Progressives Must Move Beyond Occupy

occupy la

Photo: Michael Dussault

Average citizens evaluate political organizations based on how those organizations actually function. They know a political organization is a microcosm of the society it wishes to create.

So after ten months of heavy involvement in Occupy, I have these questions for Occupiers:

  • Would you honestly want to live in a society that is organized like Occupy and functions like Occupy?
  • Do you want a society that claims to be “leaderless” while its true leaders remain hidden and unelected?
  • Do you want a society with no written rules?
  • Do you really expect the general public to support an organization that would extend this model to the rest of society?

Progressives must create a more democratic model than the status quo that also functions better — something regular people would be willing to adopt in principle. Studies show the general public agrees with Occupy’s basic message. But Occupy’s inept organization has managed to squander this strategic opportunity. Occupy is actually impeding Progressives’ outreach to the general public. Progressives need new organizations based on the successful planning and leadership strategies of the civil rights movement to create an army of volunteers.

Occupy provides a valuable function by voicing a public NO to economic injustice and inequality in our society and distributing information about nefarious elite activities. But because of its opposition to leadership and written rules, Occupy can’t move beyond this basic level to become a viable fighting force capable of the positive, complex, constructive action required to re-form society.

Occupiers generally subscribe to the flawed argument that less organization leads to more equality and democracy. So most Occupy groups have avoided creating written rules because they feel this would reduce democracy. But our insistence on using oral traditions to store and communicate our rules hobbles us in competition with adversaries, who all use written codes. Occupy will have no more success with this approach than previous non-literate groups who competed with literates.

We approach every new meeting and item of business with an open, make-it-up-as-you-go, spontaneous oral process, recapitulating at each step all previous steps taken. This process, created by small groups on the street, is ill suited to organizing large groups for the complex tasks necessary for societal re-form: publishing creative works, negotiating with unions, putting laws on the ballot, countering corporate privatization schemes, conducting election campaigns, etc.

Because process is not codified in writing, Occupy can’t build on previous decisions at subsequent meetings to get to the next level of complexity. Without written documents we can only refer to fallible human memory. We lose continuity from meeting to meeting. And without written codes to prevent subversion, we remain more vulnerable to it than our adversaries. Of course, we should not simply imitate authoritarian methods of organization to compete. The challenge facing Progressives is how to create a competitive, highly complex organization while retaining the democracy and equality we value.

The second flawed argument inhibiting Occupy is an inappropriate extension of the idea of equality. Our rightful focus on equal opportunity and representation has led us to erroneously organize ourselves as if all people are equally capable. This entrenched Occupy dogma cannot be challenged within the group and is voluntarily avoided, even though many Occupiers understand that it’s bogus.

Asserting that people are unique, non-interchangeable individuals makes you vulnerable to the false charge of being “undemocratic” and “elitist.” And the de facto, unelected leaders often use their own undemocratic authority to squelch discussion of it.

This fallacy of human interchangeability is hurting Occupy badly. For example, nobody in our Occupy group can do the technical website work right now, so our website is completely nonfunctional. If we were all truly interchangeable, then any one of us should be able to step in and do it.

Obviously, education can make people more interchangeable to some extent. We could teach some (not all) people how to maintain the website. And some of those (not all) would be willing to do it. But regardless of how much educating we do, only a small number in Occupy would be both capable and willing to do this job.

The most important human resource allocation for any organization is in leadership. Leadership is everywhere in human history, indicating we have probably evolved to prefer it. Occupy tries to ignore this fundamental aspect of human nature with its determinedly “leaderless” dogma.

But every human group, including Occupy, has leaders whether they admit to it or not. At a minimum, leaders are the more dedicated people: those who do major parts of the work and show up regularly. The best leaders go beyond these basics by contributing brilliant, unique ideas that capture the public imagination and amplify the public mood. They can visualize what has to be done strategically in a way that most us can’t.

A group with effective leadership will always defeat a group without it. Occupy’s refusal of leadership seriously impairs its effectiveness. Occupy can’t negotiate with other groups in society (unions) because we have nobody in positions of responsibility/authority. And in the long run, the claim that Occupy has no leaders is dangerous because it hides the process of choosing and monitoring them, placing it outside conscious control by the group. Occupy definitely has leaders. I’ve met them. But ironically, the process of choosing them is not democratic or open.

Progressive organizations should be electing people to positions of responsibility, trusting them to do a good job, and weeding out those who aren’t trustworthy. Occupy won’t do this, however. We claim to want a collective where we all support each other, but we seem strangely reluctant to trust our fellow Occupiers with responsibility/authority. All human organizations must solve this problem: balancing collective authority against assigned authority in leadership. To repulse the complex, highly coordinated attacks on Progressives, we must have leaders like every previous successful social movement.

Progressives must battle strategically for the hearts and minds of the public like a non-violent military organization, or we will lose to our adversaries, who are using military strategy (often violently). Without leadership and written rules, Occupy cannot take the initiative or go on the attack. We can’t even develop a battle plan. We have no philosophical “spear” to attack with.

John Lennon’s challenge to revolutionaries was, “We’d all love to see the plan.” But after a year, Occupy has none. Occupy San Francisco’s website has a one-page “declaration” mainly outlining the terrible system we live in. But, like most other Occupy websites, it makes no specific suggestions about the kind of society Occupiers actually want.

Corporate apologists in every area of society regularly present coherent written arguments in favor of privatization. But we offer no alternative, except to say we reject privatization. They have a spear and we do not. A coherent Progressive plan/platform could become the focus of the debate, putting our adversaries on the defensive and forcing them to discuss our vision of society. We would win that debate because our plan would be more congruent with American values of equality, democracy, freedom, and individuality. But instead, we play into their hands by constantly reacting to their privatization initiatives. Creating a party platform is hard work requiring structure and organization that Occupy simply cannot provide.

Occupy strategically defaults to defense instead of taking the initiative with direct actions. Most of our time is spent reacting, trying to “defend” something. But we can’t manage to defend anything against highly organized attacks coming from all sides. Ironically, the most effective Occupy events so far in Northern California have been the scattered “direct actions” that took the initiative — the two Port of Oakland closures and the March 5th Occupation of the Capitol Building in Sacramento. Progressives need a system of leadership and rules that can create a coordinated, continuous series of direct actions to build momentum and disrupt our adversaries. We need a creative plan of non-violent attack that captures the public’s imagination.

Progressives must break the cycle of self-sabotage. We know how to effectively organize but seem reluctant to do it, perhaps because we are subconsciously afraid we might win. Maybe we subconsciously want to stay in the more psychologically comfortable position of outsider underdog where it’s easy to criticize what the evil powers-that-be are doing. We can always be right if we don’t create our own plan or actually do anything. Winning requires a different mindset. We must stop embracing our powerlessness and the elite’s designated role for us as “losers.” A consistent defensive posture is the hallmark of losers. We must take the initiative and attack.

The fallacious, impractical, unrealistic elements of Occupy philosophy ensure it will never become a viable Progressive fighting force. Only by rejecting these constraints in favor of organization that facilitates winning will Progressives be able to build a serious engine of societal reform. Serious Occupiers who want to re-form society should move to better-organized Progressive groups.

I will subscribe to Occupy networks and might attend Occupy direct actions. But mainly I’ll be looking for other progressive groups who could actually do something. The Green Party, for example, has inspiring leaders and a constructive plan for a “Green New Deal.” Perhaps it’s time to (finally) create a national Progressive Party – an umbrella party for all Progressives that articulates a general Progressive platform and provides the leverage to move national policy.

Cynthia Alvarez

Published: Sunday, 16 September 2012


  1. says

    This article starts with a telling and arrogant presumption: that Occupy and progressives of the Democratic Party are moving in the same direction. This was, of course, the same idea that the Obama administration had, that Occupy would morph into the Tea Party of the Democratic Party, the “extremists” that would pull the party closer to its ideological roots and function as an electoral groundswell. Except nobody asked Occupy, which from its inception abhorred hierarchy and representation, the lynchpins of political party operations. But the Obama administration figured it out long before Ms. Alvarez, and they yanked the tents down, pulled out union support, and sent in the cops last November.

    Since then, as a previous commentator noted, Occupy continues. In cities large and small, Occupies take on the ports, confront police brutality, picket banks, defend the homeless, organize general strikes, defend free speech, occupy banks, and jam up foreclosures. The meetings go on, weekly or more frequently. Actions are paid for, resources rounded up, and comrades bailed out of jails. Occupies build alliances in city after city with radical groups. Ms. Alvarez, you’ll need to help me out: what protests, what actions, have the progressive left held this year?

    Had Occupy been following the progressive path, it would be stuck right now with a party platform that no longer protected the people from government surveillance, promised reconsideration of the onerous Patriot Act, or promised to protect habeas corpus. It would be tagging along behind a President who has sent troops to Libya and Syria, who has deported more people than any President ever, who refused to prosecute the Bush administration for torture, that has the blood of another innocent Guantanamo prisoner on its hands, who still holds Bradley Manning without trial, who supports fracking and a scientific fantasy called clean coal. Instead, Occupy is free of all of the baggage and obligations that the progressive Democrats must carry. The animosity of the cops and the media since the progressives dumped Occupy last November is the trade of for not carrying ideological water for these compromised, Democrats.

    You’d like an Occupy with a designated leadership, with universal rules, and with it’s own platform. That would be a PDLA meeting, not Occupy. The point of Occupy is that it functions without those things. It’s anarchy: no government, no
    imposed rules, no nationalism. But you’re wrong on a few counts: Occupies do keep records of their decisions, so that they have adapted, adjusted, and recorded their meeting processes. Nor does Occupy operate on the bizarre idea that anyone can do anything, that there’s no specialization. Tasks are undertaken voluntarily, but that hardly suggests anyone can to anything (and it might explain the website failings as well as your explanation). The only task that everyone can do in Occupy’s model is lead: Occupy is more likely to have a surfeit of leadership than the deficit you point to. Occupy is a process, a moving entity, a true movement. As such Occupy rejects the ballast of manifestos and position papers. It is born out of post-structuralism, denying that a text has a fixed, determinant meaning. Meaning is carried in change and difference. The meaning of Occupy is in what Occupy does, its traces across history.

    Put simply, where Ms. Alvarez gets it wrong is thinking that a 21st century Occupy does 20th-century Democratic Party politics, or that progressive Democrats can ever get beyond a movement that’s on a whole other track.

  2. says

    Most of us older folks just can’t let go of the two-party system, afraid to venture forth into the new…I deeply sympathize with young people, waiting for their future to begin with little to no job market, insane debt to get an education, and the seemingly endless wars on foreign soil…Can we blame them for refusing to buy into the current causes? I can’t.
    I don’t see the Occupy “model” as the ultimate result that will come out of the movement, a lot has to happen first. We are just too scared to join them.

  3. JoeWeinstein says

    This article and its comments mix up several quite different topics about Occupy groups: (1) their long-term goals, (2) their public images, (3) their ongoing tactics and methods of function, and (4) their achievements to date.

    (1) As Commenter S. Speaker suggests, it’s already asking a lot to get agreement from people in a given not-too-large group, let alone be entitled to presume that one abstract movement (Occupy) is or should be part of or deferential to another (Progressive).

    (2) As Commenter H Wood suggests, it doesn’t help to present an overly unkempt or disorganized public image. Of course, one can do only so much when dealing with media folks who are out specifically to feature precisely that sort of image.

    (3) Regardless of image, if a group has an agreed-on strategic goal, some methods of group function are more efficient and others are less efficient for realizing the goal. Typically, improvements are always possible, and typically a group never quite gets to using or even accepting maximum efficiency.

    (4) So – Is the cup half-empty because group methods are needlessly inefficient – or is the cup half-full on account of the group’s achievements? There’s always occasion for argument between the two perspectives. (See e.g. author Alvarez vs commenter Novick.)

    The author is to be commended for raising the issue, but her would-be keynote first two sentences are quite mistaken.
    First, people do NOT necessarily evaluate political organizations based on how those organizations function. In fact, if you are like most people you have little everyday use for political organizations at all, let alone perceived need to evaluate them on any basis. But if a political organization serves your purpose you may well support it no matter how internally dysfunctional it really is.
    Second, most political organizations scarcely know what society they allegedly are trying to create, let alone do they or can they serve as ‘microcosm’ for such society. But even when they do ‘know’ what vision they are trying to create, typically the vision is far too idealistic for any here-and-now actual organization to be its ‘microcosm’

  4. says

    Note of that some of in Occupy and related movements don’t consider ourselves part of “the overall Progressive movement in the USA” and aren’t trying to advance it. Instead, I’m part of global anarchist struggle against state, capital, and heteropatriarchy. Alvarez and I have different dreams. To liberals/progressives: I recommend building your parties without demonizing us. If you’re less horrible the Democrats and Republicans, we might even sympathize with you. Good luck.

  5. ronwf says

    Gee – you mean human beings invented writing for a reason? Wow. That’s only about 4000 year old knowledge.

    “Occupy” hasn’t done jack except prove to Americans that the people involved literally can’t be trusted to pick up their own trash and live in a sanitary fashion. Tea Party Movement-supported candidates won scores of elections in 2010. What candidates in the 2012 election are claiming Occupy support as a positive endorsement? None.

    Mr. Lamb, I had that problem in my church. I stood up one day and said “I’ve look over the roster of this parish twice and I can tell you there’s no one here named ‘Somebody’. If you think something needs to be done then get up, grab some friends and do it. Otherwise, if you don’t think your own idea is important enough to act on, why should anyone else?”

  6. Michael Novick says

    Talk about biting the hand that feeds you, or killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, Occupy in 12 months has done more than many other so-called better organized forces to change the balance of forces in this society, to inspire and create solidarity with all sorts of labor, community, anti-war, environmental and human rights struggles. from Day One, some have tried to get Occupy to define and limit itself to a “program” — that is, to a few reforms or slogans that could be the focus of campaigns or get adopted by elements of the corporate parties. People had also demanded to know, who are your leaders, meaning “Who can we negotiate with and cut a deal to end this mess.” Neither demand on Occupy is valid or positive. Occupy is concerned with total social transformation and in developing transparent, horizontal, participatory forms of direct action that prefigure the kind of society we want to live in, and that continue to strengthen the forces of unity, solidarity, self-determination and liberation, and to undermine the 1% and their flunkies, eroding the base of social support and consent that this system gives to its rulers and to the dog-eat-dog system of exploitation, oppression and cut-throat competition that they run. I would certainly invite progressives who have been part of any actions Occupy has carried out over the past year, to come back, get involved in the grassroots community alliance building and base building that Occupy is engaged in, the home-defense occupations, the counter-gentrification, human rights, anti-police-abuse and repression organizing, etc. Occupy LA is planning four days of action, education and celebration — a re-dedication and forward-looking commemoration of the one-year mark for Occupy LA — from Friday, Sept. 28 through Monday, October 1. Come out, enjoy, learn, teach, share, take action, and get involved in defending Fort Hernandez in Van Nuys (and 170 other homes facing foreclosure just in that zip code). Join the M1GS-Four Winds follow-up process of hosting a community health fair and building a people’s clinic for South LA/Watts/Compton to deal with HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, and other community health issues. Join the On Resistance collective putting together a series for KPFK. Help build the October 6 anti-war rallies and the Oct 22 day of action against police abuse and criminalization. Join Occupy’s efforts for Bradley Manning and to transform the war economy in El Segundo. Etc.

  7. says

    We have a LOT of people on the left who are deeply committed to their own victimhood. We need to get over it. We need to stop confusing whining with education and activism and actually DO SOMETHING. Collect signatures, show up, support other groups.
    And yeah support other groups you can not believe how incredibly difficult it is to get people to actually show up to meetings. I am fighting an issue now where I have hundreds of people signed up on a sign up sheet. we have common cause with the unions, can we get any union support? Uh No. Do they expect and demand we support them? Uh yes. RECIPROCITY people… You cant build a community when people are committed to their own empires and nothing else.

  8. says

    One of the GEAT frustrations for me as a older experienced activist is that I am stuck with the same old people. I’m not the youngest activist in the room anymore, as I was in my 20’s, 30’s 40’s and even part of my 50’s but the youngest one is within five years of my age. When young people volunteer to do something, they just dont get it done. The people who are doing the least amount of work, particularly on projects where we have state imposed or developer imposed deadlines, are the ones demanding the most process and putting up the most resistance to DOING SOMETHING.
    As a “leader” of a local group lots of people come with “Someone should”. In the old days I just took on an ever growing do list. I worked 80 hours a week on activism and 20 hours a week on my career. I dont do that anymore. When someone has a “Somebody Should” my response is ‘GREAT!!! You are in charge of that committee go make it happen!” They don’t, and frankly if they don’t have enough interest in their idea to make it happen, I don’t either. I’m busy, but I am more sane now.

  9. OCV secretary says

    I see your point if you define “leader” as one who makes unilateral, executive decisions. The leaders in our group (I’ll admit we’ve had them) was more of, like you described, ones that did more of the work, those with greater skills in one area, etc. So, I guess you could say we had several “leaders”, or ones who could best fill necessary niches.

    Our group was never that big to begin with, and we all had different passions. Many have since graduated and moved away, making our group of “regulars” mostly middle-agers and elderly. We remain a close-knit family, meeting once a week. It has been a while since we’ve done any demonstrations. Those who have moved away, or cannot make our meetings, still stay in touch. But most of us belong to other activist groups with greater focus on one particular cause. Occupy, to us, is more of a network of activists of various causes. We support and educate each other, as well as share laughs and deep discussions. We also concluded that making the world a better place also means living by example. Thus many of us have started doing more volunteer work, and striving to live more sustainably. Those of us who know how to knit, sew, garden, etc. share our knowledge with others who want to learn.

    My thoughts are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the others. I believe the purpose of Occupy was for the 99.9% who were tired of the top 0.1%’s oppression, to put differences aside and band together to say enough is enough, and show solidarity and support for each other in our similar plights.

    The term “Occupy”, where we live, has become almost cliché. We don’t tend to advertise ourselves as that brand, that much anymore. But we do still fight for our favorite causes and do what we can to make our world more just and livable.

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