know which way the wind blows: An interview with Mark Rudd,” Platypus Review (June 2010) https://platypus1917.org/2010/06/10/you-dont-need-a-marxist-to-know-which-way-the-wind-blows-an-interview-with-mark-rudd/.

[8] These groups are referred to in the book as “Dissenters” and “Reasonable Solutions.” See Leveille, Searching for Marx in the Occupy Movement, 150-151. For a discussion of the pragmatists, see esp. ch. 9, “Schisms Part Two: More Ideological Divides.”

[9] Michael Gould-Wartofsky. The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).