Reflections on Occupy’s May Day: All Play Doesn’t Work

Thousands participated in the 2012 May Day events spearheaded by people who identify themselves as part of Occupy Wall Street. There were marches, running battles with police, teach-ins, skill shares, music, and speeches. Unions, immigrant rights groups, queer rights groups, and many others joined in solidarity. The capstone of the May Day events in the United States was surely the march by tens of thousands of people in New York City, moving from Union Square down Broadway and ending more or less at Wall Street. There was much to enjoy. Large marches—especially this one, which I attended—are fun and can be thrilling. In New York City, the cast of characters in the street is pretty motley. Where I marched, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra (complete with two tubas!) got us all singing “We Shall Overcome.”

The Occupy media blitz—and the Occupy intellectuals I’ve heard speak and with whom I’ve spoken—marketed, without irony, the May Day events as a general strike. But everyone who knows the meaning of that term knows that this is a deception. A general strike is a strike by all the workers (or most of the workers) in a community, regardless of where they work. The May Day actions didn’t even amount to a regular strike. Rather, May Day 2012, at least in NYC, was more or less a roving lefty carnival. It was a series of performances—joyous street theater on a larger than normal scale. But it was politically meaningless.

This exposes what is, in my opinion, a fundamental feature of the Occupy movement: Occupy is all play and no power. Substantive political action—and, in particular, the future of left resistance to inequality—remains in the hands of established movement organizations.

The last general strike in the United States was in Oakland, California, in December 1946. The city was shut down for two days. The streetcars were still, the buses still, and the stores were shuttered. Jukeboxes from taverns that strikers had closed were pushed onto sidewalks and the most popular music of the day filled the air. People danced in the street. Many called it their “work holiday,” even while spending most of their time on picket lines. And those pickets: they were racially integrated and often led by women. The marchers stayed strong night and day, filled with good cheer. When you look at photos of the strike, everyone seems to be smiling and many are laughing, despite the winter weather. Some of the protesters picketed while roller-skating. During the strike, there was a meeting in a huge space attended by more than 10,000 people, with hundreds outside listening on speakers. A real general assembly! Unions were in complete control of the city. The cops, the politicians, and the businessmen were powerless.1

May Day 2012 looked nothing like this. In New York City, the subways and buses ran without even a slowdown (even though the transit workers’ unions are typically unafraid to implement slowdowns when not actively striking). None of the municipal or state unions called for work stoppages or slowdowns. Nor were there a significant number of store closures.

Reasons can be given for this, and reasons were given. It was said that the union leaders would go to jail if they advocated for industrial action. Some pointed out that in this economy everyone needs every dollar they can make. And so on. So be it. These are just the sorts of considerations one has to face when deciding whether to call a strike, much less a general strike. But instead of facing up to these considerations against calling for a strike, much less a general strike, Occupy just redefined “general strike” to mean whatever would happen on May Day.

This appears to me to be a clear case of dishonesty. In democratic organizing, telling the truth matters. Being honest both with yourself and with those who follow you is essential for the organizing to be democratic. And, being honest with yourself and those who follow you is essential for the organizing to be successful.

So, this is not just about the term “general strike.” While there is a concern about Occupy’s Orwellian willingness to deploy powerful political terms in truth-disregarding but marketing-sensitive ways, thereby obscuring what might be required for actual political change, what really concerns me is that this approach betrays a failure to be open about the internal challenges to entering into genuine struggle. This, in turn, means that people will enter into that struggle only accidentally, in spite of Occupy’s obfuscation.2 It suggests that Occupy, short on political power and long on theatricality, is treating compelling, fun street performance as the same thing as building and using power in the political sphere.

A central goal of most forms of contemporary democratic organizing is the development of astute, disciplined political actors who understand what it takes to make changes in an unjust political order. What is destructive, then, is that people who are drawn into the Occupy movement are learning the wrong things about how to organize effectively for justice and change. They are learning that what we saw on Tuesday, May 1, was a manifestation of deep and profound political power—just march and protest, hold skill shares and yell at the cops, and the world will suddenly become more just.3 What a terrible lesson.

Where can we look today for a proper lesson?

One place to look is the struggle in Wisconsin. When Governor Scott Walker tried, in early 2011, to force onto the state the most anti-union, anti-working-class legislation in generations, the unions and the broader left community responded with fury. They occupied the state house. They rallied for days on end in the Wisconsin winter. The Democratic legislators fled the state, depriving the Senate of a quorum. These legislators suffered financial penalties for refusing to come back. Capitol police defied the orders of the governor, which was a legal risk. Workers took time off of work, consequently losing wages. The costs incurred were substantial and the risks taken were not for the meek. Despite this, the response was awesome: A massive fist rose from the earth and clocked the right-wing political establishment square across the face.4 If anything in the United States during the past two years deserves to be called an insurrection, those early days of revolt in Madison do.5

Against this backdrop and given the hype leading up to Occupy’s May Day events, the timidity of those events stuns. For Occupy spent much of its energy representing May Day as a day of massive political action: The people are waking up! This is revolution! But May Day wasn’t any of those things, and Occupy is not a political movement. What Occupy is, is an aesthetic—a softly democratic and faintly anarchistic one.6 And it’s an aesthetic academics and many activists on the left consume so that we can feel radical and politically active without actually having to be radical or politically active.

Therein lies the rub—for everyone who learned from the May Day events that this is what democracy looks like, for everyone who learned from the May Day events that this is what mass political action looks like: you were sold a bill of goods. Big marches and “general assemblies” that most people cannot attend aren’t the primary vehicles for democratic change. Street theater may be political, but it doesn’t amount to an exercise of significant political power.7 Occupy marketed May Day as something that it isn’t. Occupy might be playing the same cynical consumerist game it rails against.

I do not deny that Occupy is fun. I love participating. As performance, Occupy is valuable. While marching together, my friend turned to me and said, “Occupy is like the fountain of youth for unions and other organizations.” He’s right. Occupy’s energy made NYC’s giant May Day march happen—there is no way it would have happened in the absence of Occupy. The energy and open-faced joy of Occupy probably has reinvigorated many of those experienced organizers and left institutions that were, in some cases, struggling for energy as a result of both the recession and intense challenges from the Right.8

All this fun does not take away from the fact that Occupy is, in the end, little more than theater. Theater is important. It can start a conversation. It can inspire those who have power to use it in certain ways. But theater can be distracting, and young activists could learn the wrong lessons from Occupy. People will come to believe that the theater that is Occupy is a substantive form of direct political power when in fact it is not. What happens when they become disillusioned when they discover that effective organizing means a lot of drudgery (like many other jobs)?

For the kind of power needed to bring the world more in line with our ideals, we must look, at least on the Left, to more traditional organizations like labor unions and communities of solidarity, like women’s rights groups, immigrants’ rights groups, queer rights groups, and the like. To learn how to create political change, to learn how to fight back when they say cut back, look to the 1946 Oakland General Strike or look to the 2011 Wisconsin insurrection.9 While Occupy should continue to reach out to these groups and inspire them with their energy, Occupy should be open in acknowledging that such cheerleading is all it is able, or willing, to do.

Like I said—Occupy is a good thing and it has been very fun. But in the end, Occupy is just play.10

  1. The strike ended partly because the unions representing utilities workers, which were affiliated with the more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations, planned to join the strike by shutting off electricity to all of Alameda County. While many rank and file members of the AFL unions leading the strike might have supported this incredible action, the leadership was worried that they would be red-baited. The politicians and businessmen, on the other hand, were worried that they might have a small-scale revolution on their hands. Finally, a crooked but powerful leader of the Teamsters ordered his union to start crossing the picket lines. As a result of this confluence of events, all sides came together to make a deal, and on its third day the general strike ended.
  2. What are the elements of this struggle? Most basically, it is about numbers and training, which often involves a lot of really boring stuff like collecting names on sign-in sheets, calling those people back, organizing one-on-one meetings with them, training them to take over leadership, and so on. Occupy folks should ask themselves how it was that so many people ended up in that March on May Day: unions and other organizations that do all that boring grunt work turned out their people.
  3. Occupy is more obsessed with its relationship with the police than any post-Black Panthers US-based movement of which I am aware. This strikes me as partially due to the essentially performative aspect of Occupy (see my “Living Politically” published on this blog), but also as a case of sheer political laziness. It is easy to battle with cops, but it also gets you nowhere. But it does make great theater. If it bleeds, it leads—even in the minds of the activists. On the other hand, we should definitely worry very much about the encroaching police state. But the way you fight a police state is by taking control of the state, not by focusing only on the police. Of course, it’s impossible not to fight the police, but you have to be careful in picking when to engage in police-irritating mayhem. Not only should it be part of something bigger, cops themselves are working people who are also being screwed by the Right.
  4. Please forgive the purple prose—but in this case, it may be warranted.
  5. The Wisconsin actions failed to defeat the anti-union legislation, although the struggle continues in the electoral realm. As most people know, the unions have forced the governor into a recall election. He will probably win that election, but even then there is a victory to be salvaged from that. First, the Wisconsin struggle directly energized the struggles against anti-union legislation in Ohio and Indiana (and in the case of Ohio, the legislation was defeated). Second, the unions have shown that it is extremely costly to challenge them. Just putting up a real fight, even if you are not declared the winner, reaps the benefit of teaching the Right that it cannot just take what it wants. In general, struggles for justice never end with a clear-cut victory. You fight for one thing, you win something else, and you keep moving.
  6. Claire Jarvis deserves the credit this observation. I am merely repeating her insight.
  7. General strikes, like the 1946 Oakland general strike, are both theatrical and politically powerful.
  8. Occupy obviously requires organization. But almost all intentional practices do. So, I am happy to concede that Occupy organizers organized the march. But organizing a march is not the same thing as building political power.
  9. Also look to the long struggle for justice that ran from the 1930s through the 1960s. Both the Black activists and white activists who helped to form the SCLC, build the NAACP, and do the grassroots work of the civil rights movement were often communists or trained by the communists who were central to the great expansion of labor power in the 1930s. For more on the connections between the Old Left and the civil rights movement, see Matthew Nichter, “Rethinking the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Radicals, Repression, and the Black Freedom Struggle, 1930 – 1965” (doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2012).
  10. I thank Claire Jarvis for extremely helpful comments and thoughtful conversation. I also thank Michelle Zeiler for helpful comments (and for being a tireless AFT organizer).

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  1. Joan Donovan says:

    While I take issue with a lot of what is said in this article, I must comment on this statement, which shows a lack of knowledge about how May Day was organized in NYC: “Occupy folks should ask themselves how it was that so many people ended up in that March on May Day: unions and other organizations that do all that boring grunt work turned out their people.” They don’t have to ask because it wasn’t spontaneous.

    You suggest that ‘the unions etc turned out their people’ which couldn’t be further from what actually happened leading up to May Day. The large May Day march in NYC was the result of many long and boring coalition building meetings. The same nitty gritty work that you celebrate with unions was an integral OWS strategy for getting everyone (people, unions, other orgs) not just into the street on May Day, but ON TO THE SAME STREET.

    Furthermore, unions and other orgs have been valued participants and financial backers of occupy from the very beginning. There would be no Occupy without their support. Many people in Occupy can not become a member of the UAW or SEIU, but members of those orgs can be participants in occupy activities. So it is disingenuous to suggest that Occupy (which you’ve also claimed is an event and not an organization) was unaware that “other” people were doing hard work because there is a lot of crossover between the groups. You can’t in one instance suggest that Occupy is a clown show and then insist that they need to be accountable as an organization. It’s one or the other.

    Further, Occupy does have an strategy for organizing and enrolling new people, but does not maintain any centralized database or require more than people are willing to volunteer. While you might experience May Day as pure theater, there is nothing sexy about making and distributing tens of thousands of posters and fliers as well as posting tens of thousands of messages on facebook, twitter, reddit, and other sites in order to promote such an action. All of the only work takes people power too!
    While the call for a general strike might have been unsuccessful at actually producing a general strike, it has put the tactic of a general strike into the vocabulary of people who never considered striking because they were not part of a union.

    So, is it too early to advertise for May 1st General Strike 2013?

  2. Matthew Noah Smith says: (Author)

    Thank you for your comment!

    I have no doubt that Occupy, and May Day especially, involves a lot of organizing! I actually said as much in the essay.

    There is a difference between organizing a big event and organizing for power. The former involves reaching out to established organizations, coordinating with them, building relationships with them, posting fliers and so on. Of course Occupy had to do that to make May Day happen!

    But, there is something your comment doesn’t acknowledge. A very great many of the people who were out there on the street – by my *very rough* estimation, about half of the crowd – were members of established organizations and were self-consciously representing themselves as members of those organizations. A plurality, perhaps, of the people on the street were out there in virtue of organizational ties that had been forged outside of Occupy. It is the existence of _those_ ties that allows for massive marches of the sort we saw on May Day. And, my argument in this piece is that it is the existence of those ties that allows for significant political change.

    The construction of those ties is the second kind of organizing – not organizing an event, but organizing a disciplined, focused community that can, in a way remarkable for its relative ease, work more or less in unison.

    I recognize that there are Occupy affinity groups and that there is some sort of attempt at decentralized organization. But, I simply do not see any evidence of success at building the substance of a powerful political collective agent whose capacity to make political change is not in a pretty fundamental sense dependent upon the actions of more established organizations. (On the other hand, I am sure many union members and leaders are energized by and grateful for Occupy. )

    If we want to invest in changing the political order, our best evidence suggests that the best method involves the more typical route of building fairly disciplined democratic organizations. (Some evidence: the role of unions in the fightback in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio; the role of established gay rights groups in the fight for gay marriage, and so on.)

    Finally, I know of NO instances in which “putting a tactic into people’s vocabulary” does anything particularly useful, at least not when no one learns what that tactic actually is. Now people think a general strike is marching around Manhattan. (Of course, the union members all know what a strike is, and probably what a general strike is; Occupy, while you are awesome, you also aren’t teaching them anything new by using that term.) Thanks to Occupy, the words “general strike” are being uttered by people both without appreciation for what general strikes really are and without sense of the history of general strikes.

    To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    In general, people learn tactics by enacting them and trying to improve on their mistakes, not by just talking about those tactics and then doing something else entirely.

  3. There are a couple of points here that I think are worthwhile to raise, but I am not sure the author grapples with them in a sufficient way. The branding aspect of Mayday as a general strike was problematic. But the article doesn´t offer much in terms of the real challenges faced by participants in the movement (and their supporters) who experience informal labor relations and whose issues are much broader than direct labor issues. They have to do with debt, commodification of society, un- or under-employment, and etc.

    What could a general strike look like considering these facts? What kind of leverage could people use considering these situations? How can power be built? The author falls back on the Wisconsin protests without facing the fact that they havent created political power either but instead focused on recall of Walker, and his replacement with a moderate democrat.

    Good issues are raised here, but they are not framed in a way that helps get beyond the predicament.

  4. Joan Donovan says:

    While this might seem like a moot point, NYCGA never supported the language of a General Strike; instead they said they stood in solidarity with others’ calls for a GS ( If your article hangs on the fact that OWS preformed a general strike wrong, then it’s important to point out that “they” never called for a GS anyway.

    In terms of putting a tactic into the vocabulary of people who have never discussed such a feat, occupation is an example of this. While the tactic of occupying a private space has quite a precedent, the tactic of occupying public space in a massively decentralized manner was opaque to many before September 24th. On that day, the macing of the detained young women was a violent police act meant to antagonize marchers and spark a riot. By refusing to ‘battle the police’ on their own terms, OWS ignited a national conversation on what it meant to be public and political in America without being partisan.

    People were free to imagine and define what occupation could look like and the local political trajectories they would take as a collective. In response to this, participants in Occupy Youngstown OH never had an encampment, but they still hold weekly General Assemblies and maintain a website. So, does this mean they are being dishonest about being an ‘occupation?’ Maybe. But “to occupy” means something very different today than it did a year ago. So, talking about a tactic does lead to it’s execution in various forms, even forms that do not adhere to a given model.

    But how to measure the success of a tactic like the GS, if it only means carrying out the tactic in the same way it was done 60 years ago? Maybe the GS will mean something different in a year, or two, or ten?

    The General Strike in Los Angeles was an attempt to find a tactic that resonated with the 88% of labor who are not unionized. While it might not have been readily observable in both NY and LA, some businesses did close down in solidarity and some banks shut down because of protesting. In LA (and I am not differentiating between occupy participants and members of formal orgs as they are part of occupy as an idea), OLA held numerous teach-ins and passed out tens of thousands of pamphlets explaining what a general strike is and how people could participate. While about 10k people took to the streets that day, it wasn’t a general strike of old. OLA and OWS, perhaps, could have ignited something bigger on May day if they took more risks (shutting down highways, bridges, retaking the squares), but everyone is suffering from a bit of mass arrest fatigue.

  5. Matthew Noah Smith says: (Author)

    Joan –

    We are clearly talking past one another.

    Let me be blunt. I am concerned with actually changing for the better the conditions of most of our lives. In particular, I’d like to see a more equal distribution of wealth and income, easy and cheap access to good health care for all, work and dignity in work for all who want those things, and so on.

    I assume that these are significant aims of Occupy as well.

    The question I posed was whether Occupy was the sort of phenomenon that could move us in the direction of achieving these aims.

    My answer was a qualified “no.” The reason I answered “No” was the following: I have not encountered, nor heard of, nor read of any instances in which Occupy appeared to be engaged in an honest effort to build and exercise the sort of power that has historically been required to challenge those who maintain and extend inequality. (It is *qualified* because I believe that Occupy has reinvigorated many movements and has played a very important role in inspiring people in established organizations to re-think their practices.)

    The case was predicated on effective strategies that are illustrated by two examples – one a general strike and the other a more recent occupation of public space (the 1946 Oakland General Strike and the 2011 Wisconsin occupation of the Capitol). The reason I cited these two examples was because they manifest both tactics that Occupy people like you are so eager to claim as having reinvented, brought to national attention, etc. My points were that these two tactics were politically meaningful in their own way and that they most certainly changed regular people’s lives (both materially and in terms of their self-understandings).

    (A few parenthetical questions: What is the problem with these tactics? Why do they need to be reinvented? They were successful in their own rights. Why is Occupy so focused on challenging these practices as they existed prior to Occupy? Did they fail in a way that Occupy won’t fail?)

    You cite the “introduction of language into discourse” – be it discussions of what it is to occupy something or what counts as a general strike – as if this were the route to realizing ideals of justice in our world. But, few in Occupy articulate visions of political change that move *beyond* changing the conversation.

    Occupy’s focus on communication and the struggle over reinventing certain terms is evidence, I think, that Occupy is primarily a marketing project, and not an organizing project. Changing the conversation is great, but is that the main strategy? Why think that it is sufficient to get much done? I am not saying that people aren’t risking a lot for Occupy, or that occupations aren’t real things, or that challenging discourse isn’t important. I am, among other things, asking this question: To what end is all this discourse-mongering?

    Occupy folks are constantly talking about partisanship, as if people like me think that the only way to make a difference is to unite with a political party. That’s ludicrous. But, why ignore where the political power lies. Sometimes, we need to get into a tussle with political powers on normal turf. For example, I’ve heard several people from Occupy reject the project of running candidates for local office under the banner of Occupy (I’ve heard a few Occupy folks advocate for it, too). I don’t really get why this is such a bad idea. I bet that the experience of walking up and down streets, knocking on doors, and asking for votes will do a whole lot more for Occupy than battling the cops. That’s just one idea. But, it is not one that requires “selling out”. It’s just a *tactic*, like occupation, and who knows, it just might make a difference.

  6. Steve says:

    An ill-informed and simple-minded article. Apparently, if the revolution doesn’t occur, nothing really happened. The author doesn’t even give a scope of the widespread activity on May 1, let alone seriously assess the status of the movement. A good sense of what pre-existing organizations can accomplish can be gained by the limp marches held on May 1 in recent years. Established unions kept their distance from the coalition that supports immigrants. Nobody was using the day to call attention to workers’ struggles throughout the city.

    The existing unions in NYC are in very bad shape in terms of fostering a spirit of struggle. Except for the teachers’ union, virtually all of them have kept their distance from education struggles, a burning concern for tens of thousands of parents of public school students in NYC. Except for one of the nurses unions, none of them have said a word about stop and frisk. And of course, they sat on their hands after a vicious night of repression on November 15 that has never really ended. It’s pretty clear that much of Occupy intends to continue working with the established unions. And most of those who work for the more militant edge of the non-profits embrace Occupy. Changing the mood from the ground up, by cultivating militant networks within the unions, will take time. But already, Occupy has given a huge impetus to struggles in the city. And the example of Wisconsin is rich. The union leadership led the movement straight into a cul-de-sac of a recall election from which the movement has not yet escaped. Precisely why we need a militant movement outside the traditional power structures.

  7. I agree with you that Occupy is largely an aesthetic endeavor. What I disagree with is your assumption that it should be something else. To say that Occupy is “little more than theater” is an unnecessary denigration. Contemporary politics, with all its emphasis on image and narrative, is in itself “little more than theater.” This theater can be done well or poorly, but attempting to transform the narrative is as worthy a political goal as the sort of organizing that you prize. I think that you’re essentially asking OWS to be something that its not and to do something that it is unsuited to doing. Through its own means, Occupy has helped to make inequality part of the national conversation, to turn Bain into more a liability than an asset to Romney, and to get the Obama administration to at least begin to address corporate crime and the mortgage crisis. This is not nothing.

    I’ve written about (and defended) Occupy as an aesthetic endeavor on my own blog. If you’re interested, you can find the post here:

  8. AK says:

    Joan makes the excellent point that organizing the May Day march required hard work and tedious organizing, and the people that worked on that should be commended. Unfortunately, Steve’s comment only makes Matthew’s point for him. There is a self-importance and self-righteousness that runs through Occupy that is the primary obstacle to actually organizing people beyond those whose identities and sense of self hinge on an ‘alternative’ lifestyle. While the original occupation did inspire people, and continues in many ways to inspire people, the already existing social and political relations within established institutions like unions are what enabled Occupy to bring people out on May Day. It is those material relations within established institutions that made May Day possible even if the invitation came from Occupy (yes, invitations take work too). Unfortunately, people within Occupy actually exhibit hostility towards those very institutions for being short sighted and politically complicit in “power structures,” while Occupy has long term vision and is “outside” traditional power structures. In such self-congratulatory statements, Occupy forgets that it is the people in established institutions are the ones actually addressing the needs of some segment of the working class and marginalized, however small, while Occupy itself produces nothing but a political expression, as the writer points out. Often this disdain for traditional institutions actually translates into hostility for those that participate in traditional institutions (basically working people). Now, one might ask, then, given that Occupy has yet to actually produce anything for anyone (which would be fine if it were not accompanied by this attitude) where this self-importance and sense of entitlement come from as a political movement, and if we are to probe, then we will find that it mostly comes from the same enduring ‘structures of power’ that the “alternative” lifestylers of Occupy claim to be ‘outside’ i.e. race and class privilege. Until Occupiers take their own relatively privileged location within broader American society and the world seriously, they will not be able to connect with people and not be able to build a genuine movement.

  9. TNC says:

    This really is an excellent piece and it cuts to the problems not only of Occupy but also the direction of the radical left for the past twenty years or more. The problems discussed in this article–the emphasis on rhetoric over substance, on language over power, on theater over politics–were prevalent late 1980s and into the 1990s. The so-called anti-globalization movement was rife with this nonsense.

    Where I likely deviate from the author’s perspective is this emphasis on how participation makes you feel–in particular how it validates one’s sense of identity–is more important than politics at this point. At least I think that is the case for the vast majority of the participants. In short, the author is looking for a radical left that either no longer exists, or is far outnumbered by postmodernist dolts fixated on their own navels (discourse, language, spectacle).

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