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Furthermore! – Occupy: Ossification or Organization?

June 12, 2012


Furthermore! – Occupy: Ossification or Organization?

AdBusters, the Canadian group who prompted the Occupy Wall Street protests, now condemn the original protesters for becoming … organized. (More)

Last fall BPI sent me to cover the Occupy protests in Zuccotti Park. After watching the zombie protest on my first day, I picked up the spirit of being a class war correspondent. A few days later, Chef sent me a spiffy khaki class war correspondent’s vest with lots of pockets for my Blewberry and extra macadamias. I came home later that month for family leave, just in time for the birth of the twins: Nancy and Michelle.

The energy and ideals of the Occupy movement quickly spread around the world. They also changed the political dialogue in the U.S. As the movement grew, even Republicans began talking about income inequality. Contrary to conservative dismissals, the Occupy movement wasn’t just a bunch of kids camping in parks. One of the OWS working groups – Occupy the SEC – wrote a 325-page letter proposing detailed amendments to strengthen the Volker Rule and limit speculative trading by federally-insured banks. Over the winter, Occupy members worked on high-tech tools to help them better coordinate their activities, and several Occupy activists and supporters are running as candidates in 2012.

I see those as positive signs. Alas, AdBusters disagrees:

Our movement is living through a painful rebirth… “There has been a unfortunate consolidation of power in #OWS,” writes one founding Zuccotti. “This translates into ideological dominance and recurring lines of thought. We are facing a nauseating poverty of ideas.” Burned out, out of money, out of ideas… seduced by salaries, comfy offices, book deals, old lefty cash and minor celebrity status, some of the most prominent early heroes of our leaderless uprising are losing the edge that catalyzed last year’s one thousand encampments. Bit by bit, Occupy’s first generation is succumbing to an insidious institutionalization and ossification that could be fatal to our young spiritual insurrection unless we leap over it right now. Putting our movement back on track will take nothing short of a revolution within Occupy.

“Insidious institutionalization and ossification?” Ahem. The word they’re looking for – or the civic virtue they’re struggling to avoid – is “organization.”

Yes, organization is a civic virtue. It is also a prerequisite for political effectiveness, as Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker wrote in Winner-Take-All Politics:

The story of organizational triumph over popular concerns has been repeated time after time, especially in the last thirty years. A possibly apocryphal story about FDR has him responding to a delegation imploring him for action: “Fine, you’ve convinced me. Now make me do it.” What he meant was, “Get some organized pressure behind you, so that I will be rewarded for doing the right thing and punished for doing the wrong thing.”

Their book was published in September 2010. The Occupy movement pushed income inequality and related issues into the mainstream, but those issues were percolating among progressive scholars and activists long before AdBusters proposed camping in Zuccotti Park. Yet rather than build on the Occupy movement’s developing organization, AdBusters wants to dismantle it:

In its own sweet way, our movement is now moving beyond the Zuccotti model and developing a tactical imperative of its own: Small groups of fired up second generation occupiers acting independently, swiftly and tenaciously pulling off myriad visceral local actions, disrupting capitalist business-as-usual across the globe.

The next big bang to capture the world’s imagination could come not from a thousand encampments but from a hundred thousand ephemeral jams… a global cascade of flash encampments may well be what this hot Summer will look like.

One of the “flash encampments” that AdBusters celebrates – the takeover of a U.C. Berkeley research farm near San Francisco – destroyed a sustainable energy project funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. If such “myriad visceral local actions” are the future of any AdBusters-approved Occupy movement, they should expect to become and remain politically irrelevant.

AdBusters tell their readers to “play wild, spontaneous jazz, as Miles Davis intended” but they leave out Davis’ grounding in music theory and the years of tightly-structured traditional and swing jazz that preceded and enabled his ‘chaotic’ post-bop innovations. As Wynton Marsalis wrote, “In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary.”

So too with political activism. The “ossification” that AdBusters now decries in Occupy Wall Street is the very organization that may yet make OWS effective agents of political change. Music without organization is mere noise, and our political dialogue was never lacking for mere noise. OWS are now learning to make music … in ways that the rest of us can sing along.

Good day and good nuts.


  • One of the reasons I was lukewarm about the Occupy movement was not that I didn’t think they were calling attention to issues that needed it, it was that they didn’t have any idea of what they were going to do about it. The question of “what next?” seems to have been met with “huh?” No, continuing to camp out, and do not-very-effective ‘flash mobs’ ends up being annoying rather than getting changes made.

    There’s a great comment by Bill Maher on that, where he tells them that they need to get busy voting and getting to work.

  • Jim W

    Good day and good nuts. 😉

  • addisnana

    Tuckman did research on the stages of group development in 1965. The 4 stages are forming, storming, norming and performing. Others later added a fifth stage of reforming.

    AdBusters can claim credit for the idea of Occupy Wall Street but for them to bemoan the fact that the group started moving through predictable stages of development is really naive on their part. Permanent anarchy is not a sustainable, productive or attractive state.

    The AdBusters reference to Miles Davis further indicates a total lack of understanding. It makes me wonder what substances they may be ingesting.

  • winterbanyan

    I’m glad to hear that some elements of Occupy are at last doing effective things to try to bring about change. It’s really cool to sit in parks, face down the police and smoke doobies, and it makes you feel like someone really special.

    But it accomplishes very little. They shifted the dialogue, yes, but now they need to take organized action if they want to accomplish anything at all.

    Adbusters sound like a bunch of old hippies who dropped out to a commune somewhere while the world changed and moved on in spite of them. Because the world will move on. The question is do you want to help it move in your way or just watch it move without you.

    The former requires banding together and organizing effective action. The latter is like throwing a temper tantrum which only gets you put in time-out.