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Occupy and Failure

What a long chain of failures Occupy has been over the past seven months. Think about it: It didn’t shut down Wall Street on September 17th; it couldn’t set up camp in its first-choice location, Chase Manhattan Plaza; it barely marched a third of the way across the Brooklyn Bridge roadway before getting kettled; the … Continued

What a long chain of failures Occupy has been over the past seven months. Think about it: It didn’t shut down Wall Street on September 17th; it couldn’t set up camp in its first-choice location, Chase Manhattan Plaza; it barely marched a third of the way across the Brooklyn Bridge roadway before getting kettled; the Oakland General Strike did not exactly generalize; and occupations have been driven from plazas, squares, vacant buildings, and sidewalks across America. Again and again, plans of action have not materialized as projected.

You might expect me to counter this list of defeats with a list of successes— perhaps the many homes saved from foreclosure, or the shift in national debate to address inequality, or the money moved out of Bank of America. (If you were expecting such a list, you were wrong—but in an article about derailed expectations, that seems only appropriate.) No, I am not interested in Occupy’s list of achievements here; as we approach May 1st and the planned general strike, I want to focus on Occupy as a string of failures.

The media narrative ahead of May Day is already settled on a fulcrum of success or failure. The headline placed atop a recent article I wrote for Salon, about how Occupy is rethinking general strike as a tactic, read “Can Occupy pull off a general strike?” Other articles ask, “Will May Day reignite the movement?” Editors, pundits, and participants alike want to know what success might look like on May 1st, and whether we’ll see it. I suggest instead that what we writers, strikers, and speculators have in mind as a successful May Day now should not matter in the least. Indeed I hope for a May Day, which— like other Occupy actions have—re-orients how we feel about failure and success altogether.

Queer theorist Judith Halberstam pointed out in her explorations of failure and success that failure, simply put, “connotes effort without achieving the desired result.” As such, broadly speaking, Occupy— the weird, ever shifting assemblage of actions, gatherings, and connections that it is—technically avoids the logic of success and failure altogether. The consistent refusal to pose demands or set out specific goals as a movement means there has never been a “desired result” to achieve or fail to achieve in the first place. But that’s speaking about Occupy as a (loose) whole. Different Occupy groups have certainly set out plans (crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to set up camp on the other side on October 1st, stopping the Stock Exchange bell ringing on November 17th, occupying Union Square overnight to name a few New York examples)—and they’ve failed. Granted, they succeeded in escalating energy and garnering media attention, but in terms of enacting a plan or stated goal, these actions were duds.

However, as many people who experienced some of those events might attest with me, these failures constitute some of Occupy’s greatest wins. It was during these days, when chaotic crowds surged into the streets and moved en masse through the city on unpermitted routes, that the chants of “we are unstoppable” boomed most apt. I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge while reporting on the day’s events for the New York Times. When I stood in plasticuffs with other arrestees, flanking the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound roadway awaiting our carriage in police buses, it was cold and rainy; the bridge and its iconic view have never looked so exhilarating and beautiful to me. As far as failing to cross a bridge goes, this was pretty spectacular.

And, of course, there was September 17th, when Occupy first inserted itself into Manhattan’s landscape and the broader public consciousness. Reporting on the day itself, I was skeptical. Why were people getting comfortable on this drab stretch of corporate concrete? I was critical, too, about whether it could even be called an occupation—after all, at first, Bloomberg said the gathered crowd could stay—was this just a permitted protest, I wondered. I was wrong: it was an occupation on many fronts (an incursion into the city’s business as usual, a rethinking of space and its assigned uses, an occupying and derailing of standard political discourse and more). Furthermore, the very term “occupy” gained new signification and relevance. Because of Occupy, the question of what is or isn’t an occupation, or a successful occupation, cannot be answered using the same criteria that may have been applied before last fall.

Yet, almost nothing that was discussed and planned for September 17th and the occupation of Wall Street materialized. So, again, technically speaking, Occupy’s official inception was perhaps the first in a line of resounding failures. But of course, it was a success. The point to take away is that, in the case of genuine interventions into politics and life as usual, any pre-existing dialectic of success and failure is shattered. I believe Occupy has been such an intervention, as evidenced by the struggle commentators have faced when trying to judge it by standard schematics of success and failure.

Suffice here to pick examples from recent Occupy memory, to remember that valuations in terms of success and failure have regularly been upturned—and it’s been great. As Halberstam said, ending a lecture entitled “Notes on Failure”:

“There is something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing, and all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner. Let’s leave success and its achievement to the Republicans, to the Matthew Barneys of the world, to the winners of reality TV shows, to married couples, to SUV drivers. The concept of practicing failure, perhaps, prompts us to discover our inner dweeb, to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to find a limit, to lose our way, to forget, to avoid mastery and to [as Walter Benjamin put it] “withhold empathy from the victors.”

Looking ahead to May 1st, different individuals and groups are anticipating events and hoping for a multitude of different outcomes—there is no one idea shared even among organizers who have been collaborating to plan what a successful general strike would constitute that day. There’s at base a shared desire to see a huge number of people stopping work and taking to the streets that day, but that’s where it ends. It’s tempting to align with the media narrative and worry in advance about whether May Day will be a success, and what “success” here might mean. It’s better, perhaps, to keep in mind our beautiful and shared failures over the past six months. Indeed, with the fierce police repression meeting even the calmest of Occupy mobilizations these days, failure is in many ways unavoidable. We can, however, keep planning, pushing and finding each other; we can, in the words of Samuel Beckett, “fail better” and in so doing hopefully shatter whatever staid ideas of success we’re currently harboring.

First published in the Occupy! Gazette.

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