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Meet the Wizard Behind the Curtain of Occupy Wall Street

Morgen on October 27, 2011 at 7:09 am

Elizabeth Warren was quoted earlier this week aligning herself with Occupy Wall Street, stating that she “created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do”. While there may be an incidental nexus between Warren’s longstanding criticism of the financial services industry, and the focus of the OWS protests, her claim is simply not true. There is a wizard behind the curtain of OWS, but it is not Elizabeth Warren. Because OWS is not about reforming the banking industry reform, consumer rights, or even taxing the 1%. Nor is it about re-electing Obama, or other Democrats. No – it’s implicit objective is much more sinister, and its lineage traces back to someone far more radical. He is a professor named David Graeber. He is an anarchist. And he is trying to destroy America.

I was skeptical at first myself. With so much media attention focused on OWS, surely if the movement’s roots could be traced this directly to one individual, and one ideology, someone would have already done so. I remained skeptical even after reading Graeber himself describe – in convincing detail – the critical leadership role he played in organizing the movement’s launch.

But then I read something else Graeber wrote that convinced me that not only was he telling the truth about his role as an organizer, but that his contribution to OWS likely extends much deeper. In an article entitled “The New Anarchists”, Graeber neatly outlined what is clearly the intellectual foundation for the OWS movement. And most striking of all, he wrote this in 2002:

The very notion of direct action, with its rejection of a politics which appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state power in a form that itself prefigures an alternative—all of this emerges directly from the libertarian tradition. Anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source of most of what’s new and hopeful about it…

However you choose to trace their origins, these new tactics are perfectly in accord with the general anarchistic inspiration of the movement, which is less about seizing state power than about exposing, delegitimizing and dismantling mechanisms of rule while winning ever-larger spaces of autonomy from it

A constant complaint about the globalization movement in the progressive press is that, while tactically brilliant, it lacks any central theme or coherent ideology. (This seems to be the left equivalent of the corporate media’s claims that we are a bunch of dumb kids touting a bundle of completely unrelated causes—free Mumia, dump the debt, save the old-growth forests.) Another line of attack is that the movement is plagued by a generic opposition to all forms of structure or organization…”[T]his is a movement about reinventing democracy. It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy. Ultimately, it aspires to be much more than that, because ultimately it aspires to reinvent daily life as whole…

Observe that these excerpted passages describe all of the defining characteristics of the OWS movement:

  1. A steadfast refusal by the movement to put forward any demands.
  2. The continuous occupation of physical space by movement protesters.
  3. Criticism that the movement consists largely of young people without any apparent goals.
  4. A focus on propagating a new process for consensus-based, decision making.

But if this is not convincing enough, the article goes on to describe this process is more detail. See if this sounds familiar.

Over the past decade, activists in North America have been putting enormous creative energy into reinventing their groups’ own internal processes, to create viable models of what functioning direct democracy could actually look like. In this we’ve drawn particularly, as I’ve noted, on examples from outside the Western tradition, which almost invariably rely on some process of consensus finding, rather than majority vote. The result is a rich and growing panoply of organizational instruments—spokescouncils, affinity groups, facilitation tools, break-outs, fishbowls, blocking concerns, vibe-watchers and so on—all aimed at creating forms of democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity, without stifling dissenting voices, creating leadership positions or compelling anyone to do anything which they have not freely agreed to do.

The basic idea of consensus process is that, rather than voting, you try to come up with proposals acceptable to everyone—or at least, not highly objectionable to anyone: first state the proposal, then ask for ‘concerns’ and try to address them. Often, at this point, people in the group will propose ‘friendly amendments’ to add to the original proposal, or otherwise alter it, to ensure concerns are addressed. Then, finally, when you call for consensus, you ask if anyone wishes to ‘block’ or ‘stand aside’. Standing aside is just saying, ‘I would not myself be willing to take part in this action, but I wouldn’t stop anyone else from doing it’. Blocking is a way of saying ‘I think this violates the fundamental principles or purposes of being in the group’. It functions as a veto: any one person can kill a proposal completely by blocking it—although there are ways to challenge whether a block is genuinely principled.

This is the Occupy Wall Street movement in a nutshell, in all its glorious simplicity. It’s not a ragtag group of disillusioned young people, lacking in coherent leadership or direction. It’s a movement spawned from a very specific school of anti-capitalistic thought (anarchism), planned and orchestrated by its most committed adherents, including David Graeber. But towards what end?

Graeber himself provides an answer, from 2007:

The organization of mass actions themselves — festivals of resistance, as they are often called — can be considered pragmatic experiments in whether it is indeed possible to institutionalize the experience of liberation, the giddy realignment of imaginative powers, everything that is most powerful in the experience of a successful spontaneous insurrection. Or if not to institutionalize it, perhaps, to produce it on call. The effect for those involved is as if everything were happening in reverse. A revolutionary uprising begins with battles in the streets, and if successful, proceeds to outpourings of popular effervescence and festivity. There follows the sober business of creating new institutions, councils, decision-making processes, and ultimately the reinvention of everyday life. Such at least is the ideal, and certainly there have been moments in human history where something like that has begun to happen — much though, again, such spontaneous creations always seems to end being subsumed within some new form of violent bureaucracy. However, as I’ve noted, this is more or less inevitable since bureaucracy, however much it serves as the immediate organizer of situations of power and structural blindness, does not create them. Mainly, it simply evolves to manage them.

This is one reason direct action proceeds in the opposite direction. Probably a majority of the participants are drawn from subcultures that are all about reinventing everyday life. Even if not, actions begin with the creation of new forms of collective decision-making: councils, assemblies, the endless attention to ‘process’ — and uses those forms to plan the street actions and popular festivities. The result is, usually, a dramatic confrontation with armed representatives of the state. While most organizers would be delighted to see things escalate to a popular insurrection, and something like that does occasionally happen, most would not expect these to mark any kind of permanent breaks in reality. They serve more as something almost along the lines of momentary advertisements — or better, foretastes, experiences of visionary inspiration — for a much slower, painstaking struggle of creating alternative institutions.

A “revolution in reverse” Graeber calls this, and while he is realistic in his assessment that a full-fledged revolution is unlikely to be forthcoming anytime soon, his other writings make perfectly clear what sort of “permanent break in reality” he is aiming for:

Medium-Term Goals: destroy the “Washington Consensus” around neoliberalism, block all new trade pacts, delegitimize and ultimately shut down institutions like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank; disseminate
new models of direct democracy.

Long-Term Goals: (at least for the more radical elements) smash the state and destroy capitalism.

This seems pretty consistent with the bulk of the messages emanating from Zucotti Park, and also explains why so many socialists and other radical leftists are attracted to these protests. They share the same proximate goals with the anarchists, if not the same long-term vision. It’s an alliance of convenience, against capitalism.

But is David Graeber really the mastermind behind it all? On one hand, anarchist movements by definition tend to be non-hierarchical, and as Graeber himself acknowledged, the original idea came from Adbusters with initial support from the Anonymous movement (which is itself anarchist). But based on Graeber’s own account, it seems he had an awful lot to do with the initial orchestration of the movement in New York. And it is interesting to say the least that the movement’s core principles and techniques correspond so closely with an article he wrote over a decade ago defining the “new anarchists”.

Ultimately it does not matter much anyway because regardless of Graeber’s exact role, what is clear is that this is an anarchist movement through and through. Conceived and executed by people whose long term goal is the destruction of global capitalism…and America. Obviously this is not a goal shared by most of the 99% of Americans the movement claims to represent, and support for these protests would be close to non-existent if the public was made aware of its actual roots. However, it seems mayors and police chiefs around the country recognize anarchists when they see them, and are beginning to shut down the occupied encampments, if not the protests themselves. But maybe if OWS lasts long enough the media will eventually get around to reporting how the movement originated. Because the wizard behind the curtain is actually hiding in plain sight.

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