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The author of a Harper’s article that set the stage for how press would talk about Occupy Wall Street, Nathan Schneider has extended his story into a book: Thank You, Anarchy. He spoke with New Inquiry editor and fellow OWS participant Malcolm Harris about what happened, what didn’t happen, and what might still. TNI Vol. 20: Off-Brand is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours.
MALCOLM HARRIS: One of the things that I found interesting about reading the book is I got to see OWS from a different vantage point. The two of us were probably both going to meetings every day for a month, but could have not overlapped at all. The people you take for granted as central to OWS, I may have never heard of, and vice-versa I’d imagine. You make this point in the book, that there are a lot of occupies, even for people who were sleeping next to each other, but there are other times where it feels like OWS refers in your mind to a set of self-appointed committees. Why do you think we — and I’m including the most anti-organizational anarchists — tend to treat OWS as a program instead of an event that nearly everyone experienced differently?
NATHAN SCHNEIDER: The head-slamming-into-the-desk refrain for me while writing this was, There was so, so much that I missed. It’s in the text once but could have been on every page. There was such a bewildering fecundity in Occupy that every moment I felt bombarded with input but also was acutely aware that a million other things were happening that I had no idea about. So, yes. And, so, you make decisions.
The beat I decided to follow was that of not-anti-organizational anarchy: the attempts people made to steer and orchestrate and cultivate the massive phenomenon they helped create. For a self-made movement, self-appointed committees are pretty important. They did everything from serve food to frame actions to mismanage money. I’d argue that they were essential. I guess that while anti-organizational anarchy was part of the story, organizational anarchy was the drama that most attracted me.
A big part of how one sees OWS depends on how many different OWSs you saw. In the largest media narratives there was a single monolithic entity and in some of the left-leaning publications debates played out between liberals and anarchists, but in your book you write about more divisions than that. How do you think of the main ideological groups that made up OWS, and do you think we miss something important when we uncritically aggregate them?
Each bloc was revealing in its way. The Anons did their mask thing. The role the labor unions played revealed a lot about how bureaucratic and ineffective most have become as far as mobilizing for radical action—not that this was much of a surprise. The presence of libertarians revealed a bit of a (missed) opportunity, I think, for a left-right alliance against crony capitalism. I make much of the anarchists and the general anarcho-curiosity of the movement, of course. But anarchist practices also became a means for doing exactly what you’re describing: uncritical aggregation. When no one’s in charge, and you’re running on adrenaline, everyone can have the illusion that they, in fact, are the center of the movement.Nathan Schneider “Thank You, Anarchy” UC Press, 216 pages
This is a massive departure from the centuries-old anarchist tradition—which seeks to develop communities that can support human flourishing without hierarchy and coercion—and toward a troubling psuedo-anarchy that is actually individualistic, dot-com neoliberalism in horizontalist disguise.
What do you think the relation is between neoliberalism and the recent anarchist resurgence? There are those like Jodi Dean who might say capital wants us all to become Kickstarter anarchists, that it’s how our enemies want us to organize ourselves. Others — more in the tradition you’re examining, like Rebecca Solnit who wrote the foreword — cite the anti-globalization movement, which in turn was inspired by organic struggles around the world against the imposition of neoliberalism from the Zapatistas to Ken Saro-Wiwa. And still others — probably more likely to call themselves communists than anarchists — look at it in terms of dialectics: As factory organization molded worker self-organization on the factory floor, precarious and hyper-connected labor is structuring the shape of resistance. As you’ve watched this sequence develop, how do see the fit between anarchy and contemporary capitalist relations?
This is the problem plaguing me now, and which I wish I’d said more about in the book: it’s all tangled and confused. Jodi Dean is on to something, and so is Solnit, and so are theorists of the precariat. This is a good thing, since we need a movement that includes robust roles for all of these approaches — the organizational, the decentralized, the dialectical — but we’re in danger of having none. When all of these efforts are weak from cannibalizing each other, it’s easy as pie for capital to infiltrate each of them and sell us a toothless facsimile of revolution. This will be all the more tempting if it’s for sale on the Internet, where we too easily suspend our disbelief that a company like Google can follow its “don’t be evil” dictum despite being owned by Wall Street and rented to the NSA. Neoliberalism finds ways to use anarchist-y practices for its own benefit — how many start-ups have scored venture capital at Burning Man? — and resistance movements can use products of neoliberalism against it.
This stuff is tricky. Was it a good idea to tar-and-feather Jay Z for trying to sell shirts throughout black America that said “Occupy All Streets” in 2011? At the time, when Occupiers felt they had the upper hand, it seemed like an intolerable co-optation. But what if compromising there had helped yield a more multi-racial movement in the end? That might have created a greater threat to capital than making Jay Z a little less rich. Hard to say.
There’s a lot of infighting in your story of OWS, and in mine as well. When I think back to the kind of arguments we had I realize that when things were going well, we fought over tactics, when things weren’t going as well it was over strategy, and when things were really bad we finally fought over ideology. The slogan “Things are fucked up and bullshit” resonated with a lot of people across all those strategic and ideological lines, but the effort to come up with a unified program cost tons of time and effort and yielded basically nothing. On the socialist end, there have been renewed calls for a party organization, while the anarchist strain you followed has opted for more volunteer activity. As you look at what’s happened since the end of the Occupy sequence, where do you come down on the importance of formal organization?
Organizing, in whatever form, is the means by which people band together to do things and build power for themselves — whether it’s free day care at a church or The New Inquiry. In the course of reporting the chapter about May Day of 2012, which was when lots of Occupiers were turning to past movements for inspiration, I started noticing a pattern: creative and spontaneous formations, from the followers of the Situationists in Paris of 1968 to the uprising that brought down Mubarak in 2011, were very effective in creating a rupture in the status quo. But after the adrenaline wore off, it was those who were organized who took the lead in the movement. In France, the labor unions; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. For Occupy, when the adrenaline faded, what was left? Partly because Occupy had alienated existing groups, and partly because those groups were themselves flailing, no stronger organization stepped in to sustain the national movement for the long haul. Now, many Occupy veterans are doing the best they can by working with smaller, more local organizations, often on issues like housing, labor, and the environment. The non-organizational moments can provide a tremendous breath of fresh air, but in the end we’re pretty social creatures, and we need organizational lungs for the air to do any good.
When I look back, what jumps out at me as the greatest achievement of OWS is putting ‘Occupy’ out there as a resonant term and even tactic that refuses to fit within a representational politics. Watching people all over the world take these terms and use them for something has been at least as inspiring as anything I saw or did up close. What do you see as the biggest accomplishments of the Occupy sequence, acknowledging of course that we’re only a short ways out.
The ways in which people now tend to say Occupy failed are generally measured against possibilities that Occupy itself implanted in their heads in the first place. It didn’t get a financial transaction tax passed? How many people, really, were even talking about that before OWS? It didn’t manage to mount a crazy general strike on May Day? Well, it did get a lot of people to start thinking, for the first time in ages, about what a general strike might look like. And then also there is a quite dizzying number of small victories made through Occupy networks, from the Walmart warehouse strikes to fracking wells shut down to resolutions passed in city halls about Citizens United. But one thing the movement has never been all that good at is taking credit when credit is at least partly due. Above all, the initial occupation succeeded brilliantly in doing exactly what many of the planners in Tompkins Square Park were hoping for: it inspired people all over the place to form assemblies and take their place in the global uprising, and to lay some groundwork for future movements.
It was also a learning experience about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to that assembling. I know I had to revise a lot of what I thought strategically and ideologically when it became apparent the police were a wall we couldn’t get around. Was there a situation where you had an idea you went into OWS with that you had to change, adapt, or even surrender when faced with reality?
All the time. The first, for me and for many others who attended the pre-occupation meetings, was giving up on Adbusters’ idea of “one demand.” What ultimately convinced me was reflecting on a lesson of the civil resistance theorist Gene Sharp: Don’t bother making a demand until you’ve got enough power to compel its acceptance. I was reminded of this recently when the character apparently playing me on The Newsroom tried to convince the organizers he was reporting on to stick to the “one demand” thing.
With respect to the cops, a valuable lesson I think a lot of people learned is that the first couple times they beat you, you win in the public perception, but every time after that the cops win. There’s a threshold. Sometimes violence really does work, I guess.
This is a big question I know, but how did you balance the demands of a participant-reporter? What do you think of the way other people struck that balance? How about livestreamers?
I agonized a lot about the participant-reporter thing, probably more than I should have. The New York Observer questioned my objectivity in the early days of the occupation. WNYC’s Brian Leiter opened his interview with me by asking, in an accusing tone, whether I was really a reporter or a protester. I stuttered. I’m personally far less devoted to reporting as a profession than as a means of learning about stuff I’m curious about. And the Occupy culture was constantly making demands upon one to step out of professional roles and into some more authentic version of personhood and sociality. I liked that.
For me, though, it became simply a matter of practicality to stick to the reporter role. It’s harder to participate in a meeting when you’re also taking notes on it, and people are going to be less eager to answer your questions if they perceive you as being a potential opponent in the politics of the movement. So, except for in a few particular contexts, I kept quiet and kept to my notebook.
Livestreamers are an amazing breed. I never got the impression that journalistic balance was much of a concern for them.
Were there points when you were forced to forget you were a reporter, to put down the notepad and just participate?
A few times, “forced” in different ways. I arrived at a weekend planning meeting in Woodstock for the October 2011 Coalition (which had been planning to occupy D.C.’s Freedom Plaza before Adbusters even called for #occupywallstreet) and was told that I wasn’t there just to report, but they wanted to hear from me, too. I gave in pretty quickly. And then, after the siege of Trinity Church culminating on December 17, 2011, I felt that I had no choice but to help start an “Occupy Catholics” group—there wasn’t one, and at the time there needed to be. Oh, and I built the first Occupy Writers website for my friend Jeff Sharlet one sleepless night. And more.
But, really, I could never “just” participate. Whenever I got into the fray, I’d suddenly get anxious that something would happen or be said that I should be documenting from the sidelines. I think of this as a character flaw that goes back to childhood. But maybe it’s generational. A common thing one would hear muttered at the occupation and at protests was “Geez, there are more cameras than signs here.” We’re a people well practiced in plausible deniability, and having a good-sized camera gives one the right to step aside at a moment’s notice and cry, “Press!” Not that the cops cared.TNI Vol. 20: Off-Brand is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours.
What’s the virtue of a press credential if the police don’t respect them?
I didn’t wear a press badge. The publications I worked for never asked me to. At one point I considered writing a call for fellow reporters to boycott press badges in New York, since the only badges the NYPD respects are the ones it issues on its own terms. But then I stepped off that high horse because so many reporters I knew with NYPD badges were doing great work. And many of them got beaten or arrested with their badges on, so I figured they had sufficient evidence before them to make that decision for themselves.
Journalism is an act of balancing relationships to power. The power I chose to tango with most was that of the crazy internal dynamics within the movement, and by doing so fairly well I gained considerable trust and access among certain organizers. I made no such attempts with the police. But I am glad that some people do, because they become able to report things about the police that I would never be privy to. In reporting as in life, so much depends on the company you keep, and I happen to have really liked the company I found in Occupy.