“Why Occupy Fizzled?”

September 17 was marked as the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. While the dismissal of the movement as a spent force by its opponents including corporate mass media is only to be expected, it seems that the feeling that this movement has reached the limits of what can be achieved with its past tactics is shared by sympathetic observers.

Matt Taylor at The Daily Beast offers an analysis that is to a large extent an establishment point-of-view, but makes some valid points as well:

As Occupy Wall Street protesters geared up to mark their first anniversary in Manhattan on Monday, they found themselves operating almost alone, without much of the outside support from celebritieslabor unions, and other progressive groups and leaders that had helped to create a palpable sense of momentum last fall.


But it would appear that, some tepid local union supporters in the city notwithstanding, the broader progressive coalition—including organized labor—is sitting this one [the anniversary] out, having seen the Occupy movement descend into internal squabbling in recent months over how, and whether, to engage the political system directly.


“Occupy was so concerned about not being co-opted that it deterred people from trying to fill any leadership or organizational gaps that emerged,” a senior labor official in Washington told The Daily Beast. “If Occupy were stronger now, labor’s support for it would be greater. From an earned-media standpoint, Occupy got off of its message of critiquing the economy and got bogged down in process. And it’s not obvious how to support it now.”


“The movement has had a hard time coming up with a second act,” said Michael Kazin, a social-movement historian at Georgetown University. “The May 1st demonstrations largely fizzled, with the usual suspects coming together. If there’s any guiding ideology of the leaders of the movement, it’s a kind of soft anarchism, and that’s not going to capture the country.”

The concern about co-optation by the political parties or other outside groups has always been central to internal dialogue. For instance, when MoveOn.org, a liberal political-advocacy group with close ties to the Democratic Party, and Van Jones, a former White House official, tried to invoke the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street while essentially asking activists to help reelect President Obama, many veteran Occupiers recoiled.


[S]o long as Occupy remains a symbolic phenomenon that exists only to sustain its own subculture—to speak to its own members—it won’t be able to tap into the broader economic anxiety that is still festering across a battered, wary electorate.

The message is, of course, that OWS should get serious by having a clear hierarchical structure and getting into electoral politics. OWS rightly reject this idea as counter-productive, but it is unable to produce a credible alternative. The anarchist mindset is completely justified as a rejection of electoral politics, but at the same time it is a paralyzing force since it allows the movement to avoid (an to some extent even requires avoiding) proposing a democratic governance system that would serve as a tangible alternative to electoralism.

The missing ingredient is sortition.

Sortition is a clear-cut item that can be pursued as both a demand and as a means of organizing the very movement that makes that demand. It creates an organization without creating an established elite – it is a demand and a tool that can be effective against the established forces without allowing co-optation or betraying the essential elements of the legitimate anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian sentiment that gave birth to the anarchistic ideology. A mass movement demanding that national power is handed over to a group of randomly selected citizens and which at the same time is experimenting with that same power structure internally will be a revolutionary phenomenon the likes of which the world has not seen in thousands of years.

12 Responses

  1. The question of the role of sortition in social movements is an interesting one. We may have discussed this before, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of its appropriateness. When it comes to formal political institutions, I think it makes perfect sense for there to be a social obligation to do your part on a citizens jury or the like. But that’s hard to replicate in an informal social movement like Occupy. For one thing, in order to use sortition you need a pool of candidates–you need to know who’s a member and who isn’t. And that’s hard when your membership is “whoever shows up.” For another, even if you have a membership roll (or a reasonable facsimile), not everybody is equally appropriate. Some people do a ton of work; others just show up and talk a lot about what other people are doing wrong. Some people want to be full-time activists; others are lucky to find the time to show up at all. From my own past experience, it’s often hard in volunteer organizations to find enough people to run for elective positions, much less generate a pool from which you could do a random draw.

    That said, I suppose there might be ways to work sortition into the structure of a movement like Occupy. It conceivably could help mitigate the risk of capture of the movement by sectarian groups or cranks (both of which often wield disproportionate power in movements because of the sheer number of hours they are willing to invest). But it would have to be handled carefully, lest the lottery itself become the source of endless hours of disputations.


  2. I confess I was puzzled as to the relevance of this post. It also runs the danger of conflating the internal organisation of a group like OWS with the use of sortition as a form of macroscopic representative democracy (unless Yoram is suggesting that as a non-elite group, opposed to the “established forces”, OWS automatically represents the interests of the masses). The problem, of course, is that Occupy is anything but a mass movement. It might have been better to focus on the internal organisation of (say) a cricket club, in order to avoid the risk of conflating these two entirely separate issues.


  3. I agree that standard sortition is problematic in a voluntary association, where the amount of psychological investment in the success of the organization is so variable. In society, where “exit” is not a realistic option for most members, we can expect that nearly everybody has an interest in the success of the community.

    For a voluntary association like OWS, I think an APPROPRIATE use of sortition is to form a low-time-commitment one-off assembly that would select an executive group of activists to carry on until the next sortition assembly. In other words, similar to periodic elections, except the assembly members would be able dig in and even interview the applicants and review qualifications and priorities of those who wanted to “run things” for the time being. The goal is to have a deeper level of understanding among these “electors” than in a standard election, and prevent sectarian take-overs, and assure those running the organization are acceptable to the general members.


  4. Nicely put Terry. The other difference between voluntary associations and political society is that the former are purposive organisations and the latter civic. Oakeshott conceptualised this as the difference between the enterprise (universitas) and civic (societas) modes of association and cautioned against confusing the two. The use of sortition in each case would be entirely different, Terry’s suggestion for sortition in voluntary associations would be a way of making the choice of leaders better informed, whereas descriptive representation would better characterise the latter. So selecting leaders of OWS indirectly by sortition would have no obvious connection with instituting sortition as a system of direct political representation.


  5. Peter,

    > From my own past experience, it’s often hard in volunteer organizations to find enough people to run for elective positions, much less generate a pool from which you could do a random draw.

    It seems you are assuming that the latter group would be a subset of the first. I don’t think this is a valid assumption. For example, most of the people who happily show up for jury duty would not dream of running for office.

    > it would have to be handled carefully

    Sure, but that applies to the state level as well. And isn’t the issue of the level of commitment a problem that exists at the state level as well?


    > a low-time-commitment one-off assembly that would select an executive group of activists to carry on until the next sortition assembly

    I disagree – that would be a variant of the electoral system. How can you organize a movement whose message is anti-electoral using an electoral tool?


  6. >I disagree – that would be a variant of the electoral system.

    Shock, horror! People actually exercising a free choice from a small pool of candidates for executive office, most of whom would be known to the selectors. It’s a bit like going to a restaurant and choosing what one would like to eat (rather than closing your eyes and sticking in a pin). Decidedly non-KC*.

    On a more serious note, is OWS anti-electoral? My impression was that it’s a non-partisan crusade against the excesses of market capitalism (particularly in the financial sector). If I’m correct, this is a further indication of the conflation of agendas that I’m proscribed from naming under the Stone interdict, along the following lines:

    capitalist bashing = A Good Thing
    election bashing = A Good Thing

    Therefore those who dislike capitalism also dislike elections (presumably because they lead to an executive that is “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”). Do a smell a large decaying rat?

    * Kleroterically Correct


  7. PS In case anyone is puzzled by the reference to the Stone interdict, it runs as follows:

    Thou shalt not accuse fellow Kleroterians of Marxism or any other High Crime or Misdemeanour.

    Peter intended it as a rejoinder to what he thought was a lazy slur, or even a flame, whereas “Marxian” was intended as a shorthand description of the following set of beliefs:

    1 (Anthropological): Human behaviour (including political speech acts) can be adequately explained in terms of underlying interests. Ideational factors (including those we dignify with the term “political philosophy” or “political theory”) are epiphenomenal and play no direct causal role in human affairs.

    1. (Sociological): Modern western societies can be classified into two relatively homogenous interest groups: “the elite” and “the masses”. Pluralist and multicultural analyses fail as they rely on ideational factors (beliefs, values etc). Constitutional checks and balances are an essential part of the divide-and-rule policy of the elite (the “rich and powerful”). Real democracy (as opposed to electoral representation) involves the wholesale transfer of political power from the elite to the masses. This would suggest an allotted assembly with full powers as the speech acts of any member of the masses will automatically reflect the interests of the masses. In Callenbach and Phillips parlance, an assembly that looks like America will automatically act like America, whereas a group composed of rich white lawyers will automatically act like rich white lawyers. If any of the latter are deluded into thinking they are acting in the interests of the former then they are either mistaken (on account of the anthropological premise) or else class traitors.

    For the record, regarding the anthropological claim, I acknowledge that Marx, Freud and Durkheim provided an invaluable corrective to naive 19th century idealism, but a corrective is not the whole story.
    At the risk of going all Hegelian, an antithesis usually leads to a happy medium. Regarding the second point, the binary analysis was probably true in Machiavelli’s and Marx’s times but is now largely irrelevant (for those of us who do not accept premise 1).

    In sum, my use of the term “Marxian” is not a pejorative slur, it is intended as a description of a set of beliefs that crops up repeatedly on this forum. No doubt presenting it in this stark manner will raise objections, but ideal types serve a valuable purpose in highlighting the central features of any set of attitudes. Note also that I have made no reference to economic determinism, but the notion of “interests” is primarily (although not exclusively) economic in nature. My preference is to separate political and economic equality, but the two factors have been conflated in this post.


  8. Very illuminating.

    Regarding the anti-electoralism of the Occupy movement, the movement’s refusal to act within the normal electoral arena was the main point made in the article I linked to, and I think it is well supported by the movement’s messages and methods. See relevant discussion here, for example. In particular, among other similar statements:

    Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University: But squeamishness about participating in electoral politics is like squeamishness about internal combustion engines. Never use them as you won’t get to the meetings where you’re organizing your independent bank. Then what?

    David Osborn from Occupy Portland: That assumes that there are no alternatives to either electoral politics or internal combustion engines, when in fact there are alternatives to both that we should be actively pursuing. Do you use them occasionally on the way, yes, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are fundamentally trying to build something else.


  9. Yes it’s true that OWS activists were loath to dilute their radicalism by acting within the normal electoral arena:

    “[O]ccasional massive outpourings of support for the big marches last fall, usually in the wake of police violence, masked the fact that Occupy never grew past a few thousand committed activists spread across the country. . . . If there’s any guiding ideology of the leaders of the movement, it’s a kind of soft anarchism, and that’s not going to capture the country. . . . [S]ome on the left suggested working with groups like MoveOn, and especially with an activist like Jones, would have represented a massive capitulation.”

    It’s not entirely clear what the relevance of all this is to sortition. If the Occupy movement had used sortition internally then it would have had even less of an impact as self-selecting activists would have been replaced by less motivated folk. Or are you suggesting that sortition as a macro-democratic process would lead to an assembly filled with people who would automatically support the OWS agenda? (as they would be drawn, primarily, from the 99%).

    On a more general note, what has been the reaction of anarchists (soft of otherwise) to sortition? I wouldn’t anticipate much enthusiasm as it’s really just replacing one form of representation with another.


  10. Suggested organization for OWS is a MARP committee (perhaps in smaller proportions). It combines the efficiency and motivation of an autocrat chamber with the moral and ideological strengths of a sortitioned chamber. Both are necessary for a viable and dynamic organization.

    MARP committee: http://wp.me/p1fQnO-dL #c12209

    When service in a restaurant suffers, more waiters are needed. When fire breaks out everywhere, more fire fighters are needed. When crime becomes rampant, more police are needed. When democracy morphs to elected oligarchy and America lacks governance, send help to the few surviving democratic representatives. More representatives are needed. More presidents are needed.

    #ApportionApportionApportion Keep the #c535+1. Send 11.5k more. #c535+1 is autocrat-centered democracy. #c12209 is citizen-centered democracy. Step it up, America. Be proactive. Check out plan-b.

    The MARP citizen-chamber does the right thing. The MARP autocrat-chamber gets it done. Third millennium citizen-democracy is unstoppable. Resistance is futile. https://twimg0-a.akamaihd.net/profile_images/438337117/Marathon_desktop.jpg

    #YourCongressIsSoBad http://middleamericareformparty.blogspot.com/2012/09/yourcongressissobad.html
    Article the First apportionment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_the_first
    Iron Law of Oligarchy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_law_of_oligarchy
    MARP defined: http://wp.me/p1fQnO-dL
    Plan B: http://middleamericareformparty.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/coach1640280-us-constitution-plan-b/
    Communication: http://wp.me/p1fQnO-eC
    Transparent Budget Writing and Presentation http://middleamericareformparty.blogspot.com/2012/02/transparent-budget-writing-and.html
    Capitalism: http://middleamericareformparty.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/capitalism-is-not-a-form-of-government/
    Abolish the fed. jrclifford.com/Jekyll.html
    Start: #c12209 wp.me/s1fQnO-start @_marp @coach1640280
    Twitter: @_MARP http://twitter.com/#!/_MARP @coach1640280 https://twitter.com/coach1640280
    Audience: #c12209 #ows #occupy @OccupyTogether

    Citizen is coach to team democracy. Coach is responsible for success. It’s your call, coach.
    #c535+1 democracy hoards power. #c12209 democracy shares power. It’s your call, coach.

    Wanted: 12209 dedicated patriotic volunteers to secure America’s future & prosperity by forming a #c12209 MARP citizen-centered democracy committee.
    Wanted: Presidential candidates (for one of 9 elected MARP executive branch presidents) 2016


  11. For the anarchists among us:
    A MARP committee has a sortitioned chamber. Join it.
    Anarchy often rules a sortitioned chamber.


  12. OWS failed to gain traction because their message was pretty unappealng to the mainstream. Their main message appeared to be “give us stuff”. Good riddance to them.


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