#9. Occupy Wall Street –Targeted Claims, Not Limited Demands
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a basic response to a social system seen as unjust and inhumane, one which is killing people, leaving millions in poverty, destroying the natural environment, stifling and distorting creativity, undermining democratic participation in social decision-making, and creating an existential insecurity about the future throughout the land, and indeed throughout the world. All of its slogans, all of its participants, reflected in hundreds of interviews and media stories and learned analyses, confirm that understanding of what it is about.
Specificity: Demands vs. Claims
Yet there is a strong undercurrent in these accounts, including some sympathizers as well as critics, that the movement’s demands are unspecified, unclear, lacking in useful formulation, uncertain of actual and concrete goals.
Is that criticism justified? I think not, with one exception. I think it results from a misinterpretation of the movement’s sources and has political consequences that undermine the movement’s potential for desired radical change.
Why does not the movement ask for repeal of the Bush tax cuts, implementation of environmentalists’ resistance to fracking, subsidies for alternate energy development, a moratorium on evictions for mortgage arrears, renewed restrictions on campaign contributions, closing of tax loopholes, a Warren Buffett tax on millionaires? Adequate Federal and State funding for education, repeal of mandatory criminal sentencing laws, ending mass deportations and inhuman immigration laws? These – just as examples – are all demands that virtually every supporter of the Occupy movement would endorse. Why not settle down, draw up a list of those demands, spell them out in enough detail so that there is no doubt of their meaning, figure out their budgetary implications, lay out a strategy for getting them adopted, and set about systematically developing a campaign around them?
Why not? Because that ends up playing the game, and the whole essence of the movement is to reject the game’s rules as it is being played, to produce change that includes each of these demands but goes much further to question the structures that make those demands necessary. The analogy to the heart of the Arab spring uprisings, to the civil rights movement, to the counter-cultural protests of the 60’s, are striking. They all believed they were operating under a system that needed to be changed in the way it functioned before their specific demands could be realized; their power lay in the evidence of the mass support they provided for change, the evidence that things could not go on as they were, that those that held the levers of power had to use them to implement deep changes or get out of the way and let others that would do so get at it.
In this sense, claims of rights, perhaps in the form of manifestoes, rather than political laundry lists of demands, are indeed the way to go: understanding rights as statements of principles, sharp enough to reveal concrete positions on broad topics, perhaps with examples, but not confined to specifics. Occupy Wall Street is not a lobbying movement, but a movement for social change. In the Arab spring, the core of the demonstrations was for fundamental change, with the ouster of a particular dictator is immediate target but not its only or ultimate goal. It could well be argued that limiting the demand to that one step needed to be seen as only one step, a first step, and that the hard work of more comprehensive change still remains its task. Certainly Saul Alinsky would argue that that any effective movement must have one or more immediate, realizable, demands around which to organize and demonstrate success. This might be the exception to the “claims for rights, not demands for programs” rule.” Perhaps pushing for the Warren Buffett millionaire’s tax might be such a demand for the Occupy movements, or possibly a short list for flexibility. The important thing is to see them as parts of a larger picture, means to broader goals, not ends in themselves.
Further, demands, as opposed to claims, implicitly assume a setting within the established order. They call for reforms of the status quo, rather than for rejection, for what Richard Sennett has called “different shades of capitalisms” rather than alternate methods of structuring a society. That is not to say that reforms are not important in themselves, nor to say that they may not be steps on the way to larger changes. There are reformist reforms, and non-reformist reforms. Many social movements that support claims such as those of the Occupy movement see their path to winning those claims as going through non-reformist reforms, and that route is not inconsistent with the one Occupy has thus far chosen. But it is not Occupy’s route. Occupy’s actions may in fact be the necessary underpinning for achieving real reforms, both reformist and non-reformist. But in the spectrum of resistance to the prevailing order, Occupy Wall Street represents a different approach.
Paul Krugman puts it this way:
It’s clear what kinds of things the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators want, and it’s really the job of policy intellectuals and politicians to fill in the details.
But it’s not only a matter of division of labor; it reflects the depth of the concerns of the protestors. Pressing claims is different from targeting demands. Occupy Wall Street not about detailing a political or legislative agenda for today. It knows at whom the movement is addressed, who is blocking the claims of rights in its manifestos, and it knows for whom it speaks, whose claims it is pressing. Its claims are not for pie in the sky, not simply hopes and desires, but the principles it is pursuing. Those in power need to surrender that power, need to change their ways. Let them start; the movement will watch, will say whether they are on the right road or not, whether they have gone far enough or not. The claims are addressed at a particular named target, and establish the criteria by which their actions, in response to any specific demand, can be judged.
Conflict vs. Consensus
Consensus is not sought; conflict is seen as inevitable. Perhaps at some deeper level everyone can be better off, but immediately some, the 1%, will be losers– not of everything, but of the unjust riches and power they have amassed. What is wanted is not consensus around concern for some amorphous declining “middle class,”, nor around a charitable concern for the very poor or the “underprivileged,” but a claim that there be no upper, middle, or lower, no privileges for anybody.
Thus the Occupy movement is not after consensus, covers but is not limited to concern for the rights of the very poor, is not for the rights of the “excluded” to be “included” in the system as it is. Such rights are part of their claim, but the claim is for a better life for all. The 99% formulation is exactly right; the hope is “for all,” but the recognition is that 1% already has what they need and much more, and must give up their hold on the excess, over is fair in a socially-oriented society, in the interests of the other 99%.
Public Space vs. Private Territory
The use of space also reflects a particular approach to the recognition of the inevitability of conflict along the way to its goals. Public space is frequently seen as a necessary ingredient of a democratic urban field. It is seen as a place for communication, for diversity, And for protest, and the presence of settings such as Tahrir square or the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires or Hyde Park in London are seen as strong support for broad mass movements for change . Occupy’s spatial setting is different: it is the site of the power that is being challenged. It is, I this sense, direct action itself, not just a call for action. Just as protests at the Pentagon in Washington differ from rallies at the Washington Monument, picket lines in front of a factory differ from collecting signatures of support at bus stops. Centering action in Zuccotti Park is bringing the battle to the enemy’s territory.
While thus far the location in New York City is only symbolic, it happens that Zuccotti Park is a privately –owned space, coincidentally named after an aggressive real estate development lawyer who has been active both in governmental affairs and in private development. The park, actually a paved plaza and what is formally known as “privately-owned public space,” is owned by Brookfield Properties, in conjunction with its ownership of One Liberty Plaza, the adjacent high-rise commercial tower, which, in Brookfield’s terms, “is home to many leading financial and professional services firms including Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Zurich American Insurance and Royal Bank of Canada.” It is in the heart of the city’s financial district, only blocks from the Wall Street centers of speculation and economic power which the movement by its name challenges. In a sense, the occupation of Zuccotti Park is already the occupation of a small piece of Wall Street.” At one corner stands a 70-foot-tall, bright red metal sculpture by Mark di Suvero, perhaps fittingly called, for today’s purpose, “Joie de vivre.”
The location can be interpreted as potentially fitting in to the Piven and Cloward view of the role of disruption in the life of social movements.
Occupy Wall Street makes no small demands, but asserts a claim broadly to the rights of all men and women. How far it will get no one knows as of now. But it certainly deserves all the support it can get.
Personal note after the big march, October 5, 2011
I’m just back from the Occupy Wall Street march. It was massive; I would guess rivals in numbers some of the national Marches on Washington. Entirely peaceful, up to now; the police were polite but stupid, closed streets to traffic but confined the marchers to the sidewalks, etc. The General Assembly at the end of the march adopted a set of resolutions, quite democratically, amazing for a setting with thousands of people participating. And without any electronics. Speakers read short resolutions or made comments, the crowd that heard them repeated them in chorus so all could hear, approval was raising your hand and wiggling your fingers, disagreement was raising your hand with palm out flat – I wasn’t sure of the motions, but there seemed general understanding and consent.
Some of the signs were great — from” Piggy Banks,” to “I’ll believe corporations are people when they execute one in Texas,” to “Wall Street should buy stocks, not politicians” and “Marx was Right: Capitalism doesn’t work”. Substantial important support from key unions: Transport Workers, American Federation of Teachers, SEIU, CUNY”s Professional and Staff Congress, Retail Workers. And apparently some neighborhood groups also, although I didn’t see any under their own signs–interesting. I’ll find out more tomorrow. Apparently after it ended a split-off group in fact tried to occupy Wall Street, and was met with excessive force — pepper sprays, horses. The media seems more interested in what the police did than who the demonstrators were or what they wanted. Yet even the Chair of the Federal Reserve System says he sympathizes with the protesters. And the movement seems to be catching on all across the country. I think it’s tapped into a generalized feeling of discontent and despair that in a way also underlies the tea party’s spread, but is much more participatory and genuine (not financed by bigoted billionaire zealots). Maybe.