From Ken Knabb and the Bureau of Public Secrets

(Analysis of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement)

“A radical situation is a collective awakening. . . . In such situations
people become much more open to new perspectives, readier to question
previous assumptions, quicker to see through the usual cons. . . . People
learn more about society in a week than in years of academic ‘social
studies’ or leftist ‘consciousness raising.’ . . . Everything seems
possible — and much more IS possible. People can hardly believe what they
used to put up with in ‘the old days.’ . . . Passive consumption is replaced
by active communication. Strangers strike up lively discussions on street
corners. Debates continue round the clock, new arrivals constantly replacing
those who depart for other activities or to try to catch a few hours of
sleep, though they are usually too excited to sleep very long. While some
people succumb to demagogues, others start making their own proposals and
taking their own initiatives. Bystanders get drawn into the vortex, and go
through astonishingly rapid changes. . . . Radical situations are the rare
moments when qualitative change really becomes possible. Far from being
abnormal, they reveal how abnormally repressed we usually are; they make our
‘normal’ life seem like sleepwalking.”


* * *

The “Occupy” movement that has swept across the country over the last four
weeks is already the most significant radical breakthrough in America since
the 1960s. And it is just beginning.

It started on September 17, when some 2000 people came together in New York
City to “Occupy Wall Street” in protest against the increasingly glaring
domination of a tiny economic elite over the “other 99%.” The participants
began an ongoing tent-city type occupation of a park near Wall Street
(redubbed Liberty Plaza in a salute to the Tahrir Square occupation in
Egypt) and formed a general assembly that has continued to meet every day.
Though at first almost totally ignored by the mainstream media, this action
rapidly began to inspire similar occupations in hundreds of cities across
the country and many others around the world.

The ruling elite don’t know what’s hit them and have suddenly been thrown on
the defensive, while the clueless media pundits try to dismiss the movement
for failing to articulate a coherent program or list of demands. The
participants have of course expressed numerous grievances, grievances that
are obvious enough to anyone who has been paying attention to what’s been
going on in the world. But they have wisely avoided limiting themselves to a
single demand, or even just a few demands, because it has become
increasingly clear that every aspect of the system is problematic and that
all the problems are interrelated. Instead, recognizing that POPULAR
SOLUTION, the New York assembly came up with a disarmingly simple yet
eminently subversive proposal, urging the people of the world to “Exercise
your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to
address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.
. . . Join us and make your voices heard!”

Almost as clueless are those doctrinaire radicals who remain on the
sidelines glumly predicting that the movement will be coopted or complaining
that it hasn’t instantly adopted the most radical positions. They of all
people should know that the DYNAMIC of social movements is far more
important than their ostensible ideological positions. Revolutions arise out
of complex processes of social debate and interaction that happen to reach a
critical mass and trigger a chain reaction — processes very much like what
we are seeing at this moment. The “99%” slogan may not be a very precise
“class analysis,” but it’s a close enough approximation for starters, an
excellent meme to cut through a lot of traditional sociological jargon and
make the point that the vast majority of people are subordinate to a system
run by and for a tiny ruling elite. And it rightly puts the focus on the
economic institutions rather than on the politicians who are merely their
lackeys. The countless grievances may not constitute a coherent program, but
taken as a whole they already imply a fundamental transformation of the
system. The nature of that transformation will become clearer as the
struggle develops. If the movement ends up forcing the system to come up
with some sort of significant, New Deal-type reforms, so much the better —
that will temporarily ease conditions so we can more easily push further. If
the system proves incapable of implementing any significant reforms, that
will force people to look into more radical alternatives.

As for cooption, there will indeed be many attempts to take over or
manipulate the movement. But I don’t think they’ll have a very easy time of
it. From the beginning the occupation movement has been resolutely
antihierarchical and participatory. General assembly decisions are
scrupulously democratic and most decisions are taken by consensus — a
process which can sometimes be unwieldy, but which has the merit of making
any manipulation practically impossible. In fact, THE REAL THREAT IS THE
OTHER WAY AROUND: The example of participatory democracy ultimately
threatens all hierarchies and social divisions, including those between
rank-and-file workers and their union bureaucracies, and between political
parties and their constituents. Which is why so many politicians and union
bureaucrats are trying to jump on the bandwagon. That is a reflection of our
strength, not of our weakness. (Cooption happens when we are tricked into
riding in THEIR wagons.) The assemblies may of course agree to collaborate
with some political group for a demonstration or with some labor union for a
strike, but most of them are taking care that the distinctions remain clear,
and practically all of them have sharply distanced themselves from both of
the major political parties.

While the movement is eclectic and open to everyone, it is safe to say that
its underlying spirit is strongly antiauthoritarian, drawing inspiration not
only from recent popular movements in Argentina, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece,
Spain and other countries, but from anarchist and situationist theories and
tactics. As the editor of Adbusters (one of the groups that helped initiate
the movement) noted:

“We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab Spring recently,
we are students of the Situationist movement. Those are the people who gave
birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968
when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world.
All of a sudden universities and cities were exploding. This was done by a
small group of people, the Situationists, who were like the philosophical
backbone of the movement. One of the key guys was Guy Debord, who wrote
THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE. The idea is that if you have a very powerful
meme — a very powerful idea — and the moment is ripe, then that is enough
to ignite a revolution. This is the background that we come out of.”

The May 1968 revolt in France was in fact also an “occupation movement” —
one of its most notable features was the occupation of the Sorbonne and
other public buildings, which then inspired the occupation of factories all
over the country by more than 10 million workers. (Needless to say, we are
still very far from something like that, which can hardly happen until
American workers bypass their union bureaucracies and take collective action
on their own, as they did in France.)

As the movement spreads to hundreds of cities, it is important to note that
each of the new occupations and assemblies remains TOTALLY AUTONOMOUS.
Though inspired by the original Wall Street occupation, they have all been
created by the people in their own communities. No outside person or group
has the slightest control over any of these assemblies. Which is just as it
should be. When the local assemblies see a practical need for coordination,
they will coordinate; in the mean time, the proliferation of autonomous
groups and actions is safer and more fruitful than the top-down “unity” for
which bureaucrats are always appealing. Safer, because it counteracts
repression: if the occupation in one city is crushed (or coopted), the
movement will still be alive and well in a hundred others. More fruitful,
because this diversity enables people to share and compare among a wider
range of tactics and ideas.

Each assembly is working out its own procedures. Some are operating by
strict consensus, others by majority vote, others with various combinations
of the two (e.g. a “modified consensus” policy of requiring only 90%
agreement). Some are remaining strictly within the law, others are engaging
in various kinds of civil disobedience. They are establishing diverse types
of committees or “working groups” to deal with particular issues, and
diverse methods of ensuring the accountability of delegates or spokespeople.
They are making diverse decisions as to how to deal with media, with police
and with provocateurs, and adopting diverse ways of collaborating with
other groups or causes. Many types of organization are possible; what is
essential is that things remain transparent, democratic and participatory,
that any tendency toward hierarchy or manipulation is immediately exposed
and rejected.

Another new feature of this movement is that, in contrast to previous
radical movements that tended to come together around a particular issue on
a particular day and then disperse, the current occupations are settling in
their locations with no end date. They’re there for the long haul, with time
to grow roots and experiment with all sorts of new possibilities.

GOING ON. Not everyone will be up for joining in the overnight occupations,
but practically anyone can take part in the general assemblies. At you can find out about occupations (or planned
occupations) in more than a thousand cities in the United States as well as
several hundred others around the world.

The occupations are bringing together all sorts of people coming from all
sorts of different backgrounds. This can be a new and perhaps unsettling
experience for some people, but it’s amazing how quickly the barriers break
down when you’re working together on an exciting collective project. The
consensus method may at first seem tedious, especially if an assembly is
using the “people’s mic” system (in which the assembly echoes each phrase of
the speaker so that everybody can hear). But it has the advantage of
encouraging people to speak to the point, and after a little while you get
into the rhythm and begin to appreciate the effect of everyone focusing on
each phrase together, and of everyone getting a chance to have their say and
see their concerns get a respectful hearing from everyone else.

In this process we are already getting a taste of a new kind of life, life
as it could be if we weren’t stuck in such an absurd and anachronistic
social system. So much is happening so quickly that we hardly know how to
express it. Feelings like: “I can’t believe it! Finally! This is it! Or at
least it COULD be it — what we’ve been waiting for for so long, the sort of
human awakening that we’ve dreamed of but didn’t know if it would ever
actually happen in our lifetime.” Now it’s here and I know I’m not the only
one with tears of joy. A woman speaking at the first Occupy Oakland general
assembly said, “I came here today not just to change the world, but to
change myself.” I think everyone there knew what she meant. In this brave
new world we’re all beginners. We’re all going to be making lots of
mistakes. That is only to be expected, and it’s okay. We’re new at this. But
under these new conditions we’ll learn fast.

At that same assembly someone else had a sign that said: “There are more
reasons to be excited than to be scared.”

October 15, 2011

[A PDF version of this text can be found at ]

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