Occupy Wall Street: Anarchism, Luxemburgism, and the Struggle for Demands

By J. Arena

"Self-criticism, cruel, unsparing criticism . . . is life and breadth for the proletarian movement." - Rosa Luxemburg

In September of 2011 the mass strike winds, that began months earlier in Tunisia and then spread throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Greece, and Spain, reached the United States in the form of the “Occupy movement”. In this article I provide a critique of the political, organizational, and ideological obstacles within the movement’s flagship New York City outpost—Occupy Wall Street (OWS)—that prevented a widening and deepening of what Rosa Luxemburg called a “mass strike process”. That is, based on my experience as an OWS activist, I identify obstacles to bringing in larger swaths of the working class into a movement making increasingly radicalized economic and political demands on the ruling class and winning concessions based on that power.

Origins of OWS

The specific origins of OWS, as has been widely reported, began with a call by the editor of the anti-consumerist satirical magazine “Adbusters” in the summer of 2011 to replicate Egypt’s Tahir square in the US by literally “occupying Wall Street”. The idea caught on. On September 17th, after weeks of planning, mainly young anarchists set up an occupation in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park after the police blocked the initial site of Wall Street. Over the next few weeks the encampment grew, with the daily general assembly (GA) drawing hundreds of participants. Consistent with OWS’s “horizontal” organizing philosophy, the basic organizational building bloc that incorporated activists into the movement were the bottom-up, self-organized, “working groups”. Some were related to maintaining the encampment (food, sanitation etc) and running the GA (facilitation), while a whole host of others emerged based on the interests of those attracted to OWS.

In late September International Luxemburgist Network activist Eric Lerner made an intervention at the nightly GA announcing he was organizing a “demands working group” (DWG). Yes, what about demands? A major strength of OWS was the class analysis employed to understand American society. As opposed to the fragmented identity politics model promoted by foundation-funded, non-governmental organizations that dominate so much of what passes for the US Left, OWS framed the struggle in class terms: the 1% ruling class of billionaires and millionaires against the 99%. But it was still unclear what the 99% wanted from the 1%.

The editors of Adbusters and others had raised the broad theme of “getting money out of politics,” in addition to specific, reformist demands, such as reinstituting the Glass-Steagall Act, a New Deal era regulation separating investment and commercial banking that the Clinton administration abrogated over a decade earlier. On September 29 the OWS general assembly did approve a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” which stated that they were against “corporate forces” for the various economic, environmental, and social crises they had created for the 99%. Yet, OWS was still not clear about what it was for. The DWG aimed to raise that question and give the movement as a whole an opportunity to answer.

Power Concedes Nothing Without A Demand

At the first several DWG meetings attendees listed demands they wanted the movement to adopt. These ranged from broad to more specific ones, including ending all US wars, establishing universal public pensions rather than private ones, free transit, repealing laws attacking civil liberties, such as the Patriot Act, higher taxes on the rich, a mass public works program, repudiating federal and household debt, to “getting money out of politics”. After the second meeting, we grouped the laundry list of demands into four categories—jobs, debt, rights, and reforming the electoral system. After taking a vote, using a “modified consensus” rule of 75% approval—rather than the 90% level used at the GA—we agreed to focus, for now, on the jobs issue. The group concretized the “Jobs For All” (JFA) demand into a call for the federal government to create a mass, direct-government-employment public works program, open for all workers, including immigrants and the formerly incarcerated. To finance the program, the demand called for ending all US wars and taxing the wealth and income of the rich to create 25 million new, good paying union jobs.

Why was the demand of “jobs-for-all through-public-works” considered by many DWG activists so important for advancing the movement? Backers of JFA argued that for the movement to advance, to really be a movement of the 99% or at least a broad section of the working class, we had to make clear what we were demanding, what we were fighting for. Demands would distinguish us from the Democrats—the graveyard of mass movement in the US—and provide an aim and purpose for the movement. The question for OWS, therefore, was not if the movement makes demands, but rather what kind of demands. As Rosa Luxemburg argues in her pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions , the mass strike is not a one-time event that trade union or left parties can simply call forth; the mass strike is not something that can be “‘decided’ at pleasure . . . a kind of pocketknife . . . ready for any emergency.” At the same time, as she wrote in her analysis of the 1903-1905 mass strike process in Russia, one crucial way revolutionaries can advance a mass strike process is by intervening with “lively agitation for the extension of demands”.

In contrast to Luxemburg, some within DWG were emphatic about adopting tepid demands, such as reinstating Glass-Steagall, or various formulations of campaign finance reform that they saw as palatable to the “99%”, i.e. the Democratic Party. Even some socialists objected. Stephanie Luce, who has been involved in several tepid “living wage” campaigns with ACORN, argued, in the January 2012 edition of Against the Current, that OWS should not make demands, including JFA, since the left always ends end up compromising. Contradictorily, she argued that OWS had put forward and won its greatest demand of winning the right to protest through “claiming a public space for the public.” She went on to explain that “the beauty of Occupy Wall Street is that it’s pushed me into a new space where I have been asked to be patient and trusting, and where I focus more on process and less on immediate outcomes.” This all sounded like the anarchist vision of creating an alternative utopian community, as I explain below.

In contrast, the JFA supporters argued that staying within the political confines of what the Democrats found permissible—either implicitly by making no demands or overtly by drawing from ones advocated by Democratic Party allied groups—would ensure we would never become a mass movement that would challenge the 1%. Instead, we needed to raise a demand, like JFA, that concretely addresses and connects with the broad and pressing needs of the working class, including the most oppressed sections among immigrants and the formerly incarnated. Through such a “transformative demand” as JFA, the OWS would give a wide section of the 99% a material stake in the movement, thus encouraging broader participation that would create the power to, at least in the short term, extract concessions from the ruling class and advance the movement.

Demanding No Demands

The leaders of the supposedly leaderless OWS were not swayed. They were, for the most part, adamant opponents of the OWS making any demands on the 1%, although their opposition efforts were often conducted behind the scenes, rather than in open debate. Why was such an elemental issue as raising demands, which has been central to every major social movement in the US, so adamantly opposed by this influential layer? We have to examine the ideology that informed the initial organizers of OWS. Although Adbusters had first initiated the call for the action, anthropologist and anarchist theoretician David Graeber came to have the most important ideological influence over the leaders of this supposedly leaderless movement.

Graeber, who had been involved in the summer meetings that laid the groundwork for the occupation, argued the lack of demands was OWS’s greatest strength. He advocated a movement that does “not seek to pressure the government to institute reforms . . . [or] to seize state power . . . ” Demands by the movement on the 1% and the state were simply “appeals to the authorities to act differently.” Instead the movement’s goal, consistent with a long strain of American utopianism, should be on constructing a new society in the shell of the old. Through claiming space, such as the encampment at Zuccotti, and the creation of alternative ways of organizing society, the movement was making its most radical challenge to the 1%. The practice of occupation, therefore, is the revolution. In other words, “we are our demands,” as went the anarchist refrain.

The one demand the anarchist leadership could agree on was demanding that OWS not make any on the 1% and their state. They took action to enforce their edict. Adherents of the “no demands” demand disrupted DWG meetings by using OWS meeting rules to create endless delays. For example, under OWS protocol people could raise “blocks” if they had a “grave moral objection” to any proposed action, allowing them to state their objections and call for a vote to defeat the objectionable proposal.

The “no-demands” faction stretched the “moral objection” definition so far that it was invoked repeatedly to prevent DWG from accomplishing anything.
As the movement for demands gained steamed, despite the tactics described above, elements of the anarchist OWS leadership stepped up their disruption. On October 21, a day before a planned teach-in on the Jobs for All demand, and two days before a DWG gathering at Tompkins Square Park to decide whether to take the JFA demand before the GA for adoption, opponents struck back. The unelected activists that controlled the OWS’s semi-official website, “occupywall street.org”, discarded their sacred “consensus decision making” and unilaterally put out a message on their homepage attacking DWG. They claimed, erroneously, that the DWG had told the New York Times that the JFA demand was made by the OWS rather than simply one of its working groups. Based on this patently false charge, and others, including that the group had not been approved by the general assembly and was not following “consensus” meeting rules, the web masters removed the DWG from the online forum discussion list that was allotted to each working group. Only after strenuous protest to the website, and the GA, was a retraction made and DWG restored to the list of the OWS working groups on the website.
Nonetheless, the “no demands” militants were not done. A few weeks later Patrick Bruner, a member of the collective that controlled the website, and several of his co-thinkers disrupted a DWG meeting accusing the group of being illegitimate and demanding that the group disband! Infamously, another ardent opponent of demands from the OWS anarchist inner circle declared at a JFA forum that “only terrorists make demands.” She followed this gem with the false claim that that OWS was on record as rejecting demands and therefore DWG had no right to even debate the issue.

Going to the GA

The first attempt to bring the JFA demand before the GA was on October 30. By this time the GA was still drawing crowds of several hundred—although less than the nearly thousand that attended in the first few weeks. On that frigid autumn evening Cecily McMillan and Eric Vandaventer, representing DWG, read the demand and fielded questions. After struggling through scores of contentious meetings to decide on the demand and wording, and battling those that wanted to prevent JFA from ever being discussed, it was electrifying for myself and other DWG activists to actually see it coming up for debate and, hopefully, a vote. In addition, to DWG members, other working groups and local community organizations that had endorsed the demand, such as the Newark, New Jersey-based Peoples Organization for Progress, sent delegations to speak in favor and vote on the demand. Unfortunately, the GA meeting structure and procedures—contrary to the claims of the expert anarchist “facilitators”—worked to undermine, rather than facilitate democratic participation and advantaged those that wanted to block any action being taken.

The conservative and anti-democratic biases of the GA structure were manifested in various ways. For example, after the reading of the demand, the next sections of the process were reserved for those that had objections to the proposal—clarifying questions, followed by “concerns”, amendments, and of course “blocks” could be raised at any time. Simply presenting the JFA demand—which was preceded by a two hour wait before the item came up on the agenda--- and taking a few “clarifying questions” took a full hour. Thus, the many supporters that had come to speak in support of the proposal were never given an opportunity after some three hours of waiting in the cold. In general, the long drawn-out meetings and elaborate processes were a significant barrier for participation by working class people. Unlike the young anarchists who lived at the encampment—when they weren’t at hotels paid for by the flood of donations that came in during the first few months—working class people did not have the time to spend hours waiting through tedious meetings or to study and decipher the confusing meeting rituals used by OWS to conduct their affairs.

A further anti-democratic barrier was the 90%, “modified” consensus vote margin required to pass any measure. As one DWG activist remarked, not even the anti-democratic US Senate requires such high a percent to close filibusters. Furthering privileging the “anti-demands faction” was that many of the hard core anti-demands faction were part of the encampment and had an almost a guaranteed veto over the measure under the 90% rule.

The DWG did make another visit in November to the GA, but the group was again thwarted, because of the anti-democratic process, from taking a vote on JFA. Finally, in late December, after the winter cold had sent it, and the police had cleared the permanent encampment at Zuccottii—a political vulnerability in part created by OWS’s Graeberian focus on the encampment, rather than establishing a political strategy to reach the broader working class—the JFA did come up for a vote. With approximately sixty people in attendance, the proposal received over 60% of the votes, but because it did not reach the 90% threshold the JFA was not adopted by what at that time was a rapidly retreating movement.

Lessons from OWS

The appearance of OWS in the fall of 2011 was a breath of fresh air. Three years into the global economic crisis, and several months after the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy’s betrayal of the Wisconsin insurgency, OWS filled a huge political vacuum. Nonetheless, OWS’s hybrid anarchist/American-utopian ideology, combined with anti-democratic operating principles, created serious obstacles to mounting a real fight back. These limitations, operating as they were at the movement’s flagship outpost, also had a debilitating effect on other sections of the movement. Nonetheless, while the potential of OWS was not realized, the conditions that have helped produce the latest wave of mass strikes are intensifying rather than abating. In the face of a half-decade-long global slump, the only “solution” ruling classes around the globe have is ever more savage attacks on the working class, with Greece simply being the most advanced. Therefore, what can be ensured is that the mass strike “hydra” will once again emerge in the US, as is happening around the globe. The challenge for socialists in the US is to learn the lessons of OWS so that the next upsurge can make advances toward socialism, and away from the road to barbarism we are now on.