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OWS: Studies of the movement

Three new books on Occupy Wall Street look at the movement'€™s legacy

People protesting the economic system flood financial district sidewalks as office workers head to work on Sept. 19, 2011 in New York City.
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Sept. 17 marks the second anniversary of the day a handful of people walked into a small plaza in lower Manhattan and refused to leave, inaugurating the national political upheaval known as Occupy Wall Street.

The occupation of Zuccotti Park, renamed Liberty Square by its new residents, touched off a fast-spreading fire, as other Occupy camps sprung up in hundreds of towns and cities across the country -- from Boston to Oakland, Fairbanks to Miami, Duluth to Shreveport.

Initially ignored by the mainstream press, the Occupy movement spread in large part through a torrent of self-produced digital media -- Twitter feeds, live-streamers, Tumblr sites like the famous We Are the 99% page, with its photos and stories of those who had fallen on the wrong side of the recession. In Liberty Square and elsewhere around New York, the Occupation was producing an enormous amount of its own print media, from pamphlets and fliers to full newspapers like The Occupied Wall Street Journal; the Brooklyn-based magazine n+1 produced the newspaper Occupy! Gazette, while others collaborated on the theory journal Tidal. It didn't take long for a first crop of Occupy-related books to appear as well: The Occupy! Gazette led to "Occupy: Scenes From Occupied America" (Verso), a collection of essays and vignettes, and Todd Gitlin's "Occupy Nation" (HarperCollins) presented itself as a sort of primer on the roots and characteristics of a fast-developing movement.

The newest crop of books about Occupy benefit from another year of observation and offer a more circumspect assessment of the movement's achievements and failures.

From the beginning, people frequenting that plaza in downtown Manhattan found that what was happening in Liberty Square was difficult to communicate to those who couldn't experience it firsthand. Nathan Schneider begins his new book, "Thank You, Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse" (University of California Press) with this vexing difficulty in talking about Occupy Wall Street: the incommunicable nature of being in occupied Liberty Square to those who never were. The sense, in his words, that "you had to be there." Setting out to overcome that obstacle, Schneider does a remarkable job of conveying the euphoric sense of possibility that transformed so many people in the square, as well as the frustrations that came after the New York City Police Department cleared out the occupation in the dead of night. 

Everything felt in some sense religious, charged with a secret extremity and transcendence

Schneider's education and much of his writing are concerned with religion, and he relies heavily on Christian vocabulary to describe his experience in Occupy Wall Street. "In the rupture of the ordinary that characterized those early days," he writes, "everything felt in some sense religious, charged with a secret extremity and transcendence." The occupation "was an eddy of grace amid the Fall."

At first blush, it might seem an unlikely framing for a movement animated by anarchist principles. But as Schneider shows, it's not. The biblical concepts of apocalypse and revelation that he invokes aptly describe the experience of many participants who went to Liberty Square expecting a protest and found instead a ceaseless process, a bustling society within a society, where decisions were made collectively, where hierarchies were dismantled and where "people could speak and money could not."

This bubbling sense of potential in the park was maintained in large part by an eschewal of programmatic demands in favor of an almost monomaniacal focus on process, a constant concern for horizontalist principles of inclusion and autonomy.  As Schneider notes, "This was a kind of politics most had never quite experienced, a kind apparently necessary even if its consequences seemed eternally obscure." Top-level decisions were made through the General Assembly, an all-inclusive body that decided issues through consensus rather than with a bare majority, using a deliberative process that encouraged every voice to be heard. This process produced excruciatingly long meetings but also a powerful sense of ownership and investment among participants. It was a system that left much space ungoverned and occupiers empowered to start their own projects, newspapers, archives and working groups without seeking anyone's permission.

The principles behind the movement were hardly new; they had deep roots in anarchist tradition. Mark Bray, a former member of Occupy Wall Street's press team, describes in his new book, "Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street," (Zero Books) how Occupy managed to reframe and popularize these principles for a public for whom the word "anarchy" remained dark, terrifying and misunderstood.

Even so, it was precisely this privilege of process over demands that baffled many critics of Occupy, typified by Thomas Frank's review of the first crop of Occupy-related books for The Baffler last year. Frank quoted approvingly Slavoj Zizek's early admonition to the Occupiers. "Don't fall in love with yourselves," Zizek warned. "Remember, carnivals come cheap."

Not everyone has been so certain that Occupy's euphoric celebration of process was such a waste of time. Responding to Frank in Jacobin magazine last winter, the writer Peter Frase countered, "The collective ecstasy of OWS's 'carnival' is something that needs to be part of the Left, even if it can't be the whole of it."

The experience of those who live through such events is to find our horizons thrown open

For David Graeber, an anarchist scholar and the author of "The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement" (Spiegel and Grau), Occupy's post-eviction struggles can be blamed primarily on the eventual fission of mainstream liberals -- like MoveOn.org and various Democratic politicians -- and the radicals in the park. He offers an excellent explanation of the value of the "carnival" in the park: For many, a visit to Liberty Square exploded their sense of the boundaries of what was politically possible. "The experience of those who live through such events is to find our horizons thrown open," he writes, "to find ourselves wondering what else we assume cannot really happen actually can." But during and after the eviction, Graeber writes, "the liberal establishment more generally made a strategic decision to look the other way."

Within two months, police had violently expelled the movement from its garden. Faced with increasingly violent police repression and deprived of the space that had served the movement so well as storefront, agora and flophouse all at once, Occupy stumbled. While this had much to do with its change in circumstances, it also had something to do with the movement's lack of cohesion.

"Everywhere Occupy went, it aimed for Wall Street but became mired in the many roads that lead there." Schneider writes. "Debt, foreclosure, homelessness, food access, environmental crises, school closures, police brutality, mass incarceration. No single strategy could fight them all, and no one tactic could suit everyone willing to try. This movement was turning out to be a lot more complicated than anyone could have thought, but also a lot more necessary, and actually a lot truer to its original calling to occupy Wall Street than if it had restricted itself to doing only that."

Both Graeber and Schneider echo some of the oft-repeated answers to the question "What ever happened to Occupy?" that has been asked over the past year and a half. In diaspora from its home in the park and faced with crushing police opposition, the movement spread its energies among many loosely related projects. An offshoot group called Strike Debt raised enough money to buy millions of dollars of distressed medical debt on the market and then sent the debtors letters announcing that they owed nothing. After New York was struck by a hurricane last year, Occupy networks mobilized an effective relief and recovery effort, couching its efforts in terms of collaboration and mutual aid rather than charity. These and countless other initiatives carry forward the social-justice agenda and anarchist principles that coalesced in Occupy Wall Street, but they shouldn't be confused with the cauldron of seething energy that was Liberty Square. As Schneider and Graeber ultimately acknowledge, political moments like Occupy crest and subside, and Occupy has subsided. Whatever happens next will be new, but it will inevitably build on Occupy. These recent books go a long way toward ensuring that the experience gained in Liberty Square is preserved and passed on.

Ultimately, Schneider comes to a sober assessment of the limitations of a movement that drew so much of its power from its sense of its own inchoate potential. "People believed less in what it was than in what it should be or what its hidden meanings were beneath the clumsy surface," he writes.

But where does the ebbing of Occupy leave the people who found themselves transformed by it? "One faces two options after experiencing an apocalyptic moment," Schneider writes: return to the world outside, accepting its flaws, or estrange oneself from it.  

Or maybe there's a third option, he ventures, one that many former occupiers are feeling their way toward: return to one's life but keep working in anticipation of the next unpredictable upwelling of potential, the next spark. "They can't be planned for, but it's for us to lay the kindling," Schneider concludes in his book. "It's for us to be ready to catch fire."

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