Between Wall Street and Zuccotti: Occupy and the Scale of Politics

Zuccotti Park stands a mere block and a half from the intersection of Broadway and Wall, where Wall Street begins. When the occupation was at its height in early November, I would walk those blocks multiple times a day, ducking in and out of meetings at Trinity Church or the Atrium, attending the evening General Assemblies, or sometimes just stopping-by to marvel at the everyday bustle of the encampment. The blossoming tent city stood in such surreal contrast to the soulless high-rise command centers of finance capital. Wall Street towered over the park and quite literally cast its shadow over the utopian politics practiced in the square, a perpetual and chilling reminder of the sheer scale of massive wealth and power we were assailing. Yet somehow this tension—between the park-scaled locality of physical occupation and the global scale of high finance—captures one of the central tensions of the movement. Between the concrete reality of Occupy(ing) and the global cipher Wall Street we find two co-constitutive scales through which the movement actively enacted its politics.

Since its inception, both the global scale of finance capital and the local scale of occupation have played important roles in structuring the practices, actions, and political self-understanding of Occupy Wall Street and its participants. In a first instance, the global scale came to affect the social and political practices of the movement through the cipher of “Wall Street” itself. “Wall Street,” ever a metonym for global finance capital, was transformed into a symbol of economic injustice and wealth polarization generally. That Occupy presented an opposition to this symbol of injustice fueled the movement’s rapid growth and popular appeal. As a symbol, “Wall Street” also became a prism through which the movement understood itself, a master signifier which gave meaning to events, and a frame through which direct actions were planned (e.g. the attempt to shut-down the morning bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and the interruption of foreclosure auctions that profit Wall Street banks). When outside groups came to the Direct Action Working Group meetings seeking Occupy Wall Street’s official endorsement for their planned events or actions, the first question and litmus test for endorsement was usually how the action would contribute to fighting “Wall Street.”

Similarly, the “local” as a scale of social and political organization came to play a central role in the movement’s self-understanding. On the one hand there was the very material task of maintaining anoccupation which invariably focused the attention of participants (occupiers) on everyday needs of the community. The everyday activities of Working Groups such as Kitchen, Comfort, Sanitation, Medical, in their labor to maintain the well-being of the occupation, actively produced “the local” at the scale of occupation. The long discussions around inclusion and exclusion, how to make the park a safe space, and the terms of the Community Agreement that OWS eventually adopted, may be read as political and social practices that helped to produce the distinctly local scale at which Occupy actuated its politics. As such “the local” also helped shape the political imaginary of Occupy in significant ways: notably, through the prescriptive notion of “horizontalism” and the practice of consensus process decision-making, Occupy actively aspired towards a “community” scaled vision of political action and self-determination.

The scalar binary of the global vs. the local also took on an oftentimes ethical guise, with the virtues of small-scale community practices extolled over the global (now seen as fully equated with capitalismtout court). In New York, it often felt as though Occupy harnessed its moral authority from the stark contrast between its concrete commitments to consensus, mutual-aid, and community on the one hand and the corrupt, individualist, and unaccountable world of Wall Street around us on the other. For example, when the Accounting Working Group was formed to deal with the influx of donations people around the world were sending to OWS, I remember an announcement that was made at a General Assembly: “Come join the accounting working group, and we’ll show Wall Street how to keep open and transparent books!” Whether or not the accounting group was able to live up to its ideals is another matter. The message was clear: whereas Wall Street represented the undemocratic and nontransparent rule of global finance, our vision of the world was one of mutual responsibility, respect, and community accountability. Whereas Wall Street silences the majority, at Liberty Plaza (as “facilitators” would often say) “we amplify each other’s voices.” Such are the moral binaries that are grafted onto scalar binaries.

The point I'd like to raise here, however, is that both within the movement and within the social analysis of the movement, we must push beyond such a scalar binary. To begin with, neither geographical nor political scale can be taken as a given. Rather, as much recent theoretical work has argued, scale (both geographical and social) is always produced and reproduced through social practices (Brenner 2009; Smith 1992). For example, finance capital perpetually reconstitutes itself as global in scale through the social practices of stockbrokers, debtors, the exploited precariat, and the institutional structures and social relations that are reproduced over time. Similarly, as a scale, “the local” is produced by the concrete social activity of people who build communities, make claims of belonging, camp-out together in a public park, and struggle arm-in-arm against police repression. A second important insight about scale is that its singular production always involves a production of multiple other interlocking scales. Global finance relies on (and re-enforces) a national scale of juridical (de-)regulation, metropolitan scales of service infrastructure, and even individually scaled ideologies of rational self-interest which cloak sociopathic banking practices.

The question then emerges: beyond the apparent scalar binary of global vs. local, what are the other political and geographical scales produced by Occupy’s political and social practices? Also, how does Occupy engage with the existing scales at which power is constituted under capitalism? These are complex questions, far beyond the scope of a short essay. They are also important tactical and strategic questions that have direct bearing on the long term political viability Occupy Wall Street (or any movement based firmly in principles of direct democracy and horizonatality). At the level of tactics, the heart of this problem is the contentious question of whether the organizational forms and political practices of a horizontalist movement can effectively challenge capitalism at its various scales of organized power. On the one hand, this is a trope which emerges repeatedly within experiments in direct democracy and the practice of Consensus Process (see Graeber 2009; Sitrin 2006); but it often takes the form of a scalar binary: "How could a local model of direct democracy ever work on a global scale?" What I would like to argue is that such questions should be re-framed and re-thought in terms of the multiple and interlocking scales which make up both capitalism and its attendant anti-capitalist movements.

What is important is that these are questions that are also now being posed within the movement. And some tentative solutions have been ventured. Inter-Occupy, which connects various nodes of the movement across the country, has been intentionally building an inter-urban network that operates at something like a national scale. The new alliances and coordination between activists in countries as diverse as Greece, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Egypt and Tunisia may prove to be important strategic links that allow the movement to “jump scales” in important ways in the coming years and months. In New York City the Spring has brought a number of events and actions which explicitly seek to focus the movement on the metropolitan scale, one interesting incarnation of which was the “Another City is Possible” events that took the slogan “Reclaim your City with a Global Movement.” These attempts to link metropolitan, inter-urban, national, global and local scales together are significant. Meanwhile, the series of violent evictions by the NYPD since November seem to be fostering the conditions for a serious struggle over the use of public space, pitting occupiers against the city government, and focusing political energies on the metropolitan scale of securitization, the right to the city, and racist policing practices such as Stop-and-Frisk. Whatever the outcome of these particular evolutions of the movement, they certainly testify to the continued importance of an analysis of scale for both the anthropology of social movements and indeed for the tactics and strategies of emerging radical movements themselves.

References

Brenner, Neil. 2009. “Open Questions on State Rescaling.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 2:123–139.

Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press.

Sitrin, Marina. Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press.

Smith, Neil. 1992. "Contours of a Spatialized Politics: Homeless Vehicles and the Production of Geographical Scale." Social Text 33: 54-81

Zoltán Glück is a PhD student in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. He has been involved with OWS since its inception and has written numerous articles about the movement.