by Matt Sheedy
Nathan Schneider’s newly released book, Thank You Anarchy, Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, provides a unique insiders’ account of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York City, along with compelling data on the movement’s internal and external struggles, its ideological orientations, as well as its diffusion into other, related movements after it moved beyond its dominant phase in the fall of 2011.
A subtle but consistent theme that can be detected throughout the book is Schneider’s own religious positioning, which I would characterize as an eclectic, progressive Catholicism, akin in some ways to the politics of liberation theologies, though clearly exhibiting a less Christian-centric solution as a proscription for all, while nonetheless highlighting how it does inform his own understanding.
Tracing the beginning of the movement from the influence of the Arab Spring and European Summer uprisings of 2011 (e.g., the adaptation of the organizational structure and ideological orientation of the M15 or Indignados movement in Spain), Schneider also provides a detailed participant-observer account of the early planning stages in New York City after the initial call via Twitter to #OCCUPYWALLSTREET was proposed by Adbusters magazine on July 13, 2011.
While noting the existence of multiple perspectives and political orientations within the movement, including factions that wanted Occupy to focus its attention exclusively on democratic reforms, such as imposing a “Robin Hood” tax on all bank transactions, restoring the Glass-Steagall Act or overturning “Citizens United,” (16) Schneider argues that these dimensions were largely inflated by the mainstream media, whose intense interest in Occupy over the course of approximately 2 months in the fall of 2011 helped to perpetuate a (meta)narrative on the need for “one demand,” which was quickly co-opted by mainstream political parties. (55)
By contrast, Schneider argues that Occupy offered,
a wholesale rethinking of political life, more akin to the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in revolutionary France than, say, to the introduction of a financial-transaction tax or the revocation of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. (71)
This idealizing claim is backed-up with examples of how the general ethos of the movement, as evidenced by its more “canonical” statements/documents such as those found in the Principles of Solidarity (56) and the Declaration of New York City, offered a strong condemnation of current political and economic practices, while stressing that Occupy was not about “demands,” but rather a call to action for people to join the movement and radically re-imagine the socio-political order. (57-58)
This injunction was not merely stated but also performed through the occupation of spaces in public, where Occupiers engaged in a form of participatory democracy through the horizontal decision-making process known as the General Assembly. At the Zuccotti Park encampment, Schneider notes how programs of mutual aid were central, such as food distribution, along with attempts to confront problems of representation for marginalized persons/groups both inside and outside of the camp. Identity groups such as Safer Spaces, People of Color Caucus and Feminist General Assembly (64) were only a few of the many sub-formations that, as Schneider writes, “had to work out the consequences of what they already claimed to think.” (66) These group formations, developed out of the horizontal decision-making process of the General Assembly, were thus the pragmatic outgrowth of a more utopian aim to actualize a social order free from the constraints of unequal representation and outright domination more commonly experienced by the poor, the racially marginalized and by women.
Schneider likens the ideals and practices of Occupy to an anarchist utopia that “tries to build a culture in which people can take care of themselves and each other through healthy, sustainable communities.” (75) He also notes how the movement began to break-down internally, despite being forcefully evicted on November 15, 2011, where book-keeping and daily minutiae (e.g., what to do with large monetary donations), came to dominate the General Assembly, while the early appeal and spectacle of a political uprising and the opportunity to voice one’s concerns and ideals in public, began to wane.
One aspect of Schneider’s book that I found most interesting as a scholar of religion is how it offers a sort of insiders’ anthropology that attempts to navigate between ideals and competing interests, resulting in the shifts and changes that occurred in the movement over time. Given its vast global spread on October 15, 2011, and the near-simultaneous appropriation of a shared set of myths, symbols and rituals, the Occupy movement offers a unique contemporary instance of how social formations arise, are maintained, and change over time given such factors as the dispositions, interests, and opportunities of participants, along with the force of external factors, such as media narratives and the police, in shaping it from the outside.
While noting the continued presence of Occupy-related groups in the movement’s residual phase, such as Occupy Homes, (107) Occupy the Courts, Occupy the Dream and Occupy for Jobs, along with coordinated actions in relation to other groups protesting the NATO and G8 summits in Chicago and May Day events in 2012, (123) Schneider traces the decline of Occupy’s early identity formation from what he calls a “gigantic art project” (145) that helped to enlarge the public imagination, to a much looser network of affinity groups concerned with such things as “debt, foreclosure, homelessness, food access, environmental crises, school closures, police brutality, mass incarceration.” (141) Here we can see an instance of how an intentional community formed and aligned itself with certain values and practices, before waning and re-emerging in new forms, albeit less in accordance with the original organizational structure and some of its more idealistic aims.
One thing that interests me about Occupy, in both Schneider’s book and in my own research on the movement, is how it offers a useful comparison for how we might classify “religion.” Following Émile Durkheim’s famous functional definition, we may note that Occupy attempted to create a system of beliefs and practices in order to unite groups of people into a single community that shared general principles, while stressing the importance of local autonomy.
In his recent essay “What Isn’t Religion?” Kevin Schilbrack’s suggests, “that religious communities understand their practices and the values they teach as in accord with the nature of things.” (305)
While it could be argued that some within the Occupy movement understood themselves in this way, the (forceful) dissolution of the majority of encampments in the fall of 2011 and the reemergence of related groups in a variety of places has yet to reveal any widespread reconstitution of an identifiable set of practices and values, at least not under the banner of “Occupy.”
While noting commonalities between different intentional communities, Shilbrack further suggests that,
Religious communities, on [one] account, are those that hold that some nonempirical realities exist independent of empirical sources. Non-religious communities, by contrast, are those that see the existence of their values as contingent on empirical sources—typically, either the particular social practices of human history or by practical reason as such. Religious communities are those that adopt values that they do not believe depend on human or other empirical forms of agency. (313)
Drawing on this distinction, it would seem that the Occupy movement was more akin to a “non-religious “ community, not relying on any explicit reference to what Schilbrack terms a “superempircal reality.”
More accurate, perhaps, would be to say that Occupy presented a “this-worldly” utopian vision, though one that relied on certain myths, symbols and rituals that could be considered “metaphysical” inasmuch as they were sometimes suggestive of a natural order that the community attempted to bring into line through their particular practices.
I am also inclined to suggest, following Schilbrack again, that Occupy could be considered “religious” for some participants if it is seen as way to get closer to God(s) or as a way to actualize a truer version/vision of a tradition that relates in some way to a “superempirical reality.” (316-17)
This was evident at last year’s AAR meeting in Chicago, with several papers on the Occupy movement as well as a large panel of mostly theologians discussing the book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, where authors Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan argued for a reimagining of “the divine in the context of Occupy movement” as a “bottom-up” God of the people. (106)
In Schneider’s own account, confessional communities played an important role in the movement, including his own involvement with Occupy Catholics, in attempting to re-image their traditions in-line with the common practices and values of the Occupiers, including injunctions against greed (113) and the importance of forgiving debt and mutual aid. (115)
While these examples require more data and indeed more theorizing, they do point toward some of the ways that scholars might go about distinguishing “religious” from “non-religious” beliefs and practices, while accounting for the considerable overlap, tensions and interdependency between them.
Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.