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What Was Occupy?

Stephen Squibb is a graduate student in English at Harvard University, and was an active participant in Occupy Boston.

Three years after the fact, the event called Occupy retains its strange strategic inconsistency. It is something we still do not know how to think about. Its faithful, although in no other way silent, have shown little desire to specify the truth of Occupy, or to otherwise account for its value. Even if, as time goes on, these testimonies begin to appear, legislating for posterity the meaning and importance of the protests, their contemporary inscrutability will linger as a historical fact. We should take this illegibility seriously, not only as a tactical decision, but also as a reflection of the inadequacy of our inherited categories in describing the current logic of class struggle. This inadequacy should not surprise us; on the contrary, it confirms the ongoing vitality of the real movement to abolish the state of our present situation. Approaching Occupy requires that we separate out what happened from what was said about what happened, and place both in political-economic context. In what follows I briefly consider the first and third of these, and hope to address the second in the near future.

Inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, as well as the indignados in Spain, Occupy debuted in New York City on September 17, 2011. By October 9, protests were ongoing or had taken place in over nine-hundred cities across eighty-two countries, with six hundred of these occurring in the United States. The archetypal Occupy protest involved the construction of a commune on public land or land supposedly public. These communes were organized around the universal provisioning of rudimentary food, shelter, health care, and education. The location of the camps was often symbolic, intended to address the seat of power: most famously New York’s Wall Street, but also Boston’s Federal Reserve, Washington, DC’s K Street, and numerous city halls. The communes were governed by general assembly, a modified form of Quaker or New England Town meeting based on consensus decision- making and putatively equal opportunities for participation. Police began forcibly removing the camps in mid-November 2011 and by early 2012 had destroyed most of them.

Life at the communes was divided between those who lived there and those who visited, with all the typical affections and resentments therein. The camps would periodically host or spawn other examples of extraordinary politics, such as marches, rallies, and sit-ins. Organized around the language of economic inequality, these were broadly populist and placed particular emphasis on corporate size and personhood, government corruption, and the beneficial treatment of the banks after the 2008 financial crisis. The protests were echoed online by an outpouring of writing, debate, and documentation on what we now call, with some puritan hostility, social media. Throughout the fall, the rough democracy of cell-phone video and photography would be a central means in disseminating images of police violence, which in turn generated ever greater community support and participation.

Occupy was not a party—electoral, revolutionary, or otherwise—and was in many ways defined by its refusal of typical party structures. Its commitments were to a form rather than to any specific content. Nor was Occupy a syndicate: it was not an institution organized around a worker-identified interest distinct from others within the larger political economy. Hence the slogan “We are the 99%,” which, heroic aspirations of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) aside, is nonsensical in strict reference to the division of labor.1 On the matter of class composition, Occupy claimed a distributional identity, rather than a productive one, as “the 99%” refers to the distribution of the surplus, rather than its production or extraction. This explains its antipathy towards the national electoral parties whose shared commitment to redistributing resources to “the 1%,” either by weakness or inclination, was revealed by the “Grand Bargain” proposed by Barack Obama and John Boehner. It also explains why this antipathy did not extend to left-leaning syndicates like the unions of teachers, construction trades, health care, and service employees, whose own advocacy was in no way reflected at the national level, and whose support for Occupy was frequent and essential. This attitude was in contrast to that of right-leaning syndicates, especially those allowed to keep their collective bargaining rights under neoliberal policy, like police and firefighters. These were generally hostile to Occupy, often explicitly so, as in the literature produced by the Boston Patrolman’s union.2

Early attempts by the Obama administration to harness the movement for legislative momentum were usually met with hostility and gained little traction. In contrast, unions routinely donated space and supplies that were accepted more or less without complaint, while actions in support of union goals were routinely organized and launched from the communes.

This rudimentary description already reveals the difficulty in describing Occupy as “anarchist” as opposed to “socialist,” unless by “anarchist” we mean precisely this instantiated para-syndicalist refusal of the party-form. But this would ignore the longer and deeper history of this refusal that predates any articulation of “anarchism”—to say nothing of the socialist-identified non-party organizations that have flourished in the United States and elsewhere during the second half of the twentieth century. Similarly, to say that Occupy was, in fact, socialist, is to double down on the ambiguity of that term in the U.S. context, precisely by ignoring this reckoning with the party, the contours of which are much clearer in the European theater for specific historical reasons. Occupy is more accurately described as an instance of autonomist communism; “autonomist” for its directly democratic, non-party, un-syndicalism and “communist” for its distributionally focused instantiation as a series of communes—that is, as groups of people living together and sharing resources and responsibilities.

It is helpful, in this respect, to distinguish the autonomist communism of Occupy from the autonomist workerism associated with Italy in the late 1960s and ’70s, especially given the parallels between the two sequences. In the Italian case, the incipient reformism of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) first contributed to the factory occupations in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969, in which the PCI played a conflicted and ambiguous role. This dynamic prefigured the “Movement of 1977,” which was itself provoked by the “Historic Compromise” between the Christian Democrats and the PCI, following the latter’s electoral victory in 1976. This movement was nationwide and autonomist in its practice. Similarly, in the American case, the policies of the Clinton Democrats contributed to the anti-neoliberalization protests in Seattle at the end of the millennia, a dynamic resurrected nearly a decade later by the aforementioned “Grand Bargain” between the Republicans and the Democrats following the latter’s electoral victory in 2008, which helped provoke Occupy. However, by seizing control of the factories and refusing the identity of worker, the workerism present in the Movement of 1977 sought unsuccessfully to return the struggle to the theater of production—in clear opposition to the PCI’s strategy of national compromise in the theater of distribution. By contrast, Occupy proposed a counter-form of distribution from within that same theater, namely, the commune. Thus although both movements were autonomist in their refusal of the party form, only the workerists were forced into direct confrontation with party-affiliated organized labor, while Occupy was free to draw on such resources as necessary.3

It will be argued that the distinction I am drawing—between class struggle in production, or workerism, and class struggle in distribution, or communism—falls afoul of the historical emphasis placed on production by critical political economy. Two points are important to keep in mind in this case. First, the critique of political economy and the theory of the class struggle are not identical; even if production is well placed at the center of the former, this by no means guarantees it a similar place in the history of the latter.4 Second, at the level of everyday life we know that a good job—in the sense of a non-oppressive, safe, rewarding, and democratic working environment—and a living wage are not necessarily the same thing. Not only is it quite possible to have one without the other, but the historical routes for securing each have not always been entirely congruent. It has often fallen to the syndicates to make the relations of production more just, while distributional justice has often required electoral parties and legal regime change.5 Certainly these two theaters of struggle—production and distribution—are deeply connected, but the institutional constellations governing each are by no means uniform or consistent. In this respect, the description of Occupy as autonomist communist is not intended as a blanket endorsement—metaphysically, strategically, or otherwise—but as an attempt to locate it within a larger theoretical portrait of the class struggle.

It matters, in this respect, that Occupy can be divided between Occupy Wall Street (OWS), referring specifically to the commune in New York City, and its various sisters, nearly all identified by the name of the their respective cities: Occupy Oakland, Occupy Boston, Occupy DC, etc. The relative significance of this distinction—whether, that is, the difference between OWS and the rest is equal to or greater than the internal differences among the other camps—is an important topic that exceeds my scope. The answer to the question “Why occupy Wall Street?” is likely different than the question “Why occupy the city as such?” which is different again from the question “Why occupy Philadelphia?” The first refers to the mode of production of surplus value, the second to the social formation, and the third to the conjuncture. I will only deal with the first, and only in a limited way, but wish to emphasis that future analysis of the others is equally if not more important.

Why Occupy Wall Street? At first glance, the answer seems obvious, especially to Monthly Review readers, who are familiar with the incredible growth of the financial sector in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.6 Moreover the naked criminality, endemic corruption, and disgusting patriarchal culture of the cartels themselves make for a clear and present target for partisans of social justice. However, it is precisely the portrait of Wall Street as a moral sewer—which grows more detailed and damning by the day—that has obscured the necessity for its occupation.

The story of Wall Street’s arrival at the center of the class struggle begins with the crisis of surplus absorption that marked advanced industrial economies throughout the preceding century. As Paul Sweezy recognized already in his “The Crisis of American Capitalism” from 1980:

There is a strong, persistent, and growing tendency for more surplus value to be produced than can find profitable investment outlets. Where this situation obtainsthe result will be a decline—or slowdown in the rate of growth—of output and income, with rising unemployment and falling rates of utilization of productive capacity.7

Sweezy went on to note the problem of surplus absorption had been ameliorated in the mid-twentieth century, which Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster recently summarized as:

(1) the rise of unrivaled U.S. economic hegemony which set the stage for the expansion of world trade and capital movements, leading to the growth of multinational corporations; (2) the enormous consumer liquidity (savings) that had been built up in the United States during the war period; (3) the rebuilding of the European economies that had been shattered by the war; (4) new technologies arising out of the wartime experience, including electronics and jet aircraft; (5) the second wave of automobilization of the U.S. economy in the 1950s with the construction of the interstate highway system; and (6) the acceleration of militarization and imperialism during the Cold War, including two major regional wars in Asia.8

Even as each of these strategies was subject to diminishing returns, taken together they succeeded in moving the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) industries closer and closer to the center of the political economy. When 3, 5, and 6 were exhausted, 1 and 4 were all that remained, and they targeted 2 for extraction. This is reflected in the national policy changes around the time Sweezy was writing, changes which saw both Britain and the United States abandon their previously held advantages in industrial capital (a result of 3) and invest heavily in strengthening their remaining advantages in finance and merchant capital—or what has become known as the Geithner Doctrine. The end of the gold standard, the embrace of so-called “free trade” by Anglo-American apparatchiks at the World Bank and the IMF, consolidated Anglo-American financial and military hegemony (1 and 4). The coordinated assault on middle-class institutions by Reagan and Thatcher succeeded in privatizing expenditures that had previously been the responsibility of the public (the extraction of 2). This process has been particularly clear in the case of inelastic consumer demands like health care, housing, and education, all central to Occupy. This enhanced profits—not, as before, via surplus extracted from production in a growing economy, but rather by soaring stock prices, international arbitrage, and asset-class speculation.

The result of all of this is a world in which the mode of circulation is almost fully international, allowing merchant and finance capitals consistently to outflank the various national regimes of distribution and the industrial capitals contained therein. The traditional industrial sectors find themselves squeezed on both ends, by monopoly merchants like Walmart and Amazon on the one hand, and by threats of a credit strike initiated by falling stock prices and enforced by Wall Street on the other.9 The result has been the flight of industrial capitals, via a dizzying maze of outsourcing, from well-regulated labor regimes to strictly enforced labor “states of nature” like Bangladesh, to say nothing of the expansion of formerly industrial capitals, like GE, into finance. Wall Street thus emerged as the principle apparatus of international discipline, committed to enforcing the profitability of individual capitals even as the underlying economy has become increasingly stagnant.

These constraints have limited the prospects for national-electoral projects of redistribution, leading to what Wolfgang Streeck described—in fall 2011, no less—as “the Crisis of Democratic Capitalism.” With their budgets already committed to defending gains secured in previous cycles of class struggle, and prevented from raising more funds by the international bond market, the power of national governments to satisfy the demands of their constituents for distributional justice is greatly diminished. This leads, over time, to the delegitimation not only of this or that specific government, but of national democracy itself. Streeck writes: “Elections in which voters have no effective choice may be perceived by them as inauthentic, which may cause all sorts of political disorder, from declining turnout to a rise of populist parties to riots in the streets.”10

Under such conditions, the refusal not only of Occupy, but also the reluctance of left organizations like SYRIZA, to resolve themselves into traditional political parties begins to make more strategic sense. To take responsibility for governing a national regime of distribution without first disarming or fully democratizing the international institutions arrayed against it is to risk a certain form of political suicide, or worse. And it is at this essential level—that of the project of international democracy—that Occupy’s significance falls into relief. By indicating the extent to which the building blocks for such a project are already in place, Occupy succeeded in shedding light on Karl Marx’s hitherto mysterious statement to the effect that the stock market “is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself” and “represents a mere phase of transition to a new form of production.”11 Marx meant that insofar as ownership is dispersed and divorced from control, the fundamental mechanism of capital accumulation shifts away from private ownership of the means of production, an observation later echoed by Thorstein Veblen in Absentee Ownership. Although the idea that Wall Street marks the beginning of the end of the capitalist mode of production seems counter-intuitive, we should remember that there are many precedents for precisely this kind of institutional foreshadowing. Although the U.S. Constitution held that African slaves were only three-fifths human and that women did not have the right to vote, such claims were eventually forced to yield before mass movements that appealed to the life and liberty contained in the Declaration of Independence. That private property—John Locke’s third natural right—was no less inimical to freedom was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, who replaced it with the vague and ambiguous “pursuit of happiness” in the same document, and left out the fourth right—the right to revolution—altogether.12 History indicates that such efforts merely delay the inevitable.

Thus, in the same way that the declaration of the rights of man—which left out women, workers, and slaves—was not sufficient, on its own, to the larger cause of emancipation, even as it foreshadowed it, the arrival of a global stock exchange is not sufficient, on its own, to secure the transition to a fully democratized economy.13 Nevertheless, the quasi-public sphere of a global community of invested voters allocating resources based on the putatively open exchange of information rehearses that very transition. What remains, as before, is to expand and transform the franchise, and to install, by nonviolence if necessary, the real participation of the people in the institutions that already plan and govern the international economy. At least that was the logic of Occupy Wall Street.


  1. Syndicalism is closely associated in the United States with the IWW, which sought to organize all workers in all workplaces, as a prelude to their seizure and collectivization.
  2. See, for example, numerous articles in Pax Centurion 41, no. 5, November/December 2011, including 7, 9, 27, B5, B11, B13, C6. Archived at
  3. See “Lama Sabachthani?,” in Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds., Autonomia (New York: Semiotexte, 1980), 100.
  4. Indeed, one can read Marxism as the ongoing historical mission to collapse the distance between the two.
  5. On the relation of the law to distribution, see Kennedy, Duncan, “The Stakes of Law, or Hale and Foucault!,” Legal Studies Forum XV, no. 4 (1991): 327–62.
  6. See, only most recently, William K. Tabb, “The Criminality of Wall Street,” Monthly Review (September 2014): 13–22.
  7. Paul M. Sweezy, “The Crisis of American Capitalism,” Monthly Review 32, no. 5 (October 1980): 2–3.
  8. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster “Stagnation and Financialization: The Nature of the Contradiction,” Monthly Review 66, no. 1 (May 2014): 1–24
  9. For an elegant analysis of the problem of merchant monopoly, see Franklin Foer, “Amazon Must Be Stopped,” New Republic, October 9, 2014, 16–22.
  10. Wolfgang Streeck “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism,” New Left Review 71 (September–October 2011): 5–29.
  11. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Laurence & Wishart, 1959), 438.
  12. See Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, 2nd ed. (London: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  13. An anticipation equally confirmed by Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, originally 1792,, and the Haitian revolution.
2015, Volume 66, Issue 09 (February)
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