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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My Suggestion for Moving OWS Forward

Digby warned yesterday that PPP was preparing to release the results of a poll measuring the public’s attitude toward the Occupy movement, and that those results wouldn’t be favorable to OWS.  The results are here, and they essentially indicate that Occupy is losing favorability with the American public:

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not wearing well with voters across the country.  Only 33% now say that they are supportive of its goals, compared to 45% who say they oppose them.  That represents an 11 point shift in the wrong direction for the movement’s support compared to a month ago when 35% of voters said they supported it and 36% were opposed.  Most notably, independents have gone from supporting Occupy Wall Street’s goals 39/34, to opposing them 34/42.


I don’t think the bad poll numbers for Occupy Wall Street reflect Americans being unconcerned with wealth inequality.  Polling we did in some key swing states earlier this year found overwhelming support for raising taxes on people who make over $150,000 a year.  In late September we found that 73% of voters supported the ‘Buffet rule’ with only 16% opposed.  And in October we found that Senators resistant to raising taxes on those who make more than a million dollars a year could pay a price at the polls.  I don’t think any of that has changed – what the downturn in Occupy Wall Street’s image suggests is that voters are seeing the movement as more about the ‘Occupy’ than the ‘Wall Street.’  The controversy over the protests is starting to drown out the actual message.  (emphasis added) 

I would like to think that anybody familiar with the things I’ve written about the Occupy movement over the last two months knows that I am a big fan and am hugely supportive of the movement.  That being said, I also have tried not to shy away from pointing out where I think the movement has been making mistakes.

And I’ve gotta tell you . . . those PPP results are pretty much what one would have predicted we’d eventually be looking at if it turned out that, in fact, at least some of those critiques were fairly accurate.

For Many in OWS, the Most Important Thing is OWS

Note PPP’s suggestion that the OWS movement is now perceived to be more about the “occupy” than about “wall street.”  Well, how can OWS not be perceived that way?  It is that way for a lot of the movement’s participants – that perception is accurate.  The more people learn about Occupy Wall Street, the more they learn that for many of the Occupadores their primary focus is on themselves

Indeed, to a certain extent Occupy Wall Street was organized that way.  One of the principal architects of OWS and its “horizontal organization” was the anarchist activist and anthropologist David Graeber, who gave an interview to Ezra Klein about two months ago that I wrote about and cited here:

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.

But we hear this constantly from the OWS crowd.  They aren’t proposing changes, they aren’t proposing solutions, they aren’t making suggestions for how we can fix our problems. 

What they are doing instead is – in the words of Graeber himself – “creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.”  That is, by their erstwhile occupation of Zuccotti Park they were attempting to devise an entirely new model by which humans could organize themselves.

Which is fine, I suppose, and is certainly ambitious, but it also means that rather than addressing the substantive problems that actually afflict millions and millions of Americans – most of whom don’t have the time or the inclination to pay close attention – the movement has spent the bulk of its energy trying to create a leaderless, non-hierarchical, horizontal utopia where nothing gets done very quickly but everybody has a chance to be heard.  To outsiders, this looks a lot like it is more important to the Occupadores that they have a chance to get others to listen to them than it is that they actually accomplish something

I wrote about this here after reading an Occupador’s confession that the sheer thrill of being quoted by a reporter meant more to him “than a lifetime of voting!”  I pointed out that while it was evident from his confession that the Occupador was thrilled that a reporter had finally shown him some attention, he completely neglected to tell anybody what it was he had said that got quoted in the first place.  It was obvious from his man’s report that what he had to say was actually less important to him than the mere fact someone was paying attention to him saying it:

Let me give you a clue here, Chuckles:  just because every life is precious, doesn’t mean that everybody is worth listening to.  When you tell me that you can’t be bothered to explain what it is you stand for but that “just being there is an exercise is having our voices heard,” what you are saying is that you want me to pay attention to you even though you don’t have anything to friggin’ say.  You can’t articulate anything you want to share, but you want me to pay attention to you anyway.

I’m sorry, but no.  Life is too short to pay attention to people who can’t explain themselves.  There are too many interesting, challenging – and who knows? maybe even productive and helpful – ideas for me to explore and think about, and the notion that I should spend my time listening to someone with nothing to say just because no one has ever paid attention to him before is the worst kind of false entitlement that I think I’ve run across.  Jesus!  Who ever told these people that political activism is a groovy way for them to work out their own feelings of self-worth and significance?

I am not the only person to have noticed the whiff of narcissism that occasionally floats off of the OccupadoresAndrew Sabl visited Zuccotti Park and – among his conclusions – was the entirely rational realization that the Occupadores “have come to see the protests as ends in themselves,’ and that while “[t]here’s a fine line between participatory democracy and collective narcissism[,] OWS has not only crossed it but made it a rampart, and they’re standing on the wrong side.”

Now, again . . . don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that everybody involved with the Occupy movement is this self-centered or shallow, and I certainly would never suggest that everybody who supports the movement is so narcissistic either.  Lord knows, I’ve had some very interesting and in-depth debates with other OWS supporters about issues of wealth and income inequality that had nothing to do with furthering the Occupy movement itself. 

But when Occupadores are asked “What are the movement’s demands?” and they answer “we are our demands,” or “our demands are us” . . . well, I think middle Americans who hear that and don’t have much time to dig into what OWS is actually about quite reasonably come to the conclusion that OWS is about OWS.

Perceptions Do Matter, But OWS Refuses to Work to Shape Them

And that is a big problem, especially for a movement that is attempting to do nothing less than change America’s entire political/economic/social dynamic.  One of the other things that has always bugged me about the Occupy movement is its inherent suspicion that it will somehow sully itself were it to work within the existing system in any way:

[T]o 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 . . . .

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.

In fact, there really is only two ways to effect fundamental change:  one either works within the system to change it, or one tears the existing system out root and branch and replaces it with another.  The Occupy movement’s hostility toward working within the existing system means that if it wants to accomplish anything concrete then its only way of doing so is to present a new, superior system in which people could organize themselves.

But, of course, in order to replace the corrupt dynamic we have in place now, OWS would either have to lead a (doomed) armed revolution, or else it would have to persuade a whole lotta people that their way was better and should just be adopted peacefully.  And that means actually reaching out to and trying to persuade people.

But OWS is against making any outreach effort as well.  I read somewhere (I’m afraid I can’t find it now, it may have been in the General Assembly minutes) that OWS had elected not to appoint a media point person/group, and had elected not to appoint a police/political liaison.  If I recall correctly, the idea was – as it always is with the Occupy movement – that if someone were to deal on a regular basis with the media, or with the police and the local political authority, then inevitably that person would attempt to work out compromises with these outside groups and sell those compromises to OWS.  And OWS doesn’t want to compromise – above all, OWS want to make sure it is not ‘co-opted.’

Which, again, is fine in a nicely idealistic world, but in the Real World a movement that refuses to engage with the media leaves itself open to being defined by its enemies.  This is Public Relations 101 – hell!  this is Intro. to Public Relations.  This is the most basic lesson any candidate running a tight race for a position on the local school board learns:  don’t let your enemies define you.

But, again, OWS refused to engage with the traditional media, and so its enemies got to define it.  When Digby commented on the PPP poll results today she suggested that the “controversy” surrounding the OWS protest

is a direct result of right wing lizard brain propaganda about Occupiers being sub-human beasts.  The drumbeat has been loud and constant, particularly on local news, and it was almost inevitable that the notion would take hold among some people.  Add to that the sight of heavily armed RoboCops swarming all over our cities as if they were staging an assault on Falluja and people get nervous.  That’s not an accident either.

Well, sure.  But the other truth is that OWS basically abdicated the field of battle for the public’s perception.  OWS looked out at the media and – quite correctly – perceived it to be just as corrupt and beholden to The Powers That Be as are our politicians, and decided that it would not sully itself by dealing with such corruption.  And this, of course, made it easy for that corrupt media to demonize them.

Steve M. gets it right when he says

[t]he reality is that the media still decides what we think, and the far-right media works much, much harder at driving that consensus than the centrist press does.  The centrist press keeps the coverage bland, and then the Murdoch/talk radio axis declares its fatwas, and those decide what we think.

The Occupy movement, like the Democratic Party, doesn’t grasp that it needs to do everything it can to minimize the damage from right-wing media demonization.  Both groups think they can just be heard above the noise from the right-wing noise machine – neither group realizes the utter necessity of throwing sand in the gears of that machine.


. . . [V]oters are seeing the movement as more about whatever the New York Post says it’s about, with no counter-narrative presented as clearly and in as loud a voice.

OWS’s Slavish Devotion to a Single Organizational Model is Problematic

I’m actually very curious about how the decision was really made not to create a media liaison for OWS.  Like I said, the official story is that it was felt that the creation of a media liaison would open the door for the Occupy movement to be “co-opted,” but I wonder how much of OWS’s refusal to take even the most basic step in image management wasn’t also the result of its slavish adherence to a non-hierarchical, horizontal structure.  I wrote about this abhorrence toward hierarchy some time ago as well, explaining

[H]umans haven’t been organizing themselves into hierarchies for millennia because we’re all a bunch of power-seeking jerks (well, not only because of that); we’ve been doing so because top-down organized hierarchies provide some necessary efficiency when it comes to decision-making, especially when dealing with unexpected circumstances where decisions need to be made quickly.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that top-down organization is the only way to organize ourselves, or even that it is always the superior way . . . only that it is sometimes the best way to make decisions.  The Occupy movement’s unshakeable and total aversion to any hierarchical organization, under any circumstances, seems to me just as foolish and overly rigid a point of view as would that of someone who insisted on always following a strict top-down chain of command.

And, look . . . I get it.  The basic advantages and disadvantages of hierarchical organizations versus horizontal organizations are well known – hell, it was covered in both my Operations Management 101 and Human Resources 101 classes back when I was but a wee undergraduate.

Essentially, horizontal organizations allow for everyone to be involved in decision-making.  That way, when a decision finally is reached everybody is invested in the decision and nobody feels that they have been excluded or that their point of view has not been considered.  This kind of “buy in” tends to result in a more cohesive decision-making unit and a more personal commitment to the group’s chosen course of action by all involved, even those people who disagree with that course of action

The disadvantages of this type of organization is that it is inefficient, time-consuming and unwieldy, that people passionately committed to a minority point of view have the power to disrupt the decision making, and that the decisions reached frequently are not the optimal solution to any particular problem but only the best compromise solution that could be agreed upon by the group.

Hierarchical organizations, by contrast, suffer none of those disadvantages.  Because the final decision is often made by a single individual (although often after consulting with others), the decision process can be crisp, quick and efficient.  Because there is no need to obtain “buy in,” the person responsible for making the decision can act quickly when confronted with an emergency, and the organization does not tend to suffer from paralysis.  Individuals representing a minority point of view have no power to grind proceedings to a halt (Hello, U.S. Senate!)

But a hierarchical organization brings its own disadvantages.  Most significantly, unpopular decisions are not supported by those asked to carry them out, which often leads to a flawed execution of whatever course of action has been chosen.  Moreover, although consensus-based decisions are often sub-optimal, they are very rarely the worst decision possible; when only one person is charged with choosing a course of action, the odds are much higher that this single person – rather than a group acting in concert – will actually commit the organization to the worst course of action possible simply by mistake.

What one quickly realizes when studying these two archetypical models of organization is that neither is inherently superior to the other.  Each works well under particular circumstances, and poorly under different circumstances.  The real trick is to structure one’s organization so that its decision making processes are best adapted to the different decisions that will need to be made.  Ideally, no organization should be constructed so as to be solely hierarchical or horizontal, but instead should be designed so as to make use of a judicious blending of the two.

Of course, from the very beginning OWS rejected this common wisdom and instead pledged itself to a strictly horizontal, non-hierarchical structure.  This did, I am sure, help to make everybody involved in the movement fell really involved (they are listening to me!), but it also rendered it flat-out impossible to, for example, appoint a single point person or even a small group of people to act as a liaison with either the media, the police, the local political structure, or even the local merchants.  How could only a few people presume to speak on behalf of the movement as a whole when the entire ethos of the movement depended on reaching a near unanimous consensus on every single decision?

Where Do We Go From Here?

And that, I think, leads us directly to the problems OWS currently faces.  In addition to the fact that it is losing public support – indeed, according to PPP the Occupy movement is now less popular than the Tea Party – OWS has just been effectively evicted from Zuccotti Park.  (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike Bloomberg didn’t have a poll or two of his own when he made the decision to launch his Monday Midnight raid.  If you’re going to evict a populist protest movement, might as well make it easy on yourself by evicting the populists when they aren’t too popular.)

Occupy Wall Street has spent the last 2 months making sure that it is a leaderless, unstructured organization that has no concrete demands or proposals for change, but basically has invested itself in attempting to build in Zuccotti Park a model for a new way of human organization . . . and now it doesn’t have Zuccotti Park.  So what happens next?

Well I’ve got an idea, though I doubt anybody really invested in Occupy Wall Street is likely to go along with it.  But let me explain where I’m coming from.

About a month and a half ago I spent some time trying to work out what Occupy Wall Street was doing.  Even then I was concerned that this movement, which I believe has so much potential, might squander itself by failing to engage in the existing system, which would then simply roll right over it:

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 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.

The truth is, Zuccotti Park provided Occupy Wall Street with the structure it lacked, and organizing its encampment provided Occupy Wall Street with the concrete goal it needed.  But with Zuccotti Park seemingly out of OWS’s hands, both its structure and its organizing purpose are now lost.

So what is important – now – is that Occupy Wall Street itself not be seen to have lost.  So I’m with Adbusters:  OWS should declare victory.  OWS should announce that it has achieved its goal of re-focusing attention on the real scandal and tragedy of America – the fact that our current system lavishly rewards only a small number of its citizens by directly impoverishing millions of others – and declare that its eviction from Zuccotti Park only demonstrates that the 1% know how unjust, untenable, and unsustainable our current system is.  Vow that the Occupy movement is only just beginning, that Zuccotti Park was the nation’s wake-up call, and proclaim that now the real work to change this unjust system begins.

And for God’s sake!  Take the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been donated to the organization and spend it all on a media buy to get the message out that the 1% still hasn’t beaten us.

At least . . . that’s what I would do.


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