Unrealized Dreams: Occupy Wall Street Three Years Later
To revolutionaries, and I'd imagine many others too, anniversaries are when we remember past events and struggles, discuss their significance and what lessons they may hold for us in the current moment. Although I hold to the reflections I gave on the previous two anniversaries of the Occupy Movement (see here and here), that still leaves the question: what do we say now? Was this Occupy Movement the herald of a new form of radical politics? A liberal version of the Tea Party? A fun carnival? A necessary learning process that thousands of newly politicized activists had to undergo before moving onto more serious politics? Or just a flash in the pan? Can we even pass judgment on the many unrealized dreams of Occupy?
Compared to old sterile sectarian left politics and the NGOs who march to the Democrat Party line, Occupy was something new and fresh. Here were thousands of people, the vast majority who had never been touched by politics before, suddenly in the streets and shouting “we are the 99%!” and demanding fundamental change in the way society is organized. Now it is true that the structures of Occupy, such as the General Assemblies were a hindrance to developing the appropriate vertical structures with accountable leadership that can develop the programs and strategies necessary to win. Yet this deficiency did not stop people from coming to the encampments in order to discuss politics, capitalism, what a better society would look like, and a thousand other questions.
And to those of us newly active, even if we were radicals beforehand, it was like being struck by a bolt of lightning. It is one thing to read about revolutions and mass movements in books and essays. All of that is safe and seemingly far away from the mundane concerns of making a living in our decrepit capitalist society. Yet following the 2007-8 crisis, as we lived in the mire of dead end jobs and while the ruling class flagrantly bailed out banks who evicted people from their homes, anger accumulated and boiled. But there was no outlet. It seemed that nothing would give and this state of affairs would last forever. Then Occupy shattered the ice. People were clenching their fists. They were questioning the reigning order of society, it didn't matter that it was in limited or distorted ways, just that they were questioning it. And to suddenly be in the midst of it was to feel that you were not alone. It was to be touched by a profound truth – we can actually win.
The talking heads of the bourgeois press called us confused and unreasonable because we refused to come up with demands. Yet what did Occupy want? There were those in the movement who wanted demands ranging from End the Fed, repeal Citizens United to communist revolution. So many divergent dreams were contained in all those discussions. And while it is true that having so many people, new to politics with so many contradictory ideas, doomed Occupy from articulating an agreed upon program and goal. Ultimately, a movement needs to come up with a goal, a program, and an organization to carry it forward in order to bring about victory. All of these things that Occupy lacked.
Yet there was a reason Occupy refused to come up with demands – and those who were part of the movement would do well to not forget it. Occupy was a tear in the social fabric and the people had to confront the powers that be. And in that confrontation, to use the language of the movement, between the 99% and the 1% communication was not at all possible. When the rulers and their lapdogs asked Occupy “what do you want?” there was no answer that Occupy could give. Since Occupy wanted something the system would not and could not give – they wanted to remake the world.
However, this was a movement which could not sustain itself or the dreams which animated so many militants of a new world. Occupy's own structures meant that a cohesive organization could never be created and that the movement ultimately foreswore victory. The energy that came into the movement and the many marches was never channeled or given focus by Occupy's leading bodies such as the General Assemblies. As the weeks and then months went by, the mass meetings became less and less. People grew tired of standing for hours on end in the cold rain to discuss procedure and the mass of moronic proposals at the GA such as the official color of Occupy. Exhaustion set in and perhaps the movement would collapse in on itself. Occupy never quite reached its natural end, the state sent in its police and SWAT teams to clear out the camps. Excuses such as “health and safe hazard” was raised as a pretext to clear out the camps. Without central spaces that gave it focus, Occupy dissipated.
What about all of us who went through the movement then? What were we to do? It was impossible to just go back to our regular lives as if nothing had changed. That was impossible. It was more than just taking part in a festival. Bertolt Brecht once said that what happens when pledging allegiance to the revolutionary cause is that new people are made, "From this instant forward, you are no longer yourselves. But all of you, without names or mothers, you are blank pages upon which the Revolution will write its directives." And it was true. Some of us lost our names and adopted new ones. Occupy may have ended, but the injustices which gave it birth continued to rule. It was true that there was much soul-searching to be done. Along with the great exhilaration of Occupy, its flaws needed to be mercilessly criticized in order to carry the struggle forward.
There was still a sense of loss about the way it turned out. When you throw your energies into something – heart and soul, you want it to mean something. You want to see all of your work rewarded with victory. And I personally remember how I demoralized I felt several months after Boston's Occupy camp was disbanded – and watched as many Occupiers gave up and went into the bankrupt politics of the Democratic Party. Many of the left sects, who had never really become involved in the movement and just watched from the sidelines, could point with a smug attitude “Ha! We told you that it would end this way!” They conveniently forgot nothing and learned nothing. Still, there were others who seemed more inclined to practice heresy hunting by building upon weaknesses to undermine strengths. So was that the end result of the movement? Was the evil of Occupy all that lived after it and was the good interred in its bones?
In answering that question, I pondered the remark of a comrade spoken in the dark aftermath: “Occupy ended up being a hysterical liberal reaction to the crisis, but it didn't have to be that way.” I thought over his words for a long time before being able to make sense of Occupy and what the participation of those with unrealized dreams ultimately meant. There were many dreams contained within Occupy. There were those who wanted the movement to be reasonable and shift its vigor back into the Democratic Party, NGOs or the sectarian left. All of this was a betrayal of the movement and to put the brakes on those of us who wanted to see how far it could go. So where did that leave the rest of us with those unrealized dreams?
We wanted to go the distance. We did not want to play it safe. We wanted to make Occupy our chance to bring the old order down. And it is true that we did not succeed. Our dreams were too soon. We were too new to the struggle. We still had much to learn and to experience. And we were not the first to dream too soon. During the French Revolution, at the dawn of capitalism, there were a small group of communists around Gracchus Babeuf who fought a premature battle to achieve the “common happiness.” There was John Brown who raised a small band to take up arms against slavery. There was the Paris Commune of 1871 which was drowned in the blood of 30,000 in order to restore “law and order.” And there others too: hundreds of revolts by workers, serfs, peasants, and slaves throughout history. Nearly all of them went down to the defeat. What do we say about the unrealized dreams of all those struggles?
The lesson of all the revolts and struggles throughout history, including our own, is not that we are destined to lose. Rather, it is that the rule of exploiters is not eternal, it can be challenged. There is always an opportunity to fight, despite everything. We nourish ourselves upon the righteous rebellion, from the distant past down through our moment. Yet our goal is not merely to fight the good fight and then congratulate ourselves afterward, even though as the rule of capital remains, but to bring to fruition all those unrealized dreams. So how do we prepare ourselves to organize for victory?
Occupy, like many struggles before it, was seemingly “premature.” The people who came into it were new to politics, no organization was able to channel its energies and there was no agreed upon goal. Yet Occupy's “premature” action, like so countless actions beforehand, was necessary in order to learn from the long and stubborn struggles in order to forge a new layer of revolutionary activists who will gain maturity, who will remain faithful to the original dream as they continue onward while learning from past errors. We should not forget that while Babeuf, the Paris Commune, and John Brown went down to defeat, others came to pick up their banners where they left them. Those who came afterward remained faithful to the unrealized dreams contained within those struggles, learned the reasons for failure and carried the flags forward – even to victory. So while the revolutionary dreams of Occupy may be too soon and were destined to be defeated, sometimes defeat is necessary in order to learn and advance to triumph. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “But revolution is the only form of “war” – and this is another peculiar law of history – in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of “defeats.”