Occupy This!

Yet, while Rebick’s contribution captures quite well the initial sense of optimism and reinvigoration that the Occupy movement had seemed to unleash, it says much less about the complex practical, organizational and strategic questions that grew in significance as the occupation wore on.

Occupy This! traces the origins and characteristics of the Occupy movement to earlier social justice movements based around the principles of non-hierarchy and participatory democracy, and celebrates the strengths and successes of this new politics in providing an alternative to the current neoliberal order. Rebick argues that, within the US, this politics originally emerged with the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and the heralding of a bottom-up, collective, and compassionate approach to social change. Comparisons are subsequently drawn between the democratic forms emerging from the Occupy movement and earlier experiments with participatory democracy, such as the participatory budget in Porto Alegre, the horizontalidad movement of worker takeovers of closed-down factories in Argentina and the Movement for Socialism led by Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Rebick goes on to suggest that the values of non-hierarchy and horizontality emerging from Occupy constitute real alternatives to the failures of the “traditional Left” in Europe and North America, particularly with respect to the ability of the latter to challenge neoliberal economic policies. She claims that while the traditional Left has tended to confront centralized political power by concentrating power in their own hands, the Occupy movement has adopted a different vantage point — one which sees the practices of horizontal learning and sharing as political ends in and of themselves.

Celebrating the politics espoused by Occupy as the “deepest form of democracy” she has witnessed in her decades of activism, Rebick praises the open, non-hierarchical and interconnected nature of the occupy sites for their ability to encourage the participation and involvement of all. For Rebick, Occupy’s refusal to adopt a clear set of demands, and its attempt to instead  create an open-ended process for the “99%” to collectively seek alternatives, is at the heart of the movement’s ability to win a high degree of public support. Moreover, she sees the consensus-building model of the General Assembly as a core mechanism for  shoring up the inclusivity and openness necessary to sustain such support. Rebick further suggests that a culture of love and solidarity and a deep sense of interconnectedness — particularly seen in the integration of the needs and concerns of homeless people into the Occupy movement — have resulted in a more democratic resolution of conflicts and differences within the movement. 

Strengths and weaknesses

Rebick’s latest book serves as a useful primer for those unfamiliar with Occupy’s politics. It successfully captures the sense of collective will, imagination and solidarity that the Occupy movement heralded in its early days — the sense of possibility and radical renewal that inspired the participation and support of a diverse array of people. However, despite its ability to tap into these key aspects of the movement, Rebick’s work falls short when it comes to offering a more concrete analysis of the pressing strategic and political questions that faced, and continue to face, the movement. Its remarkably positive assessment of the organizational structure and political impact of Occupy runs the serious risk of glossing over important nuances and contradictions in the process.

Rebick’s account of Occupy in this book fails to deal with many of the weaknesses and limitations of the movement, both in its organizational form and its strategic outlook. One such shortcoming is the author’s silence on the limitations of the language and strategies employed by the Occupy movement in grappling with differences within the 99% around experiences, needs, and interests. While the language of “the 99%” held immense rallying power by evoking class solidarity against the onslaught of the neoliberal elite, it masked the interlocking nature of the relationship between capitalism and other forms of oppression such as patriarchy and racism. The language also failed when it came to the mobilization and inclusion of many marginalized communities. Instances of sexism, racism, and queer- and trans-phobia have also persisted within many encampments, with divisive and oppressive practices discouraging the involvement of members of marginalized communities.

These questions have been at the centre of much activist debate, not only while the encampments were still in place, but particularly as the spring phase of Occupy strives to re-invigorate and mobilize ever larger numbers of people. They have, however, been largely neglected and left unexamined in Rebick’s latest book. While she briefly notes the existence of sexism and racism in some Occupy communities, there is little to no discussion of the structural and organizational failings of the movement on these questions. Rather, it is merely asserted that collective decision-making processes and an openness to learning will ultimately change behavioural norms over time.

There are reasons to be skeptical about this optimistic expectation. Meanwhile, the solution it envisions is itself problematic. Rather than working to integrate an understanding of the systemic connections between race, class and gender into the Occupy movement’s politics, the approach suggested in the book involves merely modifying individuals’ attitudes in order to ensure the co-existence of, and respect for, different identities within Occupy. 

Certainly, the proliferation of various creative attempts at inclusivity and anti-oppressive practices in many Occupy communities is  a positive step forward; however, such gestures by themselves do little to  ensure equitable decision-making processes.  Nor do they necessarily reflect an understanding of how to adopt strategies to adequately address systemic divisions within the 99%. 

Organizational forms and politics

Rebick’s celebratory take on Occupy also leaves out important criticisms of the movement’s organizational forms. While noting some limitations in the consensus-based model adopted at General Assemblies (GAs), she ultimately concludes that this model is best suited for including a wide range of voices and perspectives. She suggests that GAs facilitate the pluralism and consensus-building central to the radical new form of democracy emerging out of the Occupy movement.

For many of us attending meetings at Occupy Toronto, the GA experience was, in reality, far from the idealized space the book portrays. Similar accounts from other cities confirm that this experience was not unique to Toronto. Despite being routinely celebrated as embodying Occupy’s pluralistic and horizontal approach to decision-making, the GAs were in practice fairly dysfunctional and did not allow for serious strategic debate and decision-making. Instead, they typically involved loosely-structured conversations about  the practicalities of occupying and living communally in the park. 

These limitations in the organizational form of Occupy also had important consequences for its political content. An excessive emphasis within many encampments — at least initially — on the finer procedural details of consensus-based decision-making and on how to manage our presence in the park overshadowed other important discussions about the broader political and strategic aims of the movement. The lack of a collective space for constructively discussing and debating political positions in turn created a tendency towards depoliticization, which frustrated and alienated many participants. 

Even if properly implemented within the Occupy model, it is not clear that the ideal of consensus would not itself lead to particular kinds of exclusions. Occupy’s consensus-building ideal involved people living and working together in an encampment on a long-term basis.  This  was quite inaccessible to many kinds of people within the “99%” who were unable to make such a commitment owing to their job and family responsibilities. What is more, given the power differences among participants along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality and so on, it is hard to imagine that structureless settings such as the Occupy encampments could ever provide truly equal access to participation and decision-making. 

Ultimately, while Rebick and other outside commentators focused their attention mainly on the assembly model, alongside the hand signals and the human mic, and celebrated its potential for  radicalizing the decision-making process, the GAs in fact accounted for very little of the more substantive accomplishments of Occupy. It was in the various committees and working groups where far-reaching decisions about strategy, actions and planning were being made — spaces that were also largely unaccountable to the GA. Claims about the non-hierarchical and consensus-based nature of organizing within Occupy in fact obscure the various forms of decision-making that happened outside of the assembly. Though tremendously productive and necessary, these efforts challenge claims that democratic accountability and transparency were at Occupy’s core, and cast doubt on observers’ insistence on Occupy’s horizontal and participatory nature.

Activists’ analyses needed

These limitations in Rebick’s book are perhaps symptomatic of a broader problematic  tendency among some on the Left to romanticize  the Occupy movement. Such impressionistic accounts — contradicted by the realities on the ground — signal the need for Occupy activists to provide analyses based on their own experiences. These contributions would be crucial not only in providing a more accurate analysis, but also in helping to advance  the movement by articulating and working through its real contradictions and challenges.

Moving away from over-generalized celebrations of Occupy would also help to shed light on the different ways the movement took shape in the various camps. While much of the rhetoric and organizational dynamics of Occupy have been universally adopted, there remain significant differences in each context in organizational structures, attempts to integrate anti-racist and feminist struggles and efforts to mobilize diverse groups and build broader links of solidarity. Needless to say, there are important differences between the politics, significance and possibilities offered by, say, Occupy Toronto and Occupy Oakland. The shift away from generalized accounts can better capture the various historical and political grounds for the divergence of these various local experiments.

Finally, what Rebick’s contributions also signal is the need for a sober assessment of Occupy’s real pitfalls and challenges. While there is much to be learned from her reflections on the strengths and successes of the movement, there remains an equally decisive need to earnestly engage in constructive  critiques of its strategic and organizational shortcomings. This becomes all the more necessary in the context of current efforts to regroup, reframe and revive the movement. Of course, critique does not entail standing on the sidelines and disparaging the movement for its shortcomings either; such an attitude towards Occupy has been prevalent in some leftist circles and is no less problematic. What has been lacking — both from those who exaggerate the movement’s successes and those who deride it out of cynicism or sectarianism — is a closer and more productive engagement with the movement from within.

Occupy’s achievements so far have certainly been far from trivial and merit considerable praise and admiration. Occupy broke the ideological hold of neoliberalism at a time when political imagination and  alternatives were desperately needed. To that end, it has been, and continues to be, a radical political act. Yet, at this critical conjuncture, we cannot afford to be mired in romanticizations of the movement. It is only through honest critical assessment that we can truly celebrate the successes of the Occupy movement and contribute to opening it up to its real potential.

Donya Ziaee was involved in Occupy Toronto’s action committee until the eviction from St. James Park.