You are here

Occupy the Farm

Prefiguration or Actualization? Radical Democracy and Counter-Institution in the Occupy Movement

By Daniel Murray - Berkeley Journal of Sociology, November 3, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Comparing Occupy Wall Street and an outgrowth of the movement in the SF Bay Area called Occupy the Farm, participant-researcher Daniel Murray argues that the movement for radical democracy must do more than create spaces for discourse and dissent. It must be a movement of democratic counter-institutions.

The Occupy movement emerged in response to a devastating economic crisis, bringing economic inequality to the center of political discourse. But it also emerged in response to a wave of social movements around the world that toppled dictators, asserted the power of the people and demonstrated their desire to take control of the decisions that affect their lives. In Occupy, as in all of these movements, the economic and the political were linked. Participants did not merely demand an end to foreclosures or new redistributive policies to address economic inequality; they also saw these grievances as symptomatic of a fundamentally undemocratic political system. Though the interests and motivations of participants in the Occupy movement were highly diverse, at the core it can be read as a movement for radical democracy – the underlying goal was to actualize the ideal of self-organizing communities of free and equal persons, expand and deepen democratic participation in all spheres of life, and increase individuals’ and communities’ power over social, economic and political institutions.[1]

But in many ways, Occupy also sought to be a movement of radical democracy. Rather than petitioning politicians to bring about democratizing reforms or building a party that would hopefully instate democracy after the revolution, activists hoped to bring about a radically democratic society through radical democratic practice. They sought to prefigure a democracy-to-come, by actualizing radical democracy in the movement itself. They claimed public spaces as venues in which experiments in radical democracy could be developed, tested, and propagated. They were spaces in which to organize political action and in which all were free to participate in agenda-setting, decision-making, and political education through the process itself.

Based on fourteen months of participant-research in two Occupy sites – Occupy Wall Street and an outgrowth of the movement called Occupy the Farm – this paper evaluates the different forms prefigurative politics has taken within the movement.[2] Many commentators have lauded the movement as an example of prefigurative politics, which they see as the cutting edge of contemporary radical politics.[3] However, an overemphasis on the value of prefiguration can be debilitating, leading to a focus on internal movement dynamics at the expense of building a broader movement, and a focus on symbolic expressions of dissent as opposed to the development of alternatives to actually replace existing political, economic and social institutions. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) suffered this fate, partly due to the perception that the encampment and the decision-making procedures were prefigurative, and the perception that prefigurative politics itself will lead to revolutionary transformations in the political, economic and social structure.

While Occupy Wall Street foundered on the prefigurative obsession with movement process, a group of activists, students and local residents in the San Francisco Bay Area have sought to overcome these challenges. Since 2012, they have worked under the banner of Occupy the Farm (OTF) to create an agricultural commons on a parcel of publicly owned land. Unlike OWS, OTF has worked to establish a counter-institution grounded in material resources and production, that is ultimately meant to increase participants’ autonomy from the state and capitalism. In this way it has been able to link radical democracy and economic justice in a material way, rather than merely symbolically. As it is generally practiced and conceptualized today, prefigurative politics is an inadequate framework for developing radical democratic political strategy. Instead of prefiguration, we should redirect our efforts toward developing and linking democratic counter-institutions that produce and manage common resources. Occupy the Farm illustrates some of the potential and the challenges of such a strategy.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.