Platypus at #Occupy: Lessons learned from the death of the Millennial Left
Platypus Review 137 | June 2021
OCCUPY ERUPTED IN 2011 after the revolt of the Tea Party, a populist expression of discontent from the Right which provoked a renewal among the Republican Party base. In the shadow of the economic downturn, amidst global austerity protests, the Zuccotti Park occupiers looked to the rebellions in Cairo, Tunis, Athens and London. They were inspired by the forms of organization and mobilization at Tahrir Square and the popular assemblies in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol but directed most of their discontent against the government bailout. After NYC, copycat protests spread to hundreds of cities, on every continent — it was an explosion otherwise unprecedented in my lifetime, a spontaneous expression of popular discontent that cut across the political spectrum.
In their call for the Wall Street occupation, the “situationist” magazine AdBusters published attractive photographs of gas-masked anarchists lurking in the fog of the people’s war and advancing towards Wall Street’s Charging Bull. On September 17th, when hundreds descended on Zuccotti park, the chant broke out: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”
In response to the “Main Street vs. Wall Street” politics of the common-sense occupier, Platypus flyered the park with a printout of the 2008 Platypus Review article by the Platypus Historians Group, “Finance capital: Why financial capitalism is no more ‘fictitious’ than any other kind.” It read:
An authentically Marxian Left should take no side in the present debates over the merits and pitfalls of the “bailout” of the financial system. One can and should critique this, of course, but nonetheless remain aware that this is no simple matter of opposing it.
This side of revolutionary emancipation beyond capital, a Marxian politics would demand to better finance capital no less than to support labor.
But our flyer fell on deaf ears. The “Marxian left,” fake or otherwise, was not visible. A wayward sectarian might fight his way into a meeting, but the early days of occupy were dominated by anarchists and liberals. Anti-globalization veteran and cultural anthropologist David Graeber, along with the liberal Chris Hedges, were the poster boys for the Gen X ideologues. This generation hardly took responsibility for its leadership, except at Platypus’ panels. “Since this is a matter of some historical contention,” Graeber admitted in his brief autobiography, he was in fact the “first [to] suggest that [they] call [them]selves the 99%.” But he objected to being given sole credit: “two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist added the ‘we’ and later a Food-Not Bombs veteran put the ‘are’ between them.”
The ruling class, Graeber said at our 2012 London panel, was actually “terrified” of the people. He believed people had to free their imaginations and imagine an alternative configuration of life. Just like the people of Madagascar whom he studied in his ethnographic work, people, wherever they are and at whatever scale, can produce other forms of social life. We were already free, but only through direct action, participatory democracy — that is, rather than representative democracy — could we build an “anarchist society,” what he called “democracy without government,” bound by mutual aid and compassion. “I see anarchism more as a way of doing things,” he wrote, “a broad series of ethical commitments and principles, rather than an ideology.” For Graeber, morality could either stifle these efforts or encourage them — according to this logic, people pay their debts because they feel morally obliged to do it, even when they recognize it is unjust. To them, his reply seemed to be, just don’t do it: quit your “bullshit job” and free your mind.In his 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber boasted about success of the anti-globalization movement in achieving debt forgiveness for third-world countries. This was the pinnacle of anarchism as dishonest liberalism: “liberalism in hysterics.”
The anti-authoritarian moral impulse was the default organizational principle at the park. It was, as Chris Cutrone pointed out,
[a] configuration of politics on the Left [that] is the “leaderless” and “horizontal” movement celebrated by such writers as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, John Holloway, etc. A dominant theme in the self-understanding of the 1990s-era Left was, as in the current occupation movement, “resistance,” rather than pressing for reforms — let alone revolution.
Platypus learned that the 1970s was the last time the Left tried to organize for power. The 1980s was characterized by institutionalized protest — including varieties of Stalinist Popular Frontism such as South African and Central American solidarity campaigns and academic “Leftism.” The 1990s “Left” — Graeber’s generation — was more deliberately “post-Marxist” and, hence, post-political.
The anarchists of the Graeberite variety were facilitators in the General Assembly, the primary organization through which decisions were made at the park. Christened “Liberty Plaza” — or “Liberty Square,” depending on whom you asked — the new “Temporary Autonomous Zone” on Zuccotti Park was lively with cleaning crews, a kitchen, a library, and, of course, the sleeping quarters, which were unpleasant from the standpoint of comfort and cleanliness but showed a sincere commitment to “staying until…” (until what was unclear). Among those facilitating the park conversations was Marisa Holmes, an old contact from our early days in the New Students for a Democratic Society (New SDS) and a panelist in the first iteration of the “3Rs: Reform, Revolution, Resistance” panel, which we ended up hosting again as a result of Occupy. Marisa had spent the summer filming protestors in Egypt and came back with a fire in her belly, ready to turn the discontent after the bailout into fuel for a utopian experiment of “mutual aid.”
It was all very muddy, confused. Platypus wanted to pin it down: What did the occupiers want?
In November, journalist Chris Hedges was arrested when he and others staged a “people’s hearing” on the activities of the investment bank Goldman Sachs and blocked the entrance to their corporate headquarters. He and the anarchists agreed on one thing: they wanted a “genuine democracy.”
A last player I want to introduce is Alexa O’Brien, the journalist who had created an extensive archive of the only available pretrial transcripts of the court-martial of accused WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning; O’Brien also covered the Arab Spring for WikiLeaks. In the lead up to Occupy, she had started a campaign to demand free and fair elections. O’Brien called it the “U.S. Day of Rage” after the “Days of Rage” series of violent actions organized by the Weather Underground in 1969. She felt that “something needed to be done to help people have a space where they could discuss these issues and their self-interest without ideological talking points…” and realized that “most of the grievances, whether on the [L]eft or the [R]ight, could be linked to corrupt elections.” There was a point at which the U.S. Day of Rage was considered the true force behind OWS, and their social media accounts became the source for Occupy updates across news outlets. At the beginning, it seemed that at least some of the people behind OWS were trying to attract people to the park who may have ended up at a Tea Party meeting.
By mid-October, OWS had an approval rating of more than 50 percent — higher than President Obama or Congress. I remember going to the park one evening and seeing some workers wearing purple armbands. When I asked what they stood for, they said that they were the colors of the American flag combined, and they wore them because “this movement is not anti-American!” Rather, they were against “the elite,” against “the bankers,” against “them.”
The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” read in part:
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce….
They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media…
It’s about this time when Trump started to get serious with his first presidential bid, and although his 2012 campaign came to an end prematurely — he formally “bowed out” and said he was “not ready to leave the private sector” — we can already see in the popular discontent of the Tea Party and the protestors of Wall Street that there was plenty of material for a shift in the American political base. As we saw in the years after, the “99%” rhetoric was taken hook, line, and sinker by Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In the end, both parties grabbed the slogans of Occupy and ran with them. We are still in this moment.
A confused cry of protests rang out from Liberty Square. One could hear competing slogans: “Fight! Fight! Education is a right!” followed by “Two! Four! Six! Eight! Eat the rich and smash the state!” Pleas for federal regulation of finance were happening alongside teach-ins on alternative currencies. Declarations of war against the ruling class were followed by visits from the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Naomi Klein and Zizek pontificated over the people’s mic about “getting serious,” Jay-Z and Russell Simmons gave money, and mayor Blumberg — surely aware of the media frenzy the park had become — let the protestors stay under the watchful eye of the NYPD. But “the Marxists” were nowhere to be seen.
Ben Blumberg and I, both then members of Platypus’s Organizational Committee, argued about whether or not Platypus should have anything to do with this movement. What should we do? Go to the park? Bring them to campus? Hand out Platypus Reviews? We had read Capital with Moishe Postone at the University of Chicago; we had spent the first four years of Platypus as students of Marx and Marxism, arguing with Marxist sectarians, taking Marxism seriously — but Occupy was a different creature altogether.
At first, we held “Capital in History” and Communist Manifesto teach-ins, both in Chicago and New York, but these went nowhere. The park was not a place to think, to reflect, to consider anything of substance. The “people’s mic” actually prevented people from having any reflective distance from what anyone said. In the end, we pushed to take the activists out of the park and into campuses, so that we could take stock of what was happening. This proved tricky: anarchists refused to speak as “panelists” to an audience — that went against the assembly model. One night while promoting our events on campus at the park, an anarchist started to scream in my face, “You cannot take people away from the occupation! The whole point is the occupation! That’s it!” I jumped from one “working group” to another, pitching our little gamble: to host the conversation on the Left. We started with a series of roundtable discussions with Occupy activists around the globe. In the first one in NYC, we included a veteran of Seattle 1999, a facilitator of the General Assembly (a Graeberite anarchist), a member of the Electoral Reform Working Group, and a DSA member and editor of Jacobin magazine, Chris Maisano, who at the time was part of the Demands Working Group. As it turned out, the Demands Working Group was where the self-identified socialists had ended up, and the anarchists wanted them out. Maisano clarified in his opening remarks that despite the slander, they were not a Marxist cabal trying to take over the movement. In the end, however, they were the real winners of this whole mobilization. The founding of Jacobin in 2011 helped to build the common front between N+1, Verso, Historical Materialism, et al., as “the Marxists” who were serious about demands. Platypus, however, wasn’t taking sides in this “debate.” Because of this we were accused of betrayal, elitism and sectarianism. The via negativa nature of our work confused them. It became apparent during our engagement with the Left over the course of OWS that we had only negative lessons to learn.
In the Demands Working Group, the DSA called for 25 million jobs, Medicare for all, and free higher education through dramatically raising taxes on the rich and ending all American wars. As Maisano put in in our roundtable, “I fail to see how these can be coopted.” This Keynesian imagination, and DSA’s nostalgia for the New Deal, was the target of the anarchists’ ire. Maisano said he had arrived at his support for progressive reforms though the lessons of the Second International: reform and revolution cannot be counterposed. The demands, he clarified, were “not just directed at the state, but to the people out there who are heartened that we are protesting Wall Street but need something more in their lives than hanging out with people at a park.” He was “a socialist, a Marxist,” and he didn’t want to be “stuck in meetings for 10 hours a day.” Unions were serious, while the anarchists in the “invisible committee” behind the General Assembly were irresponsible activists who were squandering an opportunity. He had a point, but so did the anarchists who wanted nothing to do with the Democratic Party.
On the other side of Maisano were those who rallied behind the formula “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing”: no concessions to the reformists. A fringe but vocal faction of the anarchists on the park, self-described insurrectionary communization types, become increasingly disruptive at meetings at the sight of union leadership. They opposed the Graeberites and their council, working groups, the General Assembly, etc. They were convinced, as the Invisible Committee wrote in The Coming Insurrection, “Every organization that claims to contest the present order mimics the form, mores and language of miniature states. Thus far, every impulse to ‘do politics differently’ has only contributed to the indefinite spread of the state’s tentacles.” These anti-civilization anarchists wanted to tear shit down. Once freed from society, they hoped to return to the lost communal bonds between peoples. As it turned out, they were even more Heideggerian than the Graeberites.
The rejection of demands in the first two months of the occupation was built as a bulwark against the major New York unions and the “Marxists,” in particular the DSAers in the Demands Working Group. OWS gained the support of the AFL-CIO — not only of the local branches, but of the national leadership. When the NYPD jailed occupiers marching on the Brooklyn Bridge, transport workers, schoolteachers and municipal employees joined OWS for the biggest march of the New York occupation. Just like in Seattle 1999, the anarchists and organized labor originally stepped out together. But organized labor differed on the ends of the occupation: they hoped that OWS could be like the Tea Party, but for the Democratic Party. OWS, in other words, offered an opportunity to put pressure on the Democrats. On one occasion, at a late hour of the night, when an endless meeting of the General Assembly appeared to go nowhere, union members left in a huff and walked over to Tompkins Square Park. I followed them, along with a member of the League for the Revolutionary Party who was an ex-member of the Spartacist Youth League and part of the Platypus Reading Group at the time. It seemed to us that the unions had decided the meetings at Zuccotti were going nowhere, so the grown-ups needed to talk now about the actual bargain they wanted to make before the 2012 election. To them, it was plain and simple. The rest, as Platypus learned, was the cry before accommodation.
We learned an important lesson in this period: Platypus is not interested talking up “the Marxists.” “The Left is Dead” because there is no Marxism.We understood that Marxism’s long decline — or “death spasms” — meant that many anarchist varieties of “anti-Marxism” were deeply related to Marxism. The neo-anarchists were not the remnants of pre-Marxian socialism but were conditioned by the failure of Marxism in the twentieth century, which is why almost all the key twentieth-century representatives of anarchism were ex-Marxists. “Neo-anarchism” was a creature of the failure of Marxism. To focus on the death of the Left and raise the problem of the horizons of Marxism, we in Platypus had to deal with them as “fragments and shards” of a lost history, that is, of lost political horizons. We were not beholden to defend the Marxists against the anarchists, or the anarchists against the unions. Rather, we aimed to learn from all of these ruins. In order to learn during OWS, we had to come to terms with all sides as part of an ecosystem of the Left. We saw how they needed each other, and how by pushing against one another they perpetuated the status quo. Rather than taking sides in this debate, we aimed for self-education through public education. We hosted the conversation on the Left by curating the pathology of the dead Left. Our work today, pre-political in nature, remains education and self-clarification for a new generation so that the Left may live again.
How did we learn? The experience of older Platypus members was key to understanding the problem of repetition in our time. We learned thatduring the “Battle in Seattle,” the anti-WTO protests in 1999, the International Socialist Organization (U.S.) split from the Socialist Workers Party (U.K.) over not wanting to participate in the Seattle protests, which they considered to be “reactionary.”As a result,Alex Callinicos, et al., expelled the ISO from the International Socialist tendency, accusing them of “sectarianism.” The ISO, to their credit, considered the SWP’s advice regarding the Seattle protests as “opportunistic.” The Spartacist League similarly went through a flip-flop on the issue, at first rejecting the Seattle protests and then later “correcting” themselves. Clearly, Marxism’s disorientation, its steep decline by 1999, showed that they were really no more certain of what to dothan the anarchists. As Teo Velissaris put it at the Platypus 2012 convention, anarchists were legitimized because its opponent Marxism failed. “Anarchism is the return of a ghost,” wrote Adorno, or as Lenin put it “is the price we pay for opportunism, that is, the failure of Marxism.”
Looking back at the years leading up to Occupy and reflecting on our participation during the anti-war movement, we can see how the young leaders in the New SDS who had been mentored in the Chomskyan and Parecon perspective of Z Magazine writers like Michael Albert had formed the “anti-ideological” core of the new SDS. Once the antiwar movement failed by turning itself into a campaign for Obama, this bias, the creeping anti-Marxism, returned with a vengeance in the occupation movement. But what the anarchists represented, alongside the DSA, was the endless postponement of the question of Bonapartism, the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and thus, of Marxist politics altogether. In the end, most anarchists, liberals and DSAers all reconciled in the support for the campaign to reelect Obama as a necessary “stepping stone” or “the only choice” — repetition of defeat, ad nauseam. As it turned out, OWS had provided the Democrats a rebranding opportunity. Obama used the rhetoric of the 1% against Mitt Romney, and on the lead-up to the final accommodation, Jesse Jackson jumped the stack at Chicago’s Grant Park General Assembly in order to address “the people” on behalf of “their Party.” This is what Democracy looks like. In the crowd that night was Platypus member Tana Forrester. Irritated by the hypocrisy of the GA moderators, she started a spontaneous chant of “Fuck Jesse Jackson! Fuck the Democratic Party!” The crowd around her perked up. “Yeah! Fuck the Democratic Party!” But it was already too late, and the “leaderless movement” was no more.
The final lesson: Every renaissance of the “Left” in my lifetime has actually been a moment of its further decline and collapse. As I wrote for Jacobin in 2011, “from the standpoint of the present, the history of the Left appears as if written in a language which no one speaks anymore”. The lowered political horizons of today appear to us as fixed and static: how could we aspire to anything more? This feeling of hopelessness and disorientation, the creeping uneasiness that one is repeating the tactic and expecting a different result, this is what constitutes the problem of historical consciousness, which remains the task of our day. |P
. The Platypus Historians Group. “Finance Capital: Why Financial Capitalism is No More ‘Fictitious’ Than Any Other Kind.” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008). <https://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/finance-capital-why-financial-capitalism-is-no-more-fictitious-than-any-other-kind/>.
. Graeber’s autobiography can be found on his website at <https://davidgraeber.org/about-david-graeber/>.
. “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis.” Platypus Review 55 (April 2013). <https://platypus1917.org/2013/04/01/radical-interpretations-of-the-present-crisis-london-platypus-review/>.
. Lenin’s formulation is from “‘Left-Wing’ Communism An Infantile Disorder”: “[D]riven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism . . . anarchism is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another — all this is common knowledge. . . Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other.” Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York: Norton, 1975), 559–560.
. Chris Cutrone, “Whither Marxism? Why the Occupation Movement Recalls Seattle 1999,” Platypus Review 41 (November 2011). <https://platypus1917.org/2011/11/01/whither-marxism/>.
. “The 3Rs: Reform, Revolution, and ‘Resistance’: The Problematic Forms of ‘Anticapitalism’ Today.” Available as an audio recording online at < https://platypus1917.org/2007/11/06/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-resistance-the-problematic-forms-of-anticapitalism-today-media/>.
. Nathan Schneider, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2013).
. General Assembly, Occupy Wall Street. “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.” Available online at <https://archive.org/details/DeclarationOfTheOccupationOfNewYorkCity>.
. See “What is the #Occupy Movement,” a collection of recordings of Platypus OWS roundtables and panels, available online at <https://platypus1917.org/international-series/what-is-the-occupy-movement/>.
. The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Semiotext(e) Intervention Series (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 95.
. See “The ’90s and ’00s Left Today,” a panel held on March 31st, 2012 at the Fourth Annual Platypus International Convention. Audio recording available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2012/03/31/the-90s-and-00s-left-today/>.
. Pamela Nogales, “Two Steps Back: A reply to Chris Maisano,” Jacobin, summer issue 2011, available online at <https://www.pamnogales.com/writing/two-steps-back>.