Tom Atlee: Source of the Occupy Movement Part I

Tom Atlee

Dear friends,

This is the first of a series of postings I’ll do about the sources of the Occupy movement, from a number of angles.  Each mailing will cover one or two of them.  They are, of course, not definitive or complete, but I find them all intriguing.  Some of them have been touched on in – and are augmented by – previous posts.

The Occupy movement seems to have come “from nowhere”, appeared “out of the blue”.  But a lot of events, people, writings, social movements and social conditions developed over extended periods of time and combined to trigger its emergence at this time.

Since our society is what scientists call “a complex living system”, it embodies the principles of complexity science.  One of those principles is that, while we can IN RETROSPECT often identify chains of causation leading up to some event in a complex system, the web of causation is actually so complex and dense with interdependencies and feedback loops that we cannot PREDICT that event ahead of time.  We can estimate the probabilities of it happening, but we have no way of knowing exactly what is going to happen.  And sometimes with such events, we just didn’t see it coming at all!

So I’m looking at the emergence of Occupy in retrospect and will be offering factors – new ones in each mailing – that seem to lead up to it because it helps me to understand it, respond to it, participate in it.  But I have no illusions that it will tell me or anyone else what will happen next.

For that, we have to step into the flow.  Our roles in such complex living systems are not so much to predict (as spectators) but to co-createe (as participants).  How consciously do we want to do THAT?



Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots
by David Graeber


The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society – that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants….

How, then, did OWS embody anarchist principles? It might be helpful to go over this point by point:

1)    The refusal to recognise the legitimacy of existing political institutions.

One reason for the much-discussed refusal to issue demands is because issuing demands means recognising the legitimacy – or at least, the power – of those of whom the demands are made. Anarchists often note that this is the difference between protest and direct action: Protest, however militant, is an appeal to the authorities to behave differently; direct action… is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.

2)    The refusal to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal order.

The second principle, obviously, follows from the first. From the very beginning, when we first started holding planning meetings in Tompkins Square Park in New York, organisers knowingly ignored local ordinances that insisted that any gathering of more than 12 people in a public park is illegal without police permission – simply on the grounds that such laws should not exist…. We began with a commitment to answer only to a moral order, not a legal one.

3)    The refusal to create an internal hierarchy, but instead to create a form of consensus-based direct democracy.

From the very beginning, too, organisers made the audacious decision to operate not only by direct democracy, without leaders, but by consensus. The first decision ensured that there would be no formal leadership structure that could be co-opted or coerced; the second, that no majority could bend a minority to its will…

4)    The embrace of prefigurative politics.

As a result, Zuccotti Park, and all subsequent encampments, became spaces of experiment with creating the institutions of a new society – not only democratic General Assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centres and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organisation – a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old.

– – –

Organic Government:  The Folkmote System
by Warren Weisman


The fundamental organizational unit of the folkmote system is the 20-30 person cof, the voluntary clan of family, friends and neighbors who an individual sees on a regular basis, likes and trusts. There is no set number of people in a cof, however, 30 seems to be the upper limit of people humans can get to know well…. All members of the folkmote were bound together by an unwritten, voluntary mutual aid agreement which stated in two parts: if you are in need, I will help you; if I am in need, I trust you to help me. And everyone was expected to meet their own needs to the best of their ability and not be an unnecessary burden. This unwritten mutual aid agreement is central to the folkmote system. Those not prepared to enter into it cannot be part of such a system.


“George Lakey in his 1973 book and in his 1976 “A Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution”, laid out a five stage strategy for nonviolent revolution.

Stage 1. Cultural Preparation or “Conscientization”: Education, training and consciousness raising of why there is a need for a nonviolent revolution and how to conduct a nonviolent revolution.

Stage 2. Building Organizations: As training, education and consciousness raising continues, the need to form organizations. Affinity groups or nonviolent revolutionary groups are organized to provide support, maintain nonviolent discipline, organize and train other people into similar affinity groups and networks.

Stage 3. Confrontation:  Organized and sustained campaigns of picketing, strikes, sit-ins, marches, boycotts, die-ins, blockades to disrupt business as usual in institutions and government. By putting ones body on the line nonviolently the rising movement stops the normal gears of government and business.

Stage 4. Mass Non-Cooperation: Similar affinity groups and networks of affinity groups around the country and world, engage in similar actions to disrupt business as usual.

Stage 5. Developing Parallel Institutions to take over functions and services of government and commerce. In order to create a new society without violence, oppression, environmental destruction, discrimination and one that is environmentally sustainable, nonviolent, democratic, equItable tolerant and fair, alternative organizations and structures including businesses must be created to provide the needed services and goods that citizens of a society need.”

[It seems OWS has tried to do all these things – at least to some extent – simultaneously – and some new versions are popping up as the encampments are dispersed by authorities. – Tom]

– – –

What ‘diversity of tactics’ really means for Occupy Wall Street
by Nathan Schneider | October 19, 2011


Consider this characterization by George Lakey:

“’Diversity of tactics” implies that some protesters may choose to do actions that will be interpreted
by the majority of people as “violent,” like property destruction, attacks on police vehicles, fighting
back if provoked by the police, and so on, while other protesters are operating with clear nonviolent

Those who extoll the importance of total nonviolent discipline—as Lakey eloquently goes on to do—might be disappointed to learn that Occupy Wall Street has made “diversity of tactics” its official modus operandi. However, the way that the occupiers have carried out this policy might actually lead us to think of its meaning and implications in a more compelling way…..

My sense of the dynamics at play here is something like the following. The NYPD, as a hierarchical, highly-structured organization, operates according to certain plans and procedures arranged in advance. Its commanders gain the best intelligence they can about what protesters intend to do and act accordingly. When the protesters act outside the plans police prepared for, or their plans aren’t unified, the police feel they have no choice but to resort to a violent crackdown, which in turn highlights the protesters’ own nonviolence in the media reports, and their movement grows. The net effect is that it almost seems as if the police are intentionally trying to help the movement, for that’s what their every action seems to do….

If it is true, as I’ve come to think, that a diversity of tactics has been meaningfully practiced by the occupation movement even while remaining nonviolent, then a definition of the phrase like George Lakey’s is in need of revision. Rather than being merely a license to use violence, respecting a diversity of tactics is in its own right a robust approach to conducting resistance—and one that is arguably all the more powerful when it remains nonviolent.

[The article this excerpt comes from makes it more clear that Occupy activists usually refuse to effectively forbid and block violent action, but use it, when it happens, to highlight their own determination to be nonviolent and build a reputation as a nonviolent – but still somewhat unpredictable – movement.  Consider also this excerpt from a comment on the article… – Tom]

…Modern anarchists didn’t invent the idea of distributed disruptive action, which is another way to describe the appearance of chaos. It’s been around at least since the Germans learned how to fend off Roman invasions, almost 2,000 years ago. But it isn’t “chaos” except in the eye of the beholder. It’s a form of seeing the pattern of how authorities are likely to respond to actions that challenge their control of events, so as to surprise them both in spatial and tactical ways.  The ultimate object of this is to overstretch an opponent’s resources and capacity to maintain the status quo — so that its own supporters and enforcers begin to doubt whether the existing system can be operated satisfactorily for very long. No oppressive or abusive system which is opposed by a popular, civilian-based movement is forever implacable…

[Note:  The logic here – as in guerilla warfare – is that if a movement like this is unpopular, it will be defeated.  But if a significant sector of the population support it, then demonstrating the illegitimacy and ineffectiveness of the powers-that-be will ultimately force those powers to change or be replaced. – Tom]



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