Occupy Wall Street at 10: It Was Annoying, But It Changed the World

Ten years ago, I was ready to throw in the towel on this whole politics business, writes Doug Henwood — things were too bleak. Then Occupy Wall Street kicked off. Now, thank God, we’re living in the world Occupy created.

Occupy Wall Street protesters march down Fifth Avenue toward Union Square during a May Day rally in New York City, 2012. (Monika Graff / Getty Images)

In August 2011, I was ready to give up on politics. I’d gone so far as to set up a blog called “Why Fucking Bother?” and invited some writers I admire to convince me not to throw in the towel. Among those responding: Bhaskar Sunkara, whose contribution opened, “Because we’re on the right side of History.” I admired the optimism, but I was unconvinced.

I was pitched into this gloom because after three decades of neoliberalism, capital’s political advantages seemed insurmountable. It wasn’t just its control of politics and production, but it seemed like it had won the battle for our minds. Margaret Thatcher’s sharp observation, made two years after she took office, that “economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul,” seemed prescient. In my gloom of ten years ago, it felt like she and her class comrades had won, minds as well as hearts and souls had been won, and no one on our side had either the clarity of vision or the political means to reverse the trend.

And then, on September 17, 2011, a small crowd took over Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, sparking a movement that would quickly be imitated around the country and the world.

Too Much Trusting the Process

Zuccotti is hardly a conventional urban park, with far more concrete than greenery. Its history is highly relevant to the political movement that would emerge around its occupation. Originally known as Liberty Park, it was built in 1972 as part of a deal which allowed the developer to add seven stories to a tower being built across the street. (It’s what’s known in city parlance as a Privately Owned Public Space, one established and maintained by developers in return for a break on height or other revenue-enhancing characteristics. There are over 550 of them now.)

It was renovated in 2006 by its current owner, Brookfield Properties, and renamed after its then-chair, John Zuccotti. Zuccotti, who died in 2015, was a classic example of power in New York City — a lawyer who ran City Planning in the early 1970s, he later became a deputy mayor and eventually moved where the money is, real estate development. He and his eponymous park were perfect embodiments of the system Occupy targeted, the revolving doors of public and private power. But the park’s private ownership was a blessing: the cops couldn’t clear it out without a request from Brookfield, which didn’t come for two months.

Occupy’s origins are usually traced to Adbusters, the Vancouver-based magazine, which issued a call to its email list in July 2011 to emulate the protests of the Arab Spring and bring popular occupation to the heart of finance capital. While all kinds of tendencies eventually took part in the movement, it retained some of the vague anti-consumerist politics of that origin throughout its brief life.

Despite that political squishiness, it was nonetheless very good to see a turn towards targeting ownership — the 1 percent — and away from the complaints about “globalization” that characterized the movements of the 1990s that culminated in the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in December 1999.

We were a couple of years out of the Great Recession, but jobs were frequently terrible, if there were jobs at all. The unemployment rate was still 9 percent by the official count (and over 16 percent by the broadest measure); lots of people were broke and in debt. Barack Obama, elected with the hope that he’d bring about a more peaceful and egalitarian world, turned out to be a crushing disappointment. All that was very much on the minds of the occupiers from the first.

While the diagnosis was often sharp, goals were amorphous. The prevailing ideology was a fusion of anarchism and populism, with a few Fed-hating Ron Paul hard-money types thrown in. (Thank God almost no one was talking about Bitcoin in 2011, or it probably would have been big.) There was an obsession with debt — which is odious, no doubt about it — but much less interest in talking about what produced debt, the fact that incomes were not keeping pace with costs and that public benefits sucked, nor was there much serious analysis of how a capitalist economy was organized.

Processes were painfully verbose and time-consuming. Decisions had to be made by consensus at a General Assembly, which was basically whoever was in the park when issues were raised. According to a sixteen-page outline of Occupy’s governance principles in New York, voting is a competitive process, while consensus “is a process of synthesizing many diverse elements together” without some position or candidate winning and others losing.

Consensus may sound hyper-democratic in principle, but it turns out to be anything but in action. According to the anarchist writer Murray Bookchin, consensus was never an anarchist practice, but was instead imported into the tendency by a group of “cynical Quakers” in the 1970s, who used it to manipulate members of the antinuclear power Clamshell Alliance into yielding to their preferences.

Bookchin, who lamented the decay of anarchism from a social (and socialist) movement into a libertarian demand for individual autonomy, saw consensus as fine for small groups that know each other well, but not for larger groups. When large assemblies of strangers “try to make decisions by consensus, it usually obliges them to arrive at the lowest common intellectual denominator in their decision-making: the least controversial or even the most mediocre decision that a sizable assembly of people can attain is adopted — precisely because everyone must agree with it or else withdraw from voting on that issue.”

I was part of a working group that was formulating “demands” — a hefty social democratic package featuring public investment and greatly expanded social benefits. That approach, and notion of demands itself, were not welcome by the consensus-makers, and somehow our proposals routinely fell off the discussion agenda of the General Assembly. It was all too statist and poisoned by talk about money and budgets, which was the language of The Man.

Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, 2011. (David Shankbone / Flickr)

But even our hearty band of statist nonconformists fell prey to Occupy’s tedious proceduralism. I arrived at one meeting of the Demands group in Tompkins Square Park at around 6 PM. As discussion began, some participants worried that the meeting might not be done by the time the park closed at midnight. The prospect of six hours of meeting filled me with dread. When I left around 7:30, the group was still working on the discussion agenda.

These governance practices point to the central problem of Occupy: it had no vision of life beyond the parks and other spaces it was occupying (a term that drew some criticism for its militarist and colonialist connotations). There was no sense of how an economy could have been organized on its principles or how a society larger than a handful of people could be governed by consensus. (And how would anyone with a job and/or family have time for all those meetings?)

Nor was there any sense of how the larger world would be transformed along Occupy’s principles; there was no serious theory of social change circulating. Some participants saw the occupied parks as the new society in embryo, but it was hard to imagine how these autonomous zones would ever be able to feed themselves without the continued existence of money and supermarkets. But bringing up questions like this was unwelcome. It contravened the movement’s foundational reticence about goals and organization, because to talk about such things was to step onto the slippery slope to authoritarianism.

And when Brookfield management finally tired of having its park be so troublesome for them and their class, the New York Police Department came in and cleared it, as police forces did elsewhere where public spaces were being occupied. Since there was no organization that could last beyond the forcible dispersal, Occupy vanished. There were attempts to revive it through brief occupations of other spaces like office buildings and foreclosed-upon houses, but the dynamism of the early months was unrecoverable.

And Yet

But, but, but… Having registered all these complaints, Occupy, for all its shortcomings, was a transformative event.

It injected issues of wealth concentration and financial power into public discourse with a salience they hadn’t had in decades. And it marked an end to a long period of political quiescence. My question of “why fucking bother? was answered.

The movements of the 1990s that culminated in Seattle were lively but never moved beyond a niche market. With Occupy, the idea of the 1 percent was suddenly on everyone’s mind. The problem is larger than the top 1 percent; among other things, percentiles 90 to 98, what might be thought of as the mass base for the ruling elite, must be contended with too. But shifting popular focus to the tiny sliver that owns and runs society was a major accomplishment.

Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, New York City, 2011. (David Shankbone / Flickr)

During occupy, Frances Fox Piven, a scholar of social movements, often made the point that periods of major activism proceed in waves. Outsiders might think the movements have petered out, but then they reappear in different form. According to Piven, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was often declared dead, only to resurrect even more strongly.

You could read Occupy in that spirit. It petered out, but two years later came Black Lives Matter. BLM shared the decentralized structure of Occupy, but despite that lack of formal organization, it has persisted for years, and sparked the largest demonstrations in US history in the summer of 2020.

And without Occupy, it’s hard to imagine the emergence of the Bernie Sanders campaign less than four years after Zuccotti was taken over and the subsequent growth of the strongest US socialist movement since the 1960s, or maybe even the 1930s — a movement that thankfully isn’t shy about organization or agendas.

Ten years later, we’re living in a political world that Occupy helped establish. For all my kvetching, it’s an anniversary worth celebrating enthusiastically. I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel.