The Limits of the Occupy Movement

From Cairo to Manhattan, Manila to Athens, Quebec to Santiago the worsening crisis of the world capitalist system is pushing thousands to rise up against rising hunger, deteriorating living conditions, and intensifying poverty and inequality on a global scale.

Not since the youthful Chinese Red Guards the raised the rallying call, “To Rebel is Justified” during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution amidst a similar global upsurge of people’s mass movements in the 1960s and 1970s have we seen protest actions of this scale.

More and more toiling people and youth take part in militant actions as seen by the State of the Nation Address protests in the Philippines last July 23 and similar upsurges in Canada, Spain, Egypt, and other parts of the world.

The whole world is in disarray. The old truths about global capitalism being the “End of History” and the impossibility of achieving a socialist alternative are being questioned.[1]

But the wave of protests characterized by the occupation of hundreds of parks and plazas by broad, decentralized, and amorphous groups, as bannered and popularized by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in the United States are now on the wane.

Drowned by the thrill for the upcoming US presidential elections and continually subjected to intense attacks and repression by the police, the OWS has found it difficult to regroup and revive protest campouts that peaked last October 2011.

Occupy Wall Street

The OWS started as a small campout protest at Zuccotti Park near Wall Street last September 2011. It quickly ballooned into a large movement and dramatized the gross failure of the “American Dream” to provide food, homes, jobs, health care, and education for the people.

With its daring tactics and fresh slogans, the movement drastically shifted political discourse by putting back terms such as “inequality” back to the mainstream.

But while the worsening crisis of the world capitalist system ensures the continuing relevance of the urgent social issues being raised by OWS, the movement was itself wracked by a crisis built-in within its very organizational form.

Inspired by anarchism, the initiators of OWS have intentionally ignored questioning the character of the state and the need to engage with the question of state power: “OWS does not claim to take control of the instruments of power, nor does it intend to.”[2]

Relying instead on direct action by individuals and small groups, their aim is to take “social change into their own hands by intervening directly in a situation rather than appealing to an external agent (typically the government) for rectification.”[3]

By rejecting the idea of all hierarchical power and striving “to create the most horizontal and democratic space possible—using the assembly as tool,” they believed this would open the space for genuine, participatory democracy.[4]

Our only demand then would be to be left alone in our plazas, parks, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods so as to meet one another, reflect together and in assembly forms decide what our alternatives are.[5]

Fetish of Spontaneity

Which leads us to the obvious question, if the masses unguided by a clear political line can spontaneously rise up on their own without a group or party of any kind encompassing them then why the need for disciplined and solid organizing?

Indeed, the masses through their daily experience can spontaneously become aware of their oppressed condition and can thus on their own spontaneously arrive at the conclusion of the need for resistance and struggle.

But as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire observed, “what their awareness – coming out of an immersion in daily life condition – does not give them is the reason for their exploited condition. This is one of the tasks that we have to accomplish in the theoretical context.”[6]

This theoretical context can only be brought to them from without and such requires conscious and painstaking organizing work.

As V.I. Lenin points out: “The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political, and organizational work…”[7]

In the recent past, the loose organization and shunning of concrete demands by OWS has allowed the movement to gather together under one umbrella some of the most diverse sets of people, sectors, and organizations.

However, it has become clear that this ambiguity has itself become a stumbling block to the movement’s further development and advance.

While there are those who rave about the democratic potential of Occupy’s nebulously “leaderless” organization with its penchant for taking everything by consensus, this absolute focus on processes has also led to a form of “organizational primitivism.”

Even some enthusiasts of OWS have commented how the fixation with consensus for the purpose of doing away with votes and hierarchy, “favors those with lots of time to spend in meetings” and “lavishes excessive attention on the stubborn or disruptive.”[8]

Anarchism Reloaded

At the center of this framework is the centuries-old debate between anarchists and Marxists on the necessity of seizing state power. Anarchists, from Bakunin to his “postmodern” heirs, categorically reject this option:

The moment you engage with a system, you’re not only legitimating it, you’re delegitimating yourself… the moment you’re interfacing with vertically organized structures of power, which are ultimately based on coercion, it poisons everything.[9]

While the present generation of anarchists in the OWS may not be very particular about the genealogies of their own theoretical positions, one could not help but point out how this echoes Bakunin’s line which Karl Marx vehemently opposed a century hence.

Hence, from the very beginning, the initiators of the OWS have been adamant about pursuing a purely horizontal organization against the building of hierarchical structures, which they consider “authoritarian” and “undemocratic.”

But this seemingly uncompromising posturing simply rehashes what Marx already criticized long ago as a misleading line that “scrupulously refrains from putting up any resistance to the capitalist regime apart from declamations on the society of the future…”[10]

In this sense, OWS still obeys the logic of neoliberal capitalism: “de-centered, rhizomic, and de-territorialized. It focuses more on direct action rather than building a concrete revolutionary program and organizing continuously the workers and other progressive allies.”[11]

By failing to grasp the character of the State as an instrument of class rule and thus refusing to come to terms with the need to build one’s own organized strength to counteract its repression, OWS gatherings have become vulnerable to State violence.

Not a Dinner Party

All over the US, Occupy gatherings have not only been violently dispersed but also subjected to “disruption and division, attacks on key people, escalation of tactics to include property damage and police conflict as well as misuse of websites and social media.”[12]

The long history of white terror from the Paris Commune to the Spanish Civil War has proven that the struggle with the state forces without a decisive, disciplined, and solidly-organized movement inevitably ends in a fiasco.

We have reached the limits of the Occupy movement. By incessantly fussing on the dangers of “authoritarianism” by more organized forms of resistance to the ruling system, they basically forgot the lessons eloquently stated by the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong:

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.[13]

The OWS served to mark resurgence of the global movement against the unprecedented exploitation and oppression of the masses by an elite one percent.

At the same time, it also posed the problem of the need for stronger and more disciplined organizations that can resist state repression and struggle for the organization of the toiling masses as the ruling class.

The severity of the crisis afflicting the world capitalist system will ensure the continued generation of militant mobilizations on a more massive scale.

The OWS is only the beginning.


[1] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” in The National Interest, Summer 1989, http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm. The conservative thinker Fukuyama advanced the idea that the fall of the former Soviet Union and the capitalist restoration in Socialist China manifested the ultimate triumph of capitalism as the endpoint of all history.

[2] Ross Wolfe, “The movement as an end-in-itself? An interview with David Graeber,” in Platypus Review 43, 31 January 2012, http://platypus1917.org/2012/01/31/interview-with-david-graeber.

[3] Benedicto Algabre and Salud Sakdal, “Bringing Back the State to the Revolution,” 13 March 2012, https://saludybenedicto.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/bringing-back-the-state-to-the-revolution.

[4] Marina Sitrin, “One No! Many Yeses: Occupy Wall Street and the New Horizontal Global Movements,” in Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette, October 2011, 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Paulo Freire, “A Conversation with Paulo Freire,” in The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation, Trans. By Donaldo Macedo(Massachusets: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1985), 156.

[7] V.I. Lenin, What is to be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement, Trans. by Joe Fineberg and George Hanna, Edited by Victor J. Jerome (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 53.

[8] L.A. Kauffman, “The Theology of Consensus,” in Occupy!#2 An OWS-Inspired Gazette, November 2011, 13.

[9] Wolfe, “The movement as an end-in-itself?,” in Platypus Review 43.

[10] Karl Marx, “Political Indifferentism,” Trans.  by Bignami, 1873, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1873/01/indifferentism.htm.

[11] Algabre and Sakdal, “Bringing Back the State to the Revolution,” 13 March 2012.

[12] Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, “The Agent Provocateurs in Occupy’s Midst,” 26 February 2012, http://readersupportednews.org/news-section2/440-occupy/10172-the-agent-provocateurs-in-occupys-midst.

[13] Mao Tse-Tung, “Report On An Investigation Of The Peasant Movement In Hunan,” March 1927, http://www.marx2mao.com/Mao/HP27.html.

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2 thoughts on “The Limits of the Occupy Movement

  1. Certainly there is no more need to explicate the matter, now that OWS has come into an expected halt. Anarchist tactics can only lead to gradual fatigue on part of the participants. The Marxists always do the dirty job, while the anarchist are just waiting for the next ‘spontaneous’ adventure.

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