The only socialism we will ever know?

Looking for signs of life and the difference that was made, surely that dreary grey oblong could not have been the spiritual home of the 99%? But it was and it did.

“The goodness is in the work as much as in the benefits – so it doesn't matter if the work goes on and on, as it does. It is important and worthwhile work because of its mutuality, because of the talents and capacities it calls forth, and because of the moral value it embodies. That work is socialism-in-the-making, and that is the only socialism we will ever know.”

Michael Walzer, quoted by Sarah Leonard in Occupy: Scenes From Occupied America (Verso, 2011)

I read that final clause on the F Train back to Queens, NY last week, and immediately felt a bit sick. It was an answer to the question I've been asking myself a lot since the English student riots and occupations in 2010: what happens when the music stops? Did we experience just a moment of liberating exception to the relentless misery of capitalism's crisis, or was it a permanent rupture in the psyche, a tantalising foretaste of the socialism (with a determinedly small 's') we can and will make in the future? 

I was in New York visiting friends and relatives for the first time in a couple of years, in which time, I had missed both the highs and lows of Occupy Wall Street. I had a nagging sensation that I needed to see its infamous base, Zuccotti Park, for myself – even though it was 18 months since the movement's high point and there would be nothing ostensibly there. So I took the subway to downtown Manhattan, to Bowling Green, and walked up Broadway, knowing it was somewhere up there, on the left. I walked past the Amalgamated Bank, Chase Bank, HSBC, Citibank, and a rather nice, utterly incongruous old church nestled amidst the skyscrapers. After ten minutes the narrow gauntlet of high finance opened out to my left to reveal a dreary grey oblong that surely – surely! – could not have been home to a global movement to reclaim the streets and end capitalism, the spiritual home of the 99%? 

I knew it was supposed to be small, and I knew it wasn't really a park, but really? I checked my Google Maps cache against the road-signs, and checked it again. It was Zuccotti Park. 

It was early afternoon, and chilly for late April, and only a few bored-looking office lunchers sat scattered on the park's hard, flat, granite benches, the skeletal trees above their heads in shadow, still unsprung. The square is so tiny that it is entirely overpowered by the giant dark glass obelisks drawn up and up into the blank skies above. When they cleared the park in mid-November 2011, oh how they cleared it. Not a single sign of Occupy's tents, propaganda, working groups, or... humanity remains: no fragment, no faded graffiti, no half-torn stickers or posters. Occupy Wall Street's physical presence is now erased from history, and year zero is watched over by this extra from War of the Worlds, the NYPD's articulated panopticon robot:

Inadvertently, I spent a lot of my time in New York talking to people about Occupy; their memories, their sense of what was no longer there, and what still remained. As with any moment of popular rebellious fervour, the vital question – from enemies and friends alike – is how you historicise that moment, and what you do next. Whether under duress or through exhaustion, if you're dispersing, where are you dispersing to, and with whom?

Talking to New York friends new and old about what they'd been through, I recognised that same feeling of resignation over recent failures to maintain the energy. Ahead of today's general strike there was a weary acceptance that it was to be a very un-general attempt at struggle, with no formal trade union involvement: though the attempt to organise those Americans with the most unstable, badly paid and exploitative jobs into Precarious and Service Workers Assemblies is at least in the right spirit – addressing post-Fordist capitalism with a post-Fordist solution, like Sussex University's new pop-up union.

The forging of these tangible connections with organisations new and old are the most identifiable afterlife of a street movement. “Things are all very ‘molecular’ right now”, a friend in Barcelona wrote to me yesterday, about the legacy of the 8 million-strong indignados/15M movement – and there's no inherent problem in things being molecular, far from it; the work goes on, and it brings meaningful change for people at a local level. The greatest of the indignados' molecular achievements is perhaps the Corralas movement in Andalusia, where people evicted by their banks are moved – permanently, and against the efforts of the authorities – into large de facto squats of empty buildings abandoned in the housing crash.

In New York this year, the so-called 'hackathon' for Occupy Sandy established vital architecture for information gathering and management, saving lives and livelihoods faster and more effectively than FEMA or the Red Cross could manage, and doing so thanks to the collective talents, sense of mutuality and social networks established at Occupy Wall Street. 

Occupy Sandy was, another friend pointed out kindly, not an example of an emergent post-Occupy politics, however: it wasn't mutual aid (the replacement of capitalism with demonetised exchange), just aid. Philanthropy. And a very good thing too – but let's not overstate it.

The psychological legacy of Occupy on its participants (indeed, all its supporters) should not be underestimated either. Latent solidarity, we could call it.

Beyond the depression of a moment passed, a revolution unrealised, I encountered in New York a familiar desire to get back that high, especially what was perhaps Occupy Wall Street's most spectacular moment, the occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge. That ineffable, transcendental sense of empowerment doesn't die, that moment of experiencing socialism-in-the-making – it stays with people, an undying half-life still glowing under the surface of the skin. 

One friend emotionally lamented Occupy and Zuccotti Park, before turning to the moment where she realised they had actually shut down the 13,300 tonne Brooklyn Bridge, and that they weren't leaving, unless it was through arrest (as it turned out to be - for 700 of them). It made her sad eyes light up. She grabbed my arm, in a now-listen-here sort of way, as she tried to find the words to express what she had felt in that moment. 

“I just didn't... I didn't want to go home.”

And once you've experienced socialism-in-the-making, perhaps you can't ever really go home again? Your sense of what is possible has been irreversibly reconfigured. The greatest claims made for Occupy: in Wall Street, in St Paul's in London, in Oakland, California – hell, everywhere – was that it 'changed the conversation' about banking, about capitalism, about the financial crisis. But maybe it changed us, too?

About the author

Dan Hancox is a freelance writer for The Guardian and others, interested in radical politics, protest, and pop culture in Britain, Spain and beyond. His books include Utopia and the Valley of TearsFight Back! and Kettled Youth.