OWS - Character, Strategies, the Future
Will the Occupy Wall Street movement continue to grow? I think that is the wrong question. It cannot “grow” in the sense of enlarging the area it occupies, staying longer and longer and refusing to leave. There is simply no space available where it is now in New York, the weather in winter will make it simply a test of endurance, it is more than can be asked. But there are alternative forms by which it can show its strength: marches, timed occupations, rallies, continued effective solidarity and networking. And refinement of claims, clarification of interpretations, pin-pointing of objectives and targets of non-violent action and exposure. The attached argues:
Five alternative futures confront the movement:
Focus on specific immediate reforms
Go for non-reformist reforms
Push for revolution.
The strengths and weaknesses of each are analyzed, and they are not mutually exclusive. But the “non-reformist reforms” seems the most productive.
In any event, its future will hinge on the extent to which it maintains its three defining characteristics:
The common thread in the analysis of the underlying nature of the problems with which it is concerned, symbolized by the 1%/99% formulation;
The bringing together of multiple diverse interests and viewpoints in a mutually supportive and trusting human social context; and
The commitment to action, to exploring , physically as well as intellectually, the available avenues for implementing their desires, overcoming the obstacles they face, moving towards a better world.
Immediately, tactically, imagination may suggest a variety of new approaches to immediate action. Since continued limited occupation of a restricted site poses major problems as the sole center of the movement, imagination and spontaneity can be looked to provide alternatives to reflect the growth and wide popular support of the movement. Some possibilities are mentioned below.
The following spells out the argument.
There is a deep unease in the country, and internationally. People are dissatisfied, and are suffering. Their specific complaints have to do with jobs, incomes, housing, education, war and peace, corruption, the environment, health care, the role of government, cultural norms, injustice, discrimination, inequality. Underneath are strong if often inchoate feelings. ranging from despair to insecurity to broad discontent with things as they are, unhappiness at the direction in which they are going. And those feelings are leading to active resistance, demands for change finding their expression more and more in communities and work places, and very visibly on the streets of our cities
Where does the Occupy movement fit into this picture? Where might it go, in the immediate future and in the long run, the big picture?? Will it disappear after its brief moment of fame? Will it end up co-opted, perhaps pushing the Democratic Party a bit to the left, joining a range of movement-type players in the political game? Might it split up into a variety of single-issue organizations, pushing certain specific reforms, lingering as one or more lobbying groups? Will it press for the most far-reaching “non-reformist reforms” feasible reforms within the system, non-reformist reforms, hoping they will lead to deeper system changes? Or will they produce a dramatic change in power structures, a revolution?
In the big picture, cooptation seems to me not be a big danger for happy and for unhappy reasons. Happily, the participants in the Occupy movements are smart, alert, aware, quite sophisticated, some quite experienced, and know who is on their side and who isn’t. Nor can they be so easily bought off, without starting on the very road they wish to go, with some fundamental changes in the economic, political, and social system. Less happily, they are not (yet?) large enough in numbers or power to constitute a threat that must be bought off; so far, the 1% may feel that between the police, the weather, the passage of time, the power of the media, they have nothing serious to worry about. Ben Bernanke may express mild sympathy of the movement, but he is not likely either to win it over or to join it himself. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is circulating petitions declaring “I stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests;” such support can be welcomed, as long as a distance is kept.
The pressure to whittle down the movement to one for specific reforms is one that is significant, but the discussions thus far seem increasingly to be aware of the pit-falls of that direction, the dangers of converting a mass popular movement into a enterprise in legislative drafting, political forecasting, tactical positioning. Occupy is seen by most of its participants and supporters not as a set of pressures for individual rights, but as a powerful claim for a better world, a real alternative, to what exists; not a set of subsidiary rights in the city ,but a claim to the right to the city, to the world produced by the 99% and now claimed by them as their own.
Non-reformist reforms are an appealing goal, but not one that easy to define or pursue. How does one tell a reformist goal from a non-reformist one: Is opposition to charter schools, or more funding for public schools, reformist, or more? Is renegotiating mortgages with principal forgiveness reformist, andif not, what more should be demanded? Are living wage jobs on the one side and a millionaire’s tax of 5% enough to move towards real equality, or a way to prevent greater redistribution? Is providing subsidized insurance for the ill or injured a step towards universal health care, or an end point of reform? Are requirements for transparency and paublic participation in planning moves towards real democratic control of the future of cities, , or a way to avoid changes in the way they are actually built and managed? Are the differences maters just of degree, and when does quantity turn into quality change? Are small reforms way-stations towards larger, less reformist ones, or simply attractive dead-ends?? These are not easy questions to answer.
Unfortunately, the question of revolution seems easier to answer – in the negative. Under what circumstances a revolution might in fact take place is a theoretical question that has been subjected to extensive debate, but whatever the answer, those circumstances do not seem to exist today. The positions of power of the 1%, the control in the economy and in government, their command of the media, the power of the consumerist way of life, the dominance of its ideological supports in nationalism and the Protestant ethic, are too great, technology to firmly in the control despite contrary independent forays.
Strikingly, thee question of power is rarely raised in discussions within the Occupy movement, at least to one listening from the outside. Yet, push their claims far enough, ask what in reality is needed if they are to be met, and the question of power looms large. But the very organizational ethos of the movement militates against confronting that fact; the movement is against hierarchy, against controls, for discussion and debate and openness, against decisions made through the exercise of power – with a deep desire to see the form of organization within the movement, rejecting all use of power, applied to the society at large. Anarchists are clear on the point; non-anarchists are not, and their views vary widely. The role of government as such, of the state, is involved; it is a tricky question, which the tea party, for not entirely unrelated motives, has answered one way, a way clearly unsatisfactory to most, yet a clear sense of the alternative is yet to be developed. Revolutions involve a major shift in who exercises power, at least initially, and the occupy Movement is not at the point where it sees itself needing to address that problem frontally. And it is probably right; revolution does not seem to be on the table as things stand.
If that analysis is right, non-reformist reforms end up as the only way to go, and I believe the Occupy movement I in fact reflects that position. Look at the various formulations, placards, interviews, demands, manifestoes that have come from it, and you will see claims for justice, equality, freedom, , justice, in many spheres, but not demands for this reform, that bill, such and such a tax, this or that change of regulation – although these are often components of claims that are made.
Looking at the role the Occupy movement plays within the general framework of the opposition to the status quo supports this conclusion as to the primacy of non-reformist reforms. The Occupy movement has three key characteristics:
First, it perceives a common thread among the disparate criticisms, crudely represented by the formulation “for the 99%, not the 1%,” with conflict inevitable as the 1% resist the claims of the 99%;
Second, it brings together with a deeply felt broad dissatisfaction with specific criticisms of the prevailing order and in a mutually supportive and culturally rich environment;
Third, it sees non-violent but direct action as a necessary means to implementing its claims in the face of the resistance of the 1%.
On the first point, the common thread, there is less else happening. Many of the groupings mentioned above lack an analysis of the causes of the defects that campaign against, or tend to place the blame on secondary factors: the media, the election laws, continuing racism, lack of regulation, etc., without probing the deeper structural issues dividing the 99% from the 1% that Occupy sees as the underlying issue. More on this below
On the second point, the bringing together: the effort is not unique. A number of other movements have similar aims and composition: the international Social Forums, the loosely-organized “anti-globalization” network, the Right to the City movement, National Peoples Action, union and labor-community coalitions and workers’ centers, MoveOn, Restore the American Dream, and many others.
And on the third point Occupy is virtually alone, and this, perhaps, is why it has so quickly and so dramatically gained such wide-spread support, has been welcomed as at long last representing a Springtime on a par with the Arab Spring, and on a scale and in a manner approaching that which is felt necessary to match the scope of the problems of our times. “Occupying” is a dramatic action, widely recognized, with positive national and international resonance, and will plausibly remain an appropriate hallmark of the movement.
Looking at the immediate future, however, the Occupation faces some uncomfortable truths. One of course is the weather; New York City is not Cairo, and the possibilities of sustaining an effective outdoor 24/7 campaign are more than daunting. The participants in the movement are no doubt already deeply in discussion as to how to address this issue, and they will decide for themselves how far and how long they can go. It may be wise to change strategy according to a specific timetable, rather than turn the occupation into a test of physical endurance.
One possible alternative might by for Occupy to replace its physical locational focus with a more temporal one: to meet, to occupy, only during specific hours or days of the week, perhaps not always at the same location, with other locations strategically chosen. Or it might join with other occupations to establish a presence in Washington D.C., where the capital grounds or the mall might offer opportunities.
Another logical possibility might be finding locations that locally can be occupied consistently regardless of weather. That would be an entirely different approach, looking, for instance at Convention centers as spaces where General Assemblies might be convened, or other public halls or meeting places. Perhaps marches to strategic destinations, rather than focus on a single stable place of occupation, might work: marches to the headquarters of specific banks, specific firms, specific institutions, specific agencies: Trump projects, Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs, the Federal Office Building. might be effective. But those decisions must be made by the participants themselves, and made with the same imagination and resourcefulness that has characterized their actions thus far. Outsiders can be well see themselves as supportive, indeed as admiring, of what Occupy and its participants have so far accomplished, and help them do what they themselves in the end decide to do. They have earned our confidence so far.
What academics, professionals, writers, artists, intellectuals can do is another matter. One of the three essential characteristics of the Occupy movement is the presence of a common thread running through the claims of its diverse participants. That common thread, more formally put, is an analysis of the causes of the conditions with which they are concerned. 1%/99% summarizes that analysis, but only in the most symbolic way. Just who is on each side of that division, how clear the lines are , what the dynamics of the relationship between the sides is, what the tools/weapons each participant uses, how the strength of each is and how each is constrained, just what needs to be changed in the big picture and how incremental changes can lead to or possibly detract from the desired result – these are all questions on which research, the lessons of history, the analysis of each problem, causes and effects, opportunities and blockages in the struggles – these are the issues on which academics and intellectuals (for not all intellectuals are academics!) can contribute. This is, in a larger sense, among what we are supposed to be doing.
A few examples: In housing, is the problem of foreclosures and more broadly affordability on or regulating the giving and availability of credit, or are underneath that problems of speculation, of the treatment of land and housing as commodity to be allocated by the market, of private landownership, In health care, is the problem the monopoly position of the big pharmaceutical companies, the restrictions of patent law, the high profits of insurers, the inefficiency of hospitals, or is it the private nature of the health system, the funding of care and treatment on a pay for services basis, the need to see health care provision in as a public responsibility to be provided publicly like police and fire protection, paid for out from public, social, funds? On questions of jobs, is the problem encouragements to private enterprise to create jobs, or is it the assumption that what is to be produced is what can be sold for a profit rather than what is socially needed, with public provision a n appropriate and major part of a healthy economy and private provision relying on profit based on low wages undesirable? In governmental taxation and land use policy, is encouraging decentralization and competition among communities a solution to uneven development, or does it aggravate the problem and require national solutions?
And in all of such cases, and generally in any matter of public policy, should we not expose who benefits and who loses, and what the respective power positions are of the 1% and the 99% in producing the results that are being questioned? Having made that analysis, is there not a need to propose measures and actions that will begin to address the injustices thus exposed, looking to immediate reforms that go in the direction of addressing the larger problems thus exposed – “non-reformist reforms, whose specification is hardly an easy matter? And that being done, is it not appropriate to politicize the results, become directly engaged in the messy processes of putting proposals into effect, of becoming directly involved in the popular struggles’ that are involved, joining with those most directly affected in common actions trying to produce an alternative, a better, world? “Expose, propose, politicize,” might be one formulation of what academics and non-academic intellectuals can contribute if the wish to support the Occupy movement.
The growth and effect of the movement will depend, not on how many bodies occupy a specific place for a specific time this winter, although where feasible that can help, but on the imagination with which it takes up the task of exposing the ills of which it complains, formulating the claims it makes, and developing strategies to move towards their implementation. Its allies, in a supportive role, can be a big help.