Occupy Wall Street is widely regarded as one of radical history’s great failures. Launched in September 2011 to great fanfare, the protests that began in New York City quickly spread across the world. Sparked by anger at the financial crisis, the great recession and the influence of money on politics, Occupy appeared to the outside world as an incoherent and sometimes self-indulgent splurge of rage.
If you’re sceptical, even some of the movement’s founders tend to see it this way. Micah White, an Adbusters editor who helped initiate Occupy, would later write a book about how protest itself was now broken as a political strategy.
But what if we’re all missing the point? Occupy is regarded as a failure because it didn’t achieve its political goals, but what made the movement stand out wasn’t its novel political agenda, but the way it was organised. The occupiers sought to reach consensus decisions among sometimes huge groups of people through a mix of deliberation, hand signals and in some cases an innovation called the human microphone, which overcame a lack of amplification by having the crowd loudly repeat a speaker’s words in a rolling wave.
Leaderless, decentralised and digital, Occupy was the prototype for a new wave of democratic organisations which may now be about to enter the mainstream.
Confession time: I was one of the people who thought Occupy was a joke. It took me more than half a decade to understand what made that moment special. I work in the public sector, in a big, traditional bureaucracy, and I spend a lot of my time trying to find ways to make it more open and democratic. Austerity is forcing us to change at a kind of breakneck pace that the old hierarchies just can’t handle.
As I’ve researched new ways to link our staff together to come up with creative solutions, I’ve been surprised by how many of the most exciting ideas track back to those three extraordinary months in 2011. I’m slightly embarrassed by how slow on the uptake I was, but I guess three decades of growing up neoliberal will do that to you.
Richard Bartlett was much quicker off the mark. The New Zealand coder joined the Wellington Occupy encampment and had what he describes as “a fully-blown, road to Damascus, beam from heaven insight download.” As the global movement wound down chaotically in the autumn of 2011, Bartlett walked down the road and joined an organisation called Enspiral.
A decentralised collective of up to 300 people, Enspiral brings members together to create projects and businesses. The community developed its own tools to collaborate so that it could do away with any kind of central staff, and those tools often became its key business offering. The best known is Loomio, a decision-making platform that allowed Enspiralers to make joint decisions about which projects to pursue, but there are also platforms like co-budget, which the group uses to collectively allocate its resources.
Occupy proved that it was possible for activists to organise themselves in horizontal and democratic ways, and in the process prefigured new ways of organising the way we might work. Left-of-centre politics is currently seeing an explosion of interest in heterodox organisational forms. The community wealth building movement wants to build more co-operatives in England’s left-behind towns, while the new Corbynista think tank Common Wealth is heavily focused on how to create participative and worker-owned organisations.
It’s possible that the mistake we’ve made about Occupy is focusing on the failure of its political programme, when we should have been focusing on the way that programme was delivered. As so often, the medium was the message.