This was written before the celebration of Occupy Wall Street's one year anniversary. I chose to delay it, thinking it might be, um, contentious. But now that #S17 is over, it's introspection time again....
Horizontalism: The word itself is borrowed from a specific Argentinian experiment that ended quite a few years ago, but not before generating excitement in literally dozens of grad schools. Some experts will tell you (and tell you and tell you) all about the emotionally cathartic yet long lasting benefits, but most Argentinians are long past it. Let’s join them.
Keep in mind that various cultures have long familiarity with inclusivity, participatory democracy and consensus. But the insider-jargon word ‘Horizontalism’ alerts one to the presence of a fetish, where form precedes function, and where the only sure outcome is the departure of most participants.
Direct Actionism: There’s lots to be said for the phrase ‘direct action gets the goods.’ Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA) is a time honored and incredibly successful tactic used by protest movements around the world. In contrast, Direct Actionism is the knee jerk desire for public action that carries the sexy scent of danger and self-sacrifice. This can mean marching around without a permit playing cat and mouse with the cops, sweating inside giant puppets or screwing with the straights in short-lived lobby occupations.
But where NVDA starts with strategy and mass movements, Direct Actionism starts with tactics and what are often smallish groups of young, white, male leaders aching to recreate a certain scene from Les Mis.
99% Hypocrisy: The economic crisis caused by financial elites hurt almost all of us, even if not quite 99%. But the meme itself, lifted from US Uncut/Agitpop, was a unifying call that resonated with a majority of Americans. In the name of this majority, Occupy crafted a movement seemingly designed to be accessible to the smallest sliver of the homeless/hardcore activist population. This started with the infamous ‘tortoise shell formation’ on day 1, when observers of the initial Zuccotti Park occupation were mostly exposed to the backs of people sitting in close-knit circles, trying to hear what was being said. It continued with hours long meetings that often accomplished little except to credential the unofficial leaders. Those who stayed until the end were often those who didn’t have a job or family expecting them at home.
The hypocrisy is presuming to speak for others attracted to your cause, but repelled by your organizing practices. When people show up and stay, listen to them. But if they leave and never come back, LISTEN TO THEM TOO.
Wacko Contamination: Well-meaning people from many backgrounds joined Occupy, hoping to lend their voices to a genuine people’s movement. Some of them suffer from psychiatric disorders that often lead to marginalization. Unfortunately, Occupy did not marginalize them as well. This means that folks obviously and transparently unable to behave appropriately in community were given the floor for misbehavior ranging from self-centered ramblings to physical violence. Repeatedly. And not just in formal, public meetings called to conduct business; such behavior took place in all sorts of situations (churches allowing occupiers to sleep overnight, smaller work group meetings, social events, daily distributions of metro cards, etc.).
This would be inappropriate at a methadone clinic, let alone a serious movement addressing the power and might of finance capital. But don’t blame the sympathetic victims of misaligned brain chemistry; blame everyone else for not demanding boundaries.
Elitism: One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media and social capital, text messaging and chat software, they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shit done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other.
This isn’t really very different than how powerful elites operate in the real world. But in the real world, leaders are less likely to talk about transparency and horizontalism, and more likely to have to stand for election, hold a title, or at least be subject to being written about. You know what’s worse than regular same-old elites? A barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can’t ever be called to account.
Fear of Money: Movements need money. And that money needs organizations to flow through. Sadly, the fear of money and organization as the root of all evil paralyzed serious work while enabling some of the worst tendencies. An all-volunteer collective tried to manage the process only to be repeatedly accused of failing at it. The money that was raised was used in part for what seems today to be nonsensical – housing homeless people and giving away metro cards. What part of holding Wall St. accountable was that for?
A healthy movement would just do, as a matter or course, what other movements have done in the past – designate trusted people to raise funds, make decisions about budgets, and work closely with others doing the same. Using money is not the same thing as being taken over by the nonprofit-industrial complex. Our failure to handle money responsibly weakened Occupy considerably.
Pre-figuratism & the Church of Process: One of the hallmarks of OWS was how quickly supporters were willing to jump off the powerful, fast moving train for holding banksters accountable on to the creaky, dangerous fixie of building the new world in the shell of the old. It’s a noble idea – instead of dealing with billions of misused tax dollars, let’s farm, take over parks, and hold meetings where crazy people get equal time with everyone else. Because in the fyooture, listening to incoherent babbling at a business meeting will fill one’s heart with smug ‘aren’t we politically advanced!’ feelings.
(Note: I'm all in favor of supporting traditionally oppressed groups; but that's not the same as putting the margins in the center.)
The abandonment of reality based politics in favor of individualist utopianism matches quite well to some occupiers personal utopia: small groups doing what they like to feel good about themselves. For those of us still aiming at Wall St., that utopian vision is a nightmare. It is "an opiate of the masses". Activists smoke it in a way that distracts them from the here and now. From winning.
Crazily, I think Occupy Wall Street was and should be about winning.
PS: This is written in a snarky style that some opponents of OWS will surely enjoy. I'm very active in OWS, primarily with Tech Ops, and expect to remain active in the future. But I think there's a way of bringing together like-minded folks inspired by OWS who favor a more... goal oriented or linear organizing model.