Universal Translator

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

OWS Eventually Will Have to Engage in Politics-as-Usual

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea where the Occupy Wall Street movement ultimately is going or how it intends to get there.  But as I’ve mentioned before, the OWS protesters are the only people to have explicitly pointed out who the dealers are in the economic Three-card Monte game that has been used to hose working- and middle-class Americans for more than 30 years now.  That alone is enough to merit my wholehearted support for their efforts to end America’s ongoing impoverishment of the many for the enrichment of the few.

Where I run into difficulty is in trying to understand how, exactly, OWS intends to stop the United States from continuing what by now has become business as usual.  As mentioned previously, the options for effecting change essentially boil down to either (i) negotiating, compromising and working within the existing system, or (ii) trying to completely replace the existing system, root and branch, with something entirely new.  

Yesterday, David Atkins (“thereisnospoon”) nicely captured these two options in a post up over at Digby’s:

Leaderless movements can indeed succeed just as they did in Tahrir Square.  But without a defined legislative agenda and the leadership to put that legislative agenda into place via the established process, the only thing leaderless movements can really achieve is systemic overthrow.  That is perhaps what many in the movement are advocating or hoping for.  But in Egypt, Libya and Syria, there were doubtless massive majorities in favor of deposing the regime.  America is still deeply politically divided into culture camps . . . .

If systemic overthrow is in the cards, it will be a long, painful and very likely bloody process.

If, on the other hand, the movement seeks change along more traditional lines, then it is going to have to muddy its feet in the nasty realm of politics and hierarchy.  It is going to require leaders and defined legislative goals.  So far, the Occupy Movement has fiercely rejected those things.


The broader question is whether many progressives have lost all faith in the electoral system entirely.

If that is the case, then systemic overthrow is all that is left.  But in America, systemic overthrow won’t be as in Tahrir Square.  The broad swath of conservative America will never come along for the ride, but will fight tooth and
nail against the protesters, not just rhetorically but physically as well.  Many of the Right have been itching to do so already.   Real systemic overthrow will require a lot fewer drums, and a lot more boxes of ammunition.  But use of that, too, would be contrary to the spirit of the American Left.

So it’s difficult to understand where precisely the change will come from.  Politicians don’t respond to protest movements any more than Dems were cowed from passing the ACA by the Tea Party protests.  It takes more direct lobbying, electoral activity and leadership than simple protest to achieve legislative change.  If electoral and legislative politics are eschewed, then revolution is all that is left.  But that revolution will not be peaceful, and the American Left would need to be prepared for that eventuality. (emphasis added)

At this point, Occupy Wall Street seems to have no interest whatsoever in compromising its “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based” process by adopting any of the more hierarchical structures necessary to effect specific legislative change.  As Todd Gitlin reports, the Occupy Movement “likes government more than corporations, but its own style is hardly governmental.  It tends to care about process more than results.” (emphasis added)

The degree to which having a direct-democracy, non-hierarchical process is so very important to OWS can be observed by clicking here and reading through some of the minutes from the NYC General Assembly meetings.  Or you can just click here and read about how Occupy Atlanta refused to deviate from their process even to accommodate the schedule of John Lewis – the current Georgia Congressman and forever grassroots Civil Rights hero who had hoped to address the Occupy Atlanta assembly last Friday.

In fact, if I were asked to clarify for a low-information voter what the Occupy Movement’s actual goals are right now then I think I would point them to this interview with David Graeber, in which Graeber explained that OWS is working to create “a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature,” and that “we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a question of visions and solutions.”  That pretty much sums up what I see OWS doing at the moment and nicely explains why the Occupy Movement is so concerned with maintaining the purity of its internal process.

But like David Atkins, I still have a hard time understanding how – once OWS has created its visionary alternative to our current system – that alternative is supposed to actually replace our current system.  In his interview Graeber sheds almost no light on that issue, simply acknowledging that how this might be achieved “is an interesting question.”

In fact, to date I’ve seen very little indication that anyone involved in the Occupy Movement is thinking at all about how the changes necessary to redress the plight of the 99% can be achieved if OWS indefinitely continues its refusal to participate in the existing political arena.  (To be sure, the idea of effecting change by force and violent revolution is anathema, entirely counter to the principles OWS espouses and – besides – impossible to achieve.  Forceful, violent revolution is simply not in the cards and nor should it be.)

The best understanding I can muster -- after untold hours spent reading first-hand reports from Occupy sites, reading and watching interviews with the protesters and the original OWS organizers, reviewing news articles and the NYC General Assembly minutes -- is that OWS somehow either doesn’t believe this question needs to be addressed at all, or else feels that because our existing system is so clearly unsustainable whatever alternative the Occupy Movement ends up creating will sort of inevitably have to replace our current system:

“The world can’t continue on its current path and survive,” Ketchup told me.  “That idea is selfish and blind.  It’s not sustainable.  People all over the globe are suffering needlessly at our hands.”

                                    --“Why the Elites Are in Trouble
                                    Chris Hedges

Well . . . maybe.  It would certainly be nice to think so.  But I still have my doubts.  Humans don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to avoiding long-term pain and self-destruction.  One only has to read Jared Diamond’s Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed for examples of people refusing to stop doing what any fool could see was clearly leading to catastrophe and self-annihilation:  “What was going through the mind of the Eastern Islander who cut down the last tree?”

And what do you suppose will be going through our minds if the United States self-destructs because the people who came together and came up with some really good, truly revolutionary ideas for changing the American system were all unwilling “to muddy [their] feet in the nasty realm of politics and hierarchy”?

Like I said, I’m all for the goals of the Occupy Movement, I support their efforts without reservation, and if right now the people who are actually doing the protesting and drawing attention to the economic injustice rampant in our society feel that the movement is best served by its horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, consensus-based process then I’m certainly not going to contest the point.

But I also agree with David Atkins that if the Occupy Movement intends to create something more than a set of aspirational goals – if it intends to effect some concrete changes that will actually make things better for the 99% – then eventually the “process” to which OWS is now wed will have to give way to some standard hierarchical organizing, negotiating and compromising within the existing political arena.

How that evolution of the Occupy Movement might take place seems to be something we could all profitably spend some time thinking about, on our way to the revolution.

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