The Occupy movement has produced important writing about democracy, inequality, freedom, and the national security state. At a time when many progressives are preoccupied with electoral politics and legislative campaigns, it’s important to hear from those focusing on broader systemic issues.
David Graeber is among these voices. His prior book showed how debt impacts our society far more than is commonly recognized, and he incorporates some of this analysis into his new work. But this book is primarily his attempt to step back and consider what made the Occupy movement grow beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, what led to its decline, and which of its components can move the United States and other nations into becoming more truly democratic.
The Launch of Occupy
Graeber begins with his own involvement in the launch of the Occupy movement in New York City. It is a story others have told, but he adds to our understanding of the details. Graeber saw Occupy from the outset as the latest manifestation of the Global Justice Movement that battled trade deals across the world and had perhaps its greatest success shutting down the WTO in Seattle in 1999. A politically active anarchist, Graeber connects the anarchist role in these earlier movements with the horizontal rather than top-down leadership that characterized the Occupy movement.
Graeber captures the community organizers’ ongoing concern when the first rally for new campaigns are planned : how many people will actually come out? He reminds us of the catch as catch can outreach used to launch Occupy, and organizers’ surprise when so many people showed up. He tells some great stories of how certain procedures associated with Occupy came about—such as speakers relying on the People’s Mic’s rather than using megaphones or sound systems. His nuts and bolts understanding of activist events confirms that Graeber has planned and participated in a lot of protests.
Graeber has a tendency to overestimate Occupy’s uniqueness. For example, he asserts that Occupy was the first time since the civil rights movement that “Gandian tactics” succeeded in America, as “the American mainstream media has refused to tell the story of any protest in a way that might imply that American police, acting under orders, engaged in ‘violence’—no matter what they do.”
Yet the media made it clear that local officials were ordering and/or tolerating police violence against the farmworkers movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. The media also showed that Chicago police were acting under Mayor Daley’s orders when beating demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention. I could name other examples where the media portrayed planned police violence against peaceful protesters; Occupy was not unique or unusual in generating media sympathy when its activists were attacked.
Why Occupy Declined
Graeber sees MoveOn.org, Rebuild the Dream, and other groups associated with the “left wing of the Democratic Party” as betraying the Occupy movement by not opposing police closures of Occupy camps. He argues that after Occupy had raised issues that energized these groups and “ultimately benefited the liberal establishment…when the Tasers, batons and SWAT teams arrived, that establishment simply disappeared and left us to our fate.”
But factors beyond political expedience lay behind this lack of “liberal left” response, which largely reflected Occupy’s diminished connection to “the 99%.” Occupy failed to invest in community organizing, and did not expand beyond activist hotbeds; it made no serious effort to recruit and mobilize new people, both of which are essential for movement building.
In addition, the high profile Occupy Oakland lost public support when it shifted away from targeting the 1% and instead prioritized battles over public spaces and with police. Since Occupy isolated itself from progressive allies and the 99%, these groups understandably did not view saving the encampments as “their” fight.
To be clear, Graeber is absolutely correct in condemning the outrageous police misconduct against Occupy supporters in many cities. He provides a valuable reminder of how the nation’s post-9/11 national security mindset has made the illegal arrests of peaceful protesters in social movements almost standard practice..
Electoral Politics and Democracy
Graeber sees progressive change happening not from electoral politics, but rather from horizontal (i.e. non top-down) movements akin to Occupy’s General Assemblies. He sees President Obama’s failure to implement progressive policies after the 2008 elections as confirming that “any such project is impossible,” and describes the huge decline in voter turnout in the 2010 midterm elections, particularly by young people, as showing many Americans “gave up on the process altogether.”
But young people voted in 2012 at even higher rates than in 2008, which seems to undermine Graeber’s conclusion that they others who did not vote in 2010 have “given up.” And while many progressives share Graeber’s critique of Obama’s first two years, he underestimates the Republican Party’s success at blocking progressive change
Graeber describes dealing with destructive sectarians in a General Assembly or other consensus process, but he does not address how a horizontal system could function in a city, state or nation where 45% of the population or a clear majority opposes progressive actions. The Occupy movement involved only a tiny slice of those engaged in policy fights. Those favoring the interests of the 1% did not participate in Occupy as they do in the real political world, and if they had come to General Assemblies, no protest, march or rally would ever have been approved.
One need not share Graeber’s political analysis to recognize, particularly as American cities and local school boards are put under the control of unelected state officials, that his raising concerns about democracy in the United States could not be timelier. If Graeber’s book gets people talking about what this decline in real democracy means for the future of the United States, he will have performed another valuable service.
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