Radical Reflections

Matthew Wasserman Sep 28, 2013

Thank You, Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse
by Nathan Schneider
University of California Press, 2013

The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement
by David Graeber
Spiegel & Grau, 2013

Social movements expand or they die. The spark of Zucotti Park caught like a prairie fire, going from a single poorly planned occupation to a nationwide movement in a few scant months before sputtering out just as quickly. Some of the energies harnessed by this exuberant phase of expansion have resurfaced in attempts to mobilize debt resistance (Strike Debt!), reclaim foreclosed properties (Occupy Our Homes), challenge entrenched racial disparities (Occupy the Hood), or rebuild in the wake of disaster (Occupy Sandy). But on the whole, attempts to restart Occupy Wall Street (OWS) have failed to catch alight and most participants have turned to other ventures.

In two recently published books, scholar and activist David Graeber and journalist-participant Nathan Schneider try to recapture the energies of OWS. Graeber takes a more synoptic approach, situating Occupy in its historical and international context as the heir to a long string of attempts by people to collectively control the conditions of their lives. Schneider, on the other hand, offers a series of dispatches cum mediations on the Occupy movement and moment.

While Democracy Project sometimes tends toward didacticism, Thank You, Anarchy occasionally verges on prose poetry. Much of this stems from the differing motivations of the authors. Graeber seems focused on disseminating the ideas underpinning and embodied in OWS to a broader audience — he even published Democracy Project with an imprint of Random House — although he is careful to note that he is speaking in an individual capacity and not as a spokesperson or representative of the movement. Schneider seems more interested in reaching those who were at least sympathetic to Occupy, if not necessarily stalwarts of the movement, and thereby stimulating a process of reflection.

The two books raise a common question: where do we go from here? Both authors harbor optimism that Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots in other cities and towns were only the opening phase in a larger project of societal transformation, the ultimate evolution and effects of which are yet to be seen. But they’re vague on the details.

It’s hard to fault Graeber and Schneider for not giving clear answers. Both would likely defend the choice of Occupiers not to direct their energies into forming a radical political party, or — probably more plausibly — get sucked into the maw of Democratic Party-aligned reformist politics. And rightly so.

But what’s left? Given the almost universal disillusionment with the 20th century project of assembling the energies of the left into a revolutionary party capable of becoming the state, it’s unclear how we can address the endemic problems of global capitalism, including vast inequality, environmental depredation and the lack of accountability in politics. Getting some debt forgiven, clipping the locks on a foreclosed house and letting people make it a home again, or providing relief for people displaced by Hurricane Sandy are certainly worthy endeavors. But they’re hardly synonymous with larger societal transformation or with making the 1% quake in their Gucci loafers or Louboutin stilettos.

The balance sheet of OWS is clearly positive. It put the issue of ever-increasing inequality on the national agenda while introducing a new generation to radical and prefigurative politics. Moreover, its rapid-fire expansion showed that the mounting debts and decreasing life opportunities that have accompanied the upwards redistribution of wealth in neoliberal America has rendered the American Dream a nightmare for many of the 99%. It’s hard to tell, however, what the long-term import of all this might be.

Occupy may soon be considered a mere interlude interrupting the flow of “normal” politics, not even of the significance of the 1960s or the global justice movement. Or it may be the opening phase of an ongoing movement to challenge the citadels of power, as Graeber and Schneider hope, as stray sparks spread by its initial expansion catch. Schneider claims, “Sparks like this won’t be long in coming. They’re flashing all the time. They can’t be planned for, but it’s for us to lay the kindling, it’s for us to be ready to catch fire — or others will be ready in our place.”

As Chinese Communist Party leader Zhou Enlai apocryphally said when asked what the significance of the French Revolution was, it’s too soon to tell. Let’s hope that Occupy represents the irruption of a real alternative into the field of politics as usual, rather than merely a “morbid symptom” of an interregnum during which the old forms of left politics have died and the new have not yet been born.


Occupy’s Legacy: A Massive Burbling of Possibilities, by Ethan Earle

Seven Ways Occupy Changed America — and Is Still Changing It, by David Callahan

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Searching for Occupy, by Crystal Zevon

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