How Occupy Wall Street (mostly) won me over

By Suresh Naidu
June 8, 2012

This essay is adapted from a chapter of From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, recently published by The New Press.

There had been small flutters about an upcoming demonstration on Wall Street through the occasional mention on mailing lists that I mostly ignore. I assumed it would be like so many other actions I’ve been to in my life, where a small group of the usual suspects in the activist community showed up, tried to make a small ruckus, and went home, or the protest got broken up by the police. That said, I was still intrigued by the idea of mounting an occupation, even if temporary, in the heart of the financial district, which even many professional economists hold accountable for much of the inefficiency and inequality of recent years.

So when it began on September 17, I called an old anarchist friend of mine and asked: “Are you going to this thing?” He said no, and, since he was much more connected to activist circles than I was, I assumed it wasn’t going to be all that momentous. I stayed in my office doing research while watching the occupation unfold on live stream, and it seemed benign enough. I was glad that “the kids” were still fighting the good fight despite how futile it looked. I also remember deliberating about how it would be perceived by my more senior economist colleagues at Columbia if I publicly supported such a fringe event, and I chose to not endorse the movement on Facebook. As political scientist Corey Robin writes, fear induced by the workplace is as potent a silencer as anything else.

And yet the tenacity of the occupation surprised me, and another friend and I decided to schedule a hangout at the occupation to give our support. So the next night, a Friday, we spent at Zuccotti Park in the pouring rain. Since I didn’t recognize anybody in the General Assembly, we hung around for a bit, ate a leisurely dinner from one of the nearby halal trucks, and left. That was my first experience of the occupation: wet, rainy and dark, with a General Assembly of about fifteen to twenty people, and a Styrofoam container of spicy chicken-over-rice. I was supportive but not completely optimistic.

In two days, however, all that changed when New York police officer Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed two women who were kettled in that now infamous video. The following Friday, my wife and I went to a solidarity march at Police Plaza. Afterwards, I posted on Facebook that this march had more anger and energy than anything I’d seen in the United States since the anti-globalization movement of 1999 to 2001, in which I had been heavily involved as a university student. Once my wife left for the Middle East, I threw myself into Occupy Wall Street with full abandon. From then on, it was an intense few weeks of rallies and actions that tore my fall plans of submitting research papers to shreds. Finally, after many years, I again felt that mildly addictive chemical kick of successful collective action.

I’m an economist down to my bones, so I can’t turn off the part of my brain that is constantly spinning mathematical models and thinking of ways of measuring the things I’m interested in. So I wrote a blog post that became somewhat popular on interpreting OWS through the lens of formal models of democratization. Also, in response to the somewhat ridiculous slogans about money and finance being bandied around Zuccotti Park, an economist friend of mine from the Center for Popular Economics and I began doing economics teach-ins on Sunday mornings. We discussed the politics of monetary policy, how the banking system works, and what alternative economic institutions would look like. Attendance was high, the reception was really positive, and these teach-ins were some of the most rewarding activities I did during the occupation.

To quote a friend, the movement was “leaderful” as much as it was “leaderless,” with particular people playing decisive roles in particular working groups for short periods but no individual or group having a full picture or any sense of control overall of the activities going on. The organization of park logistics was a kind of communist invisible hand where, despite the lack of centralized decision making, things that needed to get done were getting done. People were cooperating and making things happen without prices and without centralized planning!

This organic process of self-organization got my social science antenna wobbling attentively as it seemed to repudiate both Hayek and Keynes at the same time. (Hayek argued that markets and prices were the best way to communicate local information about what was needed and how to provide it; Keynes thought that coordination on a larger scale was necessary to get resources to their best uses.) Instead, Zuccotti Park’s organization was both decentralized and non-market, an ideal of anarchist principles that I had generally come across only in my research on hunter-gatherer populations.

Nevertheless, it was clear that the General Assembly, while empowering in a congregationalist way, was quickly becoming unwieldy for the kinds of logistical decisions that needed to get made (e.g., long-run budgeting). A model of decision making we had used in the anti-globalization movement was the spokescouncil, which was a way to efficiently make large collective decisions and allocate speaking bandwidth without sacrificing direct democracy and decentralization. Based on my experience with the spokescouncil in 1999 and 2001, I jumped into the working group handling structure, and from there I learned a lot about the inner workings of OWS. I briefly wandered into the finance working group as well, helped out with a few tasks there, and then retreated into helping craft the proposal to form a spokescouncil.

That wound up taking a lot of time, and it turned into an experience I had been trying to avoid: presenting and passing a proposal through the General Assembly. Long story short: after three hours, during which my more informed co-working group members did most of the talking, our proposal was blocked and tabled. So we promised to hold daily teach-ins about how the spokescouncil would work, and every day for much of the next week I was in Zuccotti Park. But, lo and behold, a week later it was passed! Spokescouncil was born. In the interests of full disclosure, it was by no means an immediate success, and I was certainly despairing about OWS group dynamics the weekend before the eviction.

But the story is by no means over. I was there during the night of the eviction and during the actions on November 17, and my optimism has not really been blunted despite the loss of the park. There is a lot more to talk about, including how OWS has changed what I can discuss with my colleagues and students, and the network of amazing activist colleagues it has reconstructed. I’m still an economic historian; I don’t think we will know whether OWS has had an impact or not for at least a decade. So for now, I’m taking the plunge, taking to the streets, and hoping that others do the same. Let’s see what happens.

20 comments

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Write shorter articles. Too much unimportant information. What is the point of the article?

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

Nothing will happen.

That’s because OWS has never “grown” beyond a bunch of the more idealistic anarchists talking to each other, contemplating the lint in each other’s navels, offering no new ideas and accomplishing nothing.

The only evidence of their various “occupations” has been trash to be cleared away after they are. You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame. Go home, if you have one.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“Instead, Zuccotti Park’s organization was both decentralized and non-market, an ideal of anarchist principles that I had generally come across only in my research on hunter-gatherer populations.” Well, let’s ignore that “non-market” bit of propaganda, shall we, since the whole point of Occupiers is to sell stuff. Policies, in this case. And books, it would seem.

I take it, though, that you’ve never researched the kinds of people who have to do production engineering under tight deadlines? They, like 99% of the world’s population, certainly don’t have time to “allocate speaking bandwidth” yet still manage to do stuff efficiently. They may be almost as interesting as hunter gatherers, and there are bound to be papers to be published about them….

I remember that in the 1970′s when the Xerox people were trying to explain agent-based programming paradigms to people they talked about old-time US-style barn raising as the exemplar of that kind of activity – people just naturally end up doing the part of the job where they are most needed. One could even argue that it’s the default human setting.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

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I see the sheep are out in full force, after all it’s an OWS piece.

Nothing will happen they say while they sit and watch. While it was their generation that failed this younger generation but they want to yell and belittle the youth and tell them to “get a job” when there aren’t any.

Still can’t see the forest from the trees. Fools.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

@TheUS of A,

I guess you are a wannabee apologist for generations born with the silver spoon in their mouths who have never know adversity anywhere, anytime, faced with the single challenge of entering their “working years” at a time of economic retrenchment. Bwawwwww!

Does it take a rocket scientist to understand that “average Americans” who bought into the idea that they could afford 4,000+ sq. ft. houses and associated taxes bought at top dollar were “crusin’ for a brusin”? The prudent of my generation supported our country and economy by purchasing 1200-1300 sq. ft. (still three and four bedroom) homes. Those that didn’t constantly leverage their last dime to “trade up” made a fair profit if they sold. Jobs are no different than anything else.

There are times when jobs are plentiful, and times when they are few and far between (and may not pay well). Suck it up. YOU’RE the ones with the inability to see both forest AND trees!

Those of you unhappy to still be dependent and/or living at home still have it better than the great majority of folks on this planet. Quit complaining.

You aren’t “entitled” to ANYTHING. It’s up to YOU to figure out how to cease being a burden on society and a waste of skin.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I dislike the materialistic division creates by ‘Wall Street’ as much as the next man. However, until you can come up with a better conceived alternative, you are protesting for nothing.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

The challenge for OWS and the sister groups worldwide is to harness the energy and get out and vote….if people get out and vote, and stay involved in the political process instead of shouting about how bad we have it and telling everyone that something needs to be done you will be surprised how change can happen. We all know things need to change.. simply vote for it.

Dermot

Posted by dermotmckinney | Report as abusive

Keep going, we’re not there yet. Besides the best things in life being free, the most exciting businesses today are not monetized. Eyeballs, ideas, credibility and purchasing choices are the hot commodities- and we all have some. A holistic accounting of what we provide and what we pollute will help restore balance. PS Pay It Downstream- Hire someone for an errand or for a few hours, and let’s figure out an app for fully compensating casual labor.

Posted by TomG2 | Report as abusive

Nice propaganda Reuters

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

TheUSofA
Do you think your “generation” is special and different? You sit, you watch…you are not!! Insetad of a gripe get a grip. Imagine what the world would be like if past generations had the entitlement mentality or lack of work ethic and repsect your “generation”. You never have had the chance to elect your supposed “savior” you have now if the generations before did keep that right for you. Quit complaining and be part of the solution. OWS is NOT part of the solution is a symptom of the problem. You just choose it as it is the easy way to make em feel your anger, make em feel your pain. Problem is is won’t help you and will just make you the pwan they want you to be. Be your onw person not someone else’s pawn.

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Get a damn haircut.

Posted by DougAnderson | Report as abusive

As an economist, I would assume that you recognize that the the core of our problems lie in Washington.

OWS has not won me over because they are demonstrating against a symptom, not the core cause of the problem.

Sure, there is corruption, insider dealing, and the like on Wall Street – but those are unfortunate realities in every industry.

Can you explain to me why you and the OWS movement fail to see that this movement should be “Occupy Capitol Hill” and K Street? I can only think that because the majority of protestors are liberals, they are afraid to speak out with a Dem President in office.

Posted by jaham | Report as abusive

As an economist, I would assume that you recognize that the the core of our problems lie in Washington.

OWS has not won me over because they are demonstrating against a symptom, not the core cause of the problem.

Sure, there is corruption, insider dealing, and the like on Wall Street – but those are unfortunate realities in every industry.

Can you explain to me why you and the OWS movement fail to see that this movement should be “Occupy Capitol Hill” and K Street? I can only think that because the majority of protestors are liberals, they are afraid to speak out with a Dem President in office.

Posted by jaham | Report as abusive

You and the like make me sick. If the movement were worth a crap it would have gotten legs or media attention on it’s own merits. If someone gets Pepper Sprayed in NY or CA whether they derserve it or not is not about the “movement”. That is an side act to it. The sad thing that is the reason why OWS gets attention in the media is not because of the “movement” or it’s “cause” it is the side acts that are related to it. They are all a bunch of Pawns who are brainwashed and eat up the bad message. Blame the banks and the rich for your problems and lastly and most importantly…make em feel your anger, make feel your pain!! OWS has no good strategies, solutions or ideas. If they did the “movement” would stand on it’s own and attract real leaders & intelligent followers. The “movement” was started by the far left with no solid ideas or solutions. The only thing it has succeeded in attracting is people who are weak minded followers. They are the disillusioned and angry who think they can solve problems by banning together and protesting because the “movement” trains them to think that way. Have fun being used in a game of chess you lemming Pawns.

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Can you explain to me why you and the OWS movement fail to see that this movement should be “Occupy Capitol Hill” and K Street? I can only think that because the majority of protestors are liberals, they are afraid to speak out with a Dem President in office.

That because OWS was started by Obama supporters to help divide class and start class warfare for the 2012 elections. Not working out so well huh? They are not in Washington because they do not want to embarrass those pulling the strings…and they are hypocrites!!!

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

@OneOfTheSheep

You seem to detest the younger generation. They’re not the ones who screwed all this up. They’re the ones meant to suffer for your generations mistakes.

“There are times when jobs are plentiful, and times when they are few and far between (and may not pay well). Suck it up. YOU’RE the ones with the inability to see both forest AND trees!”

You’re summary is weak, pathetic even. Completely disregards time, place and context. Oh it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Great analysis of our current predicament. Perhaps you spend more time understanding the causes of this global financial malaise rather than picking on a movement that has done more than you ever will have.

Good to see you jump on any OWS piece to rail against the younger generation, who again, did not cause this mess. Your generation did.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

@crash866,

“Can you explain to me why you and the OWS movement fail to see that this movement should be “Occupy Capitol Hill” and K Street? I can only think that because the majority of protestors are liberals, they are afraid to speak out with a Dem President in office.:”

This is somewhat incorrect. Notice that the democrats did not attach themselves to OWS because they could not. Obama has said little to nothing about OWS, let’s not dismiss that. This is not about liberal or conservative, both parties have failed, both have done their part to bring us here.

I do agree that the focus should shift to Washington and K Street but I do believe that’s part of the message.

As for class warfare, it’s already been waged. Who do you think has been winning? Massive transfer of wealth upwards these past few decades. Wages have remained largely stagnant. Income inequality is not a myth, it’s a reality.

http://www.stanford.edu/group/scspi/inde x.html

“The U.S. ranks third among all the advanced economies in the amount of income inequality. The top 1% of Americans control nearly a quarter of all the country’s income, the highest share controlled by the top 1% since 1928.”

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

@Sheep

“You aren’t “entitled” to ANYTHING. It’s up to YOU to figure out how to cease being a burden on society and a waste of skin.”

Can you bend just a little bit farther and grab your ankles for the banks, the politicians and Wall Street? The financial and political elites who you seem to believe are entitled to just about anything and who can do no wrong thank you for ignoring them and choosing to spend your time instead heckling the younger generation who want to work but can’t find jobs.

Do you even understand how money works in our system? That money is debt and that debt is driven by banks? You must be enjoying too big to fail. You must think they’re all hard workers and entitled to all that bailout money too.

Your version of what capitalism is simple minded, destructive and completely ignores the reality of how unfettered (crony) capitalism and the greed and corruption actually has been working. But go ahead and harp about OWS.

Yeah, you can see the forest from the trees alright.

I’ll let you get on with your own naval gazing.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

How about those former Wall Street employees who joined the OWS movement and created the Occupy The SEC offshoot?

“Occupy the SEC has submitted a 325-page comment to the Securities and Exchange Commission that calls on regulators to resist the financial industry’s lobbying efforts to water down the Volcker Rule, a section in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, that aims to prevent large banks from making certain kinds of risky, speculative investments. The group is made up of former Wall Street professionals who once worked at many of the largest financial firms in the industry.”

http://www.occupythesec.org/

A young bunch and very smart bunch and the letter/analysis is quite excellent.

Damn those naval gazing anarchists for trying to fight for something important. Those “wastes of skin.”

Your cliches and simpleminded summations about OWS along with your distorted, twisted even, wild, wild, west view of what capitalism and democracy are is quite sad. you seem to be big a fan of crony capitalism and the greed and corruption that has been driving it. But suck it up right? Don’t bother trying to address it. Just suck it up folks, be like sheep.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

TheUSofA
OWS Started in Canada by Bleeding Hearts Leftys. And who pays the most taxes in the US?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_Wall _Street

OWS was initiated by Kalle Lasn and Micah White of Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist publication, who conceived of a June 2011 occupation in lower Manhattan. Lasn registered the OccupyWallStreet.org web address on June 9.[8] In June, Adbusters emailed its subscribers saying “America needs its own Tahrir”.

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive