By Rob Wohl
“The SEIU’s going that way, the 99 percent are staying here.”
I heard an occupier yell that unfortunate phrase in the rain soaked intersection of K and 14th on December 7th. Occupiers were shutting down the heart of the lobbying district of downtown DC. A coalition of unions and liberal pressure groups had been doing the same thing a few blocks to the west as part of the “Take Back the Capitol” week of action, but the vast majority of marchers had decamped when they received a final warning from police. On the way back to their base of operations on the mall, the liberals decided to march past the arrest-risking occupiers, and many in our ranks assumed that they intended to hold the street with us.
Marshals directed marchers to keep moving. Occupiers ran into their ranks and started encouraging people to buck orders and stick around. In a fit of petulance, the marshals formed a human wall and started shoving occupiers back. Not to be out-immatured, a few occupiers tried to form a blockade across 16th to hold the march in the intersection. The whole episode was a particular pathetic example of hot left-on-left action in the midst of an otherwise successful action.
Labor journalist Mike Elk watched this all unfold and was appropriately appalled. His take was that occupiers and labor (and presumably other left liberal activists) need to work together more closely and engage in tactics that won’t repel the general public (represented by his cop roommate). Mine’s a bit different: watching a few masked, black leather-clad occupiers hurl invective at a wall of orange-vested union organizers, I began wondering if attempts at unity are hamstringing truly productive solidarity.
Since the early days (three long months ago), I’ve been hearing a lot of desperate paeans to unity down at McPherson Square. Early on, they came from the representatives who wandered up from Freedom Plaza, DC’s other occupation. The history of the Great Occupy DC Schism (which was not actually a schism and has never been called that) is incredibly boring, but essentially it arose from a difference in styles between young rough-and-tumble radicals and progressives (McP) and older activists affiliated with the big antiwar groups of the last decade (FP). As it became clear that the DC occupations weren’t about to merge, the folks from Freedom Plaza insisted on a series of meetings in which various folks, but mostly FP big boss (er, nonhierarchical organizer?) Kevin Zeese, spoke at length, with very little supporting evidence, about how we needed to “stand together” and “show unity.” Mostly because I didn’t want to prolong these meetings, I restrained the impulse to yell “why?”
I’m not entirely clear what all this unity is supposed to accomplish. Sure, it’s nice to have a lot of people in one place – it makes the organizers of an action feel like they’ve accomplished something. But I doubt that even on its best days OWS has come close to rivaling the numbers that turned out for the big anti-war marches in 2003. Our strength is rooted not in raw numbers or in lock-step coordination. I suspect that the Occupy International has conquered so much mindspace in large part because it’s so loosely organized.
Famously, the movement laughed off the idea of demands and our non-exclusive lists of grievances are expansive. We eschewed the language of limited campaigns and concrete demands that could easily be dismissed as unattainable, insufficient, or both. Without any platform to recite, people were encouraged to get personal when explaining the movement. If you asked an occupier why they had gotten involved, you might get a titanically misinformed manifesto or you might get a touching testimonial about an individual’s correspondence with the late crisis, but you sure as shit would not have gotten a turgid lump of officially-approved propaganda. The Occupy appeal was always framed as a problem (hence the mass deployment of statistics on inequality in the early days) to be discussed and confronted collectively, thus inviting discussion and participation, not obedience or rejection. Meanwhile, the geographic dispersion of the occupations and the diversity of channels through which we testified meant that we could reach the public directly without having to rely too extensively on the media to relay our message. And because you didn’t have to drop everything and travel to Seattle or Toronto or Miami to participate in the occupations, occupations were populated with ordinary working people, not just lifestyle activists.
So if some diffusion is a good thing, what are the drawbacks to absolute unity? There are obviously some very different styles of activism that don’t necessarily go all that well together, and as Mike and me saw at the intersection of K and 14th, as I’ve noticed every time I go down to Freedom Plaza and get reminded that there’s a prohibition on swearing, stylistic differences can spiral into real tensions. But you know what? People are different – if they want to have different kinds of actions, that’s fine.
And a diversity of tactics (let’s reclaim that useful phrase from the window smashers, shall we?) and actors can be a positive good, not just a prophylactic strategy to prevent me from getting into a screaming match with a CODEPINKer. You need to be awfully naïve to discount the importance of the SEIUs and MoveOn’s of the world in resisting the austerity class’s assault on the remnants of social democracy, but it seems increasingly obvious that in their present form they are unable to articulate an alternative vision. Smart people inside, outside, and way the fuck outside the left-liberal establishment have argued that the future of progressive politics may lie with autonomous, extra-legal associations that can escalate, break the law, and challenge the legitimacy of neoliberal forces in ways that mainstream unions and progressives cannot. Such groups could win real bread-and-butter victories for workers, tenants, debtors, etc, while allowing the legally constrained liberals to keep doing their work and slowly get more aggressive.
A movement is not an organization with a central office and clearly articulated goals (ask yourself what the labor movement’s one demand was, or feminism’s, or the civil rights movement’s). Rather, a movement is defined by a broad vision of a better world that can animate diverse struggles all over the place. There is no reason that the occupations need to exists as entities in themselves for the Occupy movement to persevere – rather, they can scatter to a swarm of organizations, campaigns, and affinity groups to fight against the many dimensions of economic injustice.
For the left, solidarity is the highest virtue. Hell, it’s in our national anthem. But, ever the Sociology major, every time I hear that word I want to know which kind we’re talking about. There’s mechanical solidarity, what one might call unity, the sense of commonality that comes from behaving the same way as another individual. But then there’s organic solidarity, the sense of purpose shared by people who depend on one another despite their differences. Organic solidarity is the sinew of industrial civilization, and it needs to be the guiding light for Occupy: Phase 2. In a fight as big as the one we’re waging, complimentarity will get the goods.