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Translating Anarchy

The Eyes of New York

The following is an excerpt from a book by a former member of the Occupy Wall Street press team. Just days before the second Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, Mark will be presenting his work, Translating Anarchy, at Bluestockings Bookstore on Friday, the 13th.

There is no one demand. That’s ridiculous. Unless that one demand was so incredibly radical like ‘smash capitalism and the state at the same time.’ That would be the one demand. —Madeline Nelson, anarchist OWS organizer

The destruction of capitalism and the construction of a classless, environmentally sustainable, democratic economy characterized by mutual aid and solidarity that prioritizes the fulfillment of human need. The development of forms of participatory and direct democracy grounded in local communities, groups, and bodies that empower individuals and collectivities. The elimination of all hierarchical social relations, whether founded in concepts of sexuality, race, gender, or any other.

That is what Occupy Wall Street wanted (and much of what anarchists want too).

Or at least that is what the vast majority of OWS organizers envisioned as the ultimate goal of their political struggle.

Not the Volker Rule. Not a Robin Hood tax. Not the Glass-Steagall Act. Not ending corporate personhood. Not an increased capital gains tax. Not repealing Citizens United. And certainly not re-electing Obama.

Some saw those reforms as steps in the process, but for most they were never the final targets. That is why the mainstream media, both liberal and conservative, could never really understand what we were doing. If we had been content with adjusting taxes for millionaires by 2% we would have gone about things completely differently, the way the media expected, but we didn’t want a bigger slice of the pie, we were after the entire bakery. As Justine Tunney (27), self-described “tranarchist” and founder of the main OWS website (occupywallst.org) phrased it, “I believe that the hetero-normative, cis-normative, patriarchal, state-capitalist establishment is evil and must be destroyed.”

I am not, however, speaking about most of the supporters of the movement who attended an occasional General Assembly or marched with us. They were overwhelmingly liberal, and generally considered goals such as “getting money out of politics” to be their endgames. As I will discuss in more detail in Chapter 3, OWS succeeded because it managed to attract a thick outer layer of liberals and progressives onto an inner core that was predominantly anarchist in character (anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, direct action oriented). Without either element, Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t have succeeded. Much of the media confusion stemmed from their unconscious tendency to think in terms of two concepts explored in Chapter 1: movement as protest and protest as election.

Essentially, they reduced the organized element of the movement to a diffuse conglomeration of individuals grouped into a protest, and then saw the message and direction of OWS as the sum total of the opinions of all the bodies in Liberty Square (as if it were an election and each body was ‘voting’ for its political outlook). This outlook was part of why they glossed over the distinction between organizers and participants and Occupy’s liberal outer shell and overwhelmingly anarchist core. Another was that we didn’t tell them about it.

Given the democratic nature of OWS, and my relationships with fellow organizers, I knew that there was a very strong anarchist tendency among the people who made Occupy happen, but I wanted to investigate exactly how widespread it was. Therefore, between December 2011 and February 2013, I conducted interviews with 192 of the main organizers of Occupy Wall Street in New York. The interviews showed that 39% of OWS organizers self-identified as anarchists. As the remainder of this chapter will demonstrate, self-identifying as an anarchist can mean a variety of things, but it is indicative of a general current running through the movement in New York. That percentage was much higher than I expected, but I didn’t think that erecting a stale binary between anarchists and non-anarchists really captured the pervasive nature of anarchist ideas within Occupy. As I analyzed the other 61% of interviews conducted with those who didn’t label themselves anarchists, I came to see that anarchism had saturated the political atmosphere of OWS to a much wider degree than that 39% indicated. I noticed that 30% of organizers who did not self-identify as anarchists (34% of all organizers didn’t identify with any overarching label) listed anarchism as an influential element in their overall thought.

Examples included Ravi Ahmad (34), an organizer with the Tech Ops, Housing, and Outreach Working Groups who was often seen casually knitting during large meetings. Years ago, she worked with the student front of the Communist Party of India where she occasionally upset the party hierarchy because she was “a Marxist with an anarchist streak.” Similarly, Rose Bookbinder (28), an organizer with the United Auto Workers, said that there were “parts of communism, socialism, and anarchism that I pull from.”

I also noticed that even those who strongly disagreed with anarchism often talked about it in contrast with their ideas, showing that it was nearly impossible to describe one’s politics in terms of the movement without situating them in relation to anarchism. Despite media expectations, only three organizers described themselves as “progressive,” and two described themselves as “liberal.” I would argue that there were more organizers with progressive and liberal politics than those figures indicate, but the radical political climate made reformists more likely to not identify with a specific ideology, or self-identify as some sort of socialist. For example Karanja Wa Gaçuça (39), a former Wall Street analyst from Kenya who was laid off right as OWS started, said that before getting involved with the Press WG he identified as a liberal but he “found out that ‘liberal’ is a dirty word” so now he identifies as a socialist. Overall, 7% of organizers identified as some sort of “socialist” and 9% identified as “left” or “radical.” Perhaps the most creative political answer I heard was from Dennis Flores (36), a cop-watch organizer from Brooklyn involved in Occupy Sunset Park, who described his politics as “fuck the police.”

More importantly, though, I found that another 33% of all organizers had politics that were largely indistinguishable from most anarchists (although they used a different label or avoided one altogether): they were anti-capitalists in favor of direct democracy and opposed to hierarchy who considered direct action, rather than elections, to be the most effective route toward social change, but chose not to use the anarchist label. For the purposes of this book, I join Richard J. F. Day, Cindy Milstein and others in referring to these organizers as having ‘anarchistic’ politics, meaning that their politics were similar to anarchism (within the anarchist orbit, one might say) though they did not actively identify with anarchism. The degree to which the perspectives of a given ‘anarchistic’ organizer aligned with those of anarchism varied. While most were basically anarchists, others retained traces of non-anarchist perspectives alongside a more broadly anti-authoritarian outlook. So the category of the ‘anarchistic’ was not homogeneous or always an exact synonym for anarchism, but the outlooks of these organizers were closer to anarchism than other political orientations. In total, 72% of organizers had politics largely consistent with anarchism whether they were explicitly anarchist or implicitly anarchistic.[...]

The A-Word

Yet, in order for the seeds to grow, they had to be planted so that the soil would accept them, so to speak. For the majority of OWS anarchists, this meant emphasizing the ideas behind anarchism rather than their misunderstood label. Axle (23), an anarchist organizer from Manhattan with the Outreach and DA WGs, said that the word ‘anarchist’ is commonly “used for teenagers in all black clothing and Crass patches.” Likewise, Bootz (21), an anarchist active with DA who got politicized through Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in college, said that journalists “think that [the anarchist is] the middle class white liberal college student who dresses in black and runs around the streets at night and breaks property with no political analysis and no understanding and just likes to create chaos.” Instead, the “point is to be approachable and relatable,” explained S. For Jo Robin (30), an anarchist involved in Occupy New Orleans before coming up to New York to work with OWS Puppetry Guild and Facilitation, it’s “more important to walk away from a conversation with someone feeling comfortable with my ideals whether or not they’re using the same language that I use.”

Instead of explicitly addressing ‘anarchism,’ organizers like Sergio Jimenez (26), an anarchist from Texas who quit his job to come to New York and work with the Kitchen, Sanitation, and Translation WGs, would speak about the values of autonomy, horizontalism, egalitarianism, and mutual aid. Maria “Sarge” Porto (23), an anarchist EMT from Brooklyn and OWS medic, emphasized sustainable communities and self-sufficiency. The same applies for Mark Adams (32) who was born in Pakistan, grew up in Dubai before spending time in Switzerland and Thailand, and then moved to the United States at 19. He came to OWS in November, and was one of our most active organizers despite being imprisoned on Rikers Island for 45 days over the summer of 2012 for his involvement in the December 17, 2011 occupation of a vacant lot owned by Trinity Church. Although he identifies as an anarchist communist, Mark is concerned about the negative connotations of both terms and instead tends to focus on direct democracy and consensus when communicating with the general public. Andrew (27), an organizer with DA from Massachusetts, tries to “steer clear of ‘anarchist’ and ‘anarchism’ as labels because of how eroded they’ve been in popular culture and politics in this country.” Instead he emphasizes being anti-state, believing in collective organizing, and strong interpersonal relationships.

Patrick Bruner (23) essentially was the Press WG by himself during the first days of the occupation of Liberty Square. Patrick’s slick, all-black attire and shaved head led me to suspect his anarchism before it ever came up, but he told me that in the first week he wrote up a list of polarizing political terms to avoid using with the press including “capitalism, anarchism, communism, [and] free market.” Patrick added that, “when we talk about this movement we talk about a post-political, directly democratic, people-powered, egalitarian movement. When you put all those words together it means anarchism.”

It may seem strange for anarchists to build a group or movement without specifically anarchist politics, or to use strategic language to present their ideas to society, but it’s nothing new. For example, Bakunin was adamant that it was important for the First International to remain non-ideological so it could unite the entire working class. He said that if the founders of the International had given it a “socialist, philosophical, definite and positive political doctrine, they would have been in error.” Instead of making the entire association explicitly anarchist, Bakunin favored the creation of an anarchist political group that could spread anarchist ideas among the workers as they joined. In 1908, the prominent German anarchist Gustav Landauer organized an anarchist group called the “Socialist Bund” whose newspaper was called Der Sozialist. In Landauer’s opinion, “Anarchy is just another—due to its negativity and frequent misinterpretation, less useful—name for socialism.”

Likewise early syndicalist unions such as the French Confédération generale du travail (CGT) or the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist politics and had many anarchist organizers but they did not give their unions overarching political labels. Malatesta was at times critical of anarcho-syndicalism because he thought that unions shouldn’t have an explicitly ideological character. I think the track record of the Spanish CNT, for example, provided a more than adequate response to Malatesta’s concerns that an anarcho-syndicalist union would “wait for all the workers to become anarchists before inviting them to organize,” since it merged considerations of inclusivity with political education. Yet Malatesta’s perspective represents another voice in favor of inserting anarchist ideas into a more broadly non-ideological mass organization.

One of the best examples of strategically articulating anarchist politics to appeal to the broader society was the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) founded by the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón in 1906. Although the PLM was an anarchist group, Magón knew that he would get more popular support for the very same ideas under the ‘liberal’ banner. Explaining his rationale in a letter to fellow anarchists in the PLM, Magón wrote in 1908:

In order to obtain great benefits for the people, effective benefits, to work as anarchists would easily crush us…all is reduced to a conception of mere tactics. If from the first we had called ourselves anarchists no one, or not but a few would have listened to us. Without calling ourselves anarchists we have gone on planting in mind ideas of hatred against the possessing class and against the government caste…this has been achieved without saying that we are anarchists…all, then, is a question of tactics.

We must give land to the people in the course of the revolution; so that the poor will not be deceived…in order not to turn the entire nation against us, we must follow the same tactics that we have practiced with such success: we will continue calling ourselves liberals in the course of the revolution but in reality we will be propagating anarchy and executing anarchistic acts.

In another letter he added:

Only the anarchists will know that we are anarchists. And we will advise them not to call us anarchists in order not to scare such imbeciles that in the depths of their consciousness harbor ideas like ours, but without knowing that they are anarchist ideals, therefore they are accustomed to hear talk about the anarchists in unfavorable terms.

More recently, the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina didn’t explicitly identify with anarchism in order to get more people involved. To reiterate, I’m not arguing that anarchists should never use the anarchist label. I’m simply pointing out that there are situations where the non-hierarchical, anti-oppressive, anti-capitalist ideas of anarchism might be better communicated without the label, at least to start. It worked in Mexico and, to a far lesser but still notable extent, it worked with Occupy Wall Street.

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