The origins and future of Occupy Wall Street

Mattathias Schwartz, writing for the New Yorker, traces the genesis of Occupy Wall Street, identifies a few individuals — such as Adbusters‘ Kalle Lasn and Micah M White — who certainly had a catalytic role in the movement’s formation, but finds that so far, it remains leaderless.

Those who were around at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement talk about the old “vertical” left versus the new “horizontal” one. By “vertical,” they mean hierarchy and its trappings—leaders, demands, and issue-specific rallies. They mean social change as laid out by Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” where outside organizers spur communities to action. “Horizontal” means leaderless—like the 1999 W.T.O. protests in Seattle, the Arab Spring, and even the Tea Party. Anyone can show up at a general assembly and claim a piece of the movement. This lets people feel important immediately, and gives them implicit permission to take action. It also gives a disproportionate amount of power to people like Sage [a homeless New Yorker who scornfully calls his fellow Zuccotti Park occupants, “tourists”].

One influence that is often cited by the movement is open-source software, such as Linux, an operating system that competes with Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS but doesn’t have an owner or a chief engineer. A programmer named Linus Torvalds came up with the idea. Thousands of unpaid amateurs joined him and then eventually organized into work groups. Some coders have more influence than others, but anyone can modify the software and no one can sell it. According to Justine Tunney, who continues to help run OccupyWallSt.org, “There is leadership in the sense of deference, just as people defer to Linus Torvalds. But the moment people stop respecting Torvalds, they can fork it”—meaning copy what’s been built and use it to build something else.

In mid-October, supporters in Tokyo, Sydney, Madrid, and London held rallies; encampments sprang up in almost every major American city. Nearly all of them modelled themselves on the New York City General Assembly: with no official leaders, rotating facilitators, and no fixed set of demands. Today, endorsements of the Occupy movement can be found everywhere, from anarchist graffiti on bank walls to Al Gore’s Twitter feed. On a rain-smeared cardboard sign near the shattered window of an Oakland coffee shop that had been destroyed by a cadre of anarchists during a nighttime clash with police, someone wrote, “We’re sorry, this does not represent us.” Below that, someone else wrote, “Speak for yourself.”

At times, horizontalism can feel like utopian theatre. Its greatest invention is the “people’s mike,” which starts when someone shouts, “Mike check!” Then the crowd shouts, “Mike check!,” and then phrases (phrases!) are transmitted (are transmitted!) through mass chanting (through mass chanting!). In the same way that poker ritualizes capitalism and North Korea’s mass games ritualize totalitarianism, the people’s mike ritualizes horizontalism. The problem, though, comes when multiple people try to summon the mike simultaneously. Then it can feel a lot like anarchy.

The politics of the occupation run parallel to the mainstream left—the people’s mike was used to shout down Michele Bachmann and Governor Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, in early November. But, in the end, the point of Occupy Wall Street is not its platform so much as its form: people sit down and hash things out instead of passing their complaints on to Washington. “We are our demands,” as the slogan goes. And horizontalism seems made for this moment. It relies on people forming loose connections quickly—something that modern technology excels at.

Events in New York seemed to bear out Lasn’s hunch that the temporary eviction of the protesters from Zuccotti Park was an opportunity rather than a defeat. The organizers were quickly able to regroup and agree that they should return to the park, despite the newly enforced ban on tents. Last Thursday, the movement mounted one of its largest protests to date. Demonstrators tried to shut down the New York Stock Exchange (they failed), organized a sit-in at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, and tussled with police in Zuccotti Park. More than two hundred people were arrested. Similar Day of Action protests temporarily blocked bridges in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, Portland, and Philadelphia.

No matter what happens next, the movement’s center is likely to shift from the N.Y.C.G.A. [New York City General Assembly], just as it shifted from Adbusters, and form somewhere else, around some other circle of people, ideas, and plans. “This could be the greatest thing that I work on in my life,” Justine Tunney, of OccupyWallSt.org, said. “But the movement will have other Web sites. Over the coming weeks and months, as other occupations become more prominent, ours will slowly become irrelevant.” She sounded as though the irrelevance of her project were both inevitable and desirable. “We can’t hold on to any of that authority,” she continued. “We don’t want to.”

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