Can the Crowd Speak?

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Read series editor Thomas Sugrue’s introduction, “Preexisting Conditions,” here.
Occupy Wall Street’s great achievement was to briefly create a community that prefigured a robust democratic culture.

In memory of David Graeber, 1961–2020


In the rotten summer of 2020, the scale and persistence of Black Lives Matter protests—unfolding against centuries of racial injustice and the immediate life-and-death threat of state-sanctioned violence—could make Occupy Wall Street look somewhat quaint, antiquated, and maybe even a bit self-indulgent. Yet, we should not be too quick to forget the experience and, just as important, the form of Occupy Wall Street. In a time when the very survival of the American republic seems at stake, Occupy’s regenerative vision of direct democracy challenges us with the possibility of imagining and practicing democracy beyond the representative forms it takes in liberal regimes, and Occupy provokes us to reflect on the potential relationship between protest and moments of radical democratic founding. In such moments of creation, the voice should be collective and singular, heard not just in the chants of street protest but in lucid deliberation.

Occupy began conventionally enough with rallies and marches but very quickly moved beyond familiar models of mass protest. Where those tend to accentuate the melting together of heterogeneous elements into one great body, Occupy resolutely refused to sacrifice diversity: “One No, Many Yeses.” And then there was the central role of speech. The movement’s unwillingness to articulate specific demands was a strategic refusal to speak to established power, but among participants, communication proliferated.

Occupy was seen, at the time, as one of the first protest movements driven by social media. But even if individual blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, and live streaming channeled and networked a communicative flow, the primary scene of Occupy’s speech was in the physical and symbolically potent spaces it occupied. Space, itself, was at the core of the movement—contests over public and private uses of space; the need to claim space, if the right of assembly was to be exercised; and the struggle to reconfigure the materiality of space around the politics of assembly. The demand was not only for the rights of mobility and security in public space—“Whose streets? Our streets!”—but for a place imagined as an agora.

Occupation moves by not moving. Occupy’s central action was the general assembly. In those assemblies, anyone could speak, but the rhythms of the people’s mic, a code of etiquette, trained facilitators, and a famous language of hand signals moderated the activity of speech. Occupy’s language went beyond chants, slogans, and demands of established power. In the daily practices that emerged, the movement tried to model an alternative form of sociality and politics, in which equality was the core value and fundamental telos of social and political relations. Occupy’s general assemblies, with their time-consuming and patient processes of discussion and consensus, invited some ridicule from the media, but participants saw these as crucial and transformative exercises in the practice of deep democracy.

When members of the media tried to explain the aims of the Occupiers, they were frequently bemused by the apparent lack of leaders and official spokespeople. Yet, this was not a failure of organization, but a principle of organization—nonhierarchical, egalitarian, and open, its decision-making operating horizontally among participants, rather than vertically between leaders and rank and file. Core participants pursued this project of forging a community founded upon equality and direct democracy, with earnestness and, often, a touch of the carnivalesque.

Beyond its widely noted effects, Occupy Wall Street helped establish a new global idiom of protest.

David Graeber, who was closely associated with the events leading up to the occupation, saw Occupy as an instance of prefigurative politics, which, as in other forms of direct action, seeks “to prefigure the genuinely free society one wishes to create. Revolutionary action is not a form of self-sacrifice, a grim dedication to doing whatever it takes to achieve a future world of freedom. It is the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” In this defiance, Occupy departed from standard leftist models of the crowd in action.

Think of the Jacobin idea of the great revolutionary journée, exemplified by such moments as the storming of the Bastille, or the return of the king and queen from Versailles. Or consider the Marxist-Leninist idea of a rank and file acting as an instrument of a vanguard leadership. In either of these traditional models, the crowd plays a role subordinated to leaders, who either steer the crowd’s actions according to decisions made elsewhere, or hope to capitalize on a situation created by the sheer force and spectacle of spontaneous mass mobilization. Occupy Wall Street presented a contrary phenomenon.

Even as Occupy defied the most familiar and deeply entrenched left-wing models of mass action, it drew from a deep historical well of dissident practices, above all, from anarchist politics and thought. Yet, similar social experiments of consensus in the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s were not represented outside of activist spheres, due to security concerns. In his 2009 book, Direct Action: An Ethnography, Graeber writes, “Everyone is so worried about the dangers of legal repression that one can never talk about the concrete specifics of what happened at any particular meeting.” This concealment is particularly vexing, because the meetings that built toward a mass action were, in some respects, more important than the actions themselves. “Actions,” he wrote, “involve confrontations with hostile forces, [whereas] meetings are pure zones of social experiment, spaces in which activists can treat one another as they feel people ought to treat each other, and to begin to create something of the social world they wish to bring out.”

Occupy, on the other hand, brought these concealed practices out into the open, making them visible to an unprecedented degree. In a sense, Occupy was like one long planning meeting, where the meeting itself became the primary mode of action. In this regard, Occupy Wall Street achieved something significant. For a few weeks, before police across America shut down the camps, Occupy broke out of the guarded activist realm and conducted a social experiment before the eyes of the world.

Occupy did this, more or less, at the same moment that similar experiments became visible in other parts of the world—in 2011, among the Indignados in Spain, in Syntagma Square in Athens, in Italy, and in many parts of the Arab world. These rebellions were networked, and learned from each other; and they, in turn, bore affinities to practices and ideas emerging from well over a decade of new modes of protest: anti-globalization and altermondialisation, including ATTAC, which began in France and spread to nearly 40 countries; the World Social Forum; and the international resistance to the Iraq War in 2003. If the anarchist belief that freedom is contagious has any value, then such moments are the greatest propaganda of the deed.

The idea of consensus has been at the heart of the activist culture that has evolved in many parts of the world, since the 1990s. This spirit of consensus is not merely about reaching compromises, nor is it a return to a liberal idea of a modus vivendi between competing interests, as in the “bipartisanship” that Barack Obama haplessly espoused in the first years of his presidency. Nor, finally, does it rest on a claim to the kind of rationalist and universal consensus that continues to guide the political idealism of liberals, such as Jürgen Habermas. Rather, in keeping with the idea of democracy as creative and innovative, consensus, ideally, aims at synthesis, the merging of divergent standpoints but a merging that occurs within the experimental and experiential context of prefigurative politics, wherein the invention of further alternatives is a value that keeps consensus itself mobile.

In his 2009 book on direct action, Graeber described a facilitation and consensus training session held in 2000. One participant named Jessica related that, in meetings, she sometimes had initial objections to a proposal, but, in the course of discussion, she accepted that

just about everyone else thought it was a really good idea. I found there’s actually something kind of pleasurable in being able to just let go of that, realizing that what I think isn’t even necessarily all that important, because I really respect these people, and trust them. It can actually feel good. But, of course, it only feels good because I know it was my decision, that I could have blocked the proposal if I’d really wanted to. I chose not to take myself too seriously.

Drawing from Jessica’s observation, the group agrees to the formula: “Consensus disempowers egoism.”

These self-aware interlocutors recognize that the spirit of consensus challenges a certain model of subjectivity, which one might readily equate with the modern idea of sovereign, self-possessed individuality. The moment we speak of disempowering egoism, are we flirting with the old notion that, in mass situations, the individual gets absorbed into a kind of collective groupthink, or transported into a collective hysteria? Such moments are the specters haunting the nightmares of right-wing opponents of popular politics; left-wing thinkers, by contrast, have often celebrated such moments as authentic expressions of group solidarity and the power of the people.

The experience of weakened boundaries between self and other was clearly at play in the transporting emotional effects of the people’s mic. Yet, this weakening did not mean loss of the self. After all, the emotion was linked to speech, and though it was an effect produced by the amplified speech of a chorus, it was not a chorus incanting slogans, nor a simple call and response, but, rather, a group voice relaying singular messages from individual speakers, messages that, once repeated, moved into a flowing exchange of ideas, opinions, and articulated feeling. Jessica, the woman who spoke of the pleasures of relinquishing her opinion to the force of the group, emphasized that this pleasure was inseparable from her belief that acceptance was her decision. The new community prefigured in Occupy is, after all, voluntary. In other words, the model of consensus-oriented process at the heart of Occupy Wall Street shares two equally compelling values—the acute, living sense of a community of equals and the desire for individual autonomy.

if the crowd is to speak in a democratic voice, then that voice must be both singular and plural.

Nine years have passed since Occupy Wall Street. Measured by its own most urgent goals, it cannot be said to have succeeded. Its demand for strong regulation of the financial sector and large-scale legal and tax reforms did not produce meaningful results. Indeed, new regulations on finance were timid at birth and largely rolled back under Donald Trump; Trump’s tax reform in 2017 intensified the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of Americans. Vestiges of the spontaneous organizational forms of Occupy lived on in some localized versions, such as Occupy Sandy, created after Hurricane Sandy as a mix of community activism and philanthropy, but the prefigurative emancipatory politics of Occupy Wall Street seem to have fizzled out.

Yet, Occupy broke through decades of silence about growing economic inequality in neoliberal America. It shattered a taboo that equated discussion of inequality with the stoking of the fires of class warfare by drawing a line—admittedly crudely—between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. That slogan has entered the vocabulary of American politics. What it lacks in statistical precision, it retains in symbolic power. It has facilitated the leftward swing of the Democratic party’s base and the remarkable successes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom have been buoyed by a young generation whose coming-of-age has been stamped by the renewal of political activism and socially critical discourse.

Beyond these widely noted effects, Occupy Wall Street helped establish something of a new global idiom of protest. Just as Occupy drew inspiration from protests in Greece, Spain, and the Arab nations, Zuccotti Park sparked occupations in many cities across America and in 80 countries; a coordinated solidarity march in 900 cities worldwide on October 15, 2011, signaled the extraordinary global reach of Occupy. And, indeed, in subsequent years, the idiom of Occupy has reemerged in many contexts, including the high-profile examples of the Gezi Park occupation in Istanbul, the anti–World Cup movement in Brazil, and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.


Beyond Neoliberalism

By Matthew Clair

Occupy’s model should not be swept aside, despite its fragility, nor should Occupy’s mix of utopian aspiration and actually practiced direct democracy be forgotten. Occupy knew that for its experiment to work, the crowd needed to remain real and gathered. Face-to-face encounter is crucial, as a greatly weakened Occupy movement learned after the police destroyed its camps throughout America. Yet, it is equally important that effervescence be transformed into hard and painstaking political work, though, of course, Occupy aspired to be a politics that escapes the usual meaning of that term.

Activists were right to hold onto their occupied ground, despite calls to pivot to constructive initiatives with a broader reach. They knew the significance of space and place. They knew that the internet and social media could not furnish a virtual agora. Occupy Wall Street shows that the constituent moment of democracy can, and should, include more than merely bodies gathered in public space; that the collective voice is not discovered but invented; that the spectacle of mass gathering and bodies in motion should give way to talking and listening; or, better, that these things are in a chiastic relation; and that, if the crowd is to speak in a democratic voice, then that voice must be both singular and plural.

Those are the fundamental lessons of Occupy Wall Street. The movement’s great achievement was to briefly create a community that prefigured a robust democratic culture, linked its struggle to global struggles, and placed that experiment before the eyes of the world, where the contagion of freedom might do its work. icon

Featured image: Woman at Occupy Wall Street, Liberty Square, New York (2011). Photograph by Timothy Krause / Flickr