| The U.S. Occupy Movement in the Crisis of Neoliberal Hegemony: A Study of Frontline Struggles Since the Eviction of the Squares

Januar 2014  Druckansicht
by Robert Ogman

This study was made by Robert Ogman for the Institut für Gesellschaftsanalyse, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in 2013.



1: Occupy Our Homes: Fighting Foreclosures

2: Occupy Labor: Against Precaritization

3: Occupy Debt: Towards A “People’s Bailout”

4: Occupy Sandy: Hurricane Relief and a “People’s Recovery”



Crisis of Neoliberal Hegemony and Blocked Transformation

This text analyzes the U.S. Occupy movement as a particular societal response to the crisis of neoliberal hegemony, and as the initial stirrings of a counter-hegemonic project. Here, the movement is situated within the context of a blocked transformation, in which the finance-dominated accumulation regime, despite falling into a deep structural crisis, nonetheless remains dominant. Instead of a postneoliberal transformation, we are experiencing a resurgent neoliberalism.

Despite the widespread delegitimation of “trickle down economics” and the “self-regulating market” following the financial meltdown of 2008, a social and political transformation has been blocked by the balance of forces defending a neoliberal agenda. Not only did the Obama administration fail in its own reform agenda and marginalize its own base necessary for such a project, extra-parliamentary forces also remained either passive or marginal. Organized labor advanced only a moderate program and limited its strategy to congressional lobbying.[1]

Yet in 2008, even mainstream and conservative voices began proclaiming the end of neoliberalism, and actors to the left of center began discussing the prospects of a Green New Deal. Despite scattered labor opposition to increased precaritization and social protest against a variety of issues, this opportunity was not taken up by left or progressive forces. They did not rally behind an alternative political project. Hence, the political marginality of the left contributed also to the blocked transformation.

This enabled the regrouping of conservative and neoliberal forces behind the Tea Party movement, which strengthened calls for austerity, and a political climate of social chauvinism, race baiting, and the scapegoating of transnational migrants.

Despite the lucrative situation for the Left, its weak position, fragmentation and passivity prevented it from congealing into an effective bloc, and from intervening in the conjuncture to shift the balance of forces around an alternative exit strategy from the crisis, and towards a social, democratic, and ecological trajectory.

Occupy Wall Street: A Counter-Neoliberal Response

It was in this political conjuncture of a blocked transformation, that an “occupation” of a small square in New York’s financial district was able to ignite the imagination of broad sections of the U.S. population behind an explicitly counter-neoliberal response. For the first time in decades, a popular social movement had placed class at the center of its concerns, providing a platform for expressing material grievances with the “1%”, without however ignoring the differences amongst themselves.

Inspired by the Arab Spring and European anti-austerity protests abroad, the new movement also gathered the rebellious spirit of the labor-community uprising in Wisconsin against austerity and the curtailment of labor rights, the student protests in California against budget cuts[2], and the Chicago factory occupation against wage and benefit theft following a plant closure. It provided a convergence for diverse social struggles to find one another and build collective power from below.

This occurred in hundreds of encampments across the country, enabling a convergence and temporary condensation of the fragmented Left, labor movement, social justice groups and critical left individuals.[3] And this temporary condensation made an impact beyond the sum of the individual parts. The movement also mobilized previously unorganized individuals, connecting it with milieus beyond the left’s traditional reach.

With its use of the general assembly for deliberation and collective decision-making, Occupy  returned participatory democracy to the center of left organizing and to the Left’s political goals. The encampments provided the space for mutual aid and solidarity, with free services and the collective organization of labor, and for the experimentation with communal and solidaristic lifeways. And they fostered the connection between a convergence around a general political message about material inequality and lack of democracy with concrete struggles against the ongoing crisis.

Towards a Counter-Hegemonic Bloc

Not only did Occupy initiate a process of condensation amongst extra-parliamentary social movements, and link these to sections of the broader public. It also caused disturbances within the dominant bloc, pushing previously passive sections of it to the left. The critique of class polarization caused widespread disruption of the status quo inside the established institutions and governing coalitions. Rather than causing a rupture between “society” and the state, it produced and nurtured disruptions and contradictions within the hegemonic bloc itself, whose passive consensus began to thaw. The movement’s message resonated with actors within the establishment, shaking up the power relations within the ruling coalition.

Reframing the crisis as one around a conflict between the “99%” and the “1%”, and opposing the insulation of policy from the democratic input of broad sections of the population who are negatively effected by neoliberal crisis management, the movement indirectly amplified marginalized progressives voices within the mainstream and established institutions. Not only did it create popular opposition to the Tea Party’s “budget ceiling” austerity drive, it also gave new life to Obama’s call for a federal jobs program. Inside the Federal Reserve, it produced increased support for fighting unemployment, and the central bank began pushing Washington to pass mortgage debt relief for underwater home-owners.

Organized labor also took bolder action and expanded its position beyond the defense of its membership, speaking on the part of popular, class interests. As a result, Occupy has sparked a new wave of labor militancy amongst public workers and in the low-wage sector.

These developments presented the possibility of a new concentration of forces around a social, democratic, and ecological alternative to neoliberal crisis governance, inside and outside the state, and which had received broad support from the population.

Evicted from the Squares: Regrouped on the Front Lines of the Crisis

Had these developments been able to continue, and were the movement then able to consolidate its diverse social forces around a common program, this nascent counter-hegemonic bloc may have opened up new political trajectories. This possibility was put down by repressive state force. Less than two months after the first occupation began, a federally coordinated plan was enacted to evict the encampments, and to physically prevent their return.

Yet the movement did not immediately disappear, but rather regrouped and reorganized itself to respond to the new situation. Its dispersal from the central squares shifted the center of gravity to community and labor struggles, and pushing Occupy into closer connection with existing social struggles on the front lines of the crisis.

Whereas the occupations of public squares provided the possibility of intervening in the symbolic order and a space for the convergence of left forces and the broader public, the new sites of struggles transformed the movement strategy towards one of intervention into the broken circuits of a precarious social reproduction. Here Occupy initiated solidarity campaigns with people struggling in the ongoing recession. In these endeavors, they faced new challenges of coalition building with diverse social forces, connecting specific concerns with the broad, class perspective of the “99%”. They brought with them, an emphasis on participatory and democratic forms of organizing from below, and began to develop reconstructive visions of an alternative recovery from the crisis.

The possibility that the movement would survive its dispersal from the public squares, by relocating itself along the contested sites of social reproduction (in community and labor struggles), was conditioned upon its ability to establish complementary relationships between direct movement participants and other social forces beyond its immediate circles. Just as the encampments were upheld by a combination of forces both directly “occupying” the squares and political and public support, planting roots in front line struggles relied on a two-way relationship as well.

In many ways, the support Occupy received from progressive Democrats, disappointed Obama supporters, and frustrated union members, who saw in the movement, the opportunity to push back against the Tea Party-led austerity drive, was replicated by a similar dynamic in front line struggles. Here, the movement gained legitimacy and support from people struggling in the recession. In many cases, Occupy was called up and welcomed into struggles by homeowners resisting foreclosure, workers fighting precaritization, students battling indebtedness, and public provision recipients opposing the further erosion of the welfare state.

Hence the blocked political transformation that resulted in Occupy being elevated to the national political level, was echoed by a crisis of social reproduction which pushed the movement to deepen its solidarity campaigns to relieve acute material suffering. To the degree the movement was successful, it was never fully autonomous, and was rather the result of a productive convergence of forces, both in direct interaction on the ground, and on a more removed level of establishing a common counter-neoliberal trend in public consciousness.

Navigating the Tensions as an Agent of Societal Transformation

Occupy was the product of multiple societal crises and struggled to balance many tensions. As a response to the crisis of political legitimacy, it sought to create networked and horizontal forms of participatory democracy for the self-organization and consolidation of subaltern power. Yet simultaneously, it spoke not only as the collective voice of direct participants, but as the symbolic representative of the “99%”, and for this, was increasingly pushed into a leadership position. It was seen by progressive factions of labor and the Democratic Party as a force to counter the Tea Party-led austerity drive,[4] and was called on by the subaltern to join their struggles against foreclosure, deepening labor precaritization, deeper student indebtedness, and the further destruction of public provisions.

Occupy had the task of both establishing an autonomous movement independent from the Democratic Party and organized labor, yet was at the same time, not external to their left and progressive wings, but rather overlapped with them. It struggled to advance a vision of societal transformation and to put forth concrete measures to improve the material situation of the “99%”. It sought to establish a constituting power against the neoliberal status quo, that was both at a distance from the state (Poulantzas), and nonetheless capable of winning concrete goals. And these should not restrict the larger project of a social, democratic, and ecological transformation, in its own language, a “revolution.”

And especially following the evictions, the movement played an increasingly necessary social function, aimed at restoring and defending people’s basic living standards against the crisis of social reproduction. Yet while these solidarity campaigns brought the movement into close cooperation with other sections of the “99%”, it had to prevent its alternative institutions of mutual aid and solidarity, from either becoming micro-organizations of limited social significance, or on the other hand, of being reduced to mere service delivery organizations, and a function of a neoliberalization process of rolling back public provisions and social protections.[5]

How could it intervene in the processes of social reproduction, and do so that would retain both its constructive and oppositional character, and avoid integration into a passive revolution where it was subjected to a neoliberal role assignment?

Navigating these challenges and tensions was not always successful, and produced critical blockages towards Occupy’s hope of broadening its societal impact. But through an analysis of its concrete engagement that we might find the sources of overcoming its current stagnation and limitations in a future round of social mobilization.

Four Interventions: Occupying the Crisis

In this text, I focus on four specific interventions of the movement at the front lines of the crisis, to show how it responded and regrouped to the eviction from the public squares and how it navigated these tensions. My aim is on the one hand, to provide a historical picture of the post-eviction situation of the movement, and on the other hand, to provide an analysis of the movement’s developments and current blockages.

These four examples are the following:

  1. The first section covers Occupy Our Homes, a multi-city network opposing house foreclosures and evictions. With the use of direct action together with affected home-owners, this intervention brings the movement into direct confrontation with the process of accumulation by dispossession (David Harvey).
  2. Part two addresses “Occupy Labor”, i.e. the connections between Occupy and the labor movement. Here, I will show how this relationship contributed to the growth of the new movement on the one side, and to the emergence of a new round of labor struggles against precaritization, privatization, and wage dumping on the other. Here, the movement is joining and supporting struggles against a “recovery” based on further class polarization.
  3. Afterwards, I turn to the mobilizations of the “graduates without a future” in multiple campaigns against student and consumer debt. In these struggles for debt relief, we see state-interventionist strategies, attempts to build an autonomous debtors’ movement, and initiatives of mutual aid. Seeking debt relief, these new subjects seek to protect themselves against financial ruin, and shift the burden of the crisis of over-accumulation onto the “1%”.
  4. The fourth case addresses “Occupy Sandy”, a rapid mutual aid network developed to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy, who were left unprotected by the eroded state safety net, and to defend them against debt-based, personal recovery strategies. In this example, we see the attempts to develop an alternative to “disaster capitalism” based on the dispossession of low-income urban populations and a debt-based recovery, with the formulation of a holistic alternative recovery under the label “the people’s recovery.”

These specific examples provide a window into the post-eviction situation of the Occupy movement. I will show how the movement reconfigured itself, intervened into concrete struggles, and sought to build power from below to counter the crisis. Yet, I will also show how the movement has run up against certain limitations, preventing it from concentrating oppositional forces, from growing, and from having a broader social and political impact. The aim is not to simply detail its engagement in this new terrain, but to show why and how it remains limited in its reach. This might help in thinking about the possibility of a new round of movement activity, and the condensation of its productive interaction between different forces, into a bloc with deep and long-standing political influence.

1: Occupy Our Homes: Fighting Foreclosures

They have taken our homes through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.” – Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, September 29, 2011.

The foreclosure wave that sparked the global economic crisis and caused mass dispossession of millions of people from their homes, became a central issue of the Occupy movement since its inception in September 2011, and more significantly since the evictions from the public squares, with the establishment of the country-wide Occupy Our Homes campaign.

When the movement first emerged, millions of people were still threatened with foreclosure and little regulatory action was taken to stop these developments. An initial call for a foreclosure moratorium amongst some officials of the Democratic Party never passed, and the new homeless were left to fend for themselves, resulting in new shanty towns across the country.

This political failure was combined with, and partly the result of the socially repressive atmosphere created by the Tea Party movement, who attacked homeowners threatened with foreclosure, in malicious smear campaigns as being personally responsible for the housing market collapse. The conservative movement opposed Democratic proposals for extending social protections to those threatened with dispossession. Countering state intervention, they argued against “subsidiz[ing] the losers’ mortgages”.[6] This entrenched the individualization, isolation, and feelings of personal guilt associated with the experience of foreclosure, and with the more general plight of those suffering in the recession.

Yet, the foreclosure epidemic would not go endlessly unchallenged. Neither direct repression through forced evictions, nor public shaming of impacted homeowners were ultimately able to secure passive acceptance. Nor could neoliberal economists convince them to let the foreclosure wave “run its course.” Intellectuals of the neoliberal bloc could not be trusted in face of the real crises people experienced, nor could their privileging of “economic laws” compete with the moral outrage and the self-assumption of human rights amongst the dispossessed.

Since the beginning of the foreclosure wave, homeowners were organizing against eviction in community-based organizations across the country. But it was the emergence of the Occupy movement that gave these struggles broader appeal, and situated them within a societal narrative about the crisis, around the drastic concentration of wealth.

The political and social context produced the possibility of a counter-neoliberal movement. The absence of state action to protect homeowners created a deep crisis of political legitimacy. And the passivity of organized labor to defend living standards closed over other established channels for social defense. This void provided a conducive political opportunity structure for the direct intervention of the Occupy movement into these broken circuits of material reproduction. This context placed Occupy, as a movement for and by the “99%”, at least symbolically, as an advocate for threatened homeowners at the front lines of the crisis.

Occupy Wall Street on Your Street

It was not solely the movement’s general statements in opposition to the “1%” which elevated the Occupy movement to an oppositional figure, but also the connections the movement made between the crisis winners and losers,[7] and the focus on specific processes of downward social mobilization. By connecting the movement’s general critique of class polarization with the specific processes and experiences of the crisis amongst homeowners, threatened with dispossession, they were able to intervene in social struggles, and raise them to the level of general public concern.

From the very beginning, the occupations of public squares were complemented by anti-eviction actions, and demonstrations against mortgage lenders who were profiting from foreclosures. Yet, it was also the movement’s democratic approach which led to specific forms of intervention which supported those negatively impacted by the crisis in becoming oppositional subjects of the movement. Homeowners themselves spoke about their situations, and directly drew the links, enabling them to personally identify with the “99%”.

Here, the movement created a convergence of differentially impacted subjects in a common struggle. Following its eviction from a public park, Occupy Atlanta (Georgia) operated out of a squatted homeless shelter, bringing the “graduates without a future” (see Section 3, Occupy Debt) together with the homeless residents in a common struggle against the city’s attempts to close it down, and with homeowners in efforts to block foreclosures and evictions.

The movement connected the occupations of public squares with the struggles at the front lines of the crisis, by organizing collective acts of solidarity with those effected by the foreclosure crisis. It called demonstrations in support of those facing dispossession, and organized civil disobedience to physically prevent it. This opened the bridge between the movement and people struggling in the recession. In local neighborhoods, the abstract expression of solidarity was brought down to the practical level of solidarity, uniting people in a concrete struggle over the crisis in people’s everyday lives.

These common struggles ran parallel to the encampment phase of the movement, and in some cases were the center of the movement’s activity altogether, especially where the occupy groups did not have physical encampments. Additionally, the anti-foreclosure movement which had preceded the Occupy movement collaborated in common actions, helping to elevate their struggles in the media and on the local political stage.

Direct Action Against Eviction

Anti-eviction actions began in the early days of the Occupy movement. They began on the initiative of movement participants, who sought out distressed home-owners for common action to physically block the police from carrying out evictions, by surrounding the property with their bodies, by linking arms, in non-violent civil disobedience. They also organized demonstrations against mortgage lenders, sometimes “occupying” banks, and pushing for principals reductions. They also disrupted foreclosure auctions by singing, preventing the auctions from going forward, and keeping people in their homes.

While individual occupy groups were fighting foreclosures throughout Fall 2011, the movement began converging around anti-eviction campaigns following its forceful removal from the squares in the fall and winter. In December 6, 2011, a country-wide day of action was called. There included simultaneous and diverse actions taken amongst groups in over 20 cities.

While some used the occasion to physically halted evictions, others demonstrated against mortgage lenders. Foreclosure auctions also were disrupted by occupy activists, and other groups helped move homeless people into vacant houses. Rallies were also organized to publicly scandalize the ongoing foreclosure wave. The unified aim was to also call for increased resistance from below, and to point to the failure of political action from above. The message was clear: housing is a human right.

Similar to the Spanish Mortgage Victims Platform, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, the center of the movement’s activities are the anti-eviction blockades, using civil disobedience to physically prevent people from being dispossessed of their homes. In some cases, the groups have gone door to door, asking about who is threatened with foreclosure, then linking up neighbors and organizing home defenses.

While OOH claims dozens of victories, this mobilization is not as advanced as the Spanish movement. They have nonetheless managed to win many concessions from mortgage lenders, getting reduced principals and refinancing to lower mortgage payments. This success has relied on the movement’s close relationships it built with existing anti-eviction groups at the community level, with residents, neighborhood associations, community groups, and the right to the city network.

Organizers have scouted neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and asking residents if they are in foreclosure, and if they would like to defend themselves together with others. They are canvassing neighborhoods, conducting research about foreclosures, raising awareness about the epidemic, creating lines of communication between neighbors and political activists, and forging bonds of solidarity and coordination to oppose the foreclosures.

Many participants see this activities as drawing a straight line between “Wall Street and Main Street.”[8] This engagement has helped forge multi-racial alliances around class-based issues, countering the continued process of accumulation by dispossession. Collective action has helped move people out of shame, and into social justice organizing, with the use of direct action. While some groups focus on correcting illegal seizures, others have articulated their grievances in broader terms, around human rights.[9] Through these campaigns they have helped  dozens of homeowners pressure mortgage lenders into refinancing. And the grassroots mobilizations of Occupy Our Homes and other initiatives have also produced reverberations at the top, encouraging the Federal Reserve to call on the White House to pass mortgage cancellation and renegotiation.[10]

Yet, the struggle against foreclosures was not only the result of the active intervention of Occupy activists into existing struggles against eviction. The initiative was also taken by home-owners, asking the movement for support. Hence, Occupy was also pulled into a position of leadership by distressed homeowners from the outside.

One such example of this, was the request made by a police officer to the Occupy Atlanta group, requesting its help, to prevent his house from being foreclosed upon. This elevated the movement’s status to symbolic and practical defender of the “99%”, by intervening into the ongoing foreclosure crisis.[11]

The Foreclosure and Eviction Free Zone

The direct actions against evictions helped dozens of people remain in their homes by placing public pressure on individual mortgage lenders to renegotiate mortgages and provide lower monthly rates for struggling homeowners. While this helped refocus public attention to the plight of heavily indebted homeowners, many Occupy participants felt a discordance between their desire for housing rights, decommodification and social transformation on the one hand, and the moderate lender accommodations that they received as a result of the movement’s actions.[12]

One effort to go beyond this dilemma was found in the call by the Minneapolis Occupy Homes group, to establish an “Eviction and Foreclosure Free Zone”.[13] In December 2012, Occupy Homes Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative, and community organizations initiated a campaign, to organize a geographically-based resistance movement. A low-income neighborhood of color which has experienced a high level of foreclosures was chosen, and six homeowners who were threatened with eviction committed to collective resistance, together with one homeless family who reappropriated a vacant house.

The initiative employed a democratic organizing model, which used neighborhood assemblies to mobilize popular participation, and as a form for collective organizing. The aim was not only to build solidarity between threatened residents and to strengthen community bonds, but to build broader commitments to refuse eviction amongst neighbors, and beyond the usual pool of Occupy participants.

The initiative showed an effort to go beyond specific limitations of the movement. First they moved beyond a framework limited to the return of illegal seizures based on fraudulent foreclosures, and began to speak of housing as a human right, calling for “safe, equitable, and affordable housing” for all.

They highlighted the injustice of a situation where vacant houses number drastically outnumber the number of homeless people. To resolve this problem, They call for the appropriation of “bank-owned vacant properties […] under community control” and “to be used for affordable housing.”

This latter point highlights the continuation of Occupy’s democratic impetus, yet shows how it has been transformed in the frontline struggles. The call for community control is a long-standing demand amongst community organizations and the left, yet it concretizes the movement’s aspirations for increased public control over society. Its democratic spirit also shows in the organizing style, where public meetings are used to host open forums for discussion and collective decision-making on movement strategies and goals. These horizontal forms of organizing are connected to multi-dimensional strategies of empowering local residents in a defensive struggle, while bringing the urban terrain under increased popular control.

They called for direct negotiations between lenders and homeowners and principal reductions, as well as a federal policy of moratorium on foreclosures. But what brings their efforts to the next level, is their effort to link these aims with a strategy of intervention on the local level of the state.

Recognizing the limitations of direct action, they sought to swing local public officials and local state power behind their struggle. They did this by calling on public authorities to refrain from mobilizing its repressive forces against homeowners. They call on local government to commit “no public resources for unjust evictions.”

Here they seek to push city government into passively supporting their struggle. Recognizing the contradictions of power within the state, where public policy has failed to enact a moratorium, they call on “public servants, city officials, police officers and sheriffs” to “not interfere with any negotiation by evicting residents who intend to negotiate with their lender.” This would enable the “city and County officials” to “enact a de facto moratorium”. Here, the group seeks to swing public support behind the social movement. They also collected support amongst a majority of city council members to confront the mayor’s support for evictions.[14] They therefore tried to use the tensions within the state for their advantage.

The initiative shows an effort to bridge struggles present in civil society, with those located in the political terrain, while maintaining the movement’s autonomy at the base.

Beyond Occupy Our Homes

While the Occupy Our Homes network grew rapidly following the evictions of the encampments, its activity has largely leveled off. It has formed bonds with other, long-standing housing rights groups, with the right to the city network, and with other urban struggles. Yet, until now, it has neither managed to scale up, nor to advance a strategic program enabling it to engage the political terrain, beyond the push for immediate concessions. While locally limited to Minneapolis, the “Foreclosure and Eviction Free Zone”, represents a potential step beyond these limitations.

Here, the movement’s ambiguous relationship towards the state is being tested. This is because the implicit demands of the movement, aimed at halting foreclosures, are being reflected on explicitly. Not only are these demands being formulated, there are also pragmatic attempts to go beyond them. The demands go beyond the attempt to redress the injustices of mortgage fraud. They advance a
“rights” framework beyond existing legal rights, and call for universal rights to quality homes for all.

Additionally, this demand is related to more pragmatic and immediate demands, such as the the call for immediate negotiations with lenders. And this is not an abstract wish list, but is rooted in a community struggle, employing civil disobedience amongst neighbors and allies, and seeking support from within state institutions. Here they call on public officials and municipal government to refrain from intervening on the side of lenders against homeowners.

Hence, in this example, the movement is struggling to go beyond an anti-political stance, yet to do so without giving up its initial and fundamental concern with cooptation. Instead of acting indirectly as a direct action pressure group for minor concessions, it is seeking to navigate the difficult terrain of political intervention as an oppositional yet also pragmatic movement.

While similar free zone initiatives have been called for in other cities, none have yet developed to the level of the Minneapolis example. But the struggles of Occupy Our Homes and many other anti-foreclosure struggles are having an indirect effect on the political terrain.

Recently, the Green Party mayor of the city of Richmond, California has advanced a plan to use eminent domain laws to confiscate houses threatened with foreclosure if mortgage lenders do not accept the city’s offer for a drastic reduction of principals.[15] The city would then refinance the mortgages for home owners at the current market price, rather than at the inflated price preceding the housing market collapse. This would mean huge losses for the lenders, who have responded swiftly with threats to cut off mortgage lending to the city. The proposal is however catching on in other cities across the country, and shows the sign of becoming an alternative crisis management strategy to shift the burden of financial losses away from the general population and onto the owners of concentrated wealth.

It shows that despite the movement’s insistence to wage its struggles at a distance from the state, these are nonetheless shifting social relations of power, and opening up space for alternatives to neoliberal policy. Yet presently, the movement has refrained from supporting this new initiative. There is a strong desire to remain politically independent, and to avoid that the struggles are absorbed in policy battles. The main aim remains the empowerment of affected populations to defend themselves, even if the result is a policy reform limited to minor improvements in social protections or alleviation of particulars grievances. The question remains as to how the movement can scale up and shift the general political trajectory away from neoliberal orthodoxy. But until now, the movement is not rallying its troops behind state-based initiatives. Even where it is engaging the state, it seeks to hold onto its independence, as a convergence for struggles.

2: Occupy Labor: Against Precaritization

From the outset of the Occupy movement, labor has played an important role in it.

It was strongly influenced by the popular uprising in Wisconsin, by public sector employees and their community allies against “right to work” laws and austerity measures. The physical occupation of the state capitol building, the strikes of public employees, and the broad societal support, revealed popular disenchantment with the resurgent neoliberalism since the financial meltdown of 2007/08.

The movement was also inspired by the Chicago factory occupation of 2008, of manufacturing workers of the Republic Windows and Doors company, who were defending themselves against wage theft following their plant’s closure. The slogan “The banks got bailed out. We got sold out!” originated in this struggle, and was later taken up by Occupy to express a broad opposition to the class dimensions of the federal recovery strategy. In the labor struggle, the workers targeted Bank of America for absorbing federal bailout funds, rather than issuing credit to the factory owner, and towards the state for failing to defend precarious workers.

The struggle received national attention and even supportive words from Obama. It was the first stirrings of labor unrest since the crisis which was had a broad political and class focus.[16] The slogans and spirit of this labor struggle form the pre-history of the Occupy movement.

The direct predecessor to the Occupy movement also has its roots in labor struggles. Just three months before the occupation of Zuccotti Park, unionized teachers, homeless rights activists, and students under the name “New Yorkers Against the Budget Cuts” organized an anti-austerity encampment in New York City, against major Michael Bloomberg’s austerity-cuts. They camped out across from City Hall and held general assemblies to make collective decisions.

Organized Labor meets Occupy Wall Street

With the occupation of Zuccotti Park – and hundreds of public squares across the country – a space was opened for the convergence of labor and the new social movement. At first, Occupy only received minor support from labor, which was estranged from the precarious students and indebted home-owners occupying the squares. Yet, increasingly, connections were built that strengthened both the Occupy movement and labor.

Richard Trumka, the leader of the country’s largest labor confederation, the AFL-CIO, personally visited Zuccotti Park and met with the members of Occupy’s Labor Outreach Group,[17] and like much of organized labor, began broadening it’s perspective, beyond the defense of its membership, to refer to popular, class interests of the “99%”. Occupy was also given access to unions’ institutional infrastructure, including labor halls and community centers. And dozens of union locals issued public support for the movement.

The warming up of the official labor leadership was paralleled by spontaneous support for the movement from some of the rank-and-file. New York City bus drivers objected to the police’s use of city vehicles for the transportation of protesters to jail and subway employees, and marking the two month anniversary of the movement in November 2011, labor was a major force in the 30,000-strong demonstration in support of Occupy.

The positive relationship between Occupy and labor was not an automatic process. The crisis of political representation involved a detachment of young workers and students from labor representatives and unions, largely because of its close relationship to the Democratic Party and its passivity during the crisis. It was the strategic efforts of progressive union members straddling the worker/social movement divide, that opened lines of communication between the Occupy movement and organized labor.

In New York City, the Labor Outreach Group was formed for this explicit purpose, which was paralleled by the formation of a similar group in Chicago. And not only did the collaboration shift public consciousness to the left, it also produced concrete victories for workers, including communication workers at Verizon, employees of Sotheby’s auction house, and for the largely immigrant staff at a Manhattan bakery, “Hot and Crusty”, after they occupied the bakery together against management’s attempts to close the shop and shut out the union. These examples displayed what workers centers and new organizing strategies had been learning over the past decade, that labor victories can be achieved by labor-community coalitions, and organizing beyond the workplace. And Occupy received support back from labor as a result of these experiences, as the AFL-CIO urged its members to defend Zuccotti Park from police eviction.[18]

In California, Occupy Longview helped the militant port workers union, the ILWU, fight off attempts of the grain company to exclude them from new contracts.[19] Occupy Oakland received support from the Alameda Central Labor Council, who defended them against police repression.[20] And Occupy Oakland’s call for a general strike, while not shutting down the city, gathered union support. The day of action brought 20,000 people to shut down the Oakland port. In December, Occupy Oakland organized another port shut down, this time in coordination with west coast actions up into Canada. But the numbers dropped to 12,000 people, due to the division between Occupy Oakland and the major port workers union, the latter who withdrew support from the action.[21]

According to Barbara Epstein, Occupy Oakland’s insurrectionist orientation, led it to press forward with the action despite the withdrawal of union support, on the grounds that the social movement represents a broader constituency, and is against the union bureaucracy. This “substitutionism” was also confirmed by others, who criticized the “impatience to take action at the expense of patient, organic linking with the rank and file.”[22]

This experience left many participants seeking an Occupy-labor alliance, with the feeling of being “burnt”. According to Epstein, there was a deficit in strategic thinking. Whereas originally, militancy was coupled with outreach, later, the expression of public outrage overshadowed coalition building which was required for shifting power relations.

Yet, the occupy-labor interactions differed depending on local setting. In Chicago, one of the most productive interactions occurred. There, labor and grassroots socialist movement organizers were active in Occupy Chicago from the very beginning, building bridges of trust and mutual support for each other’s protests. When the encampment was suppressed by the police, the Labor Working Group began building alliances with unions, and mobilizing support for urban anti-austerity struggles. According to participant Susan Dirr, the group included regular participation of a variety of union members and delegates.[23] These collective engagements enabled broad anti-cuts protests in the field of education, health services, public libraries, and the employment contracts for public workers.

Dirr argues that this labor-occupy alliance produced “a new generation of class-conscious, pro-labor activists […] providing the public with much needed images of unions fighting back for the working class.” But she cautioned that “deeper and broader relationships” need to be built with union members. She points out that the unions are not homogenous blocs, but rather are convergences of different political traditions, and suggests that Occupy should “support reform caucuses and other forms of worker organization within unions.” And while recognizing the strength of civil society and labor mobilizations, she identifies the limitations at the political level, where the mobilizations lacked support, and as a result, could not halt the austerity agenda.

Reverberations: The “99% Spring”

Since before the crisis, some sections of labor were trying to push the unions from the inside, away from the failing strategy of issuing moderate demands, of a service unionism model, and of an approach focused centrally around lobbying Democratic officials. This faction sought bolder actions for labor-community collaboration, the use of civil disobedience tactics, and an expanded perspective in defense of popular, class interests beyond union membership.

The Occupy movement strongly boosted these developments. In April 2012, a broad coalition of labor, community organizations, NGO’s, and independent political parties, came together to form the “99% Spring”. This mobilization, brought together immigrant worker centers with environmental groups, industrial unions with anti-war groups, family farmers with victims of house foreclosures, public housing residents with youth. They held nearly one thousand popular education sessions about class stratification and the crisis, and civil disobedience trainings for a week of actions. Across the country between April 9 and 15th, they disrupted shareholder meetings of major corporations who have profited from the crisis.[24]

The emergence of the 99% Spring raised existing tensions within the Occupy movement. Whereas some social movement forces welcomed the liberal-left mobilization as the possibility of expanding the movement and connecting it to grassroots organizing, many others accused it as “cooptation.” Adbusters magazine, who issued the original call to “occupy” Wall Street, and Counterpunch magazine, both rejected the 99% Spring because of the participation of Move On, which has close connections to the Democratic Party, and has been involved in the party’s electoral drive.[25]

Yet, leftists participating in the new initiative pointed to the diverse participation of social justice organizations rooted in working-class communities and communities of color. These “represent immigrant workers and other low-wage workers, African American communities, foreclosed homeowners and tenants, people on welfare and public housing residents.” Involvement in the 99% Spring would “anchor” the “mass public action” of the Occupy movement “within communities that are on the frontlines of our economic, political, and ecological crises.”[26]

The debate about the 99% Spring revealed a set of related tensions within the movement. First, there was the relationship between its deep transformative aspirations, and its desire for immediate, concrete measures to relieve people struggling in the recession. This was connected to the question of the movement’s autonomy and its relationship to other social forces. How would it navigate between an autonomous role on the one side, where it held a leadership function in mobilizing an organic outpouring of counter-neoliberal dissent, and a collaborative role on the other side, where it built broad coalitions of a plural left bloc with a variety of social forces? And relatedly, how would it balance the need on the one hand, to distance itself from the establishment – including sections of the Democratic Party – while simultaneously intervening in contested processes over the realignment of the relation of forces underpinning and opposing hegemony, following the disruption of the passive societal consensus behind neoliberal crisis management?

Joshua Kahn Russell and Harmony Goldberg argued that their participation in the 99% Spring is aimed at “shift[ing] the ‘spectrum of allies’” and “pull[ing] the support out from under [the] opposition.” The objective is “to get neutral groups to become passive allies, and to get passive allies to become active ones.” The aim is to shift “different ‘social blocs’ in our direction”[27]. It is a question of shifting the balance of forces around a different societal trajectory.

Hence, multiple commentators noted that the 99% Spring was not the co-optation of Occupy by sections of the Democratic Party, but possibly the other way around. The mobilization of liberal-left forces behind civil disobedience actions, rather than dedicating all its energies towards campaigning for the upcoming presidential election, shows the reverberations of the Occupy movement upon labor, community groups, and progressive advocacy groups.[28]

Yet, while the 99% Spring created the possibility for a temporary collaboration between Occupy and other social and labor movement forces, it has not consolidated these links into a stable alliance, which might have had broad and lasting impact. Local connections have continued to various degrees, and the diffusion of bolder actions and more critical perspectives have helped produce a new wave of labor militancy.

New Wave of Labor Struggles

The collaboration of Occupy and labor heightened workers struggles across the country and unleashed a wave of labor unrest. In October 2012, 29,000 Chicago teachers, led by a progressive reform faction, went on strike against the bipartisan reforms to privatize education. These involved the flexibilization of labor, the expansion of charter schools, the heightening of standardized testing over qualitative learning, and the closing of schools in low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods. The strike received strong support from families, pupils, and the community. After a week, the union won partial demands, but set a symbolic statement of popular opposition to privatizing education. Occupy Chicago’s Labor Working Group established the Labor Solidarity Campaign, linking the Occupy movement more closely with the teacher’s strike, and broadening the appeal of the latter to the general public.

Two months later, in November 2012, Walmart workers began a campaign against low-wages, precarious conditions, and anti-union policies. The workers center “OUR Walmart”, initiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers, headed the mobilization, and employees throughout the supply chain had participated. It began with a strike by Mexican contract workers in the seafood distribution company in Lousiana, against forced labor and violent threats from management, sparked walkouts by warehouse workers in California and Illinois, and fifty demonstrations by store personnel across the country, on the busiest shopping day of they year (“Black Friday”). The demonstrations were supported by Occupy groups throughout the country, and helped scandalize the low-wage sector. Following the deadly fires in Bangladeshi textile factories producing clothing for Walmart and other major corporate chains, the New York City “99 Pickets” group that came out of the Occupy movement, disrupted business in their Manhattan stores, contributing to the growing public outrage over the low-wage industry.

In November, fast food workers also began a campaign calling for a doubling of their wages to $15, essentially igniting a movement for living wages. The walkouts began in New York City before inspiring similar actions in dozens of cities, and in August 2013 hit sixty cities. They have been organized by Fast Food Forward, which was supported by the Service Employees International Union, which was behind many new organizing strategies amongst low-wage workers over the last decade.

While the Occupy movement helped sparked much of this energy, and set the public mood, it is currently playing a supportive role in solidarity actions with the new labor mobilizations, and helping set the grounds for a living wage campaign, that is gaining support in several states, and  a broad opposition to corporate education reform, which is materialization in electoral victories and new community mobilizations.

3: Occupy Debt: Towards A “People’s Bailout”

“They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”

– New York City General Assembly,

“Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”

September 29, 2011[29]

The backbone of the Occupy movement has been the “millennial” generation, the first generation since World War Two to experience widespread downward social mobility. As student and graduates of higher education, the skyrocketing costs of tuition and living expenses have left many with tens of thousands of dollars of debt (many even exceeding the hundred-thousand mark), who following graduation, are dumped onto a job market incapable of absorbing them. Many are compelled to take highly precarious positions, many of which are far below their level of training, and rely on foodstamps and other state subsidies to make ends meet.

Political and economic analysts have identified the cumulative societal effect of these individual situations, in the continued stagnation of consumer markets, as the income of the indebted is directed towards loan payments, putting off consumption of houses, automobiles, and other consumer products, as well as the starting of new businesses.

This student crisis had already ignited mass protest in the years immediately preceding Occupy Wall Street. Across California, students held demonstrations, university occupations, and broad mobilizations, against cuts and tuition hikes.[30]

Many who have joined the Occupy movement lacked previous political experience and were not motivated by explicit political conviction; they were moved to action by the organic dissonance they experienced through the broken promise of higher education to secure the path to upward social mobility. Occupy had initial success in politicizing this gap, and thereby mobilizing students and graduates to challenge the narrative of individual, job market competitors, by publicly identifying their common impediments in unsustainable student debt. In some cases, it went further, enabling them to call out the structural basis of their struggles, in exorbitant tuition costs and profit-oriented education, as well as the slumping job market and stagnant wages. The situation of student debtors became a main focus for much of the movement, not only as one narrative of the multiple grievances of the “99%”, but also the focus of a plethora of working groups, and targeted campaigns to ameliorate the situation of debtors, and to change the overall political trajectory in the current conjuncture.

Student Debtors as a new Oppositional Force and Voice of a Counter-Neoliberal Narrative

Since the very first days of the occupations of public squares, the “graduates without a future” began to organize around their specific issues of concern. In New York’s Zuccotti Park, the general assembly included in its list of grievances, the “hostage” situation of graduates who owe tens of thousands of dollars, and asserted that education is a human right. As in many occupations across the country, a working group was established that began to address student debt in particular, and began formulating aims and strategies for increasing public attention to the issue, uniting students under a common perspective, and mobilize for public action.

Already existing student debt reform initiatives, were also given a boost by the new energy of the Occupy movement, and were modified, merged, joined, and reworked to increase public pressure, to accommodate to the new movement, and to elevate their efforts to the next level.

Additionally, pupils in nearly 20 states formed “Occupy High School” groups, organized walk outs against school disciplinary measures and teacher pay cuts, and organized “free school” classes.[31] And new Occupy groups added their voices to the struggles of educators, parents and policy makers, across the country against school privatization and neoliberal reform, initiating “Occupy the Board of Education”, “Occupy the Department of Education” and an innumerable flood of other groups and demonstrations, adding to the nascent counter-neoliberal mobilization brought to a new level by the Occupy movement.

Initially the many initiatives against student debt brought forward a broad opposition to unsustainable debt levels, towards the lender industry, and towards rising tuition costs. They used social media to replicate the success of the wearethe99percent.tumblr.com blog, providing internet platforms for exposing the heavy burden of student loans and the tenacity of predatory lending. This helped sections from within the “99%” forge a specific collective identity as student debtors, overturning the personal shame associated with their common situations, and therefore challenging the dominant neoliberal narrative, and pointing out the political structure behind massive indebtedness, and the profit-making behind it.

Student debtors, progressives, and social justice activists began organizing on campuses across the country, forming Occupy Colleges (OC) and Occupy Student Debt (OSD). In Washington, DC they targeted the main student loan agency, Sallie Mae, in October 2011, at its headquarters, criticizing the exorbitant levels of student loans, and the financial burden of graduates, gaining widespread media attention. In a popular internet campaign, they pushed the company to cancel its “unemployment penalty” fee for borrowers in forbearance[32].

OSD used social media to further publicize the plight of unsustainable student loans, providing a platform for students to broadcast messages about their personal struggles with loan burdens. Here they challenged the individualization of debtors as victims of their own personally irresponsibility, and presented a counter-narrative, identifying the debt-based structure of higher education.

In spring 2012, these groups revealed the further ripeness of the societal mood for the further diffusion of critical position at the fissures of the crisis-ridden neoliberal compromise with “Occupy Graduation.” Supported by the mass liberal organization, Move On, and funded by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, they mobilized students across the country to “occupy” college graduation ceremonies, by attaching signs to their caps and gowns, displaying their individual debt burdens and some of whom, attached a ball and chain to their ankles, symbolizing debt bondage.

Here, it was clear that the taboo on student indebtedness was being broken. This theatrical intervention disrupted the myth of the successful, competitive individual on the labor market, by reminding themselves and others of their common barrier in high levels of student debt. The widespread, positive media coverage showed that the movement was tapping into a widespread anxiety about the ongoing crisis and recession, and taking a symbolic step in the direction of developing an alternative perspective. It enabled increased public critique of tuition costs amongst public intellectuals, and rallied support behind bold debt relief efforts.

Occupy also raised public awareness about the student debt crisis, and increased political pressure towards debt relief, with the cross-country demonstrations on April 25, 2012, with “1TDay” demonstrations, marking the day student loan debt was to exceed 1 trillion dollars. This action was organized by the New York City based Occupy Student Debt Campaign (OSDC) – not to be confused with the project Occupy Student Debt (more below) – which emerged out of a working group in Zuccotti Park. The demonstration was endorsed by a dozen progressive organizations and inspired “solidarity actions” in twenty cities across the country. Rallies also included the public burning of debt statements by students, in an effort to create a new symbolic image of debt refusal, recalling the burning of draft cards amongst students against the Vietnam war.

In contrast to strategies that center around debt relief as a wise policy reform to exit the current crisis, these efforts nurtured a cultural mood of resistance towards “debt servitude” amongst the indebted. It fostered public acts of dissent delegitimizing student debt, and symbolically rejecting the obligation of repayment.

The Movement’s Common and Diverging Goals and Perspectives

Not only did these debt-organizing initiatives help nurture an oppositional subjectivity amongst students borrowers and indebted graduates, and advance a counter-narrative to the neoliberal position, they also produced a broad set of goals, demands and alternative program for the student debt crisis and the crisis of higher education. The movement’s political plurality did not undermine the fact that there was a significant amount of overlap in positions, especially with regard to explicit calls for debt cancellation or alleviation. This could not overshadow the divergence in intensity and depth of such calls, as well as the different kinds of framing the groups used to provide the demands with popular legitimacy. And the plurality was also present in the strategic approaches advanced by the different groups.

Debt Relief

The central, common point for the many groups, initiatives, and activities centering on student debt, is the call for debt cancellation or alleviation. Yet, both the degree of this cancellation and the form differed between groups. The direct action-focused Occupy Student Debt Campaign – and later it successor organization, Strike Debt! – called for broad cancellation of consumer debt, in a “jubillee”, to “wipe the slate clean”, thereby, immediately relieving borrowers of heavy debt burdens. In their “principles”, the OSDC calls for “Student Debt [to be] Written Off In The Spirit of Jubilee”. They call for the “immediate forgiveness in the spirit of a jubilee, where the injustice of an unpayable debt is redeemed through a single, corrective act, is the only just response to this crisis.”[33]

Other actors, organized with Occupy Student Debt and Occupy Colleges, also call for debt cancellation for student borrowers as a central demand. Yet rather than a “jubilee”, they advocate partial cancellation, through the reduction of principals and the lowering of monthly payments based on income. They also call for the overturning of restrictions on student debtors prohibiting them from declaring bankruptcy. OSD/OC also advocate for the expansion of state programs enabling borrowers to reduce their principals through their employment in specific public services, and call for for similar programs for borrowers whose debts are own to private lenders.

Lowering Tuition Costs

Both groups of the movement call for action on exorbitant and growing levels of college and university tuition fees. Yet here, the divergence is very strong. While OSDC calls for free public higher education, as the “single, largest step to alleviate future student loan debt,”[34] the OSD/OC reject this position on its maximalist grounds, calling instead for a tuition hike freeze.[35]

Reducing Interest Rates

Bridging the radical call for free public higher education with immediate demands, the OSDC calls also for zero-interest student loans, that would counter the “extortionate rates and extract[ion] [of] lavish profits” in the student aid industry. OSD/OC also call for cuts in interest rates, but not to zero. Rather they called for congress to prevent Republican efforts to allow rates to double from 3.4 to 6.8 percent.

Regulating the Lending Industry

Shared positions also exist in regards to the student loan industry. The OSDC calls for financial transparency in the private universities, to allow students to know where funds are being spent. OSD/OC seeks increased regulation, by cutting direct ties between lenders and universities, who together have raised tuition costs, borrowing amounts, and student debt levels.

This overlap and divergence of demands is paralleled by a similar pattern with regard to how they frame their projects, and thereby seek public legitimacy. There is a tension running through the movement, between the advocacy for an alternative economic recovery, and calls for an abrupt rupture. Yet, until now, these have tended to become polarized into the false dichotomy between reform and revolution, a trap which has historically plagued the left, and persists in today’s Occupy movement.

The OSD/OC articulates its program in terms of an alternative economic recovery, whereby consumer debt relief would allow for debt payments to be redirected into consumption. They draw on the imagery of the “American Dream” and support its restoration, by stressing the individual aspirations of debtors to become home-owners, business owners, and to be financially solvent, in order to start families.

The OSDC also praises aspects of the Fordist welfare system, positively referring to the GI Bill as a federally funded program for mass higher education. This is also the case in their framing of debt cancellation as a form of “abolition.” Here they refer to the abolition of chattel slavery, and call for the “abolition” of debt. Yet, rather than a restorative focus to alter the system, they focus on the “injustice” of “debt servitude”. They frame education as a right, not a commodity, and as long as people are reliant on employment that requires degrees of higher education, they should not be forced into “indenture.” They seek debt “abolition” as part of a rupture with a debt-arrangement that constitutes a main component of neoliberal, finance-based accumulation.

Diverging Strategies

There are however important divergences in strategy within the movement. This is between a state-interventionist approach that focuses on congressional reform through lobbying and petitioning efforts, and that focused on building a debtors’ movement with the aim of organizing a massive debt strike to disrupt the processes of finance-dominated capitalism through the direct refusal of payment. Here, the tensions between different forms of engagement have not been constructively addressed. Instead, explicit positions have been taken exclusively supporting either one form or the other. This has created a polarization between strategies situated on the terrain of the state, and those located at a distance from it (Poulantas). This replicates a false dichotomy between struggles in the state and those in the streets, and the historical tension between reform and revolution. Here, I will show the strengths and weaknesses of both of these tendencies, and show how they each have been limited by their refusals to engage the other strategic approach in a constructive way.

Congressional Reform

Occupy Student Debt was formed by a handful of student loan reform advocates, including Robert Applebaum’s “Forgive Student Loan Debt” organization, Kyle McCarthy of the non-profit “Studentdebtcrisis.org”, Stef Gray, who pressured Sallie Mae to eliminate unemployment fees, and the filmmakers of “Default: The Student Loan Documentary”. They have advocated a variety of goals in “ending the student debt crisis”, including the expansion of employment opportunities.,job program at living wages, congressional action on reducing principal balances and interest rates, and supporting the Student Debt Forgiveness Act.[36]

OSD merged with Occupy Colleges who shared similar aims of “advocat[ing] on behalf of students and educat[ing] as many people as possible about the growing crisis of student debt.” Together, the groups are “fighting for quality, affordable and accessible education for all students who want to obtain a college degree.”[37] Occupy Colleges organized 10 direct actions, protests, and teach-ins about student debt, and participated in “Occupy Graduation.”

OSD rallied behind the White House petition, “Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy and Usher in a New Era of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Prosperity”.[38] Popular support and mainstream media attention produced an official response from the White House, and they moved up their plans for an income based repayment policy that lowers monthly payments and cancels outstanding principals on loans after borrower’s twenty straight years of consistent repayment.[39]

The reform was miles away from the one being advocated, but the movement’s impact upon political debates could not be ignored. While admitting the enormous gap between the content of the reform and that which OSD advocated for, the group nonetheless regarded the development as a sign of the movement’s power to impact public debates, and an opening for potentially more significant reforms. It provided impetus for increased public pressure and the construction of broad coalitions for more fundamental reforms.

The presence of debt relief bills on the floor of congress is a “stepping stone” towards something larger.[40] This conclusion led the OSD/OC to direct growing public support for debt relief and increasing student organizing towards more substantive state initiatives for debt relief

A Student Debtor’s Movement and the Debt Strike

In addition to OSD and Occupy Colleges, a working group associated with the New York General Assembly began organizing towards the formation of an independent debtors’ movement, calling itself the Occupy Student Debt Campaign (OSDC).

Critique of Congressional Reform

The OSDC did not see the White House’s response to the debt relief petition and congressional debt relief bill as success and confirmation of the movement’s power to effect the political terrain. Instead, they rejected these as nothing more than “micro-cosmetic” changes, and as “token gestures” by the Democratic Party to maintain support from its student base.[41] Additionally, they argue that the role of “money in politics” prevents progress on the policy front. The power of finance capital prevents congress from being led in a different direction, they argue: “[Elected officials] are chronically dependent on the financial backing of the lending industry, and are structurally incapable of addressing this crisis, let alone resolving it.”

Progressive reform advocates countered that the admittedly moderate reform efforts are part of a program for more fundamental change, and that maximalist positions are unrealistic. They write: “We will never see debt forgiven in one large bill and how can we even ask for free education when tuition prices keep rising – how about we start with a tuition hike freeze before we ask for all education to be free?”[42]

Yet, they do not place their policy proposals within a broader progressive reform agenda, nor do they explain the connection between immediate aims to long-term objectives. It is unclear how they avoid the slide towards a social democratic incrementalism. The movement’s focus on class polarization, and the profit behind the lender industry, is rather marginal in their project, giving the impression that progressive reforms could proceed without causing tension with the capitalist mode of production and its current neoliberal form.

This doesn’t however confirm the position of the OSDC, to wholly reject the terrain of the state, as a political site of struggles. Such reform initiatives could indicate growing societal support for a turn away from orthodox neoliberal discipline. They could be linked with other more thoroughgoing calls for a New New Deal, or even a program that goes far beyond it. Yet this does not happen automatically. They are not necessarily stepping stones.

The OSDC maintained the position of a radical opposition, highlighting student debt as a form of profit for a well-developed industry, and on class conflict between lenders and debtors. They feared that moderate debt relief efforts are more likely to be circumscribed to, and reincorporated into, a process of passive revolution, where alternative proposals for social relief are used to merely help capital overcome its own barriers of expanded reproduction. They wanted to avoid the incorporation of potentially oppositional forces into the dominant bloc’s own hegemonic project, whose potential reforms would provide little social or material benefit for those affected.

The actual trajectory of these efforts is determined by struggles over the balance of power, and the wing advocating an autonomous debtors’ movement did point to the overwhelming balance against thorough-going reforms. Yet, while the OSDC points out the limitations of these reform initiatives, their own approach doesn’t solve the problem, but only inverses it.

Where congressional reform efforts have treated congress too simplistically as an open political arena for collective problem solving and for the advancement of the common good, the OSDC reduces the political to a completely closed space entirely dominated by the dictates of capital, and the distinctively neoliberal accumulation regime, without contradiction. The OSD/OC too easily accommodate themselves to lobbying, seeking new policies that both ameliorate student debtors and initiates an economic recovery, while OSDC points to the unequal power relations preventing such a new compromise.

Yet, the OSDC’s recognition of the persistence of neoliberal power turns into an alibi for ignoring the instabilities of neoliberal hegemony, contradictions within the state and societal configuration, and the potential openings towards alternative exit strategies that could advantage the subaltern. It becomes clear that while the one subordinates the social movement to a mere source for supporting progressive policy intervention in the state, the other ones rejects state intervention, by collapsing the political into “civil society”, and heroizing the self-empowerment of civil society.

The Debt Strike

The OSDC correctly observed that meaningful student debt relief would not come from “futile pleas [to congress] for economic reform”, but rather “through a political movement.”[43] It is true, the balance of powers would have to be shifted, in order to make even moderate shifts away from neoliberal orthodoxy. Current policy proposals are simply voted down and drowned out by the dominant neoliberal positions. Yet where OSD/OC largely reduce their strategy to the congressional sphere, the OSDC takes the exact opposite position, reducing the strategy of such a political movement to “self-empowerment and direct action on the part of debtors,” rejecting any intervention on the political terrain. They do this with their call for a debt strike.

On one end, OSC/OC see the key aim of the movement in its assertion of pressure upon political representatives from the outside, while those advocating for a debtors’ movement narrow its focus to the immediate exertion of direct economic power. Through collective refusal of debt payments they sought to bring public attention and raise political pressure towards solving the student debt crisis in the favor of debtors.

The OSDC sought to gather 1 million people to sign the “Student Debtors’ Pledge of Refusal”, agreeing to “stop making student loan payments after one million have signed this pledge.”[44] Against debtors’ passive and individualized position as people burdened with debt, the campaign sought to find agency in the situation of debtors, by disrupting the payment flows that are the lenders’ profits. Here, they sought to uncover nascent sources of power that had been overlooked, and claimed that the collective refusal of payment would make a public and political impact.

In contrast to congressional action, they focused on sources of potential agency internal to the processes of finance-dominated capitalism. This was to overcome the fragmentation they experienced as individual debtors.

But, while the campaign was correct to seek forms of collective power from below and from within financialization itself, the campaign was plagued with problems.

Shortcomings of the Debt Strike

OSD/OC immediately rejected the call for a debt strike. In a public statement, Robert Applebaum of OSD pointed out that the campaign does not protect participants from default and the heavy financial burdens this brings upon them. He accused OSDC as being a “cancer in the movement” with “no public good will in stock, no ‘political capital’ to expend and no meaningful base of support.”[45] Kyle McCarthy and Natalia Abrams in their “Solidarity Statement from Occupy Colleges and Occupy Student Debt” also rejected a debtors’ strike as a “great disservice” to those individual defaulters who would suffer the financial consequences.

The proposal for a “voluntary default” was unanimously rejected by more than 50 Occupy Colleges groups.[46] However, despite differences in strategy and approach, they argued that groups with different approaches should nonetheless express public support for each others’ initiatives, and collaborate in common efforts where possible.

The critique pointed out serious deficiencies in OSDC’s plans. The advocates did not have a sufficient answer about legitimate concerns of going into default. Their response was to praise public expressions of mass discontent, and to loosely link this to social change, without making any clear connections. They write: “Rather than suffering the consequences in personal isolation and without recourse, this initiative gives debtors a way to publicly express their predicament, and to collectively contest the outcome.”

Absent a strategy of collective defense, OSDC dissolved real and legitimate concerns over the risks of default into heroic mythology about a radical rupture. But while a massive default on that scale might make a strong symbolic statement, it is completely unclear as to how it would produce a beneficial outcome to the defaulters. The identification of nascent sources of power amongst debtors, located within the structure of financialization, could not disguise the hollowness of debt strike strategy.

Only later did some participants recognize this deficiency, and emphasize the need for “alternative economies” or “safety nets” of support. Pam, a member of OSDC, said “I think that the greatest challenge for us is to figure out how to build an infrastructure where we could actually sustain each other if we did have true economic resistance to the system.”[47] But this came both too late and too short.

No matter how desperate student borrowers may be, they will not jump into the abyss, simply because they are doing it together with others. The group focused on changing people’s mindsets about debt, opposing the dominant moral position about personal responsibility to repay loans, and personal, competitive strategies of getting ahead. But this focus on the moral aspects of individualization and personal everyday survival strategies, ignored the critical, material support of individualization, in the form of legal institutions, where individual persons are bound to honor contracts made willfully in their names.

These central flaws of the campaign were not lost on those the OSDC sought to mobilize. The project collapsed in a clear failure. After garnering a mere two thousand pledges, the campaign was terminated, and the OSDC was fused into the new organization Strike Debt! (see below).

As Doug Hewood wrote, this time about similar tendencies within Strike Debt!: “If you’re jonesing for systemic collapse in the hope of building something better out of the rubble, then be honest about it. But don’t expect to get much support for the agenda.”[48]

Collective Power of Debtors?

Does this mean that a debtors movement is impossible and they have no power? Are they confined to street protests and congressional lobbying?

While OSD/OC correctly criticized the debt strike’s major flaws – that it did not protect those taking action – their critique also revealed their own limited view of social power. In rejecting the debt strike, they too rejected the possibility of a debtors’ movement and the use of collective disruptive action.

There is a clear distinction in strategies here. Advocates of a debt strike identified potential sources of disruptive power, located in the everyday structures and routines of finance-dominated accumulation. By together refusing payment, they point towards the possibility of leveraging class power beyond the political realm.

As Bryan and Rafferty point out, student loan payments provide the “income streams” for global investors.[49] Accordingly, this points to the potential power of organized labor as debt resisters. They point out that there is a “parallel” between potential debt resistance and labor resistance. Collective refusal of debtors to make loan payments is not dissimilar from the collective refusal of workers to provide their labor power. The labor strike was developed as a form of collective action that directly disrupted the process of production and accumulation, hence nurturing the nascent power of laborers in the production process, towards political ends.

Yet, the OSDC did not connect collective action with forms of collective protection. And this despite other historical examples of similar efforts, such as labor and tenant unions. These provide structures to defend collective interests, and thereby foster collective action. In full utopianism, OSDC celebrated the millions of defaulters as an already existing “debt strike”, as a wildcat strike, therefore washing over the material suffering defaulters actually face, and ignoring the real needs people have for taking bold action.[50]

In an article, supporting the development of a debtors movement, Francis Fox Piven also makes the historical comparison between different expressions of disruptive power, for example, in the form of labor or rent strikes, and says that the movement is struggling to find ways of defending themselves collectively against repercussions. Yet, this latter consideration was wholly neglected by the OSDC, thereby inhibiting the mass mobilization of participants needed to carry out the action, and therefore resulting in the collapse of the campaign.

Strategic Blockage

In many ways, Occupy’s anti-debt campaigns remained trapped in the left’s historical blockage of “reform or revolution,” and incapable of developing what Rosa Luxemburg called a “Revolutionary Realpolitik.” Rather than treating extra-parliamentary action and state intervention as potentially complementary practices of an integral strategy of social transformation, these became conflicting and exclusive modes of operation of contending groups. Both advocates and opponents of the debt strike denied its function as a “repertoire of contention” (Tilly), or as an instrument of collective action for targeted objectives. Neither group considered it a tool for the defense of collective interests or for the exertion of subaltern power towards strategic goals. For the OSDC, it was an expressive act of discontent, which as a mass outbreak of deviance, should mysteriously transform mass default into mass debt relief. Their opponents dismissal of the debt strike went beyond a rejection of its faulty conceptualization, which ignored the negative material repercussions for the actual “strikers” (ie. default); they rejected the role of collective refusal outright, as a tool of political significance. And this, despite their desperate need to increase public pressure, if even their most moderate reform initiatives were going to succeed.

Hence, instead of working out a constructive and dynamic interplay between civil society and political struggles the two were split into a static division of labor, preventing both from advancing beyond its own limitations. Rather than building an autonomous debtors’ movement while also making alliances with diverse progressive and left forces, an unnecessary divide was driven between them. As a result, the hope that Occupy might become an important factor, in contributing to the resolution, or at least amelioration of the student debt crisis, became a fantasy.

The tendency of OSDC to formulate a debt strike as an expressive revolutionary act of will, and disconnected from strategic goals, helped affirm the narrow lobbying focus of the OSD/OC, and its restricted policy objectives. This drove a gap between a deficiently designed extra-parlimentary strategy and a limited policy effort. The anti-debt struggles remained caught in the division between revolutionary posture and incrementalist reform.

To move forward, a dynamic interplay between struggles in the state and those at a distance from it might be developed. Here, the potential power of debtors through collective acts of refusal in the form of a debt strike, might be retained but reformulated. Just as unions were developed to provide workers forms of autonomous organization for general protection in situations of risky collective action, similar organizations might help a debtors movement get off the ground by materially supporting their steps towards collective acts of refusal. But such sturdier structures, which could also retain the movement’s emphasis on horizontal and direct participation to maintain them as forms of democratic self-organization, would go beyond the loose network structures that the Occupy movement has until now been comfortable enough to build.

But it is not only Occupy’s organizational reluctance that would have to be renegotiated. It would also have to explore how a relationship between direct action and political reform may contribute to a project of societal transformation, hence touching the relationship between struggles in civil society and those within the state. Here, an autonomous debtors’ movement, which had developed structures of support and solidarity amongst debtors (and beyond), would have to break with the illusion of a general strike that breaks the power of capital in one blow, such as the OSDC’s belief that 1 million acts of refusal would bring about debt cancellation.

Taking up a revolutionary Realpolitik (Luxemburg), it would have to engage, as Mario Candeias argues, “with an acknowledgment of the societal power relations, yet with the perspective of shifting them”.[51] Such a strategy would have to “build on the real conditions and contradictions within which every person must operate, and based on the concerns and everyday interests of individuals.” It would however, try to connect to “particular interests and passions”, yet to “rearticulate and generalize them, so that the immediate interests of the different subaltern groups could transcend and become universal to the interests of other groups and class fractions.” This type of rearticulation was attempted by the OSDC’s successor group “Strike Debt!” (see below), which sought to link student debtors with mortgage debtors, those burdened with medical debt to those paying exorbitant payday loan fees, The aim was to link this heterogenous formation of the 99% under the slogan, “debt is the tie that binds the 99%”, however, without overlooking the significant distinctions in social and class position.

The focus on revolutionary Realpolitik aims to break down the false and unproductive antagonism between reform and revolution, without surrendering to an all permissive “diversity of tactics.” It is an attempt to build an integral strategy to build power, to concretely improve people’s lives, and to bring about social transformation.

Hence, a disruptive and self-organized debtors’ movement could be placed in connection to strategic and achievable goals, towards the shifting of societal power relations, or towards winning symbolic victories that gather popular support, and for thoroughgoing transformations. Congressional reform initiatives require a shift in the balance of forces to win more substantial reforms and an organized debtors movement might employ symbolic and concrete action to build counter-power.

This would also involve transcending the false dichotomy between struggles within the state, and those at a distance from it. The OSDC’s basic supposition of the nascent power of debtors, to use collective action, to disrupt the flows of profit in the processes of financialization, needs to be connected with forms of collective defense, with predecessors in labor and tenants unions. But instead of imagining a direct and immediate rupture with debt-based higher education, this power would have to be connected to a strategic approach towards political change and an alternative policy agenda that is possible in the current conjuncture. The OSDC is correct that the latter will not come from mere petitioning congress, but has to involve the shifting of power relations, with new sources of mobilization and forms of asserting pressure from below. This could be the beginning of a rearticulation of strategies beyond the stalemate of both trajectories, the aim of which is being voiced by many, in the advancement of an approach beyond the “reform” or “revolution” strategy, towards one of societal transformation.

This is not to obscure the real barriers to strategies on the terrain of the state, but rather to seek to clarify them, and to identify potential openings for concrete policy reforms, and structural transformations. Nor would this imply the downplaying of the significance of social movements, which lose nothing of their importance in pushing from the outside, and in establishing new forms of democratic organization for the restructuring of societal power relations towards self-determination from below.

Strike Debt! and the “Rolling Jubilee”

In June 2012, the student debt-organizers came together to initiate a new campaign, Strike Debt!, broadening their focus to a wide variety of kinds of consumer debt that would connect student loan debt with that accrued through medical bills, mortgages, credit card usage, and pay day loans, especially harmful to low-income people. Here, they re-centered the movement’s narrative around debt as “the tie that binds the 99%”. On the symbolic level, they sought to build solidarity across the distinctive experiences of indebtedness, telling borrowers: “You are not a loan”.

The “Rolling Jubilee”: A “Bailout of the People by the People”

Strike Debt! gained popular media attention with its “Rolling Jubilee”, billed as a “bailout of the people by the people”. The plan is to purchase consumer debt on the secondary debt market, and instead of collecting it – as collection agencies do – to “abolish” it instead, by voiding the contract and thereby relieving borrowers of their responsibility to repay it. The secondary debt markets allow banks and other lenders to off-load and write off defaulted loans, regarded as “toxic assets” and unlikely to be repaid by the borrowers. Available for purchase at discounted rates, these products are often purchased by debt collectors, who pick up these risky products with the aim of compelling borrowers to pay them back.

According to the group, this project accomplishes a few goals.

First, to practice an explicit form of mutual aid, relieving people from heavy financial burdens and psychological stress. Second, to scandalize the commodification of basic necessities, including medical care and housing. Third, to combat the social fragmentation of debtors, and the moralization of personal indebtedness, highlighting the structure behind it. And fourth, the “Rolling Jubilee” wants to build popular support for massive consumer debt cancellation.

Since November 2012, the group has raised over $600,00 dollars, which according to the group’s estimates, will be enough to cancel $12 million of consumer debt.[52] So far, $15,000 has been used to cancel $1.2 million of medical debt, absolving over 1,200 people of their financial burdens.[53] The mainstream press has praised the “Rolling Jubilee” as a concrete initiative alleviating people’s immediate suffering, hence restoring Occupy’s status as a progressive movement for the “99%”.

Yet the project has also received sharp criticism from within the movement itself. The objections are multiple: Some accuse it being a form of charity, rather than of political opposition; others point out that it only makes a tiny dent in the enormous amount of consumer debt; many argue that without restructuring education, healthcare, housing, and other systems, and without halting privatization, that a “jubilee” will not stop personal debt from re-accruing; and yet others accuse the bailout as simply restoring the capitalist status quo by eliminating “toxic assets” in the financial markets.

Struggles on a Neoliberal Terrain

The debate around the Rolling Jubilee is polarized into two equally unsatisfactory positions. The first is an uncritical affirmative position expressed by participants and supporters of Strike Debt! These claim that self-organized projects of mutual aid, located at a distance from the state (Poulantzas), which challenge social fragmentation and build horizontal bonds of solidarity that “prefigure” a postcapitalist society, are the basic elements of the “new society in the shell of the old”. These simply need to expand in a turf war to overthrow capitalism. With the Rolling Jubilee’s “bailout for the people, by the people”, the movement’s financial resources are put to use in the processes of financialization, to enable the collective societal withdrawal from indebtedness.

The second, and opposing, position challenges the apparent counter-hegemonic features of these projects by pointing to their location within processes of neoliberalization, in which the state outsources the general tasks and responsibilities of public provisioning and social welfare onto the realm of civil society, where voluntary and professionalized actors pick up the slack.

In fact, at least one self-described “neoliberal” praised the Rolling Jubilee precisely for its self-confinement to private initiative, and its refusal to call for state intervention. Writing in Forbes magazine, the author said that as long as these mutual aid projects mobilize resources from private individuals donated on a voluntary basis, and refrain from calling for state action, government funding, tax reform or other regulatory measures to challenge the financial expectations of creditors to relieve borrowers of their debt obligations, this project does not threaten neoliberalism.

In fact, the mobilization of private initiative in solving societal crises, rather than calling for state intervention in an expanded social safety net or in the alleviation of class polarizations, conforms to conservative values of voluntary association. This is because, so long as the “people’s bailout” remains the sole responsibility of “the people” as private individuals, engaged in voluntary activity, without state involvement, without coercion to push the “1%” into compromising any of its material power, without the reappropriation of accumulated wealth, the project presents no threat to the status quo. On the contrary, it affirms it by showing how societal problems can be “solved” by private initiative rather than by state involvement.[54] And in fact, the author cites the “big society” programs in the U.K., to outsource state responsibilities onto the civil society sector, and sees the Rolling Jubilee in this vein.

This brings to focus the glaring limitations of a strategy limited to the terrain of civil society. It shows how efforts which possess clearly oppositional aspects – such as solidarity and mutual aid against social atomization and individualization; the scandalization of for-profit public provisioning; and the popularization of support for debt relief – can nonetheless be part of other, contending processes that are directly opposed to the intended aims of the participants. That is because the Rolling Jubilee plays not only a functional role in relieving individuals of their particular crises, but by doing so within the bounds of voluntary cooperation, it is also a function of neoliberal crisis management strategies that alleviates public authorities from the responsibility of protecting people from the crisis; a refusal to call the state to place its resources towards a “people’s bailout.”

Towards Debt Cancellation as a Counter-Hegemonic Strategy

The ongoing crisis of capital over-accumulation means that the exit from the current crisis will involve the destruction of capital, or in other words, debt cancellation. The question regards whose capital or debt will be destroyed, and in what form (Demirovic). Yet, Occupy’s struggles for debt cancellation have reached their limits. And this is true for both the congressional reform efforts, the direct action wing, and the limited range of the self-bailout initiative of Strike Debt! The ongoing crisis means a situation where there are permanent opportunities for intervention. Yet, as long as the strategies of state-intervention, direct action, and mutual aid remain separate from one another, they will not be able to overcome their own limitations. The initiatives will have only a marginal impact.

Congressional reform efforts have hit a wall. Not only do they lack the necessary support in government, they have rejected extra-parliamentary strategies that might raise the level of pressure. In outright rejecting the (faulty formulated) debt strike, they neglected potential forms of collective action, that might have shifted the balance of powers in their favor.

The attempt to build a debtors’ movement and organize a debt strike have also reached their limits. First, the debt strike’s faulty formulation – failing to connect collective refusal with collective protection, with all-or-nothing aims – produced only minimal support. As a result, they shifted away from the possibility of asserting direct pressure on lenders and thereby negotiating reductions in debt burdens. And they moved away from confrontational action towards mutual cooperation in a self-bailout. The all-or-nothing strategy is rearticulated so that the mass debt strike aimed at a sudden societal rupture, is now replaced by a strategy of a frictionless collective escape from the capitalist system.

Yet, the Rolling Jubilee has also reached its limits. No matter how creatively Strike Debt! uses the financial system, the consumer debt crisis is so massive that the “people’s bailout” can not be solved within the limited resources generated from voluntary, financial contributions of private individuals. Both strategies, of direct massive coercion of lenders, and direct massive escape from them, have failed.

Yet, this does not have to be the end. Rather, a rearticulation of a “people’s bailout”, strategically employing the tactics of direct action, mutual aid and solidarity, and congressional reform, to develop a strategy situated simultaneously on the terrains of civil society and the state, could open new trajectories.

Debt cancellation for “the 99%” requires a strategy that can shift the financial losses onto those who will not welcome them voluntarily. And this creation of a commons involves coercion and enclosure of external resources, to satisfy needs not met by relatively small projects of mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.[55] And the terrain of this re-appropriation can not be limited to either the state or civil society.

While the movement has reached its limits, the crisis continues. Not only do the potential sites persist, for the Occupy movement to intervene, and thereby to return as a voice and force for the interests of the “99%”, alternatives to neoliberal exit strategies, and those based around debt cancellation, repeatedly return to the political agenda. That is to say, the political opportunity structure remains conducive to the renewal of an oppositional movement. And some of the groundstones for a counter-hegemonic project have been developed. Yet, to go beyond the current limitations, will require a thorough rearticulation of its strategies, and the mobilization of its forces behind them.

To move forward, the movement will have to find a way to relate the emancipatory aspects of voluntary cooperation amongst the 99% to the necessary and involuntary appropriation of concentrated wealth. There are no simple answers. It cannot mean a simple switch from the terrain of civil society to that of the state, but rather an engagement on both terrains at the same time. The movement will have to go beyond the it’s currently dominant view about civil society as counter-neoliberal space, without falling into the inverse position of the old Left, whose state-centralism saw nationalization as the necessarily first step towards an alleviation of class stratification.

The popularization of a “people’s bailout” is a way forward, placing, in general terms, people’s basic needs over those of capital. Hence, debt relief for the “99%” at the expense of the “1%”. But there has to also be a strategy advanced on both terrains at the same time, avoiding both civil society reductionism and state reductionism simultaneously, a finding a productive relation between the two, that could shift the trajectory away from the needs of capital accumulation. This would require intervening in existing societal and political conflicts. That’s not a simple feet. But it is one that all the global movements since late 2010 are facing.

4: Occupy Sandy: Hurricane Relief and a “People’s Recovery”

Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. northeast coast in late October 2012, becoming the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history. It destroyed thousands of homes, and left millions of people without power, warm water, and a roof over their heads. It was the second deadliest U.S. hurricane since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. [56]

The incredibly strong storm disrupted common dismissals of the warnings of scientists and environmental activists about the impact of human-caused climate change upon weather patterns. This was not the only aspect of the “natural disaster” narrative that was destabilized in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Also, its uneven effect upon urban populations was also illuminated by mainstream media outlets. The front page photograph of New York magazine, of a bird’s eye nighttime view of Manhattan, showing clear zones of distinction between those with full light and power in upper Manhattan and around the new World Trade Center and the Goldman Sachs building, in contrast to  zone of darkness in the central and lower sections of the city, helped illuminate the differential impact of the storm.[57] In an interview with the photographer, he characterized New York as being divided into two cities, one of which resembles a “third world country”, “where everything was becoming scarce”, while the affluent section continued on as a “vibrant, alive New York.”[58] According to the photographer, the photo “shows also what’s wrong with the country in this moment.”

But such social criticism and illustrations of societal polarization – along with criticisms of the response of federal disaster relief agencies – were not to persist automatically. Nor were they alone going to produce policy shifts to the benefit of the affected populations. This would require active and regular intervention into the discursive level, with the presentation of a counter narrative; it would require growing levels of support amongst social forces on the ground behind it; and it would involve the development of an alternative program and strategy for a just and sustainable recovery.

This is the turbulent situation that active Occupy members intervened in with their mobilization, “Occupy Sandy.” As soon as the storm hit, they (1) rapidly mobilized a grassroots response of direct relief and solidarity with affected communities; and (2) began developing a counter-narrative of the social causes of the disaster and critique of the dominant, debt-based reconstruction, and of the displacement of low-income New Yorkers by profit-based redevelopment schemes. They also (3) built alliances with other civil society actors on the ground, in campaigns to pressure public authorities to release necessary funds for vulnerable populations, and to empower communities in democratic structures to determine the form of the recovery. And lastly, they (4) initiated a holistic perspective and program for a “people’s recovery” and against “disaster capitalism” (Naomi Klein).

In this section, I will describe these efforts, illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of this mobilization in view of the building of a counter-hegemonic project.

Hurricane Relief

As soon as the storm hit the U.S. shores, movement veterans rapidly put their technological skills and social media to use, by networking a mobilization of first responders into badly affected neighborhoods throughout the city. Here the movement outpaced the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard, and the Red Cross, who delivered goods to Occupy Sandy “hubs” for distribution. A week after the storm, the movement had established nearly 40 drop-off locations for donated supplies across the city, and three distribution centers, with three more in the works.[59] An online registry had harnessed $1.5 million dollars in donations[60].

Not only did Occupy Sandy outpace traditional relief institutions, they also absorbed a much larger number of volunteers, putting them to work in distribution of donated supplies, cleaning away storm rubbish, removing mold from people’s homes, knocking on doors in public housing projects and delivering food and assessing medical requirements of those trapped in their homes because of elevator power outages, and much more. The group had established direct contact with affected populations, and immediately ascertained their needs.

Tens of thousands of volunteers in the greater New York metropolitan area have worked with Occupy Sandy.[61] In November 2012, Occupy Sandy had over 50,000 people on its email list.[62]

The movement was being publicly recognized as a leading relief organization, and Comedy Central deliver food to it for further distribution. The Occupy movement, which had largely disappeared from public view, had returned to public prominence, crowned as a progressive movement in concrete support for the down-trodden, within the mainstream media, and amongst affected populations alike.

The group received praise from the New York Times, for filling the void where the Federal Emergency Management Agency “fell short”, was called a “Godsend” by the President of Public Housing Development in Coney Island, Brooklyn,[63] ‘and was said to be “doing a great job” by Mayor Bloomberg, who had evicted the encampment the year before, and then had the police remove an Occupy Sandy distribution site shortly after giving the group public praise.

If critics were unaware of the multiple ways in which the movement had been engaged in community and labor struggles parallel to the encampment phase of the movement throughout Fall 2011, and charged Occupy as being removed from front line communities, Occupy Sandy produced a sharp contrast to the misconception that the movement was divorced from concrete material concerns and struggles.

Just like Occupy Our Homes and Occupy Labor, this direct involvement in supporting struggling populations throughout the city by building connections and common struggles, helped the movement bridge the gap between the disproportionately white, middle-class, and college educated demographic with the struggles of low-income black, latino and asian communities, building a bridge of solidarity across the differentially impacted “99%”.

The movement’s physical presence at the disaster sites lent it significant public legitimacy, enabling it, just as it did in the first months of initial success, to expand beyond the normally static boundaries of the left, making entries into mainstream consciousness and society, into liberal-left circles, and even into correspondence with state agencies and government representatives.

The work of Occupy Sandy was also not done alone, but rather in collaboration with local community organizations, faith groups, multi-racial social justice organizations, unions, and workers’ centers, throughout the boroughs of New York and especially in the neighborhoods of the Rockaways and Red Hook, Brooklyn. The group’s immediate growth had to do with the void it stepped into, amidst the shallow and slow state response. Not only did affected populations rely on Occupy Sandy for the distribution of goods, but also for the cleaning of rubbish that had swept up on neighborhood streets, for the gutting of house that were infested with mold, and with the knocking on doors in tall social housing blocks, checking on residents who were trapped in their apartments for weeks, without medication and food, as broken elevators had demobilized them. This strengthened their ties to affected communities and drove them beyond relief work, back towards protest to get the city, state, and federal governments to step up their efforts in the relief and reconstruction.

Yet, the group’s popular reception has also driven it onto unfamiliar and challenging new terrain, where it must not only negotiate new relationships with civil society organizations, but also with governmental agencies and officials. Occupy Sandy has participated in conference calls with the Federal Emergency Management Agency; it has received support from the United Postal Service; it has borrowed a bus of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for a distribution hub; it has coordinated activities with volunteers of the National Guard; it has been present in joint meetings with local police departments; and it has been in conversation with the New York City Mayor’s office.[64]

“Mutual Aid, Not Charity”

True to the movement’s original spirit, Occupy Sandy emerged in a lateral, network form, and used social media both for the mobilization of its base, and for the integration of a wide swath of newcomers drawn to the grassroots effort of hurricane relief. People seeking to contribute their various skills, were much more quickly integrated into the Occupy Sandy hubs, than they were in the traditional charity organizations, and were quickly involved in collective learning processes, becoming leaders and trainers themselves, in a very short amount of time.

Yet, although Occupy Sandy became a central pillar in the relief effort, it did not want to be a charity organization. They drew on the left’s long-standing traditions of solidarity and equality, writing on their banners that Occupy Sandy was based on “mutual aid, not charity.”

What they meant by this was that they opposed the administrative approaches of bureaucratized service provision, and the treatment of people in need as mere recipients of goods. The group wanted to build lateral relationships with affected populations and locally-based community groups, to foster collective forms of self-determination in satisfying their own needs.

Furthermore, mutual aid was to contrast with the band-aid solutions offered by official charity and relief efforts which only restore the already crisis-ridden status quo. Projects of mutual aid were supposed to create long-term transformation of social conditions, and structures of injustice that produced Sandy in the first place.

On this difference between traditional charity and mutual aid, Ryan Hickey wrote:

The Salvation Army, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the American Red Cross are, and have always been, knee-jerk reactions to storm devastation. They do nothing to address the class relations that pre-empted the scope of this crisis. Where Occupy Sandy succeeds, and must continue to succeed, is in its ability to bridge the effects of neoliberal capitalism and Sandy’s destruction.

Occupy Sandy must form more coherent and accessible critiques of capitalism than its predecessor, focusing less on ameliorative solutions than on transformational ones. It must not only provide supplies and social services, but also explain Sandy’s exacerbation of social ills, radically changing the foundations of social relationships in the process.[65]

In a similar vein, the official response of state agencies and charity organizations alike is to treat the disaster as “a temporary problem to be managed and administered in the name of restoring things to normal”. Yet, this status quo, “was already a perpetual emergency for us–an emergency of economic inequality, debt-bondage, racial oppression, union-busting, municipal austerity, ecological destruction, police violence, historical amnesia, and more…”. The aim of Occupy Sandy is to prevent a “return to normal.”[66]

Yet, the question remained: How would mutual aid be integrated into a broader transformative strategy?

On this point, it can be said, that Occupy Sandy repeated the mistake of Occupy Wall Street, where a one-dimensional “prefigurative politics” of mutual aid and consensus decision-making limited to directly participating members, crowded out efforts to develop strategies towards the shifting of societal power relations, aimed at bringing social life in general under increasing democratic control.

The “horizontalist” project of taking and developing lateral forms of mutual aid, presented as the kernels of “the new society in the shell of the old” leaves these larger and much more complicated strategic questions to the side.

“We Got This!”

This was shown in the response of some sections of Occupy Sandy, who witnessed the rapid expansion of these experiments in mutual aid in the void left by neoliberal “roll-back” of the welfare state, and the popular public recognition of Occupy’s grassroots mobilization. This stardom produced precisely the self-congratulatory effect that Slavoj Zizek had warned movement activists against early on. From the Zuccotti Park soapbox, he told the “occupiers” not to “fall in love with yourselves”. But “We Got This!” became the popular slogan of the movement, redefining themselves as relief workers and community builders “outside of the state”.[67]

This self-congratulation took hallucinatory proportions in a statement by some members of Occupy Sandy, who celebrated the elaboration of mutual aid projects as the alternative to the state:

“The People’s Emergency responds to the crisis; we set up distribution centers and energy-generators; we mobilize volunteers; we raise money and attract media; we help folks on the ground when their lives are in danger from hunger, darkness, and exposure to the elements. […] We are creating autonomous zones for community and solidarity, not camps for managing the lives of powerless victims.”[68]

Another statement supports this sentiment of mutual aid networks as the political content of the movement’s response. Focusing on empowerment, the author writes, “people are not helpless against the storm”. They simply need to organize together. They can “find shelter when they act together in the face of collapsing economies and ecological crises. Shelter can take the form of robust mutual aid networks and solidarity economies by which people empower and support one another to sustain themselves outside the constraints of the capitalist system.”[69]

These developments, and the intention of “sustain[ing] intensive care units beyond the immediate crisis” are seen as components of the construction of a dual power situation, and therefore a “real emergency for the 1%.”[70]

Towards these ends, Occupy Sandy put its attention towards the building of new, and support for existing, alternative institutions. These were to provide stable structures for the coordination of ongoing relief efforts, for dialogue between Occupy Sandy volunteers and community residents, for the distribution of funds, for educational purposes, and for the empowerment of communities in the grassroots reconstruction effort.

Occupy Sandy helped to restore the YANA community center, a “worker training center”, in the Far Rockaways, rebuilding it after the storm with sustainable design and technology, and turning it into a hub for the distribution of goods, the provision of hot meals, free medical care, and the deployment of volunteers. Also in the Rockaways section of Queens, Occupy donated funds to The Action Center, a long standing organization providing direct food and medical services to hard-hit communities, as well legal advice. Respond and Rebuild, an organization established in the response to the storm, has also been financed by Occupy Sandy, and has been involved in the physical repairs of homes damaged by the storm. And the Staten Island Community and Interfaith Long-Term Recovery Organization has also received Occupy Sandy funds, whose disbursement will be decided by a “participatory budgeting” process. Occupy also donated funds to Sandy Relief for Immigrants – La Union, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, will be be given directly to immigrants for their own means. Funds have also been used to support community gardens projects, and the Rockaway Youth Task Force, a youth empowerment NGO. In the Rockaways, $60,000 of Occupy Sandy funding went into the establishment of worker-owned cooperatives.

On Neoliberal Terrain

Yet, whereas many Occupy Sandy participants viewed the mutual aid networks and self-organized relief as a kind of counter-neoliberal mobilization that restored community in the face of social fragmentation and a hollowed out social safety net, others pointed out that these projects are a “double-edged sword”. In replacing state-organized forms of public provisioning, these initiatives could just as well legitimize the neoliberal “roll-back” of a generalized public welfare system. Occupy Sandy could, Noam Chomsky argued, let the state off the hook, freeing it of any responsibility to ensure people’s basic material needs in moments of crisis.[71]

Some people recognized this problem, and responded to the challenge by suggesting that Occupy Sandy should try to capture state resources and transfer them the alternative institutions. Michelle Chen suggested Occupy Sandy should try to “absorb” federal relief funds to finance community-based projects, and to support an alternative recovery process whose direction would be given by affected populations.[72]

The idea of absorbing state and private resources for the development of an externally situated dual power is expressed also by one of the main advocates of horizontalism, Marina Sitrin. She argues that the Occupy movement’s agenda in the case of Occupy Sandy involves a rebuilding process “based in the community” and which “takes the resources from the state.”[73]

While this strategy advocates the decentralization of the state through the bottom-up empowerment of local communities in “civil society”, it does not necessarily represent a counter-neoliberal trend. It could, some argued, in fact coincide with processes of neoliberalization. The decentralization of the bureaucratic apparatus of Fordist generalized public provisioning into a distributed, horizontal network of self-help, community-based projects might be part of “roll-out neoliberalism”. Here, the responsibility of fundamental societal reproduction is outsourced onto underfunded civil society organizations, in a setting dominated by market-discipline, where groups are reliant on competitive grant funding, and under pressure to cut overhead and labor costs.

The debate about Occupy Sandy is polarized between these two overly-simplistic positions, one which praises local, mutual aid networks as intrinsically counter-neoliberal, while the other, taking the inverted position, rejects such projects as mere expressions of neoliberalization, not up to the task of challenging the state. Both positions raise important points, but remain one-dimensional, static and abstract formulations. They are both largely detached from empirical analysis that is necessary to judge their impact.

A different approach treats civil society neither as a terrain external to the capitalist state, against which “society” organizes itself, nor as a sphere wholly over-determined by it. Instead, “civil society” is part of an “integral state” (Gramsci), a contested terrain where both hegemony – and also potential counter-hegemony – is organized. Hence, the question turns to how these projects interact with other levels of society, and how they organize themselves into a broader counter-hegemonic project, and seek to shift power relations with the aim of societal transformation.

Both Occupy Sandy participants and affected residents pointed out the limitations of the self-organized recovery, and began advocating increased collaboration with other social forces, broad mobilization in pursuit of popular power from below, increased  public pressure, alternative policy agendas, structural changes towards increased democratic input, and alternative visions for a “people’s reconstruction” that could deviate from a capitalist status quo.

“From Relief to Protest”

What many Occupy Sandy participants agreed on, was the need to move “from relief to protest”, and eventually to an alternative recovery process. Here, the self-congratulatory claim amongst some occupiers, that “We Got This!” was clearly responded to by affected communities, with the response: “No You Don’t!”. A rag-tag group of volunteers can not possibly meet the needs of those who lives were thrown into disrepair in the wake of the storm, and whose crises predated the storm and are ongoing.

Additionally, working-class families had already been responding to the economic crisis by extending their hours of unpaid labor in care and reproductive work, filling in for those expenses they could not afford to purchase on the market as commodities, after these had been privatized away from the public sector.[74] This extension of unpaid labor is especially the case in black, latino and asian communities, and carried overwhelmingly by women, children, and the elderly in extended family networks. While many welcomed the support from the largely white volunteers of Occupy Sandy, they were aware that this strategy was insufficient to effectively halt the further deterioration of their living standards, in face of the lackluster state response to the storm. Incapable of meeting their needs on the voluntary donations of well-meaning individuals, mutual aid strategies would not suffice. Prevented the productive means to satisfy their own material reproduction, there was no other option than to seek forceful means (ie. the state) to compel a redistribution of resources.

In this conjuncture, the “99%” movement was called upon by the affected communities, to rise to the occasion. It wasn’t enough to circulate donated goods as a mutualistic movement, but rather had to maintain an oppositional character and to intervene politically.

At a meeting in a Red Hook public school, organized by Occupy Sandy, one public housing resident reminded them that the recovery is going to require asserting political pressure, to get resources released to struggling communities. Narlena Lunnon told the Occupy activists: “I’m tired of the free blankets. I’m tired of my grandchildren going to bed cold. I’m tired of old people telling me they ’re hurting because they can’t get up the stairs. […] If you can’t get no officials down here, I got to go to City Hall and keep screaming.”[75]

In this Brooklyn neighborhood, the flooding knocked out power and destroyed property for many of the residents of the city’s largest public housing complex, for 8,000 of the neighborhoods 11,000 residents. Elevators were unusable, water was inaccessible, lights were off. The neglect of the New York City Housing Authority to residents’ complaints around lack of services did not keep the agency from demanding rent payments. At a meeting by the NYCHA, three weeks after the storm about 50 angry residents left the meeting for one held by Occupy Sandy and Occupy Red Hook, where they drafted demands and called for a protest action at the NYCHA headquarters. Not only did they demand the cancellation of two months rent payments, but also more thoroughgoing reforms including a moratorium on evictions, increased federal disaster relief funds, the replacement of the agency’s board with a “community-led board”, employment of public housing residents in the rebuilding work, the use of alternative energy sources and storm protection measures.

Yet, this effort was powerless against a debt-based recovery strategy based on loans to local businesses, rather than funding for local residents, and towards outsourced reconstruction contracts at the expense of the predominantly black and latino residents.

After this missed opportunity, the group continued to try and build grassroots collaboration with other community groups both around and beyond direct relief work. In multiple endeavors, they bridged the gap between left-leaning community organizations, social justice groups, environmental NGO’s, and labor unions, with public demonstrations, and demands on public authorities for an alternative recovery process.

On December 15, Occupy Sandy organized a “Sandy Survivors Day of Action”, with demonstrations in Staten Island and the Rockaways to call to “rebuild the city” and “restore power to the people”. In the Rockaways, Occupy activists demonstrated together with local residents, faith groups, and members of tenant unions, creating a multi-racial opposition, concluding with a rally at the house being repaired by Occupy Sandy volunteers. The day of action was to conclude with a large convergence at the home of Mayor Bloomberg, and therefore to identify political leaders responsible for the ongoing crisis in the affected neighborhoods. But the demonstration drew only a few hundred people, and was quickly dispersed by the police within significant media attention or aftereffect.

The “People’s Recovery”

In February 2012, Occupy Sandy joined other groups at the People’s Recovery Summit. The convergence was sponsored by a broad coalition of community organizations, anti-austerity groups, environmental NGOs, immigrant worker centers, faith groups, Occupy the Hood, and labor groups. The 3-day educational, cultural, and organizing event aimed to connect and congeal the loose networks of relief groups and progressive organizations into a concerted project for an “equitable and sustainable rebuilding in Sandy’s wake”.[76]

The Summit sought to more tightly connect affected residents with their advocates, to bring together ecological and social justice programs, and establish stronger cooperation between groups working in these areas, research state responses and negligence, and develop policy proposals for “equitable” and “accountable development” with a “human rights focus” based on “transparency” and democratic input.

The Summit produced a clear goal-oriented document seeking to improve horizontal processes of collaboration between groups, explore concrete forms of opposition to debt-based recovery, defend public housing and resist displacement through reconstruction, and demand federal funds for community investment and a democratic process for conmunity control. They also advances a holistic reconstruction process, including ecological building, living wage jobs. In building broad coalitions and intervening in the political apparatus, they also sought to prevent cooptation of the movements.[77] The statement also emphasized the desire for participatory budgeting and a holistic alternative urban recovery plan.

Yet, no direct coalition emerged out of this convergence. Instead, a similar project, with overlapping membership produced the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a coalition of nearly 40 community organizations, unions and immigrant worker centers, ecological groups, housing advocacy projects, healthcare reform initiatives, the participatory budgeting project, faith groups, and racial justice groups.

The seek to intervene in and effect the form of the storm recovery by promoting an alternative recovery model in the public, and by intervening in the mayoral election, to push for demands. Their broad aims are to push for immediate relief for affected communities, but rather limiting these efforts to the do-it-yourself projects, they demand city, state, and federal resources. They seek affordable housing, healthcare, and access to public assistance for marginalize populations. They call for public investment in infrastructure to prevent displacement, job expansion at living wages with benefits. Their democratic focus seeks to include the affected populations in oversight, planning, and representative bodies for “democratic planning, transparency and accountability.” And they want policy to address climate change, and the vulnerability of urban populations to storms, and call for investment in sustainable development.

The alliance has organized public demonstrations, pushing the mayor on these points, and drafted alternative policy papers, demanding increased government resources for mold remediation and housing support.

Towards a Counter-Hegemonic Project?

With the development of the concept of the “people’s recovery”, the Occupy movement could move beyond its limitations and participate in a broad-based counter-hegemonic mobilization. This is because it has been articulated as a holistic program of relief, addressing the immediate material deprivations of the population – and especially the predominantly marginalized low-income, black, latino, and asian populations.

Not only does it call for immediate relief, it also presents an alternative recovery program, that joins ecological considerations about sustainability and sustainable development, with green job creation at living wages for affected populations regardless of citizenship status. And while the calls for transparency, accountability, and community input through democratic channels would not institute direct democracy, the mobilization moves in a direction of democratization. Seen in terms of a directionality, and pushed towards more thorough-going yet pragmatic demands that do not get trapped in realpolitik, it could be the focus of a new round of mobilization, both against the current recovery plan, and beyond it.

It could become the basis for joining broad and long-standing themes of social justice and social forces behind them, with the new wave of occupy members seeking radical forms of democratic participation. The involvement of the New York Participatory Budgeting Project shows a hybrid example of these two trends, seeking the connect social justice demands with transformations of state infrastructure toward bottom-up power.

Of course, this will not be radical enough for some sections of the movement who advocate no compromise with the state. But the anti-political orientation is not as absolute as one might think. Even the anarchist-influenced Strike Debt! group suggests that mutual aid projects are necessary but insufficient responses the storm. Therefore, the debt-based recovery model should be opposed with calls for democratic planning, so that those in need can control the allocation of government resources, essentially restoring political power to the base of society.

They write, “In the meantime, we must continue to use the principles of mutual aid as we rebuild our broken homes and neighborhoods. We cannot let profits be the force that determines the future of our communities. We must demand a democratic planning process that acknowledges the importance of the common good and our shared humanity.”[78]

Yet, it is clear now that a counter-hegemonic project has been blocked, and that Occupy Sandy has stagnated.

The rapid return of the Occupy movement in response to hurricane Sandy, and the broken social safety net it revealed, showed that the movement retains the capacity to mobilize large groups of people around concrete acts of solidarity in moments of crisis. It helped build bridges of concrete solidarity, and bring public attention to the uneven effects of the storm on low-income communities of color. Yet while some participants reduced their activities to direct relief, others recognized the need to move “from relief to protest”. Yet, this necessary political intervention, the expansion of resources, and higher level of impact, was not achieved.

Thousands of relief volunteers that had swarmed to the relief efforts had slowly receded in the weeks and months following, despite the ongoing material deprivation of affected communities. The movement couldn’t stabilize its numbers and pivot towards political mobilization. Much of the energy and funds were deployed towards already existing community-based organizations, or for the formation of new ones, in a semi-professional undertakings, as NGOs, fulfilling the responsibilities of service provision where the neoliberal state has withdrawn. They are also involved in political education, and grassroots mobilizations.

As Occupy built relationships with community groups in the affected communities, the moment of truth was at the People’s Recovery Summit, where the attempt was made to develop a holistic, oppositional perspective, and bonds of collaboration. But while this pivot produced a new formation of a broad and plural coalition of diverse organizations, it did not retain the numbers and dynamism of the Occupy mobilization. This might lie in its effort to explicitly place demands on the state, for increased city, state, and federal funding.

The Alliance for a Just Recovery continues to be the convergence for alternative response to the recovery, but it largely mobilizes the usual players, and has not (yet) managed to go beyond them. While a holistic “people’s recovery” is being formulated, linking ecological, labor, radical justice, and other democratic consideration, and has joined diverse forces behind it, it has not caught on in the Occupy movement.

The immediate response to the storm, remobilized the movement, reconnected it to some of the most marginal sections of the “99%, and returned it to popular attention with “progressive” merits. Yet, while the movement mobilized the grassroots towards much needed relief work, and built an infrastructure of solidarity with affected neighborhoods, and alliances with community organizations, it failed to consolidate these efforts into an ongoing collective formation for political mobilization that could intervene and shift the symbolic and political realities.

The thousands of volunteers it initially mobilized were distributed throughout its mutual aid networks, eventually disappearing again, without establishing an organizational form which would keep people involved, and working together towards political change.

Occupy Sandy showed that it is possible for grassroots mobilizations to directly respond to immediate crisis situations, and that given the ongoing crisis, this door remains open. Yet, the movement’s incapacity to build durable structures beyond the immediate needs, shows it remains trapped in an anti-hegemonic or anti-political modus, and is not ready to scale up to a counter-hegemonic project.


The Occupy movement emerged in the interregnum of a blocked societal transformation of crisis-ridden neoliberalism. Despite having fallen into a deep structural crisis and experiencing a thinning consensus, it remains dominant because of the weak power and fragmentation of oppositional forces. For many participants of the movement, Occupy presented the possibility of a counter-power that could unify the fragmented and weakened forces of the left, social justice movements, and many other other dissidents into a new historic bloc, and shift the balance of forces towards a social, democratic, and ecological alternative beyond neoliberal capitalism.

Missed Opportunities

While Occupy achieved many feats in its initial emergence, it has not lived up to the expectations or historical task of forging a new historical bloc out of the subaltern and popular classes of the “99%”.

However, the movement achieved many feats. It managed to temporarily and contingently unify the fragments left, social movement, and labor, with sections of the wider public into a counter-neoliberal mobilization. It initiated a process of forging a “mosaic left” to connect the situation of the multitude into a common project, without overlooking important differences in social or class position.[79] This led to a certain degree of condensation, where the encampments were able to be defended, immediate concrete victories were achieved, and the movement could, as Jan Rehmann points out, “intervene into the symbolic order”, producing a counter-narrative about the crisis, centering on wealth disparity and the centralization of power, hence creating an anti-austerity tendency in the public debates.[80]

Occupy also temporarily “change[d] the power relations in people’s common sense”, fostering an identification with a collective “we”, in popular, class terms as the “99%”.[81]

The movement’s central weakness is however glaring. Rehmann correctly identifies it as the failure to build “a new kind of network-like connective formation that could stabilize these momentary successes.” Beyond the issue-specific initiatives, only the loose network “Interoccupy” has emerged to link geographical and issue-based groups. This has however largely been limited to the distribution of information, and for the communication between different groups. It is the bare minimum of what an organization can provide. The only other formation is the Occupy National Gathering, which is largely a counter-cultural get-together that has produced no effect on the movement. Here, the general assembly has been used to generate a laundry list of wishes for a better society. It reflects Rehmann’s concern, that without connecting the general assembly to questions of societal power – he specifies “economic democracy” –  it becomes a mere spectacle.

Nonetheless, the lack of stable organization has not resulted in the “falling back” of the movement “to the level of single-issue movements and identity politics”, as Rehmann warns. The issue-specific organizing to which the movement has turned in the post-eviction period, are themselves influenced by Occupy’s broad lens. The examples analyzed in this study, show attempts to engage in specific struggles, while articulating them within a broad, critical, and holistic perspective. They seek to connect the plural forces of social and labor movements into a common struggle. They aim to elaborate forms of democratic organizing, to empower affected communities in the decisions that effect their lives. And they began to formulate a nascent alternative political policy agenda. In some cases – as seen in the Foreclosure and Eviction-Free Zone and with Occupy Sandy and especially the People’s Summit – they even go beyond Occupy’s anti-political limitations, to intervene in the political terrain.

Hence, while Occupy did not create a stable connective formation to consolidate the plural forces, the lessons of the initial successes have not all been lost. Much of these experiences have been gathered up and brought along to the dispersed struggles at the front lines. The possibility remains, that these examples could contribute to the kind of formation needed to make a significant political intervention.

Dead Ends & New Openings

While the movement has not achieved the historical task set out for it, there is much to learn from the  past two years of the Occupy movement. In has reached dead ends, which could provide clarification for finding ways forward. And it has also shown new openings towards increased societal significance.

While horizontal organizing has been essential for the success of the initial mobilization, its specific form has impeded the movement’s ability to address larger questions of social organization and political contestation. Many aspects of anarchism helped nurture the movement into formation. These are horizontalism, a spirit and practice of mutual aid, and an emphasis on autonomy. Yet, in the practices of the movement, all three of these have run up against their limits. These have produced dead ends for the movement. Yet, these has also created a learning process that is still not complete. In some cases, the dead ends have moved Occupy participants to initiate new experiments, rearticulating the movement’s basic values in new forms, beyond those that first became dominant in the movement, and which now have prevented the movement from advancing. These reveal new openings for the movement, with creative rearticulations in democratic organizing, solidarity, transformation, and independent political formation.

Democracy Beyond Horizontalism

Advocates of a horizontalist perspective falsely interpreted the mass participation in general assemblies at the emergence of the movement, as a mass rejection of representative democracy, and as the desire to organize “society beyond the state”. Some explained the rapid growth of such formations as the proof of humanity’s natural inclination towards “freedom” and “democracy” (Graeber). The conjunctural features contributing to the sudden hegemonic status of these forums was neglected.

While they certainly expressed a popular will towards increased democratic participation in social life, their popularity was also result of the crisis of political representation and of “post-democracy” (Crouch). Direct participation for many, did not mean the absolute rejection of representative institutions, but rather an attempt to express the gap between state politics and the people. An outrage about the bank bailout, at the expense of the “99%”. And a desire to have a more substantive role in the determination of social life.

The GA’s were forums for the expression of grievances and the construction of commonalities. They were “coming out parties” for the a collective we, the “99%”, and the formation of a common narrative about the source of the diverse grievances. The assemblies also enabled a collaborative form for the organization of plurality of perspectives, and in a form attune to the networked form of modern production, technology, and ideology of modern capitalism.

Many anarchists misread the popular use of general assemblies as popular confirmation of their own desire for a fundamental break with representative institutions. Yet, many participants and supporters were not anarchists, and saw these experiments as a way to enhance their political impact upon the state. The directionality of horizontalist politics, aimed at detaching support from the state, and moving it towards the “self-organization” of society, produced a huge gap between concentrated power (ie. the state), and everyday life. Without ways of connecting these levels, horizontalism nearly lost all of its mobilizational capacity and legitimacy.

This was seen most clearly in the case of Occupy Sandy, where victims of the storm pressured Occupy Sandy, against its will, to assert political pressure. To intervene in the terrain of the state, and use its social position, its recognition in the media, to push for the release of necessary state resources. It was called on to lead, but dominated by a concept of leadership that equates it with hierarchy, it shied away from this responsibility, and lost its capacity to represent the “99%”.

Horizontalism could not respond to the challenge of articulating and innovating ways of advancing democratic forms of organization on the one hand, and intervening in the terrain of the state on the other hand. Refusing to effect state policy, only lent support to initiatives that broke with democratic organizing, replacing it with professionalized politics. It reaffirmed the drifting apart between popular organization and alternative political programs.

For the social movements to advance, they are going to have to find ways to be democratic in form, yet to transcend the parameters of horizontalism. In the case of Occupy Homes, the Foreclosure and Eviction Free Zone, shows the potential for the development of a democratic movement beyond the limitations of horizontalism. Here, popular forums are used to mobilize, to articulate grievances, and to organize neighbors collectively into collective resistance. And absent the false dichotomy of “state” and “society”, they are intervening on the level of city politics without however, integrating into it, or handing over its own power. This represents the possibility of democratic organizing that goes beyond horizontalism.

Solidarity Beyond Mutual Aid

Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt! and the Occupy Student Debt Campaign showed how the specific form of mutual aid articulated by the movement has reached its limits. In the first case, this was articulated in the form of the redistribution of goods and voluntary labor for those in need. The calls emanating from affected residents, to place pressure on city hall to release state and federal funds, did not generate much response. As a result, the specific articulation of solidarity as mutual aid, within the bounds of voluntarily available resources, brought this strategy to its limits.

Strike Debt!’s “Rolling Jubilee” also sought to create a “people’s bailout by the people”. While they received an impressive amount of donations, their creative use of the secondary debt markets to bail out borrowers, could make only a small dent in the total figure of consumer debt.

In a similar way, the mutual aid of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign’s debt strike was insufficient to support those the movement sought to be defending. Its call for a collective action without a plan for collective defense, not only resulted in the embarrassing failure of the debt strike, it also revealed the impracticality of struggles reliant entirely on the limited resources of voluntary individuals.

Like it or not, the movement is driven to engage the state. The question is how. Absent a movement capable of directly appropriating the means of production, solidarity is going to have to develop a relationship to the state, to free up publicly held social surplus for immediate redistribution, and to build long-term capacities for overturning the capitalist mode of production and its lifeways.

Independence Beyond Autonomy

The symbolic break from the political establishment was critical for generating popular participation amongst people deeply dissatisfied by the status quo. Yet, as shown above, the movement’s growth is drastically curtailed by its outright refusal to engage the state. Where it has failed to do so, it has lost its legitimacy, and shrunk back towards being a social milieu, rather than a movement with broad social significance.

The autonomous proclamations helped the movement initially open space for the emergence of a constituting power. Yet, the full autonomy of the movement never really existed. It emerged not as a rupture between the state and “society”, but as a disruption of hegemony throughout the established institutions.

While Occupy rightfully rejects the return to the “long march through the institutions”, it nonetheless needs to find a way of engaging them, and to do so as an independent social movement. Refusing to do so has not only limited its social significance and legitimacy, but also led to the bleeding of the movement of individuals, who individually pursue political office or join campaigns, without accountability to the movement, or strategic approaches towards campaign work.

It needs an interventionist approach without losing its independence. This seems to be the orientation of Occupy Our Homes’ Eviction and Foreclosure Free Zone as well as the Alliance for a Just Recovery, which Occupy Sandy is participating in.


As the second phase of the Occupy movement in issue-based struggles has reached a plateau, it has the opportunity to critically reflect on two years of mobilization. Whether it remakes itself and breaks beyond its current limitations is still uncertain. Yet, as long as the crisis persists, it will have the opportunity to intervene. There is an opening for left political forces to play a role in mobilizing dissent. Yet, Occupy has raised the bar of expectations and it is time to go forward.

[1] See Chris Tilly, “An opportunity not taken…yet: U.S. labor and the current economic crisis”, (September 2010), Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, UCLA. See also Ruth Milkman, “The US labour movement and the audacity of hope”, in Socio-economic Review 8 (2010): 372-376.

[2] Barbara Epstein, “Universität in Aufruhr”, in Luxemburg 2/2009.

[3] Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson, “How the Left Can Become a True Political Force to be Reckoned With”, Alternet (November 13, 2012).

[4] From “above”, see for example, the statement of comedian and political commentator Bill Maher: “[W]e need Occupy to be our Tea Party. An unwavering bloc that will force things to the left.” hbo.com/ (June 8, 2012).

[5] Neil Brenner and Nic Theodore, “Cities and Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’”,  Antipode 34/3 2002: 349-379.

[6] CNBC, “Santelli’s Tea Party”, video.cnbc.com (February 19, 2009).

[7] This was a main difference between the successful U.S. Occupy movement and its German counterpart, the latter expressing abstract resentment against the financial sector without supporting the losers of the crisis, and without identifying governing processes responsible for class polarization.

[8] Astra Taylor, “Occupy Wall Street on Your Street”, The Nation, (December 7, 2011).

[9] Laura Gottesdiener, “Occupy Homes, One Year On and Growing”, Znet, (December 26, 2012).

[10] William Greider, “The Federal Reserve Turns Left”, The Nation (April 30, 2012).

[11] Think Progress, “Occupy Atlanta Encamps In Neighborhood To Save Police Officer’s Home From Foreclosure”, (November 8, 2011). This was a common experience amongst Occupy Our Homes groups, who were called to action from vulnerable home-owners facing foreclosure.

[12] See here, “Occupy vs Eviction: Radicals, Reform, and Dispossession,” libcom.org (June 22, 2012).

[14] Ty Moore, “Lessons from Occupy Homes”, socialistalternative.org, (April 25, 2012).

[15] New York Times, “A City Invokes Seizure Laws to Save Homes”, (August 26, 2013).

[16] This factory occupation was organized by a marginal union, using new organizing strategies, and powered by latino workers.

[17] Arun Gupta, “What Occupy Taught the Unions”, www.organizingupgrade.com/ (February 6, 2012)

[18] Peter Rugh, “Will Occupy and unions reunite on the docks?” socialistworker.org (January 29, 2013).

[19] Eidelson, Josh, “How Occupy Helped Labor Win on the West Coast”,  Salon (Feb 24, 2012).

[20] Bill Balderston, “Occupy Oakland and the Labor Movement” in New Politics 14/1.

[21] Barbara Epstein, “Occupy Oakland: The Question of Violence”, The Question of Strategy, Socialist Register…..

[22] Bill Balderston, “Occupy Oakland and the Labor Movement” in New Politics 14/1.

[23] Susan Dirr, “ The Occupy-Labor Partnership in Chicago”, in New Politics 14/1.

[24] Mark Engler, “Occupy, the 99% Spring, and the New Age of Direct Action”, Yes Magazine. (April 23, 2012).

[25] See Adbusters, “Battle for the Soul of Occupy”, (April 24, 2012), and Counterpunch (March 16-18, 2012, April 12 2012, and April 13-15 2012).

[26] Joshua Kahn Russell and Harmony Goldberg, “New Radical Alliances for a New Era: How the Left’s Talk of Co-optation Missed the Real Critical Questions that the 99% Spring Offers Our Movements”, zcommunications.org (May 9, 2012).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Peter Rothberg, “The 99% Spring”, The  Nation (April 4, 2012).

[29] NYC General Assembly, “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”, www.nycga.net (September 29, 2011).

[30] Barbara Epstein, “Universität in Aufruhr”, in Luxemburg 2/2009.

[32] New York Times, Online Campaign Prompts Sallie Mae to Change Fee Policy for Loan Suspensions, (February 2, 2012).

[33] Occupy Student Debt Campaign, “Our Principles”, www.occupystudentdebtcampaign.org/our-principles/

[34] Ibid.

[35] Kyle McCarthy and Natalia Abrams, A Solidarity Statement from Occupy Colleges and Occupy Student Debt, occupystudentdebt.com/post/26432746703/a-solidarity-statement-from-occupy-colleges-and-occupy#notes

[36] Occupy Student Debt, “Goals for Ending the Student Debt Crisis”, occupystudentdebt.com/goals

[37] Natalia Abrams, “Occupy Colleges and Occupy Student Debt Join Forces”, The Nation (July 9, 2012).

[38] “Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy and Usher in a New Era of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Prosperity”, petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/forgive-student-loan-debt-stimulate-economy-and-usher-new-era-innovation-entrepreneurship-and/jHfPW9c9 (September 23, 2011).

[39] The White House, “We Can’t Wait: Obama Administration to Lower Student Loan Payments for Millions of Borrowers”, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/10/25/we-cant-wait-obama-administration-lower-student-loan-payments-millions-b (October 25, 2011).

[40] Kyle McCarthy and Natalia Abrams, “A Solidarity Statement from Occupy Colleges and Occupy Student Debt”, July 3rd, 2012, occupystudentdebt.com

[41] Occupy Student Debt Campaign, “A Statement From The Occupy Student Debt Campaign”, www.occupystudentdebtcampaign.org/click-to-read-our-statement-on-student-debt-reform-initiatives/

[42] Kyle McCarthy and Natalia Abrams, A Solidarity Statement from Occupy Colleges and Occupy Student Debt, occupystudentdebt.com/post/26432746703/a-solidarity-statement-from-occupy-colleges-and-occupy#notes

[43] The Occupy Student Debt Campaign, “A Statement from the Occupy Student Debt Campaign”, www.occupystudentdebtcampaign.org/click-to-read-our-statement-on-student-debt-reform-initiatives/

[44] The Occupy Student Debt Campaign, “The Student Debtors’ Pledge of Refusal”, www.occupystudentdebtcampaign.org/pledge-archive/

[45] Robert Applebaum, “Don’t Be A Dupe! DO NOT Pledge to Voluntarily Default on your Student Loans”, www.forgivestudentloandebt.com/  (November 27, 2011)

[46] Kyle McCarthy and Natalia Abrams, “A Solidarity Statement from Occupy Colleges and Occupy Student Debt”, occupystudentdebt.com (July 3, 2012).

[47] Rebecca Burns interviews Strike Debt!, “Charity or Mutual Aid?: A Conversation with Organizers of the ‘Rolling Jubilee’”, In these Times (November 15, 2012).

[48] Doug Henwood, “The Problem with (Strike) Debt”, Jacobin (November 14, 2012)

[49] Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty, “Deriving Capital’s (and Labour’s) Future”, in Leo Panitch, Greg Albo and Vivek Chibber (eds.), The Crisis This Time. Socialist Register 2011: 215-117.

[50] Francis Fox Piven, “Occupy’s Protest is not Over. It has barely begun.” The Guardian, September 17, 2012.

[51] Mario Candeias, “Passive Revolutionen vs. Sozialistische Transformation”, RLS Papers (DATE): 19.

[54] Forbes, “Finally, An Occupy Wall Street Idea We Can All Get Behind, The Rolling Jubilee”, www.forbes.com (November 10, 2012).

[55] David Harvey observes that the expansion or reclamation of the commons is simultaneously a process of enclosure, bringing to light the dialectic between cooperation and coercion. See David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso: New York/London: 70.

[56] National Geographic, “A Timeline of Hurricane Sandy’s Path of Destruction”, newswatch.nationalgeographic.com (November 2, 2012)

[57] New York Magazine, “More Images from New York’s Sandy Cover”, nymag.com (November 5, 2012).

[58] “Photographer of New York Magazine’s Hurricane Sandy Cover Explains How He Did it”, www.complex.com (Nov. 6, 2012).


[59] Alternet, “How Occupy Sandy’s Relief Machine Stepped Into the Post-Superstorm Void”

, www.alternet.org (November 5, 2012).

[60] The New York Times, “Storm Effort Causes a Rift in a Shifting Occupy Movement” (April 30, 2013).

[61] The Guardian, “Occupy Wall Street, two years on: we’re still the 99%”, (September 17, 2013).

[62] BBC, “Occupy Sandy: From protest group to storm recovery”, (November 20, 2012).

[63] Take Action News, “President of Public Housing Development in Hard-Hit Coney Island Calls Occupy Sandy a ‘Godsend’”, takeactionnews.com (November 12, 2012).

[64] BBC, “Occupy Sandy: From protest group to storm recovery”, (November 20, 2012).

[65] Ryan Hickey, “To Destroy Is To Build: Occupy Sandy and Mutual Aid”, theoccupiedtimes.org/

[66] Folks from Occupy Sandy and Friends, “Election-Day Report: The People’s Emergency”, occupytheory.org (November 6, 2012).

[67] The slogan was also the title of a popular video produced by Brooklyn filmmakers. See brooklynfilmmakerscollective.com/our-work/we-got-this-occupy-sandy

[68] Folks from Occupy Sandy and Friends, “Election-Day Report: The People’s Emergency”, occupytheory.org (November 6, 2012).

[69] Christopher Key, “Mutual Aid in the Face of the Storm”, occupytheory.org

[70] Folks from Occupy Sandy and Friends.

[71] Noam Chomsky, “Noam Chomsky: The Lateral State of America”, The Occupied Times,

[72] Michelle Chen, “Imagining a ‘Just Recovery’ from Superstorm Sandy”, In These Times (February 6, 2013).

[73] Marina Sitrin, “The Question of Demands and the State: Using, Opposing & Surpassing”, tidalmag.org (May 26, 2013).

[74] See Johanna Brenner, “Caught in the Whirlwind: Working-Class Families Face the Economic Crisis”, in Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber (eds.) The Crisis This Time. Socialist Register 2011. London: Merlin.

[75] Peter Rugh, “Struggles, New and Old, Emerge in Sandy’s Wake”, In These Times, (November 26, 2012) (emphasis added).

[77] Statement from the Organizing Workshop of the Peoples Recovery Summit, summit.peoplesrecovery.org/ (February 6, 2013)

[78] Strike Debt!, “Shouldering the Costs: Who Pays in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?”, strikedebt.org (December 10, 2012), (emphasis added)

[79] On “mosaic left”, see Mario Candeias, “From a Fragmented Left to Mosaic”, Luxemburg 1/2010.

[80] Jan Rehmann, “Occupy Wall Street and the Question of Hegemony – A Gramscian Analysis”, Socialism and Democracy, 27/1 (2013).

[81] Ibid.