Welcome login | signup
Language en es fr
We kick the ass of the ruling class

Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots

Posted 2 years ago on April 30, 2012, 6:28 a.m. EST by David-Graeber

Almost every time I'm interviewed by a mainstream journalist about Occupy Wall Street I get some variation of the same lecture:

"How are you going to get anywhere if you refuse to create a leadership structure or make a practical list of demands? And what's with all this anarchist nonsense - the consensus, the sparkly fingers? Don't you realise all this radical language is going to alienate people? You're never going to be able to reach regular, mainstream Americans with this sort of thing!"

If one were compiling a scrapbook of worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honourable place. After all, since the financial crash of 2007, there have been dozens of attempts to kick-off a national movement against the depredations of the United States' financial elites taking the approach such journalists recommended. All failed. It was only on August 2, when a small group of anarchists and other anti-authoritarians showed up at a meeting called by one such group and effectively wooed everyone away from the planned march and rally to create a genuine democratic assembly, on basically anarchist principles, that the stage was set for a movement that Americans from Portland to Tuscaloosa were willing to embrace.

I should be clear here what I mean by "anarchist principles". The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society - that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.

Anarchism versus Marxism

Traditional Marxism, of course, aspired to the same ultimate goal but there was a key difference. Most Marxists insisted that it was necessary first to seize state power, and all the mechanisms of bureaucratic violence that come with it, and use them to transform society - to the point where, they argued such mechanisms would, ultimately, become redundant and fade away. Even back in the 19th century, anarchists argued that this was a pipe dream. One cannot, they argued, create peace by training for war, equality by creating top-down chains of command, or, for that matter, human happiness by becoming grim joyless revolutionaries who sacrifice all personal self-realisation or self-fulfillment to the cause.

It's not just that the ends do not justify the means (though they don't), you will never achieve the ends at all unless the means are themselves a model for the world you wish to create. Hence the famous anarchist call to begin "building the new society in the shell of the old" with egalitarian experiments ranging from free schools to radical labour unions to rural communes.

Anarchism was also a revolutionary ideology, and its emphasis on individual conscience and individual initiative meant that during the first heyday of revolutionary anarchism between roughly 1875 and 1914, many took the fight directly to heads of state and capitalists, with bombings and assassinations. Hence the popular image of the anarchist bomb-thrower. It's worthy of note that anarchists were perhaps the first political movement to realise that terrorism, even if not directed at innocents, doesn't work. For nearly a century now, in fact, anarchism has been one of the very few political philosophies whose exponents never blow anyone up (indeed, the 20th-century political leader who drew most from the anarchist tradition was Mohandas K Gandhi.)

Yet for the period of roughly 1914 to 1989, a period during which the world was continually either fighting or preparing for world wars, anarchism went into something of an eclipse for precisely that reason: To seem "realistic", in such violent times, a political movement had to be capable of organising armies, navies and ballistic missile systems, and that was one thing at which Marxists could often excel. But everyone recognised that anarchists - rather to their credit - would never be able to pull it off. It was only after 1989, when the age of great war mobilisations seemed to have ended, that a global revolutionary movement based on anarchist principles - the global justice movement - promptly reappeared.

How, then, did OWS embody anarchist principles? It might be helpful to go over this point by point:

  1. The refusal to recognise the legitimacy of existing political institutions.

    One reason for the much-discussed refusal to issue demands is because issuing demands means recognising the legitimacy - or at least, the power - of those of whom the demands are made. Anarchists often note that this is the difference between protest and direct action: Protest, however militant, is an appeal to the authorities to behave differently; direct action, whether it's a matter of a community building a well or making salt in defiance of the law (Gandhi's example again), trying to shut down a meeting or occupy a factory, is a matter of acting as if the existing structure of power does not even exist. Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.

  2. The refusal to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal order.

    The second principle, obviously, follows from the first. From the very beginning, when we first started holding planning meetings in Tompkins Square Park in New York, organisers knowingly ignored local ordinances that insisted that any gathering of more than 12 people in a public park is illegal without police permission - simply on the grounds that such laws should not exist. On the same grounds, of course, we chose to occupy a park, inspired by examples from the Middle East and southern Europe, on the grounds that, as the public, we should not need permission to occupy public space. This might have been a very minor form of civil disobedience but it was crucial that we began with a commitment to answer only to a moral order, not a legal one.

  3. The refusal to create an internal hierarchy, but instead to create a form of consensus-based direct democracy.

    From the very beginning, too, organisers made the audacious decision to operate not only by direct democracy, without leaders, but by consensus. The first decision ensured that there would be no formal leadership structure that could be co-opted or coerced; the second, that no majority could bend a minority to its will, but that all crucial decisions had to be made by general consent. American anarchists have long considered consensus process (a tradition that has emerged from a confluence of feminism, anarchism and spiritual traditions like the Quakers) crucial for the reason that it is the only form of decision-making that could operate without coercive enforcement - since if a majority does not have the means to compel a minority to obey its dictates, all decisions will, of necessity, have to be made by general consent.

  4. The embrace of prefigurative politics.

    As a result, Zuccotti Park, and all subsequent encampments, became spaces of experiment with creating the institutions of a new society - not only democratic General Assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centres and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organisation - a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old.

Why did it work? Why did it catch on? One reason is, clearly, because most Americans are far more willing to embrace radical ideas than anyone in the established media is willing to admit. The basic message - that the American political order is absolutely and irredeemably corrupt, that both parties have been bought and sold by the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population, and that if we are to live in any sort of genuinely democratic society, we're going to have to start from scratch - clearly struck a profound chord in the American psyche.

Perhaps this is not surprising: We are facing conditions that rival those of the 1930s, the main difference being that the media seems stubbornly willing to acknowledge it. It raises intriguing questions about the role of the media itself in American society. Radical critics usually assume the "corporate media", as they call it, mainly exists to convince the public that existing institutions are healthy, legitimate and just. It is becoming increasingly apparent that they do not really see this is possible; rather, their role is simply to convince members of an increasingly angry public that no one else has come to the same conclusions they have. The result is an ideology that no one really believes, but most people at least suspect that everybody else does.

Nowhere is this disjunction between what ordinary Americans really think, and what the media and political establishment tells them they think, more clear than when we talk about democracy.

Democracy in America?

According to the official version, of course, "democracy" is a system created by the Founding Fathers, based on checks and balances between president, congress and judiciary. In fact, nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution does it say anything about the US being a "democracy". The authors of those documents, almost to a man, defined "democracy" as a matter of collective self-governance by popular assemblies, and as such they were dead-set against it.

Democracy meant the madness of crowds: bloody, tumultuous and untenable. "There was never a democracy that didn't commit suicide," wrote Adams; Hamilton justified the system of checks and balances by insisting that it was necessary to create a permanent body of the "rich and well-born" to check the "imprudence" of democracy, or even that limited form that would be allowed in the lower house of representatives.

The result was a republic - modelled not on Athens, but on Rome. It only came to be redefined as a "democracy" in the early 19th century because ordinary Americans had very different views, and persistently tended to vote - those who were allowed to vote - for candidates who called themselves "democrats". But what did - and what do - ordinary Americans mean by the word? Did they really just mean a system where they get to weigh in on which politicians will run the government? It seems implausible. After all, most Americans loathe politicians, and tend to be skeptical about the very idea of government. If they universally hold out "democracy" as their political ideal, it can only be because they still see it, however vaguely, as self-governance - as what the Founding Fathers tended to denounce as either "democracy" or, as they sometimes also put it, "anarchy".

If nothing else, this would help explain the enthusiasm with which they have embraced a movement based on directly democratic principles, despite the uniformly contemptuous dismissal of the United States' media and political class.

In fact, this is not the first time a movement based on fundamentally anarchist principles - direct action, direct democracy, a rejection of existing political institutions and attempt to create alternative ones - has cropped up in the US. The civil rights movement (at least its more radical branches), the anti-nuclear movement, and the global justice movement all took similar directions. Never, however, has one grown so startlingly quickly. But in part, this is because this time around, the organisers went straight for the central contradiction. They directly challenged the pretenses of the ruling elite that they are presiding over a democracy.

When it comes to their most basic political sensibilities, most Americans are deeply conflicted. Most combine a deep reverence for individual freedom with a near-worshipful identification with institutions like the army and police. Most combine an enthusiasm for markets with a hatred of capitalists. Most are simultaneously profoundly egalitarian, and deeply racist. Few are actual anarchists; few even know what "anarchism" means; it's not clear how many, if they did learn, would ultimately wish to discard the state and capitalism entirely. Anarchism is much more than simply grassroots democracy: It ultimately aims to eliminate all social relations, from wage labour to patriarchy, that can only be maintained by the systematic threat of force.

But one thing overwhelming numbers of Americans do feel is that something is terribly wrong with their country, that its key institutions are controlled by an arrogant elite, that radical change of some kind is long since overdue. They're right. It's hard to imagine a political system so systematically corrupt - one where bribery, on every level, has not only been made legal, but soliciting and dispensing bribes has become the full-time occupation of every American politician. The outrage is appropriate. The problem is that up until September 17, the only side of the spectrum willing to propose radical solutions of any sort was the Right.

As the history of the past movements all make clear, nothing terrifies those running the US more than the danger of democracy breaking out. The immediate response to even a modest spark of democratically organised civil disobedience is a panicked combination of concessions and brutality. How else can one explain the recent national mobilisation of thousands of riot cops, the beatings, chemical attacks, and mass arrests, of citizens engaged in precisely the kind of democratic assemblies the Bill of Rights was designed to protect, and whose only crime - if any - was the violation of local camping regulations?

Our media pundits might insist that if average Americans ever realised the anarchist role in Occupy Wall Street, they would turn away in shock and horror; but our rulers seem, rather, to labour under a lingering fear that if any significant number of Americans do find out what anarchism really is, they might well decide that rulers of any sort are unnecessary.


David Graeber is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Article first published in November, 2011

32 Comments

32 Comments


Read the Rules
[-] 3 points by millionLikes (3) 2 years ago

Just a reminder for your all: Occupy Wall Street does NOT co-opt itself with any particular political ideology or creed WHATSOEVER!! It is NOT a leftist/anarchist/anti-capitalist movement, it is a PEOPLE'S movement that embraces all stances on the current political spectrum!!!!

[-] 3 points by brightonsage (4494) 2 years ago

It is easy to walk in front of a crowd and believe that you are leading a parade.

I believe that there is broad agreement on the problems in the current system. There are a handful of potential solutions that have some significant numbers of adherents. I would be surprised if anarchy was in the top three.

Founders tap into the frustration of very large numbers of people. They may or may not find themselves in one of the top half dozen of the most popular solutions. That is likely to be the case here. Thomas Paine had a major role in attracting revolutionaries and little influence on the government that was formed. That might be a good thing or not. But it seems typical.

This movement currently exists independent of the anarchy idealogy. I believe it will segment into groups centered on approaches to resolving our problems that each individual is comfortable with.

I will not forget to include the disclaimer that "I don't speak for anyone but myself." I believe that is true of Mr. Graeber, as well, although he failed to say so.

[-] 2 points by roberthood (2) 2 years ago

Quite awhile back I was at a "liberal" dinner talking to one of the local "liberal leaders". She asked me if I was going to Washington, DC. for some upcoming national demonstration. I told her essentially I could not see spending hours riding on a bus to where ever is the current Berlin to beg who ever is the current Führer to stop his war policies. And certainly not when I live in a community which has such a heavy investment in and so many jobs in manufacturing weapons. Her reply was that we can not tell people who are working in those "defense plants" those kinds of things because they are only trying to put their kids through college and it would alienate them if we did.

I really do not know how you argue with that kind of insane logic. Because it certainly does not come from a premise of "think globally and act locally". And by my standards welfare recipients who have to re-certify every 90 days to stay on the dole and some poor tragic crack whore are giving more spiritually to the world than people who will choose to remain ignorant of all the pain, sorrow and agony they cause half way around the world just so they can get a few extra dollars now...to buy their own children the latest electronic toy.

BTW, I'm currently serving 5 years probation for having tried to single handedly shut down one of the local war plants. So ostracized now from not only the local "liberal" leadership but virtually all of my family as well. But then who ever said that walking the less traveled path wouldn't be at least a bit unbearably lonely at times? And which is why I do not trust anyone who has managed to never have been arrested by now doing some act of civil disobedience.

As an aside and while I do adhere mostly to non violent principles, I am still not so sure those 5 "anarchists" in Ohio didn't get set up and wont be surprised at all if some real violence doesn't start happening against more than just symbols. Because you can not as a species spew weapons like depleted uranium all over the Earth with out expecting some horrific karmic winds to blow back into all of our faces.

And furthermore it was...an utterly FANTASTIC article! Thank you.

http://scarsofwombenvy.wordpress.com/police-rush-anti-war-buddhist-on-main-street-in-westover/

Lastly if you think my predictions are off the wall or even threatening do a google for "depleted uranium baby images" to see what we have already done to the fabric of life which will last till virtually the end of time itself. And whether or not just one of those hundreds of thousands and in time millions of innocents doesn't at least deserve more than just some verbal and hand wringing liberal outrage on the LOCAL level. Because all of humanity has collectively reached the point by now where no one in the entire world has to travel very far to be...in the very center of the war.

ANARCHY! ANARCHY! ALL I WANT IS TO BE FREE!

[-] 1 points by MattLHolck (16833) from San Diego, CA 2 years ago

I can't reach this link through google without being redirected

San Onofre Power Plant Emergency: Level 3 Alert

could you post a direct link?

[-] 2 points by VQkag (930) 2 years ago

I don't think OWS has appealed to people because they are attracted to anarchy or the anarchistic concepts you describe. The movement grows and people are attracted because they have been beaten up by the 1%. they have had their government influence stolen by the 1%. Most people believe Anarchy means lawlessness, and disorder! They believe it is survival of the fittest and they believe they will be worse off. Nothing you wrote would convince anyone of the opposite. I don't believe the 1% are afraid of this OWS phenom because its espousing anarchy, they fear enough people will wake up and use the existing system (vote) against the 1% interests. In fact regarding anarchy the 1% welcomes that label on OWS. Because the 1% know most people would not believe it would benefit them. The 1% know the anarchist label equals violence in the mind of most people. One small group of strategically placed black bloc anarchists perpetrating violence is all they need to do to discredit and slow the growth of the movement. Finally, this view is not the view of all OWS participants. We have to work together. Please don't impose this very damaging terminology on the movement. We should compromise. Is that allowed in your anarchistic world view? I need to know.

[-] 2 points by Shule (1696) 2 years ago

Great article. The only problem I see with anarchy as described here is that It takes a government dispensing rules and regulations to hold large organizations (like mobs and corporations) in check. Anarchy as described here will allow corporations free reign. This appears exactly what corporate America wants. One is faced with only one choice; that is for the people to take their government back.

[-] 2 points by beautifulworld (21343) 2 years ago

For all of those confused about what Occupy Wall Street really stands for, read this article by David Graeber, and the one I link to below:

"Why Are We Striking ? Or to Put it Another Way – What’s Wrong with the World ?" by Mike David : http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article31215.htm .

[-] 2 points by francismjenkins (3713) 2 years ago

Great article ... thanks Prof. Graeber.

[-] 1 points by DWBeatty (1) from Dover, DE 2 years ago

I had to attend a GA myself to be convinced. I might be the first teabagging occupier to run for office in my state. On one issue I'm clear, I stand in solidarity with Occupy Delaware for Freedom of Speech and against the city of Wilmington Delaware in their attempt to violate the agreement to allow OD to remain in Spencer Plaza. Anarchy like we have in GNU/Free software. Look at how bad that's been for gnu/linux, oh, er, um, i mean ;) I dig the hand signals, cuts down on chin music

[Removed]

[Removed]

[-] 1 points by GirlFriday (17437) 2 years ago

Man, he is good.

[-] 1 points by ShubeLMorgan2 (1088) from New York, NY 2 years ago

I'm wondering about how a decision was made to spend precious resources on a State Deportment style intervention into the internal affairs of Egypt and how it got reversed (in the nick of time). Don't GA's get "packed" by groups with agendas? How can that be avoided?

[-] 1 points by PeterKropotkin (1050) from Oakland, CA 2 years ago

Great article! Thanks for writing it.

[-] 1 points by beautifulworld (21343) 2 years ago

"The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society - that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence."

Now, what's so scary about that?

[-] 1 points by shadz66 (17951) 2 years ago

Succinct !!! Also :

minima maxima sunt ...

[-] 1 points by beautifulworld (21343) 2 years ago

This is another great article. I read it this morning and couldn't believe how well he articulated the inarticulable.

[-] -1 points by iamausername (119) 2 years ago

well, the first thing that pops into my head is the black bloc anarchists smashing windows and setting stuff on fire. The threat of violence is one thing, but it is possible (America for the most part works like this) to have a society with no threat of violence that is still not anarchy. anarchy means the weak lose. I don't understand why when some anarchists demonstrate, they set stuff on fire. Why do you think i'm gonna want your anarchy if you set stuff on fire, demonstrating the need for government to keep us safe?

[-] 3 points by beautifulworld (21343) 2 years ago

Black block anarchists do not represent all anarchists nor do they represent Occupy Wall Street. Could it be they are agents provocateurs? I don't know. I do strongly believe the movement should be peaceful and non-violent.

[-] 2 points by iamausername (119) 2 years ago

absolutely. My point is that government and laws are meant to protect the people. I don't want to get my car set on fire, and clearly some people will set cars on fire, etc. if we have anarchy. How I see this movement is holding government accountable for protecting us from corporate moneyed interests, that are generally not synonymous with our interests.

[Removed]

[-] 1 points by shadz66 (17951) 2 years ago

MAY DAY SOLIDARITY !!! + The above is A Very Important Article for every OWS supporter, sympathiser and fellow traveller, further to which I also append another article and a tune :

per aspera ad astra ...

[-] 0 points by katotohanan (-57) 2 years ago

The traditional Left/Right, Liberal/Conservative, Democrat/Republican dichotomy is a false and failing paradigm propagated by the powers-that-be to perpetuate division. The true political spectrum is not a straight line but a circle: There is a point where Far Left meets Far Right, where Anarchism merges with Libertarianism and these and the rest of our outmoded labels melt away. In that point must we place our hope, for only from that point can we build a better future.

NO MORE LEFT. NO MORE RIGHT. TIME TO UNITE. STAND AND FIGHT!

IronBoltBruce

[-] 0 points by brightonsage (4494) 2 years ago

So, where is the system working now?

ow does it relate to this description:"Anarchy (from the ancient Greek ἀναρχία, anarchia, meaning "absence of a leader"), has more than one definition. In the United States, the term "anarchy" typically is meant to refer to a society without a publicly enforced government or violently enforced political authority.[1][2] When used in this sense, anarchy may[3] or may not[4] be intended to imply political disorder or lawlessness within a society.

Outside of the US, and by most individuals that self-identify as anarchists, it implies a system of governance, mostly theoretical at a nation state level although there are a few successful historical examples,[5] that goes to lengths to avoid the use of coercion, violence, force and authority, while still producing a productive and desirable society.[6]

[-] 0 points by iamausername (119) 2 years ago

I have watched this movement get more and more fringe and radical. It's kind of sad, because your message is mostly good. The thing about general consensus in politics is that when the majority is wrong, we NEED to rely on things like the constitution to protect the minority, elitism aside.

[-] 3 points by nickjackson (4) 2 years ago

Really it's been just the opposite. "The" Occupy movement has radical roots and has, so far, been fairly successful at including more moderate voices without losing sight of its principles. Consensus is far from a perfect process, yeah, but it isn't simple majority rule, and it has the advantage of forcing the majority to at least consider the inclusion of minority voices in any decision. The Constitution is meaningless when the President, the Congress, and the courts are bought and sold by a minority of the wealthy and well connected. Of, by, and for the 1% won't do!

[-] 0 points by PeterKropotkin (1050) from Oakland, CA 2 years ago

This ought to go to the top again

[-] 1 points by shadz66 (17951) 2 years ago

I concur and also append this article from the novelist Stephen King :

radix omnium malorum est cupiditas ...

[-] 0 points by nickjackson (4) 2 years ago

Many thanks to Mr. Graeber for writing such a clear and honest summary of anarchist history and ideas up to the present. I hadn't seen it before. Worth sharing and circulating.

[Removed]

[Removed]

[-] 0 points by beautifulworld (21343) 2 years ago

This song just fits nicely here, so:

"What spirit is, man can be!"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7plNRs5kwgE

[-] 1 points by shadz66 (17951) 2 years ago

Uplifting & Excellent !!! Many Thanx !! SOLIDARITY ! pax et lux ...

[-] -1 points by April (3196) 2 years ago

Extremist Right Wing Republican Crazy Person. In anarchist clothing.

[-] -1 points by pirateguy (2) 2 years ago

Most Americans don't hate capitalists--the guy who owns the corner bar, the local restaurant, barber shop, etc.--do we HATE them? Americans certainly like the products our companies produce and the style of life provided to us in most cases. Most of us are not chained to machines like those poor souls in China, starved for food like those in North Korea, or saddled with the awful health care of Communist Cuba. If you want to work, America is the place to be.

[-] 2 points by GypsyKing (9780) 2 years ago

The awful heath care of Cuba? Hey, you're parrot's broken.

[-] 1 points by ontheotherhandx6 (13) 2 years ago

1) none of those aforementioned states are communist. 2) it's not the individual people we 'hate', but the system itself. individual agents are just pawns. 3) these products we 'like' are just short of being pure garbage, which is a result of a competitive market system that relies on concepts such as planned obsolcense and cyclical consumption to be profitable. the companies literally design their goods to break down after a period of time so the consumer has to return to buy more, and since it is standard practice (if you understand market economics, you understand it is impossible for a company to remain in business otherwise) we don't know that we are plundering the planet for resources which are designed to ultimately end up in a landfill. 4) anarchism/communism has nothing to do with those awful conditions in China, which by defintion is not communist in the least. That's capital exploitation at its finest. 5) nationalism is divisive. America should never be 'the place to be'. The entire world should be conducive to human well-being. national borders are but imaginary lines, the earth does not recognize them. pollution created in one nation doesn't stop at the border.