Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 13, 2012

Occupy Oakland activists take up the question of decision-making

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm


We are a group of radical Oakland activists who have been involved with Occupy Oakland from the very first days. We were previously unknown to each other and met as a result of our frequent participation in OO events and GAs.  Two of us (a married couple) moved in to the encampment on the second day at Oscar Grant Plaza (OGP) and have attended all daily camp facilitation meetings and most OO events since then. Another has been active in the POC Committee and Children’s Village/Children Parents, and Allies Committee. Another was involved within the labor community and in the early days of the Move-In Committee.

In our individualistic culture, it is rare when radical activists are able to pitch a big tent and draw in masses of people to the cause.  The early days of the Occupy movement provided one of those rare opportunities. Occupy was the spark for the emergence of a broad wave of anti-corporate, anti-repression sentiment in our society. We are concerned that the inclusivity that began this movement and contributed to its rapid growth is dying in OO as a result of the dominant insurrectionist tendencies and the “vanguardist” maneuvering and manipulations of some of its proponents. Dramatically shrinking numbers reveal that this ideology and organizing style either misreads the real political situation in Oakland, or else underestimates the importance of consolidating and advancing a broad, united and popular front. We all collectively must take responsibility for this “hardening” and shrinking of the OO ranks, and we must recognize that in trying to re-make OO in an ideologically purist vision, we are destroying our ability to garner the wide base of support and goodwill that will be necessary to successfully resist corporate and state domination.

Occupiers who have begun to question the decision-making processes involved in recent actions like J28 are being asked, in the name of unity, to maintain silence.  We have been told that our concerns will be dealt with, that there’s nothing to worry about, and that we shouldn’t speak publicly about them. Yet we feel that without transparency and open dialogue, the problems will only get worse. We are speaking to everyone who still believes in Occupy Oakland, but especially to those most active in the GA and various committees who have the ability to help us make the kinds of changes that would reassure the larger Bay Area community that Occupy Oakland is still a wise place to invest its energy.

The four of us decided to speak out because we have each been pushed to the margins of OO by ugly, ideological purification behavior that often now takes place at the GAs and in groups like the Move-In Committee, where dissenting voices are booed and jeered and “group speak” and in-group relationships now dominate. Please do not mistake our concerns as yet another attack on anarchism or Black Bloc; it’s not about that at all. It’s about the exclusionary strategies and tactics that alienate those of us who are interested in a slower, more solid, more inclusive approach of mass movement building.

What we are attacking is the acceptance and even rewarding of undemocratic practices, and the lack of a system to repudiate both these practices and the people who engage in them.  It has been clear for some time that a small group of people with similar insurrectionist leanings have been actively manipulating the process and promoting their own agenda. They have previous ties to each other and many have careers in academia which provide them the time and resources to devote their lives to the Occupy movement in Oakland. These academic insurrectionist leaders thrive in a climate of secrecy, and use vanguardist rhetoric and practices to seize control of actions and messages with which OO engages the public. Many of the most divisive and undemocratic actions undertaken in the name of OO can be traced back to this group, including: two non-sanctioned press conferences, including the one for J28 in which outrageous threats and juvenile rants were made in the name of Occupy Oakland; the secretive and exclusionary planning of the strategy for J28 in which community voices were systematically excluded from the inner workings; the hijacking of the General Assembly during the second Port Shut Down; and many smaller examples of non-democratic behavior.  The propaganda produced by these insurrectionist leaders reveals a very narrow scope and embarrassingly juvenile self-aggrandizement.  They even brag of trashing City Hall in this piece.  We strongly believe that the struggle in Oakland should not be used to produce what amounts to riot porn.  This only serves to subvert the will of the people here who are spending our time and energy to make OO something that serves the community.  It is safe to say that many of us local activists and community members feel a sense of anger and betrayal regarding the continued dominance of the collective agenda by these forces.

Many in leadership positions don’t seem to want the discussion about the future of OO or the Occupy movement to be about Black Bloc tactics. We don’t want the discussion to be about some false choice between Gandhian non-violence and “anything goes.” How about if we all agree to change the subject?

Let’s talk about our visions of what OO should be. We have one: OO could and should return to its origins as a broad mass of anti-corporate, anti-repression forces. Our vision for the future of Occupy Oakland is one of true radical inclusivity. We should think of creative ways to include, democratically represent, direct the energies of, and, yes, increasingly radicalize this amazingly diverse group. OO could evolve into a coordinating council for autonomous affinity groups, vetting, approving and organizing coordinated actions in OO’s name. This would allow political tendencies to form ideologically pure affinity groups if they wish, and to have a seat at the table. But we should all agree not to try to control the table.

We are asking for help from those of you who have been at the center of OO from the beginning and love the potential this movement has to create lasting, real change.  We understand that you all played a big role in pitching the Occupy tent, one that is unfortunately smaller now than it should be.  Help bring us all back inside. This is not a matter of individual personalities or power trips.  This is a profound historical moment in our community. This is a real political and ideological struggle with real consequences. The time has come for us to make choices, make the correct ones and make them now or the moment will pass. We are ready to help bring people back into the OO tent with you. We are excited about this moment, and our future.


  1. Like I was saying, we have a case of something other than just BB here. Also, reposting the “bragging” URL so readers can get a real taste of the romantic idiocy in action here: http://www.bayofrage.com/from-the-bay/a-letter-from-some-friends-in-oakland-regarding-the-jan-28th-events/#more-1292

    Note the slick “post-modernity” of the prose style. As the open letter suggests, these are no unlettered bumpkins. Negri in action? Stop reading that guy!

    The Hedges-Lapour “debate” – really, two people talking past each other – reveals that there is no objective strategic conception behind any of this. No, wait, there is a strategy: The self-promotion of the individuals involved. BlackBlock “revealed”, so to speak. Whereas BBer’s consciously pivot on anonymity – hence the masks, etc. – these wankers *want* to be known.

    In that sense the right wingers that post to Occupy Oakland describing the “feces-slingers” as future Democratic Party leftists are correct. A smart person like Lapour already knows how to talk out of both sides of his mouth, a pre-req for becoming a hardened DP Left cadre. I predict that once they’ve been beaten up by the cops one too many times, that is exactly what they will become.

    Unless the class struggle broadens and deepens, sweeping these into the garbage where they belong, as so many forgotten footnotes. As the present capitalist crisis remains unresolved, unlike the 1970’s there is every prospect that this will occur.

    Comment by Matt — February 13, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  2. Yes, it always has been about something other than the BB. Neither Hedges nor the BB, but an open, democratic movement of political resistance is necessary.

    The scary thing to me is the extent to which people are willling to act violently, Bloc or not. It is also important to emphasize the sectarian nature of those who defend violent behavior by anyone, regardless of whether one attributes it to the Bloc. It is sectarian because it tends to drive a generational wedge between younger and older people on the left, just as Hedges does from the other side with his religious exaltation of activist non-violent martyrdom.

    As someone who respects the commitment of people involved in direct action, the issue with the Bloc is more significant than the promotion of violence. Bloc participants, as well as others who engage in direct action, reserve the right to act autonomously, but the movement is a collective one. There is a tension here that will require people to show political maturity instead of insisting upon one’s right to do things, and framing discussion in terms of inappropriate constraints upon individual and group activity.

    For example, look at the attempted Traveler’s Aid Society takeover on 11/2. After that violent episode, homeless people began leaving the camp at Oscar Grant Plaza, setting the stage for clearing out the people who remained. Perhaps, a different location, away form the encampment, and a different approach might have been more effective. As for J28, leaving aside the question as to whether the Kaiser Center was an appropriate selection for a seizure, there were other ways of going about it other than a mass march that would invariably instigate a police confrontation. Here, it seems that there was too much of an attachment to building a movement through the attempted creation of prefigurative institutions though public confrontations with the police. There are alternative anarchist visions that emphasize community engagement, as with the general strike and port shutdown.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 13, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

  3. Of course from a distance all you can have are impressions but the internal dynamics of Occupy’s most active chapter seem to be getting fractious-and there’s not even a program to fight over. No idea of how it translates across Occupy in general but “Diversity of Tactics” w/out some kind of agreed upon “program” might become a problem sooner than later.

    Comment by Rick — February 13, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

  4. “Negri in action? Stop reading that guy!”

    Oddly enough, I read Magri, Bifo and the Movement for a New Society. Needless to say, they lead me in a confused, yet different direction. J28 raises some interesting questions in the context of the statement, as I wrote on my blog today:

    [. . . . As noted in my replies to Richard Crary’s comments about my post yesterday, there are other ways of carrying out direct actions that incorporate the concerns of the community and reduce the prospect of a violent confrontation. For example, consider Jan Gilbrecht’s explanation of how the J28 action could have been carried out:

    “Some of the proponents and proposers kept adding anything goes to the list of what would happen in the building, like for example child care, without consulting the childcare committee or having that be part of the initial proposal, or housing without addressing the serious issues with violence at the old encampment. I pointed out that it was hubris for the Move-In committee to decide on behalf of the community what would happen in the building. My proposal was to build for a very large Move-In action and community festival for the weekend, with a mass GA to be held each night, where members of the community could make proposals for the future of the building and then make decisions and commitments together. Rather than a distraction, many many people agreed with or also proposed this type of an approach, and a committee actually came up with a list of proposed housing guidelines to present to the GAs. Someone was identified to facilitate these mass GAs. Actually, it was one of the central proposers and planners of the action who told me personally that he didn’t care what we said would happen in the building, because it wasn’t about holding the building anyway, that would never happen. He thought we should say whatever people wanted to hear to get them out that day. That is exactly the kind of dishonest approach that caused me to withdraw from the Move-In action.”

    Interestingly, even Gilbrecht did not perceive the peril in a public mass action to seize the Kaiser Center, but, at least, she did recognize the need to place the facility at the service of the community. If this approach had been adopted and communicated to the people of Oakland prior to the action, it may well have generated a larger turnout of support, deterring the police from responding with such extreme force. If not, Occupy Oakland might have received more broad based community support after the subsequently kettles and arrests. Her claim that she was told by someone that Occupy Oakland never expected to hold the building points towards another serious issue, one beyond mendacity. If true, it highlights the arguable assumption that people can be best organized through theatrical protest spectacles, where the activists and the police all play their assigned roles.

    Unfortunately, in this instance, the police didn’t, a fact echoed in subsequent statements by some organizers to the effect that they expected the police to allow marchers to enter the Kaiser Center and arrest them later, as with past encampments. They expected to be allowed to, in effect, briefly squat the Center, conduct a couple of GAs and have a dance party before being evicted. There is nothing wrong with that, other than the failure to inform everyone of this purpose, except that, once the police stepped outside of their assigned role, and refused entry, a few protesters did so as well, responding with bottles, rocks and firecrackers. In other words, it was on. On J28, the Oakland Police Department displayed its ability to evolve and more effectively respond to the tactics of Occupy Oakland, catching it flat-footed. Furthermore, had something like the Gilbrecht approach been adopted, Occupy Oakland might have discovered that the community was not very enthusiastic about it, but might have suggested either modifications, such as, say, a more initially covert seizure, or something else entirely instead in the spirit of democratic discourse.]


    Comment by Richard Estes — February 14, 2012 @ 12:33 am

  5. As Matt and Richard note, it’s not simply a Black Block problem. Occupy can be pretty chaotic; it isn’t a movement because it doesn’t have enough cohesion or agreement on what it is trying to achieve. These are ‘birth pangs’ & not surprisingly they are proving difficult & there are no guarantees that it will even last a couple of years.

    From the beginning I wasn’t happy with the apparent general assembly decision-making. I say apparent because undoubtedly caucusing had been going on, prioritising topics for discussion, with decisions being made on planning interventions & devising rhetorical tactics. ‘Horizontal organisation’? Absence of both leaders & demands? We are all equal? There’s no escaping the fact that success will require identifying both competent workers in a division of labour & efficient methods, and a willingness to accept majority decisions, not unanimity.

    Of course it all brings to mind Jo Freeman’s, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. We don’t have to try to re-invent the wheel. Neither do we have to repeat past failures. We need to draw upon what can be deemed collective, accumulated wisdom to give us a chance to learn what to do now. We can do no worse than remind ourselves of how a young Freeman applied herself to the problems & opportunities she saw in feminist politics forty years ago.

    It’s @ jofreeman.com. (It’s ‘hidden’ in ‘Feminist articles by Joreen’, her movement name.)

    Comment by Calum — February 14, 2012 @ 1:58 am

  6. @calum Having sat through a number of Occupy Oakland General Assemblies. I can also relate to freeman’s critique http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm. I think everyone read it. I would really like to see elected leaders in movement that eventually supersedes Occupy. In oakland there are a number of Radicals who everyone suspects of have the most influence, but their pictures and names are not listed on any organizational chart. There is no way to impeach them, because they were never elected in the first place.
    This has been a problem from the second week. Anyone who complained was told that we could join the relevant committee, but I noticed that anyone who did attempt that route of reform got coopted by the groupuscle, and stopped bing a critic.

    Comment by Oakland Jasper (@jaspergregory) — February 15, 2012 @ 12:33 am

  7. Hello,

    Very thoughtful letter above. I am a reporter with a San Francisco based NPR radio station and am doing a segment next week on Occupy camps in the Bay Area. If you are interested, I would like to ask you some questions to help me with my reporting. Let me know if you would be up for that and we can go from there,

    Comment by Joaquin — February 16, 2012 @ 12:18 am

  8. Well, you’ve got another group of prima donnas who’ve captured the public imagination, some pro, some con. The secrecy surrounding “Occupy” leadership decisions, the autonomy of the leadership, and the inability for a broader movement to influence policy, e.g., . . . “ideological purification behavior that often now takes place at the GAs and in groups like the Move-In Committee, where dissenting voices are booed and jeered and “group speak” and in-group relationships now dominate, ” is a very clear sign that much of the leadership is typical petty-bourgeois, flip flop artists, self-centered, liberal brats who demand to have their own way. Good chance they take their lead from the corporate foundations whose shining lights meet every year to map out the direction for the social movements they want to promote. To have this type of dissension this early in the organizations foretells its collapse into bickering fiefdoms of the pure. They have no plan and are incapable of projecting a clear vision or plan. That is the nature of the beast. Best to get out and re-group into something less sensational but with a plan of action to a goal.

    If activists desire a mass movement that is democratic, organized, with a program, then that is what has to be built. “Occupy” is a knee-jerk organization in an opening caused by their disenchantment with the Obama. They believed a globalist leader was going to deliver them from the globalists. This reflects on the abysmal level of understanding regarding the globalist/capitalist/MIC (military industrial complex) system. One has to assume that there is mass sentiment reacting to the greed of the billionaires to form a base. This sentiment is extremely diffuse, and has no ideological content at all. Trying to use the “Occupy” organizations who define themselves as having no ideological content as a movement vehicle is going to be a dead end for activists and any mass movement. It could be sort of like the SDS of the 60s and 70s, but without the socialist leanings, more of a left-liberal leaning. The Occupy activists will burn out and become disillusioned.

    I’d suggest that something along “Popular Councils” be initiated with a dual goal. First, something with a character of “teach-ins” and secondly, something moving towards action based on council decisions. Actions could be supporting “Occupy” initiatives, supporting strikes, etc. This would support and then draw away Occupy activists into a clear path that is an alternative system to the bourgeois electoral farces, but also steer clear of the Occupy tantrum politics. Of course, the over-all purpose is to educate a mass movement on how a mass power base can move into alternative power to the structure as it is. Any movement that has a goal of applying pressure or participating as a goal in the electoral farces will fail. They all have and that’s over 100 years of experience. The Greeks are experiencing it right now.

    One way to look at it is from the corporate plan for America from the corporatist view. If you follow the corporatist politics from the far view, you can see that the globalists are using their candidates and elections to constantly ratchet the political spectrum to the right, to the corporate agenda of erosion of the Bill of Rights, granting corporations more power, granting the state more repressive means, transfers of the public treasury to the billionaires, eviscerating the social services net, etc., all those things that corporations do to increase the level of exploitation and extraction of surplus value. What Occupy symbolizes is that there exists a diffuse perception that the billionaires and their corporations are ripping off the public. Most of the public does not recognize how the corporatists have ratcheted the spectrum. They feel it, but they cannot conceptualize it. How and why is clearly beyond the grasp of most at this point. Millions still spend most of their free time contemplating the crap that is the cheap entertainment on their tubes while they worry about their bills. There is a market for ideas.

    Today’s Marxists are being very slow to exploit this market. The Marxists were the prime movers of ideas at one time. Occupy has taken a little initiative in the direction, but it is totally incapable of being more than a flash in the pan because it has no alternative vision than can gain traction It is the politics of tantrums and rejects Marx and the theory of value, historical materialism, party politics, etc. Occupy does not accept the proletariat as a political idea. Occupy is clearly a demonstrative organization of a few thousand, not an organization that can lead 300+ million people to a new social conception. Those who want to or have joined Occupy need to consider a much bigger picture and think about some alternatives. Many on this and similar lists have hundreds of total years of experience in every type of organization and mass movement. While some have called for the formation of a new party that brings in everyone, probably that has to occur in the process of moving the base back to the left politically. That needs to be done clearly, one step at a time, and it needs to use the new social media and every other tool. The globalists are going to continue to apply the screws, so no need to panic. Time is not running out. More like the spring is being wound.

    The places where time is running out are in Greece, Spain, Egypt, Libya, etc., where millions are in motion but with bourgeois leaderships (the names are not important) that are leading these movements to defeat and reaction. The only places where any mass movements have taken power were led and organized by mass parties with centralized leaderships giving at least homage to Lenin and Marx and rejecting electoral change as a goal. The exception be the Cubans who rejected elections and had no party. The Cuban model will not work in the United States. We have too many mountains all over the place, and now the CIA has those pesky drones. Here, it has to be based in mass movements, it has to be mass-based organization, it has to be somewhat centralized, it cannot be electoral, and it cannot be knee-jerk. Too many people, all-intrusive and powerful corporate media with thousands of talking heads directing mass attention to everything that is of absolutely no consequence, etc., etc., calls for an imaginative new leadership that can see the rocks just beneath the water surface. Clearly, there has to be an alternative communication system that cannot be cut off by the corporatists (as they cut off Assange’s supporters) and as they have done in Egypt, London, BART, etc. Protests make the people stronger, but it also makes the state stronger. Organization has to be redundant, inclusive, clear, purposeful, and have one ultimate goal which is replacing the corporatist power structure. All tactics and organization has to feed to the goal or all will be lost in the flux. The world does not need new el primo leaders or those who believe they are the new next Lenin. Lenin was in his time. The goal has to remain, the actions have to lead to the goal. The power has to be new and improved.

    Comment by Eustacius — February 16, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  9. re number 7…we are interested in the npr spot…

    Comment by zappa montag — February 16, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  10. re number 9, could you email me at jpkalw917@gmail.com. We can go from there

    Comment by Joaquin — February 17, 2012 @ 12:53 am

  11. From Jo Freeman’s article. Her conclusions are useful and can be part of the consideration of how to control bureaucrats in political and state organizations with the development of popular democracy. This has always been a problem and it is necessary to consider and decide as part of the path and the goal of a mass movement. It is good to have an idea of where one is going and what it will look like. Something like the ABC’s of Occupy. (:-)) for those who know what I mean. Of course, bureaucrats are masters of the passive voice, where no one ever does anything that requires someone to be responsible. Things just happen. When things “just happen”, someone is directing behind the scenes to get their desired result. Some on the Marxist left could take these points to heart and find ways to implement them. Many of us have felt the heavy hand of the petty bureaucrat. One thing that should be noticed in the reproduced comments below is that the organization must have a structure and rules that cause these things to happen. E.G. “Delegation of . . .”, “Requiring all those . . .” , “Distribution of . . ” has to be decided and executed by someone or some committee using some agreed rules. As organization grows in breadth, it grows in power, and there becomes an increasing need for allocating power and controlling power vertically and horizontally. Organizations that grow too fast can concentrate power into the hands of people who either cannot or will not concede or share control of policies, goals, resources, people, etc. Democratic popular councils could start bringing in representatives from various aspects of their communities to discuss and recommend action toward goals related to political awareness and mutual political support and political agitation. This type of early organizing can help teach the process, the methods, and the goals as organizations build. It took 12 years to go from 1905 to 1917. It took 12 years to go from 1917 to 1929. So 24 years from the appearance of the soviets to their practical demise. What happened in this 24 year period is pretty much what has defined and divided all the Marxists since then. That needs to be the focus of its own discussion. Some of the following points can be useful for the thought model as we contemplate the organizational/state spectrum from Occupy to Stalin, or from Occupy to Obama, Occupy to Egypt, Greece, etc. The early soviets had delegates that served under the right of immediate recall. Not a bad idea to have in any state or organization. It is the lack of recall rights that results in major abuses in any state or organization. The corollary is that the ones at that top cannot control all the guns. If they do, then right to recall is fictitious as long as the state is applying coercive force. The leaders of armed forces of any state must also be subject to recall by their members and whose delegates sit in the popular councils. Well, this is what she wrote:

    “1) Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored.
    2) Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.
    3) Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.
    4) Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.
    5) Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.
    6) Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion — without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.
    7) Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.” http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

    When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large. The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.”

    Comment by Eustacius — February 17, 2012 @ 1:29 am

  12. Yes, the Freeman article is excellent, very similar to what those involved in the Movement for a New Society around the same time discovered.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 17, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

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