As Occupy Wall Street Fades, Powerful Ideas May Live On
Two Occupy Wall Street slogans merit close scrutiny. The first -- “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” -- is a popular chant, heard in every recent protest march. The second -- “The only solution is world revolution” -- is featured prominently on posters, picket signs and websites.
These mottos permeated this week’s demonstrations commemorating the one-year anniversary of the group’s takeover at Zuccotti Park in New York. Both call for transformative social change, displaying an optimism undeterred by the dashed hopes of revolutions past.
This confidence is rooted in the exuberant triumphs of last autumn, when tens of thousands of Occupiers engaged in civil disobedience and protests in dozens of countries, and focused the world’s attention on their concerns. For two months at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere, the services usually associated with government and industry -- food, medicine, security, even libraries -- were ably provided by cooperative organization. Occupiers invented new practices of governance, such as the human microphone and the general assembly, and established an innovative financing network.
It is hard to imagine that such a tiny model could serve as a blueprint for a global system, without losing its essential democratic spirit. History is littered with so many failed utopias that the notion itself has become anathema. Yet the ideas Occupy pushed into the public consciousness, rooted in anarchist history and theory, have a long and powerful precedent -- and may prove more durable, and more influential, than the movement itself.
In the 19th century, radicals had an occupation of their own to look to for inspiration: the Paris Commune. For two months, beginning in March 1871, working people seized control of governance in the French capital. They coordinated a vastly larger space than Zuccotti Park, and they did so in the midst of a desperate war. With Emperor Napoleon III’s armies captured or destroyed, and Prussian forces nearing the suburbs of Paris, French leaders decided to surrender. But the people themselves refused, ousting timid officials and choosing to defend their city.
Besieged and bombarded, with fading hopes of relief, Parisians rushed to build a new society. Improvised committees set up schools, distributed food and clothing, and instituted an array of democratic reforms. Elected delegates received nominal salaries and could be recalled at any time. Women were promised equal pay; marriage laws were liberalized.
Even as they were raising barricades against inevitable attack, Parisians took time to pronounce their ideals to the world. In their many declarations, they urged other communities to establish their own autonomous collectives, with power over taxes and expenditures, policing and education, and the distribution of goods and services. At the vision’s core stood “the absolute guarantee of individual freedom and freedom of conscience.”
Assault by reactionary French forces came in May. After a week of street fighting, the commune was destroyed. In the following days, as many as 50,000 communards were executed.
The experiment ended tragically. But its short-lived success had offered proof that working people could govern a metropolis along democratic lines, and the ordeal of Paris soon became a cornerstone of radical thought. For decades, it was studied by everyone, from Karl Marx to his anarchist rival, Mikhail Bakunin. Almost anything one needed to know about creating revolutionary institutions, they believed, could be gleaned from the experiences of the Paris commune.
Lessons of Paris
Peter Kropotkin, a Russian aristocrat who abandoned privilege for a life in anarchism, derived an elaborate blueprint for the future based on the lessons of Paris. Believing that the commune had failed because the inhabitants were unable to feed themselves, he foresaw a Europe divided into large, autonomous regions. Each would be capable of growing its own food and manufacturing the basic goods necessary to thrive. Industries would be scattered “so as to bring the factory amidst the fields,” a visionary ecological idea that he thought would not only reduce pollution but allow individual workers to divide their energies between “brain work and manual work.”
Writing on the eve of World War I, he imagined a post- capitalist society consisting of dozens, even hundreds, of independent socialist collectives, each essentially similar to those in Paris or Zuccotti Park. “These communes,” he predicted, “would federate to constitute nations in some cases, even irrespectively of the present national frontiers.” Each district would be unique. One might possess mineral deposits and another might support extensive fisheries. Goods could be distributed between them by railways and shipping routes, with the workers of these transportation networks themselves organized into an industry-wide commune.
These weren’t mere visions. At crucial moments in the past century, local democratic organizations have undertaken the functions of governance. Municipal collectives appeared repeatedly during general strikes. In 1919, Seattle unions shut down the city’s shipping and steel facilities. Workers took over the city government, ran the utilities, and provided food and policing. The only vehicles allowed on the streets were those sanctioned by the strike committees. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, anarchist collectives governed large sections of Catalonia, while fielding formidable, democratically regulated militias in the fight against fascist armies.
Short-lived and fragile, these experiences all shared the basic principles -- exemplified by democratic decision-making, individual self-fulfillment and opposition to capitalism -- that were cherished by the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park. Taken together, they fall far short of a global revolution, but at the very least they prove that another world is possible.
(Thai Jones is an assistant professor of history at the Bard College MAT Program and the author of “More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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