Reinhold Martin | Occupy Thoreau: Obedience and Disobedience from Walden to Wall Street

By Reinhold Martin 

“We were born into a world of ghosts and illusions that have haunted our minds our entire lives.” So begins the anonymously authored “Communiqué 1,” which opens the inaugural issue of the journal Tidal in a tone that Guy Debord would have recognized, with a nod to Marx and Engels.[i] Tidal, which was subtitled “Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy,” first appeared in December 2011, shortly after the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan was forcibly cleared by police. By definition the short-lived journal, which was edited by Natasha Bhagat Singh, Amin Husain, Babak Karmi, Laura Gottesdiener, and Isham Christie, did not formally represent the many, disparate voices assembled at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. Still, the group that called itself “Occupy Theory” did bring to the transnational Occupy movement fragments of, in their words, “radical thought.”

Most of these fragments were written by the occupiers, with the notable exception of entries by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (on the general strike, reprinted in issue #2), and by Judith Butler (on precarity, with a longer follow-up, also in issue #2). I’ll refer briefly to these two texts only because they allow me to open a channel that connects with a tradition lying just outside their frame, that may help us think through what we can call the “spatial disobedience”—but also, the spatial obedience—that constituted the occupation itself.

Summarizing early-twentieth century theories of the general strike, from Du Bois to Luxemburg to Sorel, Spivak notes in passing that tradition’s affinities with the American concept of “civil disobedience,” which was first formulated by Henry David Thoreau in the mid-nineteenth century and later adapted by Mohandas K. Gandhi (among others) as “non-cooperation.” Following the mass uprisings of the 1960s, Hannah Arendt had offered detailed reflections on this concept and its usage, so when Butler uses Arendtian terminology, saying that the bodies assembled in New York and elsewhere without making specific demands were first “exercising a right to appear,” we can see how “disobedience” and “appearance” go hand in hand.[ii]

But appearances can deceive. Returning to that first “communiqué” and to the mass-mediated “world of ghosts and illusions” into which its authors were born, we read the following extraordinary lines:

“We have come to Wall Street as refugees from this native dreamland, seeking asylum in the actual. That is what we seek to occupy. We seek to rediscover and reclaim that world. Many believe we have come to Wall Street to transact some kind of business with its denizens, to strike a deal. But we have not come to negotiate. We have come to confront the darkness at its source, here, where the Big Apple [New York] sucks in more of the sap from the national tree than it needs or deserves, as if spliced from some Edenic forebear. Serpent-sized worms feast within, engorged on swollen fruit. Here, the world is chewed and digested into bits as tiny and fluid as the electrons that traders use to bring nations and homeowners to their knees.”[iii]

In other words, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, occupation was also a form of withdrawal, an exodus from the capitalist spectacle into a fugitive actuality located, paradoxically, in its midst. Occupy Wall Street thereby bore at least a family resemblance to Thoreau’s self-imposed withdrawal to Walden Pond, albeit in inverted form. As a homeowning naturalist, Thoreau would have recognized the image of a “national tree” of homeowners sucked dry by serpent-sized worms. Taking pains to remind readers of his own frugality, he noted that the small cabin he built for himself there, about a mile and a half outside of Concord, Massachusetts and about twenty miles west of Boston, cost him a mere $28.12 1/2.[iv] In this, Thoreau was only enacting his friend and Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance, a cornerstone of liberal individualism. One difference from Zuccotti’s occupiers being that in Thoreau’s experience, modernity’s illusions and its material excesses were concentrated not on Wall Street (which did not yet exist), but on Concord’s Main Street.

Thoreau lived in semi-isolation on Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days, from 1845 to 1847. About halfway through this carefully planned performance—of disappearance as appearance, we could say—which was punctuated by a steady stream of visitors and regular trips to town, he spent one night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay the Massachusetts poll tax. Thoreau unambiguously opposed slavery in the American South, as he did the 1846-1848 war with Mexico. As part of the so-called Compromise of 1850, white residents of northern states were compelled legally to obey the Fugitive Slave Act and betray former slaves and their descendants living in their midst. Like many other northern abolitionists, Thoreau fiercely denounced this legislation, of which he later wrote that “its natural habitat is in the dirt.”[v]

Thoreau’s night in jail and the circumstances in which it occurred gave rise to the essay that became known as “Civil Disobedience,” a public address that went largely unread when first published in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government,” and only began to achieve notoriety after its posthumous republication, in 1866, under its present title. Thoreau’s most recent biographer, Laura Dassow Walls, shows how the essay’s original title pits the example of the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose self-described “resistance” against his master led ultimately to his freedom, against the dogma promulgated at Harvard (where Thoreau studied) and accepted by the New England elite, of dutiful “submission” to civil government wherein, as Walls puts it, “the ultimate social good was a smooth-running social machine.”[vi] Thoreau’s own act of resistance, and hence of disobedience, thus centered on the non-payment of the poll tax, which he regarded as especially unjust since payment both acquiesced to conditional citizenship (only those who paid could vote) and materially supported a government whose recognition of slavery he deeply opposed. Though a solitary act, it only made sense as an injunction to his fellow citizens to, as he put it, “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect.” For, as Thoreau explained, “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”[vii]

By demanding that his government end slavery, Thoreau’s withdrawal of consent through non-payment of the tax thus differed from the Occupy movement’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of a governing political-economic order by withholding specific demands. Far from being a distant or isolated matter, however, slavery was at the time what we could call a universal question in the United States, not because it applied directly to everyone everywhere, but because, as Thoreau argued, every citizen, North and South, was implicated in it, whether they were morally opposed to the institution or not. The quotidian obedience, or passive consent, of the governed with respect to slavery was automatically universalized since “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly but as machines, with their bodies.” Civil disobedience aimed at this mechanization of consent. As Thoreau put it, “if [the injustice] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”[viii]

It is not entirely accidental that in 1964, Mario Savio, a young philosophy student at Berkeley, inaugurated a mass occupation of Sproul Hall with similar language, when he famously urged his fellow participants in the Free Speech Movement to recognize that “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”[ix] The Occupy Theory group updated this rage against the machine for a postindustrial society, when they argued in their “communiqué” that “Television, one of the chief culprits of our spiritual vacuum, has revealed that the central action of our time involves rending together experiential units: families, atoms, meanings, psyches. Advertising campaigns have become the central art of our generation.”[x] The social machine, in other words, makes connections; it universalizes particulars. For Thoreau, the machinery of slavery coupled with a civil society that profited from it; for Savio and his fellow students schooled in the tactics of the civil rights movement, the “multiversity” joined techno-science with the military-industrial complex; for Occupy, finance capital joined with the mass media and digital technologies to enable the expropriation of the “99%” by the “1%.”

If, as Butler and others have argued, New York’s Zuccotti Park indeed became a “space of appearance” when bodies assembled there and refused to leave or remain quiet, they remade the social machine to which that space belonged and the variously scaled and variously mediated public and counterpublic spheres that overlapped with it. This new machine, which included the space or stage itself, did not come prefabricated, off-the-shelf. It was, as Henri Lefebvre might have said, produced out of the innumerable actions, large and small, of its occupants. And if the many individual, store-bought tents that populated the park bore faint echoes of Thoreau’s little cabin, the implied individualism was, by and large, respectfully assimilated to the extraordinarily well-organized collective institutions on-site and off, including a library, kitchen, clinic, teach-ins, working groups, and the general assemblies. In this way the occupation temporarily replaced one polis with another. Still, to understand both its possibilities and its limits we must proceed a little further with Arendt, specifically on the question of civil disobedience.

The context for Arendt’s own article under that title was the American civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the student revolts of the late 1960s. There, she distinguished the civil disobedient from the conscientious objector, on whom most legal thought tended to focus. Where, Arendt argues, the conscientious objector can effectively act alone, the civil disobedient “never exists as a single individual; he can function and survive only as a member of a group.” To this she adds the example drawn from legal theory of “indirect disobedience,” wherein disobedients break a particular law, such as a law of trespass, not because they consider that law especially unjust, but to protest, in a concerted group action, other laws, policies, or practices that they do consider unjust.[xi] Civil disobedients are, in this strict sense, not individuals guided by moral conscience but “organized minorities, bound together by common opinion, rather than by common interest” who “take a stand against the government’s policies even if they have reason to assume that these policies are backed by a majority.”[xii] In other words, civil disobedients necessarily form publics comparable to the voluntary associations that had captivated de Tocqueville in America a decade before Thoreau moved to Walden. An act of civil disobedience is therefore quintessentially a res publica, a public thing, and hence a potential basis for constituting the federated democratic republics—syndicates, workers’ councils, soviets, associations—that Arendt favored when pressed to exemplify her political thought.

There are many ways in which Occupy Wall Street plausibly constituted one such republic within what we might call the larger Occupy federation. Were there time, I would have liked to connect this to Arendt’s admiration for Rosa Luxemburg’s “republican program” for the revolution, which opposed the vanguard party with the axiom, quoted by Arendt, that “good organization does not precede action but is the product of it.”[xiii] For now, though, I want to conclude with some more specifics on Occupy Wall Street as a form of “indirect disobedience” in which the res publica that formed there relied for its existence not only upon tactically broken laws, but upon a conspicuous, perhaps willful blind spot.

My colleague Bernard Harcourt has persuasively suggested the term “political disobedience” to describe the activities of the Occupy movement in general.[xiv] As I’ve mentioned, I suggest “spatial disobedience” to describe the tactic of occupation in particular, which operated in the indirect manner described by Arendt. When the tents started appearing in Zuccotti Park, they did so in violation of the city ordinances covering Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS, of which the park is one. This form of urban space is one of many symptoms of neoliberal development, wherein, in this case, the adjacent US Steel headquarters received a zoning credit for supplying the pseudo-public “amenity” of a privately owned park, much as the JP Morgan Bank received a bonus for providing the privately owned pseudo-public atrium adjacent to its former headquarters on Wall Street, where many of the Occupy working groups met. The occupation did not target these provisions; in fact, it exploited them, in order to target the neoliberal order as such.

Yet, in order to maintain the fragile coalition that gathered around its res publica of indirect disobedience, the occupation had to turn its back, quite literally, on another, related injustice. Zuccotti Park is, in fact, closer to Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center, than it is to Wall Street. Though the park itself slopes down from Broadway, away from Wall Street and toward Ground Zero, the encampment symbolically and spatially oriented itself uphill and to the southeast, toward Wall Street, the old center of finance capital, several blocks away. If anything, by the time of the occupation the symbolic “center” of finance had shifted to the other side of the World Trade Center site, which is flanked by the World Financial Center to the west and, just to the north, the relocated headquarters of Goldman Sachs, which was under construction at the time with the help of $115 million in public subsidies and $1.65 billion in tax-free bonds made available through post-9/11 federal incentive programs.[xv] Between the two Wall Streets, old and new, sits the “sacred ground” of what was then a vast construction site, and is now a publicly subsidized real estate development dripping with the blood of thousands who were sacrificed in the post-9/11 wars, with a soaring, neo-Gothic cathedral of shopping (“The Oculus”) looming over the sunken memorial at its center.

The World Trade Center memorial opened on September 11, 2011; the Zuccotti Park occupation began a week later, on September 17th. But, a few small demonstrations at the bank headquarters aside, there was not and could not have been an Occupy Ground Zero. That public site was, in a very real sense, sacrosanct. Organized disobedience there would have been regarded as terror or treason, and would have immediately risked a violent and possibly extralegal reaction. The wars that Ground Zero falsely underwrote could be opposed, and the many protests against them surely paved the way for Occupy, as did the Arab uprisings that previous spring. In her reflections on violence, Arendt cautioned against identifying political power, which always derives from the people (whether democratically or not), with physical force, which is always instrumental—that is, technological—in nature.[xvi] But in Lower Manhattan, any such distinction was erased, not secured, when the raucously, radically disobedient Occupy Wall Street practiced a kind of spatial obedience by respecting that “sacred ground” in a manner that was reminiscent of the Kantian injunction to “argue, but obey.” Like sweat from an enslaved body, the oil from the 9/11 wars ultimately flowed back to Wall Street. Yet, turning its back on the ferociously, violently nationalistic polity that had already assembled, phantom-like, around Ground Zero, Occupy—perhaps of necessity—ceded the space immediately adjacent to its little republic to a power that did not exist before the law, but beyond it.



[i] “Communiqué 1,” Tidal 1 (December 2011): 3.

[ii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “General Strike,” and Judith Butler, “For and Against Precarity,” Tidal 1 (December 2011): 8-9, 12-13.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Henry David Thoreau, “Walden” [1854], in Walden and Other Writings, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 46.

[v] Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts” [1854], in Walden and Other Writings, 702.

[vi] Walls, 251.

[vii] Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” [1866], in Walden and Other Writings, 668, 670.

[viii] Ibid., 669, 677.

[ix] Mario Savio, “’Bodies upon the Gears’ Speech at FSM Rally, Sproul Hall Steps, 2 December 1964,” in The Essential Mario Savio, 188.

[x] “Communiqué 1,” 3.

[xi] Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972), 56.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., 52.

[xiv] Bernard Harcourt, “Political Disobedience,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 1 (Autumn 2012): 33-55.

[xv] Paul Goldberger, “Shadow Building: The House that Goldman Built,” The New Yorker (17 May 2010), online at

[xvi] Hannah Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic, 103-198.