How Occupy Wall Street (mostly) won me over
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.