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The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street
By Mark Bray
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Mark Bray
All rights reserved.
Insight from Confusion: The Media and Occupy
"These protests began almost two weeks ago now under this name 'Occupy Wall Street' and during that time a clear goal, a clear message has yet to really surface from these myriad demonstrators leaving many to ask 'what does Occupy Wall Street want?'"
—CNN Newsroom anchor Brooke Baldwin
Why was the media so confused about Occupy Wall Street? What was so difficult to grasp about an anti-Wall Street protest in the wake the most catastrophic financial fraud in our lifetimes? Most of the organizers I knew were baffled. Our national approval rating was 43%, Congress's national approval rating was an all-time low of 9%, and we had to do a better job expressing our message to the public? During the first week of the occupation of Liberty Square, there was very little media coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Some claimed this was a deliberate media blackout, but the same can be said for most demonstrations. We get inane segments like NBC Nightly News' "Making a Difference" which features individual tales of do-goodery rather than stories about community organizations or immigrant workers' centers that are actually making a difference. But after the pepper-spraying of Chelsea Elliot and Jeanne Mansfield on September 24, 2011 and the arrests of over 700 marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1st, the media frenzy was in full swing and there was actually much more positive coverage than any of us could have expected. However, as I've argued elsewhere, the sympathetic coverage we received from seemingly liberal journalists didn't emerge from a shared understanding of the underlying nature and purpose of OWS.
As conservative CNN contributor Will Cain astutely noted in early October, "this Occupy Wall Street movement right now is just a Rorschach test, it's an inkblot test. People see in it what they want to see. It's a projection of what they already feel." And so, many liberal journalists saw the liberal Tea Party that they wanted to see, but, as the days passed, their confusion didn't abate. If anything, it increased because OWS was not sitting down to join them at their tea party. Some of the confusion stemmed from the movement's resistance to electoral politics, but the confusion of mainstream journalists went much deeper than that.
Activist explanations for this lingering bewilderment generally focused on political bias or journalistic incompetence. A common opinion was that many mainstream journalists didn't want to understand our message because, no matter how liberal they may have been, they were our enemies. They willfully misrepresented it. Corporate news outlets would never accurately report on grassroots social movements because they were part of the same machinery that we were working to dismantle. We could do our best to nudge the coverage in our favor here and there, but ultimately we couldn't trust the corporate media to cover an anti-corporate movement.
Another perspective was that some mainstream reporters were too incompetent to understand Occupy Wall Street. Even when some journalists wanted to write accurate, un-biased articles, it was often clear that they knew nothing about non-electoral politics or social movements, and were completely unqualified for the task before them. Some reporters really didn't understand what we were doing, and no amount of talking points about how 'education is a human right' or comparisons to the anti-nuclear movement were going to change that. Activists, of course, recognized this incompetence as a banal byproduct of the politics of the corporate media, which wouldn't promote accurate coverage of social movements.
In contrast, liberal and conservative mainstream critics offered a much more straightforward explanation for the media's confusion: the message of Occupy Wall Street was actually confusing. Of course much of the confusion came from the unconventional nature of the idea of occupying a park, the movement's countercultural elements, and its emphasis on direct democracy. But if you take this confusion more seriously and make the effort to dig beneath the superficial pundit chatter about smelly hippies and muddled messaging, it becomes evident that there are some startling paradoxes at the heart of the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street.
Unlike most, I think that both the activists and the mainstream critics were correct in their explanations of the media confusion. The activists were correct because there were some journalists who were willfully confused because they opposed our politics, and even more reporters, I would argue, who wanted to understand us but lacked the information and motivation to think beyond the confines of the dominant political culture. However, I would also argue that there was a profound insight at the heart of the media's confusion. Mainstream journalists may have been the products of news corporations and larger social structures that work to systematically delegitimize non-electoral politics, but in their befuddlement they were actually on to something. They realized that there was a missing piece at the center of the Occupy puzzle, but made the mistake of assuming that it simply didn't exist. In truth, they didn't know what we wanted because we didn't tell them.
Journalism: The Narrative Form of Capitalism
To get to the insights of the mainstream critics it's important to take some time to explore why journalists were confused and what they were confused about because, paradoxically, their insights stemmed from their confusion. Journalists who deliberately sought to misrepresent the rhetoric of OWS out of a conscious political bias reveal much less about the dominant political culture than those whose confusion followed from an unconscious tendency to fall into familiar patterns of thought. For that reason, I will ask why so many mainstream journalists who had some desire to understand Occupy Wall Street simply couldn't, and what that reveals about the strategic gaps in our self-presentation.
One of the most apparent reasons for the confusion of many reporters was that they knew very little if anything about where our strategies of organizing or methods of action came from. They had no context. Although a minor incident, the following anecdote exemplified this phenomenon for me. On November 30, 2011, we demonstrated against the war profiteers who met at the "Aerospace & Defense Finance Conference" near Madison Square Park. There was a picket line scheduled that morning, so I showed up early to greet any press that arrived. The first journalist there was a young woman working for FM News 101.9 in New York. After I spent a minute describing the day's protest she said, "I was reading the post on your website about this protest and there was this word I saw a lot that I didn't understand." Peaking my curiosity, I asked her which word and she answered "militarism." I was so surprised that it took me a moment to start explaining the term for her. Yes, our anti-war statement would be presented to the city by someone who didn't know what 'militarism' meant. To be fair, most reporters like this woman simply have to show up, ask us what we're doing to get a five second sound bite, and leave. Anyone could carry out that kind of reporting. But it's indicative of a larger trend I noticed among many journalists covering OWS. It would have taken very little effort for them to rectify their lack of knowledge about the movements that preceded Occupy or the history of direct democracy, for example, if they had tried. Simply spending a couple of hours on Google would have greatly enhanced the quality of their coverage, but they usually had no professional incentive to spend the time.
The total lack of preparation was evident on the one-year anniversary of OWS when we publicized the map of our plan of attack on the financial district. It showed four convergence points that would lead to eight intersections around the Wall Street area. I arrived an hour early on September 17, 2012 to do press work, and of the dozens of reporters I spoke with, only about 20% had taken the time to look at the map on the front page of our website. They had very little idea of what was going on. The reporters were like college students rolling out of bed and coming to class without having done the reading. The most egregious example from that day was the report from Sean Hennessey of CBS 2 in New York live from an empty Foley Square at 6PM where he reported that our "rally" for the afternoon had been cancelled. Actually, Foley Square was our backup location, and as he was speaking there were thousands of people packed into Zuccotti. If he had looked at our website or press releases he would have known this, but accuracy wasn't important enough to him to bother. The 101.9 reporter could have figured out what 'militarism' meant on her own, but it wasn't worth her time.
Why not? There are several factors that come to mind. For now, I'll just focus on one but I'll touch upon others later in this chapter. The most obvious factor is that most readers/viewers/listeners don't care about the accuracy of minor details or the greater context of protest, so journalists don't bother learning them. News outlets are corporations driven by the profit incentive, and therefore aim to sell the most marketable product. The unfortunate reality is that most media consumers would rather read about Occupy in relation to 'crazy hippies,' or, at best, in terms of strict policy matters than read about consensus process or watch a news segment connecting the origins of Occupy to the global justice movement. Regardless of how you explain this consumer preference, it's pretty hard to deny it (although I think that there are a lot more people who would like to learn about the larger context of OWS than the corporate news estimates). Many activists argue that beneath it all most people are really starving for this information and that their 'real' interests are being stifled by the media; that they are essentially being 'brainwashed.' On the other hand, a standard capitalist response would point out that if enough people wanted to read about the origins of the spokescouncil model and its use in Chiapas, Mexico, then journalists would be falling over each other to write that story; but people don't want to read about that, so the stories aren't written—simple supply and demand, nothing insidious behind the scenes.
I agree that there is no Dr. Evil behind the scenes fine-tuning his brainwashing machine to unleash on the hapless public (although Rupert Murdoch might be close) and that consumer preferences wouldn't magically transform themselves overnight if the coverage changed. Certainly MSNBC and Fox News, for example, push their respective liberal and conservative agendas through their networks and craft specific messages to influence their viewers, but it's really missing the larger point to reduce the complex relationship between media producers and consumers to a 'conspiracy of the 1%.'
To get a fuller understanding of the complex dialogue between media producers and consumers as it played out in Occupy Wall Street, it's critical to understand the historical development of journalism. As historical sociologist Jean Chalaby argues in The Invention of Journalism, journalism emerged as its own unique form of discourse in the second half of the 19th century in Great Britain and the United States, primarily in response to changes in print capitalism. Early 19th century forms of printed public discourse explicitly sought to convince the reader of the writer's opinion and were often tied to political parties or workers' organizations. However, this political motivation for publishing shifted mid-century as new developments in print technology enhanced the potential profitability of the industry, making newspapers one of the first commodities to be mass-produced. Over time, newspaper production became more and more capital-intensive and the level of competition increased causing a consolidation of media outlets and a desire to expand readership. The best way for a paper to get more readers was to divorce itself from any specific affiliation and portray itself as an independent voice of public opinion and common sense. So was born the discourse of journalistic objectivity.
By portraying itself as objective and above the fray of partisan interest, journalistic discourse forged a foundation of legitimacy to speak from. Rather than speaking from a clearly expressed perspective, newspapers came to speak with the voice of society as a whole. In turn, the claim that the newspaper was merely reflecting the will of the greater society actually allowed it to forge public opinion. A modern parallel would be when Fox News anchors state, for example, "These days, people are saying that teachers are being paid too much" without citing any sources. Of course, those anchors are the "people" saying those things, and the more they say it the more their viewers repeat it.
The project of grounding media credibility in the ability to speak on behalf of society was aided by the invention of the opinion poll by press baron William Stead. Stead realized that the poll would allow journalists to "speak with an authority far superior to that possessed by any other person." Public opinion as expressed by these polls has been understood as a disparate accumulation of isolated individual opinions, as a collection of signs lining Zuccotti, rather than the expression of a collective outlook or a protest movement.10 Opinion polls have provided a populist veneer for the atomization of the population, inhibiting the imagination of collective struggle. Publishers used the polls to support their political interests through the dissemination of supposedly universal moral standards. Chalaby states that
the supposed universal validity of moral categories also allowed journalists to express opinions on politics and elected officials with categories taken as valid in the political sphere but which were not openly politically connoted.
Objectivity has allowed the media to portray itself as 'of the people' yet independent from them. It has allowed journalists (in the service of corporate news media) to tap into the longstanding Western philosophical tradition of striving toward a disembodied position of absolute truth. Yet, with the expansion of the rhetoric of democracy and popular politics in the 19th century truth was increasingly associated with the masses. Therefore, that disembodied objective stance ironically gained its legitimacy from its grounding in 'the people.' The more a news outlet was 'of the people' as a whole, without reference to 'divisive' social issues like class and race, the greater was its ability to see above the people to understand the truth. The argument being made here is not that newspapers would be better if all articles were oriented around unabashed moralizing, but rather that no text is neutral. Objectivity becomes a political discourse when it is used to obscure an underlying partiality.
The partiality that persisted after the "invention of journalism" was not only about what retrospectively might be considered explicit political bias, but also about what kind of information was provided to whom. Market influences enhanced the homogeneity of the media's political orientation while increasing the heterogeneity of the quality and tone of its content along class lines. In the 1820s and 1830s, before technology allowed newspapers to become truly profitable, working class and upper class papers had a similar quality of information and tone of delivery. Yet, when the industry was consolidated into the hands of a relatively small number of press barons, the reading public was divided into the "information-rich and information-poor" which reinforced class society. In addition, around the turn of the century the topics of sports, society news (social engagements of the rich), sensational news, and human interest stories served to reduce coverage of politics and color the way political issues were reported. These new journalistic foci led coverage to focus more on the quirks of politicians than the issues, and presented politics as being no less important than sensational stories. A modern-day parallel would be when you're watching a thirty second segment about the corporate negligence behind the BP oil spill and suddenly the broadcast shifts to a discussion of Kim Kardashian's new cat. I imagine that many readers have had this happen while watching the news and felt a jolt from it. The point is not that there should never be a place for television programming about cats, and that every program should be serious, but that this format of information dissemination subtly equates the two. As Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman point out in Manufacturing Consent, "the steady advance, and cultural power, of marketing and advertising has caused 'the displacement of a political public sphere by a depoliticized consumer culture.'" Moreover, the emphasis on the lives of prominent individuals and the development of the human interest story allowed the political focus to center on 'good' or 'bad' elites without addressing the underlying system. As historian Martin Conboy argues,
the popular press allowed a modicum of public outrage against the foibles of the privileged and the abuses of the powerful without doing anything to either analyze a system which produced such abuse or to scrutinize the economic and institutional structures that enabled newspapers to make money
Excerpted from Translating Anarchy by Mark Bray. Copyright © 2013 Mark Bray. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Introduction: "Conquerors on Horseback are not Many-Legged Gods" 1
1 Insight From Confusion: The Media and Occupy 10
Journalism: The Narrative Form of Capitalism 12
Mimicry of the Elite 20
Communication with the Elite 26
Movement as Protest, Protest as Election 31
2 "The Bane of Occupy Wall Street": Anarchism and the Anarchistic 39
Anarchism: A (Trans)Historical Phenomenon 45
Anarchist Alternatives to Capitalism 69
Liberal Libertarianism 91
The Racial Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion 94
The Limits of Consensus 99
"We don't have demands; we are the demand" 101
Hidden in Plain Sight: Occupy, Anarchism, and the Media 107
3 Translating Anarchy 112
Zombies and "Anonymous Fan-Boys" 114
The A-Word 122
Rage, Zapatistas, and Anarcho-Punks with Ham Sandwiches 126
Layers of Occupy Media 135
Are We the 99%? 135
"You Attract More Flies with Honey": Picking Up the Red and Black Flag 160
4 Why We Need a Revolution or: Beyond "Socialism in One Park" 171
The Electoral Question 171
Why Your (Non)Vote Doesn't Matter 180
Direct Action 188
The Affinity Group 194
Defining Violence 209
Diversity of Tactics 222
Reflections on the Black Bloc 227
No Evolution without Revolution 247
Conclusion: "Like Ectoplasm Through a Mist" 260
List of OWS Organizers Interviewed 321