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The Battle for the Soul of Occupy Wall Street

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When Ben and Jerry unveiled their Movement Resource Group at a panel discussion at a church on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Holmes attended. During the event, she stood up, her voice shaking, and said she assumed everyone present had the best of intentions, but that the MRG, with its top-down structure, was "exactly the kind of organization OWS is not and has never been about." She went on, "I can't get rid of this sinking feeling in my stomach that this will destroy the very foundation of the movement I tried to build. What do you hope to achieve with this?"

After a long, awkward pause, Ben Cohen leaned into his microphone and said, "I guess what we hope to achieve is to help the movement grow and thrive."

Which, of course, was the entire problem: whose movement, exactly, and what would its future look like?

Everything went down so fast it's easy to forget how the spread of Occupy was, itself, a minor miracle. It was planned and executed by a small group of self-identified anarchists, many of them veterans of the anti-globalization movement of the late Nineties who hoped to disrupt, and eventually upend, capitalist dominance over all aspects of society, and who now suddenly found themselves with a worldwide audience. These were people like David Graeber and the publishers of the satirical anti-corporate magazine Adbusters, neo-Situationist pranksters who made the initial call for occupation and coined the phrase Occupy Wall Street. "For years, we've been saying we have to jump over the dead body of the old left," says Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn. "So I wasn't surprised when things blew up in New York. But when it started spreading, and culminated in over a thousand occupations, yes, that did take me by surprise. After 20 years of talking about another 1968, I'd been feeling a bit despondent."

The tents went up at a moment of wholesale institutional malaise, three years into a grinding recession, when it was becoming apparent to millions of Americans that even the minimal sops doled out to the middle class and its aspirants – school, home, pension, the occasional vacation or doctor's visit – required indentureship to a financial system whose primary function was to serve as the house bank for the oligarchy's private casino. Graeber, whose book Debt: The First 5000 Years has become a foundational text for Occupy, likes to say that if Aristotle could be ferried via time machine to the present day, he'd consider the difference between indebted Americans renting themselves out to their employers and indebted men of his own age selling themselves into slavery nothing but a legal technicality.

Occupy made no promises. It wasn't trying to sell you anything – not hope, not change, not toothless reform. It was simply an elegant gesture of refusal, a way of saying to the system that screwed us all, "I prefer not to." The cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff, whose upcoming book Present Shock deals in part with the Occupy movement, says, "For the past three or four hundred years, if you wanted to get the lords in power to agree to something, you had to create these big groups to march on the castle and demand change." Rushkoff sees Occupy as less about goal-oriented, means-to-an-end political activism – what he calls the "mythologically constructed Eyes on the Prize" political movements of the 20th century – and more about enlightenment, a realization that "oh, wait, the feudal lord doesn't genuinely have any right to say what happens to the peasant, and the agreement to grow food for the lord is just that, an agreement."

Various antecedents have been cited, from the Arab Spring to the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. But as Zoe Sigman, a young member of Occupy Chicago, points out, the true founding father of Occupy, in an anti-hero sort of way, might be President Obama. In 2008, while still an undergraduate, Sigman campaigned for Obama in Iowa, but like many progressives, became disillusioned as "Change We Can Believe In" morphed into "Realpolitik We Can Grudgingly Accept." "For kids raised during the Bush regime, seeing our country go to war and our parents lose their jobs and their houses, we all got so excited about this potential for hope," Sigman says. "The problem with hope is that it's a promise, not an action. And if you don't deliver..." She trails off, then says, "Hope is a dangerous weapon. I don't put my hope in politicians now. I put my hope in people."

After Mayor Bloomberg ordered the razing of the Zuccotti Park encampment in November, Occupy's initial burst of energy dissipated. Most of the activists continued doing what they'd done while the world was watching – talk – but now, few paid attention. Robbed of its symbolic hub, OWS struggled to maintain focus. People grew frustrated with the endless general assembly meetings, in which anyone who showed up had an equal right to speak and consensus decision-making became an impractical and dispiriting slog. At Occupy Portland, I met a professional stand-up comedian named Arlo Stone. He had sharp, daggerlike sideburns and was raising his children as anarcho-primitivists: largely off the grid, home-schooled, no vaccines. When I asked him if he'd written any Occupy jokes, he said, "Oh, sure. 'How many Occupiers does it take to change a light bulb? I don't know – we're still looking for consensus on if the room is dark, but we're putting together a light-bulb-changing working group and we anticipate a detailed press release sometime over the next week.'"

As one of the mildest winters in recent memory wafted on, Occupy, incredibly, seemed to fade away. Some of the sympathetic observers who'd watched in awe as the activists so savvily reclaimed the terms of debate felt betrayed by the movement's apparent lack of staying power. It wasn't fair, of course, to demand instant, structural fortitude of what was, by definition, a leaderless and vaguely defined uprising. Still, the infighting and an absence of discipline emerging from OWS felt symptomatic, to some, of the left's perennial ability to internally debate itself out of seemingly unsquanderable opportunities.

"That's what I'm most afraid of, that this fucking old loony left will reassert itself and destroy us," says Lasn, who just turned 70, and who speaks with an Estonian accent that has the gleefully miserable quality of a Werner Herzog voice-over. "For all of their wrongheaded ideas, the Tea Party had a certain ability to get things done," he continues. "Whereas the left is always in danger of talking itself into the ground. Anyone who's ever been to a lefty meeting knows you go there full of hope, then after three hours of everyone having their moment in the sun, you walk out feeling more hopeless than ever."

In many ways, Occupy had become a victim of its own unbelievable success. Lasn, an apostate from the marketing world, proved genius at branding, but failed to consider the difficulty of managing expectations. For Occupy activists, coming up with an Act Two that could somehow rival its initial novelty and raw excitement seems, in hindsight, as doomed an undertaking as recording a second Strokes album.

Some within the movement felt that in order to recapture the world's attention, another marquee event would be necessary. And so for months now, whenever people asked what happened to Occupy, the thing you'd hear most often was, "Just wait until May Day." Celebrated around the world as International Workers' Day, May 1st struck many as the perfect opportunity for OWS to emerge from hibernation and launch a spring offensive, in the form of a nationwide general strike.

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