anarchism and occupy wall street

Anarchism week: #1 Social theory; #2 OWS and public image.

A few comments, in no order, about  anarchism and OWS:

  1. OWS is probably the most important anarchist event in about 100 years of American history. Probably more important than the Battle of Seattle, in my view. You would really have to go back to the late 1800s when people really did fear anarchists.
  2. OWS represents a rebranding (sorry!!!) of American anarchism from black masks to (mostly) non-violent protest.
  3. It is an open question of how much anarchist identity penetrates the movement. It’s safe to say that anarchist egalitarian practices dominate, but does the average participant buy into a goal of a stateless society?
  4. Black bloc: OWS made anarchism come above ground. In my field work on the antiwar movement, I always found it a little disappointing that people resorted to the black bloc and often hid their identities. I am glad that OWS had allowed this movement to have a public face.
  5. Did OWS push distinctly anarchist ideas beyond organizational structure? Unclear to me.
  6. Question: Is OWS an distinctly American anarchism?
  7. Question: Will anarchism go underground again, or can OWS be used as a stepping stone to more fully integrate anarchism into American politics and culture?

Use the comments section.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 5, 2013 at 6:32 am

10 Responses

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  1. Sacco and Vanzetti take you at least to 1927, no?


    Nathan Lauster

    December 5, 2013 at 7:39 am

  2. 1. O.W.S. was a huge disappointment. We suffer enough from interminable legislative bodies, and indeed governments of all kinds, yet the first thing they do is create an assembly.

    2. No, all the re-branding is going on from the Murray Rothbard arena. O.W.S. was too damn vague to be a re-branding. Instead it was a re-muddying. More traditional anarchists will probably have a problem with the Rothbardian anarchist, since a basic tenet of this is belief in private property. This is actual rebranding, and it may not work, despite the hard work various people in the Austrian economic tradition. We don’t always get to pick our own words.

    3. Very few people identify with a stateless society. I think most of them were either college students or just out of college who realized they’d been had in some way, but didn’t have the knowledge necessary to get it.
    So they’d suggest things like ‘college should be free’, or some other nonsense. That isn’t stateless thinking. Nor is Graeber’s stuff very stateless- debt backed currency? Come on, the lender always ends up being the Man. And then there were the assemblies again. What is that? What anarchist wants to suffocate under the weight of yet another committee?

    4. I agree with you here. I don’t think these protests actually solve much at all. Our masters are mostly products of the sixties, and when they went establishment they brought with them an insiders understanding of how to use these protests for their own gains. The black bloc is even less successful because the average T.V. viewer won’t identify with them at all. If you protest masked, the average person will likely assume you need to be locked up.

    5. O.W.S. was too muddled to push anything into the mainstream.
    6. Nope. Go to Eugene, Oregon for the old brand, Auburn Missisipi for the new. O.W.S. was just a melting pot of discontent.
    7. The Republic is dead and we’ve got problems with everything, including the food supply. Protesting at Wall Street is less helpful than growing some decent food, and in the long run, establishing a local community (and economy) that the corporatists can’t screw with is the only way to rebuild the culture. Hopefully, endeavors in this area are hidden, for then they won’t be interfered with, but when D.C. goes the way of Detroit, the strong local communities will be the new centers of learning. Assuming we actually get anywhere. This is why I take such a dim view of OWS. We have to focus the few resources the baby boomers aren’t eating to building a few communities, which would eventually become the new cultural centers, the new cities, of whatever is going to rise out these American ashes.



    December 5, 2013 at 5:15 pm

  3. 6. Question: Is OWS an distinctly American anarchism?

    I would say no. OWS was similar to movements in Europe, starting in Spain after the Arab Spring. The idea of a General Assembly is not something unique to OWS either, or many of the things they were famous for (structure, openness, etc).

    To August:

    It is true that, overall, OWS was a disappointment. I cannot talk much about it because I’m not American but I participated in AcampadaSol, similar but in Spain, and the overall feeling was that it didn’t do much. This is in part true, no immediate change came out of it. The government is still the same, the banks are still up and working, and many of the things we were complaining about are still there. But focusing on immediate effects on the pursued goals is absurd when dealing with things that cannot be changed in a few days.

    Think of OWS (AcampadaSol, OccupyLSX and others) as the first big protest after the 60s, as the first time that a protest went global, as the first big anarchist experience in decades, and think of it as the confluence of many different movements, as an experiment of alternative organization, as a seed that has the potential to grow at some point.

    Also, stateless doesn’t mean it is not organized. Stateless is rejecting the idea of a centralized state, not the rejection of order and organization. In a stateless society you are free to pursue any interest you want, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the interests of others, and there are always things that affect or need of more than one person. In those cases, organization is required.

    I fell out of love with the movement some time ago for many reasons, but I don’t believe it was a failure or that it doesn’t have a potential.


    Jay Cano

    December 5, 2013 at 7:40 pm

  4. If you just re-brand something, you don’t necessarily change the product. Item 2 is hence at best misleading.



    December 6, 2013 at 7:51 am

  5. @anon: scholars who study branding would disagree. One cannot change a brand without changing the images, symbols, language, and other constructions associated with the name. Rebranding is not renaming, even though this is what happens when the process is typically tried on university campuses.



    December 6, 2013 at 2:42 pm

  6. I talked about changing the product – all the items you mentioned are related to branding. The actual product and/or service does not necessarily have to change.



    December 6, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  7. If you think the product is just the objective, physical stuff, you are wrong. The brand is not just a label. And the product and brand are inextricable.



    December 6, 2013 at 4:25 pm

  8. Jay,
    Organization does not mean assemblies. Spontaneous order should be allowed to emerge; OWS had a problem from a start because of the nature of protesting, and then some decided to erect this unwieldy thing on top of it. Far from being stateless, OWS was more or less propped up by state agencies that allowed them to stay in the park far longer than the private owners wanted them to stay there. Too many of us view the past through the lens of communist thought- we are taught this stuff in school, the oppressor/oppressed bull, and that everybody needs a voice. You can have on guy in charge, essentially serving a judge when the people with eyes on a problem can’t agree between themselves about how to solve it. And over time, in a non-violent society, what does anarchy look like? Patriarchy, because parents who are good administrators get to keep their lands and their children stick around, perceiving far more benefit in staying than striking out on their own.
    I think, in Spain, you managed better, in the sense that it seemed to me people were more sympathetic to you and viewed the government as very much in the wrong. O.W.S. couldn’t even manage that. Few people even associate it with anarchism; they just think it was dumb college liberals.



    December 6, 2013 at 5:48 pm

  9. Let me try again: You can rebrand something without changing the fundamental properties of a product / activity (and please, I do know that the brand and the product is interrelated) – I therefore think that to talk about rebranding when it comes to OWS is at best misleading, because it is clear that the fundamental way of being an activist has changed. So sure, rebranding has also taken place, but has it has also very been explained very elegantly in another thread, such an assessment does not capture what OWS is, and how it is different from former forms of activism. Nevertheless, I am sure one could publish a paper based on this angle, if one wants to add another publication to the CV.



    December 7, 2013 at 10:42 am

  10. @August

    In Spain, people called the occupiers “perroflautas,” a portmanteau of “dog” and “flute” in Spanish, because they were seen as the typical punk/squatter that you always see around in tight jeans, a dog and playing some instrument (usually the flute). But in general, it’s true that even if they didn’t have a positive view of the movement, people are unhappy with the government.

    There are many ideas mixed in your response. I’m not interested in making a judgement of communist, liberal or any other leftist doctrine, but in assessing the properties and merits of the movement in itself. In my opinion, just by including assemblies in the decision making process the movement is a shift from the traditional way of organizing movements, where there are “official” leaders and speakers, and a formal membership, to a more decentralized and open organization where there are no leaders and no formal membership. At least that was the initial idea although it is debatable that it stayed like that.

    On patriarchy as a future projection, that’s one of many possible outcomes. The thing about anarchy is that it doesn’t impose rules over the people except, maybe, the often cited “it is forbidden to forbid.” I can agree that anarchy will not stay free of rules forever; its openness, tied to the routine-oriented mind of people, will at some point generate patterns that later become institutions (if we accept Berger and Luckmann’s institutionalization). But if it’s a patriarchy, a matriarchy, a communist dictatorship or a capitalist anarchy is just far from my reach.

    The idea of OWS being college liberals is the same as saying that all environmentalists are hippy treehuggers, welfare state proponents are socialists or communists, and free market proponents are rich, evil bloodsuckers. There’s probably a bit of truth in that, but it’s not good to generalize.

    And of course the current state had a part in it, by enabling or not being able to stop it. Social movements always happen in a social context.


    Jay Cano

    December 10, 2013 at 1:47 pm

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