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Occupy in Circumvent


The Millennials are now tasked with transmitting their historical experience to the subsequent generations. The year of 2011 is already “ancient history,” for Leftists now in their late-20’s/early 30’s.

In a recent issue of Catalyst, Benjamin Fong and Christie Offenbacher seek to dispense of the myth that the Bernie Campaign originated in Occupy or necessarily followed Occupy; in other words, “that Occupy, in some meaningful way, made possible the success of Sanders’s campaigns[.]” The consequence of this historical account is that it has served as a “legitimizing narrative” for certain activists to disrupt organizing among the movements associated with Bernie Sanders and the DSA. They find that despite this narrative being “unconvincing,” it has played an “obfuscating function…[by] covering over the ideological division responsible for much conflict within the Left during the past several years.” For them, it was only Bernie Sander’s “quixotic primary bid in 2015” that allowed for the emergence of a “majoritarian and politically strategic left current.”

Protest and Politics

Occupy, for the authors, was not the beginning of the movement that led to Bernie Sanders but rather, “the last gasp of a tired left orientation, an echo of the neoliberal era’s political culture in its horizontalism, its lack of a program, and its refusal to take politics and organizing seriously.” Indeed, both the “horizontality” and occupation of public plazas can be traced back to movements during the 1998-2002 Argentine Great Depression.[i] The burst of neo-social democracy that followed Occupy, in the form of SYRIZA, Podemos, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, is frequently held as “enormous progress…from protest to politics” in the 2010’s. This view was captured well by the late Leo Panitch in 2020:

It was a short bridge from the police riot against the G20 demonstration here in Toronto in 2010 to Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish indignados a year later. There is a path you can follow from this to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 and the Bernie Sanders candidacy in 2016 in the United States… The anti-WTO protests began in 1995, then reached their height in Seattle in 1999, these were followed by the mass anti-war protests of the early 2000s. These were evidence that neoliberalism was actually far less popular than people imagined. But as the protests lingered on, people figured out that more was needed. No one sat down and figured it out, or gave instructions to the protestors. It took some creative leadership, like when Alexis Tsipras said in 2012 ‘we will join with anyone to form a government and stop the torture’ or when Pablo Iglesias said ‘we need to move from the squares to some relationship with the state.’”[ii]

For Panitch, the end result was “40,000 members of Momentum” and “60,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America.” “[T]hese are things to build on,” he concludes. Yet, by the time of the election that fall, Panitch reminded Millennials that “[t]he reality is that the dilemma of the lesser evil will remain with us until we become the kind of force that can not just mobilize but organize the class and pose a viable electoral alternative to the Democrats.”

Panitch’s coming-of-age experience was of the crisis and conservatism of official Communism felt by many of the New Left in the 1960s. Panitch, like the Leftists who shouted “obsolete communism” in streets of Paris in May 1968, “felt that the historic working-class parties had run their course as agents of transformative social change” and subsequently, tried to find parties based on “better Leninism” and “better Maoism” in the 1970s. The failure of the New Left to follow through on this, as well as the cashing out of the era to the “Right” – Reagan and Thatcher, but really first Nixon – encouraged the Left to export their hope of revolution abroad. In the 1980s, the Left became defensive at home while cheering on the fight against its own home imperialism abroad e.g. in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa or support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The 1990s accelerated this depoliticization. Both the collapse of the Soviet Union into an “unipolar world”[iii] and the victory of New Democrats and Labour- seemed to condition how the Left thought of politics. It was “post-Left,” which really meant post-political. The collapse was ultimately affirmed as the appropriate model in the era of “deindustrialization,” in the form of the “multitude.”

The apotheosis of this was in Seattle. Fred Halliday saw this “multitude” as hiding a deeper problem: “What we saw in the 1990s was the postulating of a global movement, but one that was noticeably sketchy in form, ranging from ecological and indigenous groups in India, opponents of corporate capitalism in Western Europe and the USA, and residual guerrilla movements as in Chiapas. In realistic terms, these did not amount to much.”[iv] Everything and nothing. The Left was more split at the time than may be remembered.

Millennial Reception

The “lurch to the left” didn’t begin with 2008 but really with the anti-war protests of the Bush administration. However, this period is frequently avoided by “Millennial Marxism” because it was considered “defensive.” Really, it was the Obama election that buried the first Millennial foray into politics. The coming-to of “Millennial Marxism” caught a moment in history that allowed for revisiting the deeper history of Marxism. The Cold War was a distant memory for Millennials but they had remembered the prosperity of the Clinton years as they entered the one of the worst job markets in recent memory. Indeed, just a week before Occupy, Bhaskar Sunkara had reflected on the 1999 WTO protests as “pregnant with possibility… Stalinism and “democratic centralism” lay discredited and new organizational forms—less ossified and ideological, more ad hoc and lyrical—gained currency among leftists. Yet this new conjuncture simultaneously called into question the future of radicalism itself.” One might say “well, Sunkara was too young to participate in the Seattle protests,” but that is beside the point. The important point is that the typical Millennial Marxist self-understanding finds the late-00’s, early 2010’s to be the conscious moment of reconsidering the history of Marxism. There was, at the time, a sense of exhaustion of received forms that allowed for a certain openness in thinking about the past.

At the beginning of 2011, Sunkara wrote an essay entitled “Why We Loved the Zapatistas” for the inaugural issue of the magazine. The feeling at the time was that there could be a possibility to go over-the-head of the “post-political” era. For Sunkara, Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatistas “captured the imagination of hero-starved radicals” of Generation X. With the Soviet Union on its way out or collapsed, the third-world revolutionaries appealed as authentic image that the fight was not over when it was. It allowed one to treat Official Communism as their parents had – stodgy. Sunkara makes a symptom of Naomi Klein, “a star of the postmodern Left.” Klein praised the anonymous character Subcommandante Marcos for his anonymity, allowing for everyone from a gay in San Francisco to a Palestinian in Israel to relate to the Zapatista leader. Sunkara finds that Klein accidentally reveals too much when she writes that the postmodern, post-political protests “leave virtually no trace behind, save for an archived website.”[v]

This may seem like an unnecessary detour, but this illuminates the background to the problem received by the Millennials and how Offenbacher and Fong approach Occupy. They want to make the Bernie campaign the necessary moment for the Millennial Left and for this to overcome the blind alley of the “post-Left”: Sanders is putting class back on the table. He is actually serious and not merely performative. Occupy was the “last gasp of a tired orientation,” filled with the ever-frustrating “anarcho-liberal” that populated the alter-globalization era. Occupy was based on “elements of left ideology and practice that were absorbed during a period of prolonged defeat” and were soon challenged by “a majoritarian left current” in the form of the Sanders campaign. While Fong and Offenbacher mention that Sanders absorbed not just Occupy activists but also “others who had been either hostile or indifferent to [Occupy] in 2011,” they never actually demonstrate this. In fact, it is strange to say that Occupy was somehow in conflict with Sanders “universalism and social democratic demands.” Occupy had rather every demand.[vi]Free College, Cancel Debt” rang true with “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr where students posted their student debt. Protests against police brutality are already there at Occupy’s protest of the execution of Troy Davis.[vii] There was a protest against war fatigue before Trump was able to capitalize on it. What gets left out with the emphasis on Sander’s “bread-and-butter” demands and “polls consistently [showing] supermajority support…for progressive economic reforms” is the meaning of Occupy in context. The authors’ retrospect is rather a circumvention.

DSA’s David Duhalde sums up the mood of that time well:

The election of Barack Obama and the subsequent disappointment in him didn’t bode well for interest in the Left electing anyone. Jacobin magazine even ran an article by me and Will Emmons, a former DSA youth leader, where we wrote that socialists should just abstain from presidential elections altogether… Two years later, Bernie Sanders would begin his campaign for the Oval Office and invalidate our thesis. What we didn’t understand at the time was how much Occupy would change Left politics and the extent that Citizens United could empower DSA’s work. Occupy gave the world new vocabulary and frames to discuss inequality, especially for the middle class, even though it wasn’t exactly the class struggle espoused by socialists: phrases like “we are the 99%” and “I am more than a loan.” However, the direct-action nature of Occupy very much fit with the uprising in Wisconsin against the governor’s anti-union proposals. The action of labor and the elected Democrats failed in the end to stop the bill that gutted the public-sector unions. But it demonstrated for the first time in a while an openness to Democratic politics outside of lobbying to mount a public offense against capital. Sanders’s challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary was empowered largely by a party base that echoed the sentiments of Occupy. The Brooklyn-born senator used slogans straight from the streets of Manhattan. His insurgent candidacy also benefited from the Supreme Court decision he detested. The new Citizens United rules allowed DSA to spend “unlimited” amounts of money if it worked independently of the campaign.”

If anything, Sander’s message found traction because of the 8-years of disappointment with Obama. Not once, in the body of their article, do Fong and Offenbacher mention Obama, the president that was being protested against during Occupy! A survey of Occupiers from October 2011 found that 60 percent of Occupiers had voted for Obama in 2008 but three-quarters then disproved of his performance. The Left rallying support for Obama the following fall – because of the “far-right” Mitt Romney- became a form of adapting these discontents, again, to the Democratic Party.

Jacobin and Occupy

In a recent interview with Sublation, Bhaskar Sunkara pointed out with respect to Jacobin in particular:

To some extent we were tailing Occupy, obviously, because the initial impulse and the initial precursor to Occupy very much came out of the anarchist movement. Particularly in its tactical orientation, it was far more anarchistic than socialist, representing the last gasp of the anti-globalization movement of the nineties. It drew on things like the New School occupation and the struggles in the University of California movement. It had some of that spirit. The reason why it got popular resonance is that it showed that a broadly egalitarian, anti-austerity politics had mass support. So, the reason why it mattered was its broadly socialist or social democratic impulse, not its tactical orientation. I went to Occupy early on, and I was willing to go along with it.

Later in the interview, Bhaskar notes that Occupy helped recruit for DSA “to some degree,” whereas with “Bernie, we jumped to like twenty thousand, and then, after that, it exploded with Trump. I did not anticipate that.” Ah yes, Trump – don’t forget him!

Sanders himself made frequent reference to Occupy in the lead-up to his 2016 presidential campaign. For example, he frequently appeared on The Ed Show during Occupy and affirmatively used Occupy terms like “99ers.” Later, in 2013, when he began hinting at his presidential run, he still referred to Occupy:

I think you saw that the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread around the country attracted a lot of attention and a lot of support. I think the issues that they raised about the power, the incredible power of Wall Street, the greed of Wall Street, the illegal behavior on Wall Street and also about the issues of income inequality and wealth inequality — that really struck a chord in many people.”

What is driving the need to separate Occupy from the Sanders campaign is the claim that Occupy activists would later make when they joined the DSA along with the rest of the Left. Thus, as Fong and Offenbacher write:

On the one hand, the 2017 DSA National Convention created three priority campaigns around Medicare for All, labor, and electoral organizing — a clear organizational alignment with Bernie’s 2016 campaign. On the other, it approved a “training” program introducing new members to the “diversity of tactics” employed by “the movement.” The individuals and caucuses backing these opposing orientations fought bitterly for control over the direction of the organization, much to the dismay of the rapidly growing membership.”

The ”diversity of tactics” is the common anarchist euphemism that means being open to direct action of all kinds. Thus, Occupy is turned into the “last gasp” of something older, something of the “neoliberal culture,” whereas “Sanders offered a chance to mount a challenge for real power.” They ignore that the image of Socialism portrayed by Sanders was the neoliberal model of “flexicurity” – not even the Keynesian-Fordist Meidner plan. As Sanders put it in 2013, when beginning to consider what the authors call a “quixotic primary bid,” what was missing was that people have not “[looked] at countries like Scandinavia [sic], and what they have managed to accomplish for their people.”

While Fong and Offenbacher rightly debunk various Occupy activists claims to being the cause of the Sanders campaign, this is done at the cost of giving a tunnelview of the 2010s. They explain the success of Sanders’ campaign as “beyond anyone’s expectations …[to] Warren’s refusal [to run], Clinton’s unpopularity, and the resonance of the economic populist message with Democrats.” One must ask why these “economic populist” ideas flashed up when they did. Fong & Offenbacher hint at this towards the end of their essay: “Neoliberalism is crumbling, without any new order coming into view.” The “bread-and-butter demands” of Sanders and DSA Sandernistas- “Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, College for All”-are really not a challenge to neoliberalism, but a final gasp, from another angle, of the same “neoliberal culture” they decry.

Really, we are just back at the old electoralism (“vying for state power”) vs direct action (“diversity of tactics”) antinomy, but fully neoliberalized. It is not Occupy alone- the actual protest– that we have in mind when we reflect back on the fall of 2011 but the whole period: the 2008 Financial Crash, the “hope” of Obama (don’t self-lobotomize now!), the fear of the Tea Party, the Wisconsin occupation, the Arab Spring, the anti-austerity protests in Europe, SYRIZA, Podemos, #BlackLivesMatter, etc. The “demons” that Fong and Offenbacher wish to exorcise, but really repress. Occupy and Bernie have to be understood in the context of global phenomenon. Eduardo Maura of Podemos traced his party back to the 15-M squares moment but that that moment “[had] to do with the downfall of the two-party political system [in Spain].” But even in these cases, the new parties “never developed a new synthesis, [but remained] a “party of political unity” that resembled a united front of different fractions and influential cadres.” They became holding patterns. In countries that have a “winner-takes-all” system, like the United States, the holding patterns became the DSA.

In particular, Fong and Offenbacher distinguish Bernie Sanders movement against Occupy as “more directly socialist, vying for state power, focused on both elections and workplace organizing, and armed with concrete demands[.]” Fong and Offenbacher seem to assume that getting a president elected is “vying for state power.” Not only does this mislocate state power, but Sanders’ own party would block him from exercising much of anything. Trump’s presidency alone has demonstrated just how little “state power” the has control over.[viii]

The hesitancy about “giving demands” or making them concrete – something dramatized in an episode of The Newsroom[ix] – reflected a healthy suspicion about the way in which promises had been made by capitalist politicians. Because Sanders lost, he is free from this disappointment. The debates now in the DSA over “class independence” or building “party surrogates” to discipline endorsed candidates merely show how the simple truth that it is not what demands, but how they are implemented that we are no farther along today than we were in 2011.

Occupy Circumvented

Fong and Offebacher attempt some kind of “counterfactual” to make their point.[x] They ask two questions: “1) Would the Bernie moment beginning in 2015 have happened if not for Occupy? And 2) Would the activists that emerged out of Occupy have retained what many of them now view as a less mature political orientation without having later experienced the Bernie moment?” It is actually irrelevant about whether or not it would have happened, because the real question should be whether or not this was advance for the Left. For we can ask another counterfactual against this flattened history: what if the Left didn’t circle the wagons of the Democratic Party in 2012 in order to stop Mitt Romney? This would be a more fruitful way of uncovering why the “anarchists” tailed Sanders – they were anarchist in form, Democrat in essence. The authors note that for “Occupy activists who were interested in electoral politics [pre-2015]… Warren was the only mainstream candidate that participants viewed as representing the moment’s politics.” Really, a whole wave of “progressives” candidates, such as current House Minority leader Hakeem Jeffries and Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein (dubbed “The Occupy Candidate”), comes out of that moment. Rather, it was Sanders himself who saw Warren as the favored “progressive” in 2016. In 2020, in response to Warren’s egregious claim that Sanders did not believe a woman could defeat Trump in an election, Sanders responded that he “deferred, in fact, to Sen. Warren. There was a movement to draft Sen. Warren to run for president. And you know what, I said — stayed back [sic]. Sen. Warren decided not to run, and I then — I did run afterwards.”

Sanders’ appeal was as path-of-least-resistance, a false path. He was false independence for the Millennial Left. “The Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020 were the best things happening in the activist world,” but only because they had already recapitulated the Democratic Party tailism. Praising his appeal with “bread-and-butter demands” means praising the Democratic Party’s capture of those discontents. Bernie’s recent endorsement of Biden with no qualifications should bring into critical relief any sense of progress over the earlier Millennial moment; we went from Occupy to Biden. It becomes affirmative and apologetic. In the coming years, the 2000’s and 2010’s will be hard to look at for the Millennial Left. They will try to give a second nature and it is imperative that the next generation of Leftists reflect on the received account:

For since we are now the products of earlier generations, we are also the products of their aberrations, passions, mistakes, and even crimes. It is impossible to loose oneself from this chain entirely. When we condemn that confusion and consider ourselves released from it, then we have not overcome the fact that we are derived from it. In the best case, we bring the matter to a conflict between our inherited customary nature and our knowledge, in fact, even to a war between a new strict discipline and how we have been brought up and what we have inherited from time immemorial. We cultivate a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that the first nature atrophies. It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past a posteriori [after the fact], out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. It is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker than the first.

[i] Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky, 2015. The occupiers: The making of the 99 percent movement. Oxford University Press: 20-21. [ii] Ronan Burtenshaw, July 3, 2020. ?A Decade on the Left: An interview with Leo Panitch.? Tribune Magazine. [iii] The demand for ?multipolarization of the world? was already there. See Letter dated 15 May 1997 from the Permanent Representatives of China and the Russian Federation to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General, available [iv] Halliday, Fred. “Getting real about Seattle.” Millennium 29, no. 1 (2000): 123-129. [v] Klein, Naomi. “Farewell to the’ End of History’: Organisation and Vision in Anti-Corporate Movements.” Socialist register 38 (2002): 5. [vi] In fact, there was a fear at the time that Occupy might have a unity that is ?simplistic and oppressive? rather than ?[respecting] and [celebrating] the immense differences among the 99%.? Angela Davis, November 15, 2011, ?The 99%: a community of resistance,? The Guardian. [vii] Trayvon Martin?s parents, following the killing of their son, spoke in front of Occupiers at Union Square, the day after Occupiers had been cleared out of that same place. See Natasha Lennard, March 22, 2012, “Occupiers march for Trayvon Martin at “Million Hoodie March””. Salon. [viii] See for example, the affirmative praise of the independence of the State from the Trump presidency, David Rothkopf, American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation (November 2022): Public Affairs, New York, New York. [ix] Episode 4, Season 2, ?Unintended Consequences.? [x] In fact, after spilling ink with their ?counterfactual,? they then declare: ?Counterfactual history is quack science [so I guess we can ignore everything they said!], but it helps get at what matters [which is to disassociate the two moments].?