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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What is 'Occupy Wall Street' Doing?

I cross-posted my critique of Occupy Wall Street's First Official Statement at Daily Kos over the weekend and it generated a good deal of commentary.  The vast majority of comments fell into two groups:  (i) people who agreed that the First Official Statement was not particularly well-crafted, and (ii) people who took exception to my “armchair quarterbacking” and told me that I had to “trust the process.”  Almost nobody defended the Statement itself, though -- instead they ended up defending “the process” that had produced the Statement.

More below the fold.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really understand the “process” that Occupy Wall Street is following here, and that process does seem to keep morphing as time goes on.  The OWS movement first began when AdBusters called for a protest of Wall Street and asked the progressive community as a whole to come up with one clear demand that could be made during that protest.  And when the First Official Statement was released on Saturday, the NYC General Assembly indicated that the Statement would soon be followed by a list of demands.  So – at least at the beginning and until about 3 days ago – the idea was that some specific demands would be forthcoming.

But now that seems to be changing:

Decisions are made by the NYC General Assembly, which Nathan Schneider describes as “a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought,” and thus far, the General Assembly has decided against yoking the movement to a particular set of goals, or even a particular ideology. (emphasis added)

Moreover, in the last 48 hours I’ve begun reading articles, posts, and tweets taking issue with the idea that OWS should even be tied down to any concrete demands:  the idea seems to be that making an actual demand would only kill off the movement’s fluid spontaneity or something.  So, okay . . . no intention (as of yet) to make any specific demands, or “to yoke the movement to a particular set of goals,” or even to adopt a particular ideology.  Got it.

But, you know, if I were a harried middle-American worried about how to make the mortgage payment now that I’m unemployed and this were all I knew about Occupy Wall Street, then I cannot for the life of me understand why I would even care about these people.  Like nearly every single other person in America I can’t make it to their protest, so in order to understand what they are all about I’ve got to rely on reports from others . . . mostly the media.  And what those reports are telling me is that there is a group of people with no particular set of beliefs, no particular goals, and no actual demands who are making a lot of noise on Wall Street for no particular reason.  If this were all I knew, then I’d be forced to conclude that these people are annoying idiots.

Now, as it happens, I do know a lot more about OWS and so that isn’t my conclusion.  From conversations with others in the progressive community I understand that there is (I think) an overarching goal, which is to wrest some of the wealth and power away from the top 1% of the American economic elite, and try to make the country more of the economically egalitarian place it was up until about the 1980s.  I also understand that the plan is for the OWS organization to continue evolving and it is anticipated that, eventually, some sort of concrete goals and list of demands will in fact end up being crafted -- although nobody can say when that is likely to happen.

Of course, I also have to take into consideration that everything in the preceding paragraph may just be me and others projecting onto the organization what we want, and that it may end up being about something else entirely.  The movement’s almost pathological desire to avoid committing to anything at this point leaves it having infinite flexibility, but also means that it could just stay formless and feckless.
However, assuming that I and my fellow liberal travelers are correct about Occupy Wall Street’s actual (though unstated) goals, I continue to support OWS and hope it succeeds – just as soon as it figures out what “success” is supposed to look like.  But – my God! – I’m not your typical American.  I’m a hard-core political and economic news junkie who reads books and learns about history and makes a lot of effort to figure out exactly how we got into our current mess and what might be done to get out of it.  When I see a movement like Occupy Wall Street I can at least have a little hope that something positive might come out of it if only because I can project my own hopes onto the movement. 

Yet even I find myself confused about what Occupy Wall Street is doing, and the vast, vast majority of Americans aren’t anything like me.  To the extent those Americans even know Occupy Wall Street is happening (and you’ll never successfully underestimate the average American’s lack of political awareness), the occupation must just seem confusing at this point.

Without more specific goals or targets, Occupy Wall Street will have trouble declaring victories that go beyond the demonstrations themselves – mistaking successful demonstrating tactics for a successful broader strategy, [Michael Kazin, Georgetown historian and author of American Dreamers, which chronicles the rise of the American Left,] explains.  Simply prolonging the protests while garnering media attention may help them spread to other cities, but they won’t have a lasting impact if there isn’t a concrete agenda or a specific vision of what demonstrators want to see, he says.  As other social movements have found, “you have to win things, you have to get people feeling like they have some kind of power.  Winning means negotiating, winning means compromising.  You’ve got to start negotiating over real things with banks and politicians.”


The target of the protests – Wall Street and corporate greed – is very broad.  As a result, the movement lacks a public face to attach to its complaints.  “You need victims who can be their spokespeople . . . .  You don’t get a sense of people who are involved in the protest have experienced the kind of layoffs or foreclosures that are getting people angry,” says [Peter Dreier, a political science professor at Occidental College].  “It’s more like Woodstock on Wall Street.”

That sounds about right to me, but who knows?  Maybe Dreier, Kazin and I are just wrong here or, at least, looking at Occupy Wall Street through the wrong lens. 

David Graeber, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, is one of Occupy Wall Street’s initial organizers and he attempted to explain what OWS is about to Ezra Klein in a recent interview:

EK:  This movement is organized rather differently than most protest movements.  There isn’t really a list of demands, or goals, or even much of an identifiable leadership.  But if I understand you correctly, that’s sort of the point.

DG:  It’s very similar to the globalization movement.  You see the same criticisms in the press.  It’s a bunch of kids who don’t know economics and only know what they’re against.  But there’s a reason for that.  It’s pre-figurative, so to speak.  You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.  And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting.  If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different.  And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.

EK:  So if you say, for instance, that you want a tax on Wall Street and then you’ll be happy, you’re implicitly saying that you’re willing to be happy with a slightly modified version of the current system.

DG:  Right.  The tax on Wall Street will go to people controlled by Wall Street.

EK:  By which you mean the government.

DG:  Yes.  So we are keeping it open-ended.  In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that.  . . .  [W]e’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a question of visions and solutions.  Now how that translates into actual social change is an interesting question.  One way this has been done elsewhere is you have local initiatives that come out of the local assemblies.

To hear Graeber explain it, Occupy Wall Street is an attempt to do nothing less than envision an entirely new social/economic/political dynamic.  If I understand him correctly, Graeber is saying that no specific demands can be made by OWS because those demands necessarily would have to be made within the system that currently exists, and OWS is trying to envision an entirely different system that – presumably – could replace the current one root and branch.  How such a replacement can actually be made, what physical, concrete steps are necessary to effect this complete shift is, of course, “an interesting question.”

Uhhhmm . . . yeah.  That is an interesting question; kind of an important one too.  And – to my mind at least – it is equally interesting that the only suggestion Graeber provides as to how such change might be effected is through local initiatives from local assemblies like the one currently acting as de facto organizer of Occupy Wall Street.  How local initiatives by leaderless, consensus-driven local assemblies might result in complete revamping of a national socio-economic-political system that funnels most of the $14 trillion generated annually by over 300 million Americans to the top 1% is, I suppose, just a problem for another day. 

I will say this:  if Graeber’s description of what Occupy Wall Street is doing is accurate, then they are at least ambitious.  But they also seem, ah . . . well, let’s call it naive.

* * *

The most common refrain I heard from Daily Kos commenters telling me I had to “trust the process” is that what OWS is doing is akin to what happened in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.  According to these commenters, the people gathering at Tahrir Square had no specific plan or advocated any particular course of action when they began, but they gathered in a spirit of direct democracy to talk to each other and reach consensus about what they wanted and – look what happened! – Hosni Mubarak abdicated.  I was told that if I was patient then OWS’s open-ended, consensus-driven direct democracy would also eventually work something equally miraculous.  Of course, they couldn’t say what that might be, because first OWS has to reach a consensus as to what its actual goal is. 

Let me just say – I’m skeptical. 

I’m willing to accept that the organization of OWS and the organization of the Tahrir Square protest are analogous; hell, I don’t know that much about the organization of the protest in Tahrir Square, so I’m willing to accept arguendo that the organization of both movements are identical.  Fine.  I just don’t think that adopting the same organizational structure as another, wildly successful movement means that one’s new movement is going to be just as successful.  Not if the problem being confronted by the new group is very different from the one confronted by the old group and – let’s be real clear here – the problems confronted by OWS and the Tahrir Square protest most certainly are very different.

The Tahrir Square Protest Had the Benefit of a Lot of Preparation

First, it is my understanding that the ouster of Hosni Mubarak was not something that “just kinda happened” after the Tahrir Square protest started.  Prior to 2011 there already had been an opposition movement in Egypt that had put in a lot of hard work and deep thought as to how President Hosni Mubarak might be ousted and what might take his place afterward. 

In this, the Egyptian protests don’t resemble what is happening with OWS right now so much as they resemble what happened with Rosa Parks.  In 1955 the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP already had been prepared to protest Alabama’s segregated busing laws, and had been searching for the right person to be the face of that protest; after Parks was arrested they were sure they had found her.  That before-hand preparation is why the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott could be organized as quickly as it was.  It is also why the NAACP was already prepared to litigate Parks’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Simply stated, the Montgomery NAACP had spent a lot of time and effort preparing to take advantage of the right moment to launch an attack against segregated busing, and when Parks was arrested they spotted their opportunity.  Similarly, the Egyptian opposition movement had been laying groundwork for a long time and was prepared to take advantage of the right moment to oust Mubarak; when the protests in Tahrir Square started, the Egyptian opposition groups spotted their opportunity.  But Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have a group like the NAACP or the Egyptian opposition movement to which it can turn to help effect its protest.  OWS might just be providing an opportunity that nobody can use.

The Tahrir Square Protest Already Had an Identified Villain

Moreover, the Egyptian protesters had a very clear, identifiable villain at whom the public displeasure could be directed:  Hosni Mubarak.  Right now OWS refuses to even identify a particular goal, but let’s say that in the future it decides that its rallying cry is something like:  The top 1% need to be stopped!  I agree with that goal, but how many other Americans already do? 

My sense is that the average American has absolutely no idea how badly he or she has been getting screwed over by The Powers That Be during the past 30-odd years.  So whereas the protesters at Tahrir Square could easily explain who their villain was and most Egyptians would eagerly nod their heads, pump their fists and shout Yes! I just don’t think you’re going to get that kind of response from the America public when you tell them that the “bad guy” in our society is the uber-rich.  Not without making a massive effort to educate the American people about such things, and that just hasn’t been done, the ground-work has not been laid. 

Hell, we worship wealth in America . . . the always odious Donald Trump has his own TeeVee show and is regarded as a celebrity.  MTV had “My Super Sweet Sixteen” that was devoted to nothing but playing up for the rest of us how incredibly wealthy, spoiled, daddy girls live their obnoxiously pampered lives.  Our Financial Press writes TeanBeat articles every year running down and gushing over the top 25 richest hedge fund managers.  And now OWS thinks it will be able to just tell the American people they need to turn on the wealthy?  Again, unlike the situation in Egypt, the ground work simply has not been laid for this.

America’s Problem Is Not Subject to Root-and-Branch Removal

Finally, and most importantly, in Egypt the problem was a single man who had ruled Egypt fairly despotically for 30 years.  This means that the people rallying in Tahrir Square already knew what the solution to their problem was, and it was what the vast majority of the Egyptian people – after 30 years of Mubarak’s rule – already wanted as well:  the ouster of Mubarak.  That’s a fairly discrete solution to a fairly particular problem.

But America’s problems can’t be dealt with by removing a single person from power.  America finds itself in dire straits because it has spent decades adopting institutional policies that screw over most Americans.  The policies are simply not amenable to the kind of quick, decisive solution that was possible to achieve through the Tahrir Square protest.

The institutions that are responsible for our plight can’t simply be scrapped, but the General Assembly driving OWS seems to believe that to suggest modifying or changing those institutions would in some way implicitly validate them.  So the institutions that give rise to America’s problems can’t be gotten rid of and – according to the General Assembly – it wouldn’t do any good to simply change them either.  I just cannot see how something ‘miraculous’ is supposed to arise from this kind of attitude.

* * *

There is an old expression:  “You don’t shoot the king unless you can kill him.”  The more I find out about Occupy Wall Street the more concerned I am that the movement is going to end up being another failed attempt to kill the king.  And that might be worse than not having made the attempt in the first place.

Back in August, in response to Governor Scott Walker and the Republican controlled Wisconsin legislature’s brutal evisceration of public employee unions, Democrats held a flurry of recall elections against various Wisconsin state senators in an effort to retake control of the legislature.  Democrats needed to take 3 of the 6 Republican seats up for a recall election; they ended up taking only two, and the senate remained in Republican hands.

Checking in on the election results that night via Daily Kos, when it became clear that the Dems were not going to pull this one off I started reading through some of the comments being left.  Many of them were self-congratulatory, pointing out how difficult it is to win recall elections, how much had been done in so little time, with so little money, how many people had volunteered and worked hard to mobilize and express displeasure at the unions being gutted, and how happy we all should be with the final result.  I found all those comments extremely frustrating.

“Everything you say is true,” I wrote in response to one commenter, “but let’s not kid ourselves . . . the story tomorrow isn’t going to be about what a great job the Democrats did under such difficult circumstances.  The story tomorrow is going to be that Democrats failed to retake control of the state senate.  It was a good effort and there is a lot to be proud of, but let’s not try to spin this out to be anything other than it was:  a loss.”

(Here’s another old saying:  “Show me a noble loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”)

I had been paying attention to the Wisconsin recall elections because I knew that in various other states – Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Maine, especially – Republican legislatures that had been installed in the course of the 2010 wave election were attempting to pass equally radical anti-worker, anti-voter agendas.  I had been hoping that the Republican Party losing control of Wisconsin might give these other state Republicans a bit of a pause and perhaps make them reconsider their more outrageous goals.

Now, to be sure, it is my impression that the recall elections did scare the Wisconsin Republicans and that Wisconsin Republicans right now are not pushing for any further rightwing, anti-worker legislation, but – then again – why would they?  They’ve already achieved what they set out to accomplish.  And while the Wisconsin Republicans may have been scared straight, I don’t get the sense that this scare has migrated to the other states where Republicans are running wild.  Why would it?  The Democrats had tried and had failed to kill the king.

Something similar happened in Michigan just a few days ago.  There, a petition had been circulating to gather 807,000 signatures to recall Governor Rick Snyder, in part because he had assumed executive power to eliminate any and all municipal governments and place all decision-making authority in the hands of any flunky he chose.  The petitioners failed to achieve their goal by the mandated deadline.  Once again, there was a lot of self-congratulations given for what was, ultimately, a losing effort.  Once again, the Democrats had failed to kill the king by taking out an overreaching Republican governor.

And now Occupy Wall Street has turned the nation’s attention to “Wall Street” – America’s ultimate king -- but is unable to articulate how or why Wall Street is hurting the other 99% of us and how it is hurting America as a whole.  OWS is “evolving” a position and – near as I can tell – expects to be able to present an alternative, competing vision for the kind of America it would like to see . . . but has no real idea how to actually get to that kind of America without sullying the purity of its vision by working incrementally to achieve it.

What I am most afraid of is that Occupy Wall Street and its post-direct action reform movement will end up simply withering away once the media stop paying attention to them -- and the media will stop paying attention to them when it turns out they have nothing to say.  Let’s not forget . . . OWS didn’t start attracting national attention for anything they actually did, or anything they actually said; OWS started attracting national attention because some animals in the NYPD decided to mace a couple of women and got caught on video doing it.  The NYPD further helped the cause by enticing hundreds of protesters onto the Brooklyn Bridge and then mass arresting more than 700 of them.  But if the NYPD just relaxes, and OWS still fails to come up with anything to say, they will no longer be a story.  They can stay in their park as long as they want, but if nobody pays them attention they will make as much noise as a tree falling in an empty forest.

And then the narrative that will be drilled even further into the American psyche is that the situation is what it is, that America’s social/economic/political structure cannot be changed but can only be accepted, that anyone who would attempt to change how things get done in this country is just a foolish hippie, easily dismissed, and that it is time – once again – for us to listen to the Very Serious People who designed this world for the benefit of the extremely rich in the first place.

I, for one, could do without that.

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