Interview with Mark Bray, OWS organizer and author of the new book Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street
What role did you play in OWS?
During the first year of the movement I was most active in the Press Working Group, which facilitated communication between the media and the movement. Therefore I focus on the role of the media and its influence on Occupy a great deal in the book because, ultimately, I think the rise and fall of the first wave of Occupy had a great deal to do with how it was portrayed in the media and how everyday people interpreted it through the corporate media lens.
I also regularly attended meetings of the Direct Action Working Group and helped plan some actions in the winter of 2011-2012. Regarding the book, this range of participation gave me an even greater insight into the inner workings of OWS in NYC.
What inspired you to write the book?
As a historian, I was interested in documenting a historic moment as it was unfolding around me. I realized that I had an opportunity to capture an element of what was going on that would be lost in time if it wasn’t documented and for me the most interesting part of the movement was the political composition of its organizers. As I got more and more involved I started to realize that more and more of the core organizers of the movement had really radical politics.
There was definitely a huge gap between the political outlook of the average person who marched in an OWS event and wanted to ‘get money out of politics’ and the average organizer who was working toward an anti-capitalist revolution. To me that was especially fascinating given how the media ignored the distinction between organizers and participants and included everyone under homogenizing rubric of ‘the protester.’ In the eyes of the media all we ever did was show up to the park and hold signs so the political cleavages that influenced the direction of the movement were obscured.
Also not only the media but most liberal supporters of the movement had this ingrained antagonism toward seeing OWS in terms of ideology or distinct political orientations. Instead most liked to see us all as this uniform sea of ‘democracy’ that had transcended ‘sectarian’ political labels but in fact this muddled outlook ran the risk of entrenching the default liberal orientation.
So as I came to realize that anarchist politics played a powerful role in the movement I decided to try to gauge that influence by interviewing as many organizers (as opposed to participants) as I could to see how they identified politically, what they thought about capitalism and democracy, who they did or did not vote for and other questions.
Over the course of a little over a year I interviewed 192 organizers and found that 39% self-identified as anarchists and 78% were anti-capitalist. I also found that about 33% of organizers had what I call ‘anarchistic’ politics, meaning that they were anti-capitalist anti-authoritarians with direct-action oriented politics who didn’t actively identify as anarchists. To me the label is not what’s important, it’s the content behind it so I was very excited to be able to document the fact that about 72% of the OWS organizers of NYC had anarchist politics whether explicitly or implicitly.
In a context where many would have us believe that anarchists ‘ruined’ occupy by resisting hierarchical leadership and infusing a sense of militancy, I think it’s really important to be able to definitively demonstrate that not only was OWS started primarily by anarchists, but that even throughout the first year most of those keeping it afloat were anarchists. I think mainstream liberals have tended to try to isolate those aspects of OWS that they liked and try to denigrate the rest without realizing that the dynamism of the movement stemmed from it’s anti-authoritarian nature.
What’s the significance of the title Translating Anarchy?
The book’s called Translating Anarchy because in my opinion OWS became so popular because it managed to present essentially anarchist politics (autonomy, self-management, direct democracy, even anti-capitalism) in an accessible format without generally using the word ‘anarchist.’ For example, I found that 65% of self-identified anarchists wouldn’t use the ‘a-word’ if they were speaking about their politics to a person they had just met who was unfamiliar with radical politics. Instead they would convey their perspectives through more familiar language.
Also many of the organizers of the Press Working Group were anarchists but didn’t present themselves as such with MSNBC or The Wall Street Journal. So my point is that in many ways Occupy Wall Street was fundamentally about ‘translating anarchy’ (promoting horizontalism, anti-capitalism, mutual aid) in an intelligible idiom.
I’m not arguing against using the term ‘anarchist’ explicitly. After all I did write a book called Translating Anarchy. Rather I’m pointing out that the language we use should be calibrated to the context and that in some contexts the ideas of anarchism do better without the misunderstood label.
What influence do you think OWS has had on the development of anarchism in the United States?
Well to a large extent the answer to that question will only be known in the future, but I think it’s safe to say that an entire generation of radical youth came of political age in a broad-based, horizontal, anti-capitalist context and that this early exposure to direct democracy and direct action will carry over into the politics of the social movements to come.
Given how the financial system has been going and the tendency of capitalism to produce crisis we have to be ready for the next opportunity and so hopefully the anarchist seeds that were planted with OWS will blossom in the not so distant future.