Sunday, October 23, 2011

Observations from Occupy Wall Street

As an approach to library science, anarchism is at its strongest and its weakest. The volunteers at the Occupy Wall Street library in Zuccotti Park “shelve” no book into the waterproof bins that serve as open-air shelves without first cataloguing it online and branding it with a Sharpie. This procedures creates a complete catalog of the books that sympathizers have donated, thanks to a small knot of natty book-lovers, some of whom unroll their camping gear at night amid the stacks of political theory, alternative economics, polemics on the financial crisis, bodice-rippers, and spiritual charlatanism of every kind. Once catalogued, the books go into an anarchist lending system, which is no system at all: take it if you want it, return it if you will, keep it if you need it. The catalog says nothing about the library’s present holdings except what has been there. It is an instantly obsolete memorial produced by tirelessly fastidious people who refuse to turn their fastidiousness into a rule for anyone else. It sits at the meeting-place of the database, the civic institution, and public art.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers often tried to understand society by imagining people without it – in a “state of nature.” Philosophy developed a genre of just-so stories in which hairy, under-dressed women and men meandered through forests and deserts, careening into each other and producing fistfights and couplings. Although rightly wary of one another, these semi-sociable monads soon find they do better together than alone, and through a series of crises and discoveries they create language, law, property, government, and the division of labor. Their natural freedom is gone, but the ambiguous benefits of civilization have replaced it. Voila! – a natural history of how we live together.

The old stories have been coming back to life, in diorama form, in Zuccotti Park. Friday night featured a four-hour debate on how Wall Street’s Occupiers should govern themselves. The constitutional crisis came out of a very state-of-nature problem. It had rained for days, and although the sun was back, there was a hill of wet laundry just west of the Information and Press tables, across the path from Sanitation’s collection of brooms and dustpans, and blocking the street from the orthodox-Marxist encampment that calls itself Class Warfare. Revolution may require patience, but wet laundry does not tolerate delay. The only way to requisition a couple of thousand dollars in quarters and detergent money was by consent of the whole community, or, if that failed after full debate, “modified consent” – a vote of 90 percent. It naturally seemed to the Structure Working Group – a kind of constitutional drafting committee – that this was an apt moment to give say-so over the quarters to some body less unwieldy than the whole people assembled.

Every exchange in the debate would have made good sense – with a little idiomatic translation – to the propertied men who drafted the United States Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. It turns out that, whenever you try to merge a loosely self-governing multitude into a sovereign body, the same practical problems and acute fears arise. If all power lies in the people, and they give it to a Congress or committee to use, how can they control the government they have created? What if it becomes corrupt, or turns around and tries to control them? What happens if the bigger groups use the concentrated power against smaller ones? (Class Warfare was already grumbling that some of its tents had been “expropriated” – an ideologically awkward point made nonetheless with heartfelt pissiness.) Who will watchdog the committees in winter, when it’s too cold to sit through a General Assembly outside? If we just worked harder and were more virtuous, couldn’t we deal with the laundry ourselves?

Most people know by now about the community microphone, the no-amplification technology for holding an open-air debate among 500 or more people: the speaker speaks, a circle around her shouts her phrases in unison, and, when necessary, a second circle repeats it again. This technical fix to a ban on amplified sound has major side-effects in moral education. It has a liturgical quality: the speaker has to break every ten words or so, to match the limits of short-term memory. The crowd intones together for hours. Every position argued in the assembly is literally embodied in the voice of everyone participating. What’s most striking is to see those who disagree sharply, and palpably dislike and mistrust one another, reciting each other’s attacks. Even when the speaker was agitated, an audible care governed the phrasing, as if the anticipated echo of the crowd and the memory of other voices in one’s own mouth dissolved the ordinary narcissism of oratory.


There is a geography to Zuccotti Park that looks like a Victorian ascent-of-man exhibit. At the eastern fringe, a tree has been designated the community’s sacred space, where all gods and sentiments are welcome. Icons, devotional cards, beads, incense, and a poster of John and Yoko were prominent at the end of last week. The drum circles work nearby, to the east and northeast, and their rhythmic neo-tribalism throbs on into the night, indifferent to what the General Assembly is debating on the other side of the park. A third or so of the park now belongs to long-term campers, unkempt, tired, and often sick or asleep during the day. There is some panhandling. Idealists are hard to pick out from professional transients and freeloaders. At night this is a faceless field of blue tarps and camping tents.

In the middle, the division of labor has arisen to meet the most pressing human needs. A kitchen runs at nearly all hours, and there is always a long line for whatever is on offer. The medical tents and sanitation supplies are here, and on the edge of this zone the mound of laundry gave its mute call for constitutional reform. These volunteers are the salt of Zuccotti Park, and they present a challenge to radical democracy: they are too busy to spend five nights a week in self-government. As long as the place is run by spontaneous action, they are as good as anyone else – indeed, they are leaders, because they are the first to pick up soup pots and brooms when the community needs those. The more decisions get concentrated in an efficient government, the more they will be carrying out orders and doing someone else’s work.

At the western end of the park, across from the Harriman Brothers banking house and just down the street from the Federal Reserve, human history emerges into Athenian democracy and learning, circa 500 B.C. The General Assembly meets here, with its back to Broadway, and the library huddles into the park’s northeast corner. The General Assembly is not particularly a gathering of the campers, let alone the drummers. Many of the debaters go home late, then return to the park. Many of the campers are under their tarps during the constitutional convention. Like Tolkien-esque tribes, the different populations identify themselves by their hair, their dress, and their manners. The stroll across the park feels like walking from Bonnaroo to Debate Club, if Debate Club met in an alternative universe designed by the Anarchist Gospel Choir.


The only articulate demands coming out of the park for now are on the buttons stamped out at an artisanal and unofficial table between the General Assembly space and the library, and these are in the broadest terms – democracy and equality. Participating for a couple of days, though, can bring home a subtler insistence. Plenty of Occupiers are vain and pleased with themselves, but most of them are also trying to live out an ideal of equality and personal freedom while making their little society work, albeit on a tiny scale with cops, subways, and wifi provided from outside. When someone dropped and shattered a piece of plate glass near me, I hurried to tell the sometime drummer pushing a broom, a mark that she was working with Sanitation. With perfect equanimity and sweetness, she pointed me to the Sanitation station, not so that I could tell a responsible person, but I could grab a broom and dustpan. By the time I got back to the site – no more than 90 seconds later – the glass was gone.

Do it yourself – DIY – is an aesthetic and also an ethic, which the Occupiers are trying to take from the personal to the social scale. Our world is rich, convenient, and often efficient because we parcel out tasks – governance, library science, cooking, sanitation – in a set of more or less hierarchical roles. Things get done, and there is time for private life and play. At the same time, we often deal with one another as representatives of these roles and tasks: you make my food, process my book, clean my floor, run my government, and, though I try to show a polite interest, that pretty much exhausts my interest in you. In Zuccotti Park you realize that the person pushing the broom is not Sanitation, but someone it would not be so bizarre to call by one of those old liberal-revolutionary terms, like citizen, and that you, too, citizen, might need to grab a dustpan right about now. Then it is easy to accept that things are lost in our usual efficiency: equality, and also intelligibility, a sense that you have to know how everything works – cleaning, cooking, shelving, governing – because you, too, might have to take responsibility for it at any moment. Nothing is someone else’s job, and – it somehow follows – everyone is more than the job they happen to be doing.

The financial crisis, and the self-satisfied and esoteric industry behind it, underscored not just unfair our social life can seem, but also how opaque. How many really understand what happened, and, of those, how many understand what we might do now about where the crisis has brought us? The Occupiers are experimenting with the thought that inequality and opacity are optional, or, at least, that there can be ways of living together that are much more equally free, and much more intelligible, than those we have accepted. Their contribution, for now, is to invite others to pursue the same thought. It is really no more, or less, than the thought behind the Declaration of Independence: that societies are erected by naturally free and equal people, who are entitled to change the rules when they believe a different arrangement would serve their freedom better. History shows that this principle is dangerous, but also that we cannot do without it.

1 comment:

  1. Jed,
    Great article! (This is actually Steve White commenting after reading the article sent to Fia Feller by Dierdre.) I have spent two days in Zuccotti Park and I think your observations are spot-on. My hope, somewhat less forlorn than it was before Occupy Wall Street, is that the more responsible media will pick up on some the more reasonable ideas coming from this demonstration and provide an antidote to the more vehement 24 hour cable news channels that seemed to dominate the off-year election last year.
    Being somewhat moderate in my radicalism, I am still hoping this can be dealt with in the voting booth but if unlimited donations to influence the election are viewed as having distorted the outcome in a way that leaves working Americans struggling...Well, I doubt that the spirit of these demonstrations will slink quietly away.