Paper - Politics and Protest Workshop

Gianmarco Savio
“Everybody Came for a Different Reason”: Autonomy, Coordination, and Collective Action in
Occupy Wall Street
All social movements face the internal challenge of developing unified action and “organizational
discipline—the willingness of the bulk of members to agree to act in concert, to coordinate [their]
activities, and then to change their behavior together” (Schwartz 1976: 133). Previous work has shown
that even amidst the risk of oligarchization, a vital component for successful collective action is formal
organization, in particular because it facilitates internal coordination (McAdam 1982; McCarthy and Zald
1977; Michels 1915; Schwartz 1976; Young and Schwartz 2012; Zald and Ash 1966). Yet formal
organization may not be entirely necessary. Here, I draw upon ethnographic evidence from Occupy Wall
Street (OWS) in New York City to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of collective action
without formal organization. First, I argue for the utility of the concept of autonomy—defined as action
undertaken by individuals and subgroups within a movement outside of any formal decision making
structure—and identify it as a theoretical antithesis of coordination. A central component of the
decentralized structure of OWS, autonomy served as a primary reason for participation for some;
however, it also posed challenges to coordination. I then compare, as mechanisms of coordination, the
practice of holding mass assemblies with the occupation of Zuccotti Park. The mass assemblies were
designed as formal mechanisms of coordination intended to counteract the effects of autonomy;
however, they were not in themselves capable of unifying the movement and, indeed, were ultimately
abandoned. By contrast, the factor that that most effectively united the actions of all participants,
evidenced by the movement’s centrifugal scattering following its loss—even as mass assemblies
continued briefly thereafter—was the collective act of occupation itself. These findings build upon
previous work on the importance of coordination by identifying collective action, even without the
presence of formal organization, as itself a form of coordination. Collective action may unify
participants, but it is fragile in the absence of formal organization.
The data presented here draws upon ethnographic observations of Occupy Wall Street movement
during its first year (September 2011 through September 2012). Settings included direct actions,
assemblies, working group meetings, and other movement-related gatherings. While data collection was
guided by an interest in organizational structure and decision making, analysis followed a grounded
theory approach (Charmaz 2001; Glaser 1967), which allowed for previously unanticipated themes and
patterns to emerge and structured subsequent data collection. Observations included a combination of
mass gatherings and smaller working groups so as to attain both breadth and depth, and to sketch the
relation between the whole and its parts. While some contexts allowed for occasional note-taking, the
researcher typed up fieldnotes after every occasion in the field. Subsequently, fieldnotes were reread
and coded to identify recurring patterns. Access to field sites was generally not an issue, as a large
majority of meetings were well publicized and open to the public.1 In occasions where the opportunity
presented itself, the researcher presented himself as a graduate student writing his dissertation on
Occupy Wall Street.
As is well established, ethnographic fieldwork, which aims at “thick description” (Geertz 1973), provides
depth and insight into the social fabric and milieu in which actors move within their world; first-hand
In contrast to previous movements such as the global justice movement (Graeber 2009), the common sentiment
took police surveillance in all contexts for granted, and therefore participants were usually open to the presence of
researchers, journalists and other outsiders.
Gianmarco Savio
experience provides the researcher with a richness of information inaccessible to scholars forced to rely
on second-hand historical accounts or post-facto recollections. Ethnography also allows the researcher
to capture changes over time. While the bulk of the evidence for the study was acquired through
participant observation, supplemental data was also obtained through interviews and informal
discourse analysis of a variety of diverse written texts, which included official and unofficial documents,
email lists, tweets, text message alerts, images, videos, and websites. This supplemental data served to
triangulate data obtained through participant observation and provide enriched factual accounts.
The Benefits and Appeal
Having come from well-established anarchist roots, a fundamental component of the organizational
repertoire (Clemens 1993; Tilly 1986; Tilly 1995) of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the feeling
that all participants are free to do what they want, and that no one ought to be forced to do anything
against their will. In expressing this sentiment, participants frequently invoked the concept of autonomy
as a primary value. To quote a comment posted on an unofficial document:
one of the big questions around ad hoc project teams is around autonomy. people
should feel free to create autonomous project teams with only people they trust if they
want. if they want to open their project team and put out a call to join them, that should
be a choice as well. affinity is a natural self-organizing principle of human beings that
has not been a big enough part of OWS
The most apparent benefit of autonomous action, then, is that it grants individuals and groups the
feeling that they are free to engage in any action they desire.
Many participants invoked this feeling in explaining their involvement in the movement. Here is an
account from one activist who became extensively involved, explaining his first day visiting the Zuccotti
Park encampment in early October:
And I just went up to the Info desk, and I’m just waiting. Someone, really kind of
seeming disoriented, [was] trying to give info to all the people coming up [t]here. She
was helping this woman, and after she left, the first thing she said to me…is: ‘I’m sorry
there’s a table in front of me; I just need [something] to put stuff on; I’m not in charge
here.’ And that right there kind of opened it up for me…
And so I hit the ground running. I’m like: ‘Can I get a pack of pamphlets or something?’
And I ran back up to Harlem, knocking on doors—I had never canvassed before. I
organized once a…rally at my high school, and that was the extent of my activism. But
something that day just lit me on fire, and I was just running back and forth, talking to
strangers. I went through that stack of 100 in like an hour; went back, got another 100,
and kept going.
And it was that ability to just to be able to work, without having to answer to anyone,
just telling someone ‘I’d like to help in this way’ and someone saying ‘that’s completely
okay; go do that!’ There’s something that transformed me and changed my life entirely.
In explaining his involvement in Occupy Wall Street, the activist in this excerpt cites a number of
organizational features of the movement, including its inclusive character and the related freedom to
“work without having to answer to anyone.” While this freedom translated into autonomous actions
carried out by both subgroups and individuals, the former proved more consequential, simply due to
their scale. In reality, autonomous action is possible in all movement organizations. Within the
decentralized organizational structure of Occupy Wall Street, however, autonomy assumed a
particularly central role.
Gianmarco Savio
In some cases, engaging in autonomous action was simply more efficient than going through formal
structures of decision making and coordination such as the General Assembly, as consensus-based
decision making can be notoriously time-consuming. As one actively involved participant in the PR
working group explained:
A: I hardly ever went to the General Assembly. Hardly ever, ever went.
Q: Why [not]?
A: Mostly, I would have…wanted to go. It was a matter of hours in the day. I mean the
first two months, I did not sleep more than five hours a day, for two months. I mean, it
was insane…I was doing, doing, doing: writing press releases, all sorts of damage
control, negotiations, firefighting, you know there were just so many things going on,
that [the] General Assemblies to me were more symbolic than real.
In expressing his doubt regarding the very effectiveness and functionality of the General Assemblies as
real centers for decision making and action, the participant in the above excerpt implies that it was
indeed never necessary to bring any proposals to the mass assemblies in any case. Similarly,
autonomous action allowed individuals and groups to directly address certain areas of need without
having to go through any formal, and in some cases cumbersome, process. Just as it was impossible
within such a structure to prevent any action from taking place, autonomous action invited no formal
consequences and was, in fact, encouraged.
The prevalence of autonomous action in Occupy Wall Street indicates that there were, in fact, two
parallel centers of decision making within the movement—one formal, the other informal—and that the
formal relationship between the two was never clarified. This is how one interviewee described the
relationship between the mass assemblies and autonomous action:
Decentralization allows groups to operate autonomously and they don’t need to bring
every decision to us. So for example, Kitchen doesn’t need to come to the General
Assembly every night and make us reach consensus for what they’ll make for dinner; we
empower them to make that decision. And it seems very obvious in that case, but other
working groups didn’t necessarily see that…
The thing about consensus is that it takes so long to reach a decision that really, you
should only be bringing up proposals that concern everyone.
Clearly, it would have proven impossible for every single action to be approved through formal
consensus. Yet as the above excerpt shows, the criteria for what kinds of decisions ought to be brought
forward and discussed in the assemblies were relatively unclear. In practice, then, while some groups
proposed decisions that were deemed not necessary to discuss in the assemblies, others simply decided
to act autonomously, without going through the trouble of obtaining consensus. The tasks of
communicating a particular set of autonomous actions and coordinating with others were ultimately left
to the discretion of the actors themselves. As I describe in the next section, this situation not only put
into question the legitimacy and purpose of the assemblies; it also served as underlying basis for the de
facto parallel existence of formal and informal arenas of decision making.
The Dangers and Risks
While it may have aided in the recruitment of some, the freedom to act autonomously also raised a
number of challenges. While the availability of human capital is uncertain in all movement
organizations, the lack of formal specialization may in some cases mean that tasks that are either
undesirable or require a certain level of expertise may not receive the attention they need. Similarly,
decentralization means that in some cases, areas of need are not equaled by the appropriate number
and relevant skills of people willing to work in those areas. And as Jo Freeman (1972) pointed out in her
Gianmarco Savio
well-known article, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” the practice of not formally delegating tasks may
result in the development of informal hierarchies. Similarly, too much decentralization and autonomous
action may result in informal forms of hierarchy based on ties of affinity (Polletta 2002). Moreover,
when autonomous action is pervasive, it can produce issues related to transparency and the availability
of public information. For example, despite the crowd of people that regularly congregated in Zuccotti
Park a month into the occupation, information about the meeting times and places of the various
working groups part of the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA) was scarce and unreliable.
Despite the presence of formal mechanisms of coordination such as mass assemblies, the decentralized
structure of OWS produced challenges related to representation. For example, without needing to
obtain the consensus of all participants, individuals and groups within the movement ran as political
candidates, wrote books, and founded independent organizations that claimed to work towards the
same goals.2 In addition, while some may have perceived it as a strength, the lack of any official
spokespersons increased the risk for the movement to be misconstrued in the media; subgroups that
chose to engage in property destruction, for example, in some cases arguably tarnished the reputation
of the movement as a whole.
Moreover, decentralization meant that subgroups could occasionally work towards contradictory or
overlapping objectives. On more than one occasion, for example, I observed different direct actions (for
example, marches for two separate causes) scheduled at the same time. Indeed, the upholding of
autonomy came to produce a series of internal contradictions. For example, even within a movement
that largely claimed to have no demands, a controversial Demands working group was formed. And
even where many participants believed the movement to be “nonviolent,” the movement was placed in
a position where it had to embrace “diversity of tactics” by default.
The inevitable prevalence of autonomous action thus raised doubts about the basis of legitimacy and
control within the movement. To give another example: in the first month of the encampment at
Zuccotti Park, the General Assembly came to an agreement, out of respect for surrounding neighbors,
that drumming in the park be limited to four hours a day during certain designated times. Some
drummers did not acknowledge the agreement, however, and drumming continued throughout the day.
The fact that the movement was technically unable to prevent or sanction individuals or groups who
undertook certain actions also explains why much time in assemblies was dedicated to officially
disavowing certain autonomous actions carried out in the name of the movement. These circumstances
underscored the broader challenge of producing coordinated action—and hinted at the inability of the
assemblies to adequately do so.
Consensus-Based Decision Making and the Mass Assembly as Formal Mechanisms of Coordination
As implied above, the primary formal mechanism of coordination in OWS was the consensus-based
decision making model. And in spite of the prevalence of autonomous action, the mass assemblies
(namely, the General Assembly and Spokes Council) served, in theory, as the spaces where, in the words
of participants, “decisions that concern the entire movement” took place. Aside from the larger rallies
and actions (and, sometimes, in conjunction with them), they physically congregated the largest number
of people. The assemblies were in themselves collective rituals (Smucker 2013), which brought people
Consider, for example, the respective cases of George Martinez, the book Occupying Wall Street, and the
Movement Resource Group.
Gianmarco Savio
together and reinforced their collective identity. During the assemblies, individuals and representatives
from different working groups could bring forward proposals, discuss movement-wide concerns, and
make announcements. The assemblies served as the spaces in which participants made collective
decisions about the disbursement of donated funds—even as a number of individuals and working
groups secured money through alternative means.
Deliberation and dialogue are a fundamental aspect of consensus-based decision making, the idea being
that as people use reason to attempt to persuade one another, a common conception of the collective
good is ultimately developed; deliberation can be effective in communicating the priorities and goals of
the people in the room (della Porta 2005; della Porta 2009). As Francesca Polletta states in Freedom is
an Endless Meeting, “By requiring that participants take seriously each other’s concerns and priorities,
the process balances individual initiative with solidarity, both of which are critical to successful collective
action” (2002: 9). The consensus-based decision making model provides a forum in which individuals can
feel included and empowered to express themselves. In Occupy Wall Street, a common defense of this
form of decision making was that even if the process may take longer than other forms of decision
making, the final outcome is more fulfilling to all participants, since it considers and incorporates each of
their perspectives. In these ways, consensus can help build solidarity (Polletta 2002). Thus, the
consensus model, with its focus on deliberation and dialogue, represents the antithesis of autonomous
action, where actors do not consult the larger group.
On the other hand, consensus has exhibited a legacy of instability in a variety of contexts (see, for
example, Cornell 2011; Gitlin 2003; Polletta 2002). In Occupy Wall Street, participants at the assemblies
accused them of being overly “bureaucratic” and focused on process, and argued that facilitators held a
disproportionate amount of power and exploited their positions. Especially as the assemblies expanded
over time, bitter internal disputes and disruptive behavior raised questions about the role and suitability
of holding them. While some attributed the problems to the unexpected massive influx of funds, others
contended there was no need to forge agreements around issues that did not require agreement. In the
winter of 2012, both of the mass assemblies, the General Assembly and Spokes Council, were
The dissolution of the assemblies ensured a situation where all decisions and actions within the
movement were carried out “autonomously,” either in smaller working groups or informal affinity
groups. The assemblies had served as a kind of symbolic center of the movement, as decisions made in
them provided a kind of basis for legitimacy and authority. As noted above, however, informal and
autonomous decision making played an equally if not more central role within OWS. Though it would
have been extremely unrealistic and undesirable to subsume all autonomous action into the assemblies,
the latter proved themselves to be insufficient as mechanisms of coordination. As I illustrate in the next
section, the occupation of Zuccotti Park, as a collective action, was in fact a more decisive unifying factor
than the mass assemblies.
Movement as Occupation: Collective Action sans Formal Organization
Occupy Wall Street was famously instigated by an obscure call in Adbusters magazine, which featured a
picture of a ballerina posed atop the Charging Bull with the words “What is Our One Demand? /
#OccupyWallStreet / September 17th / Bring Tent.” During the planning meetings held subsequently in
July and August 2011, the activists present came to a consensus around a handful of issues, such as
whether or not to have police liaisons. Overall, however, planning was limited mostly to staging the
occupation itself. On the first day of the occupation, the assembly that convened decided that they
would occupy the park indefinitely. Beyond these decisions, however, no other common agenda was
Gianmarco Savio
agreed upon. As the number of participants in the park grew and became more diverse in the following
weeks and months, the occupation continued as literally that which had brought everyone together. As
the movement spread to other cities, the tactic of occupation served as a commonality which united
movement participants across the thousands of occupations in the broader movement as a whole, even
serving as the basis from which the name of the movement was derived. Insofar as it served as the
unifying thread across all participants, the occupation was the movement.
It only became especially clear after the eviction that the movement had derived a number of resources
spatially concentrated in the park itself. During any given day, participants made speeches and engaged
in political conversations with members of the public and each other. The park was a particularly
welcoming but also mobilizing space, as more moderate individuals over time found themselves won
over by the more radical views of their comrades. The space of the park also allowed informal forms of
coordination to take place by virtue of the simple fact that participants shared the same physical space.
Moreover, the occupation served as a visible symbol of the movement’s presence and physicality.
For these reasons, the eviction thus not only dealt a severe blow to the movement’s spatially-centralized
resources and eliminated its physical and symbolic presence—immediately following the occupation, for
example, the very basis of the existence of a number of occupation-based working groups, such as Town
Planning, was challenged. More importantly, it removed a primary common thread—the collective
action of occupation—that brought movement participants together. Unsurprisingly, the eviction gave
rise to questions both within the movement and the media about its future direction. While internal
differences were manageable during the occupation, the movement’s “identity crisis,” to use the words
of one interviewee, became all the more apparent after the eviction.
Internal diversity is common within many social movements; yet as the above discussion suggests, what
distinguishes social movements from what might otherwise be a field of autonomous and isolated
organizations is precisely a common line of action. Especially as a result of the way the movement was
organized—accompanied by little more than a set of formal and informal coordinating mechanisms,
rather than any more formal form of organization—the occupation assumed particular importance as a
uniting framework. In contrast to formal organizations, whose primary goal is to reproduce themselves
over time, OWS exhibited a much more fragile and temporary structure. Ultimately, the case of Occupy
Wall Street not only confirms the importance of a unifying framework for movement participation; it
suggests, as evidenced by the movement’s loss of momentum following the eviction, how collective
action can itself serve as a unifying framework—even if it is one that, in comparison with more formal
organization, risks being much more fragile and unstable.
Even as some degree of diversity can be useful, building internal unity and coordination in movements is
a constant challenge. Here, I have introduced the concept of autonomy—applicable to all movements—
as a theoretical antithesis to coordination. I have, moreover, identified collective action as an additional
mechanism for coordination, apart from formal organization. While autonomy in OWS may have aided
in the recruitment of some, it also posed challenges to coordination. While the mass assemblies in OWS
were intended as coordinating mechanisms, they ultimately proved insufficient. The collective act of
occupation served as a more unifying commonality, but also one that proved especially fragile, as
illustrated in the movement’s post-eviction phase.
Gianmarco Savio
The case of OWS demonstrates that while collective action without formal organization can serve as a
form of coordination, it is also particularly unstable. A principle challenge, faced especially by
decentralized organizational structures, thus involves developing effective mechanisms of coordination
which are sustainable over time without being oligarchic, respect the movement’s internal diversity, and
receive the approval of a large majority of participants. Some amount of autonomous action can be
beneficial, as it can allow participants to feel included and take initiative; overly centralized structures,
on the other hand, may prevent this. However, it is vital that the risks of autonomy be counterbalanced
with appropriate mechanisms of coordination. Accepting this challenge entails treading the fine line
between evanescent collective action and overly rigid organization.
Gianmarco Savio
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