This reviewer found Mark Bray’s “Translating Anarchy: the Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street” the most compelling of OWS “insider” stories and an illustration of anarchism as yeast to progressive movements.
Translating Anarchy: the Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street. By Mark Bray. Winchester, UK/Washington DC: Zero Press, 271pp, $26.95.
This is a remarkable book and, of all the “insider” stories of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the most compelling. Bray is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers, a past undergrad activist in New England and part of the mini-wave of young Wobblies responding enthusiastically to a revival of the Industrial Workers of the World a few years ago. He is also, as he is at pains to tell us, a devoted anarchist.
Let’s pause for a moment and ask what an “anarchist” is today, after so much time has passed since the quarrels between Marx and Bakunin, the Haymarket Tragedy, the “attentat” assassinations (or attempted assassinations) of European leaders before the First World War, the Spanish Civil War and the dramatic return of anarchist ideas during the 1990s. No simple story. Consider the fate of the longest-surviving anarchist newspaper, the Yiddish-language Fraya Arbeter Shtimme (1890-1976), for a while to the left of the Marxists then firmly, by most measurements, to their right, at various times a defender of Kropotkin, poetic free verse, World War I, the garment union labor bureaucracy and the occupation of the West Bank! The Cold War is part of the story, of course, but the larger opposition to authoritarianism often has had ambivalent implications and depended upon larger-than-life personalities not themselves personally very democratic.
Anarchism’s main role, to oversimplify greatly, has been to put something new and fresh into the existing social movements, to help renew them and offer exciting directions – then to lose momentum, often face crushing repression, and fade away. This is, or at least seems to me, the story of OWS, a story not to be merged entirely with Occupy in far-flung places where it often called older radicals back into action and looked a bit more churchy, rather like the civil rights movement. OWS was younger, vastly more global in character (because New York is the epicenter of intellectuals’ immigration from everywhere) and more dramatic than anyplace else, with the possible exception of Oakland. But it also should be noted that the New Left at large was a spontaneous, boom-and-bust movement. By today, with left-wing parties of all kinds badly reduced, the old distinctions may be less important or at least quite different from what they were earlier.
To take a case in point: Mark Bray recalls from his own experience that the OWS media connection was, apart from police repression, often the most frustrating experience of all. The New York Times, the TV news shows and everyone else in the big time, now including a large foreign contingent, wanted urgently to identify and interview “the leaders.” Such observers showed only a casual interest in what was most new, the sense of process that proved the genius of the moment, the appealing part to many young people who had been, to this time in their lives, politically apathetic. Bray is keen to the contradictions, including the presence of highly literate protesters on their way up some ladder, able to blog fluently, frequently annoyed by any lower-class presence or at least disruption of the smooth flow of their collective leadership.
He seeks to explore the issues here, and many others, large and small, from the standpoint of the people he has interviewed, letting them speak in their own organizational and anti-organizational manner. The message here is “horizontal,” the effort to create a movement that is, itself, the mirror or at least expression of a strong desire to be the democratic society that can emerge from the current mess. This could be more helpfully connected with the history of the civil rights movement in particular but has some roots in the older anarchist vision of living in the present as you would wish to live in the future.
It is easy to dismiss the naïveté of this vision, almost as easy as it was to dismiss the appeal of hippiedom as an alternative to the war/death society in the later 1960s. It is harder to grasp why it seemed so real to so many young people who threw themselves into the work and successfully posed the 99% against the 1% – no matter how inadequately this formulation expresses the condition of the poorest 60 percent. Readers need to mine the text for chunks of insight, see what the interviewees are saying and how they are saying it.
Bray helpfully, I would say gamely, asserts a context, or, rather, a series of contexts. The examples and quotations provided from the history of the anarchist movement seem to me the least persuasive. The past ideas of anarchists are so various that most anything can be drawn from them. And if we were to remove the barrier between secular and religious anarchists, those ideas would become vastly broader and perhaps more appealing to a much larger audience. The cooperative utopian colonies that held on for generations, after all, rarely were secular. Still, as an observer with months on the streets in the Wisconsin Uprising but only a day at OWS, I am unwilling to impose my own judgments. In sympathetic older-generation commentaries on OWS (Jackie DiSalvo) and Oakland OO (Barbara Epstein), the down side of spontaneous action and horizontalism seems more evident – very much as it did for older-generation radicals looking at the movements of the 1960s. Yesterday’s old timers were probably right about violence à la Black Block: It invites police infiltrators and literally threatens old people and kids, not to mention casual observers. What has anarchism to contribute now that helps to avoid these kinds of dubious practices? Bray is a bit too defensive to explore the possibilities too far.
Bray says cogently that if Occupy “did a fantastic job of spreading direct democracy, had moderate success with anti-oppression, but only meager success” in linking issues together, attaining a greater clarity among the radicals and preparing them for the next stages of struggle. That is certainly correct and well-stated. If we ask what specific contribution anarchists can make to those next stages, the answer remains less clear. Still, as a starting place for a vital political conversation on Occupy, Translating Anarchy is a great choice.