The Demand for Demands Misses the Point

People's Collective University at Occupy Los Angeles

Now that the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon has achieved a level of respect from the mainstream media (by which I mean it’s no longer an object of knee-jerk ridicule), all the smart people are demanding that it shape up, identify some leaders and publish a list of demands.  Without these, we’re to understand, the movement will drift into insignificance or, worse, mob violence.

As an institutionalized intellectual, I too am favorable to manifestos, lists of demands and organizational structure.  But at this point, the demand for demands and leaders misses something important about the political dynamic at hand, and about social movement dynamics generally.

1. The Public Sphere was Dead.  There really isn’t a “left” movement in the U.S., nor is there a “progressive” movement.  There are many organizations and information outlets, but no movement.  Obama’s success in 2008 relied on a youthful upsurge in participation, but this was largely mobilized within his campaign apparatus. When he turned off the money at the close of the election cycle the phantom “movement” disappeared.  But this reality was only a symptom of something worse: a huge deficit of organizational capacity in the population at large.  Very few people understand even the basics of how to organize.  It’s not taught in schools, of course.  The collapse of union density means that millions of people who might otherwise know something about how a collective action works, never get the opportunity.  Only on the political right, and within right-leaning religious groups, are people systematically introduced to the mechanics of organizing.  Why this happened is a big question with many answers:  corporate media, test-driven schooling, dying labor movement, broken links between generations of activists, economic despair. But the deficit is real.

2. Process not Project.  The sad reality of the moribund public sphere is the starting point for this maybe-movement, and that’s why expecting it to act like the Debsian Socialist Party is wrongheaded.  The strong social movements of the 20th century took decades to build, and they began in scattered conversations, debates, and disagreements–dare I say consensus building.  There are leaders in the occupations, there are organizers.  So the critique is more about leadership style.  And the grievances of the Occupy movement are pretty obvious, if diffuse, to anyone who is really listening:  things are bad, the government isn’t doing anything about it, and we’re finally fed up.  Granted that isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political level and, more importantly, generalized grievances are hard to build action around in the long run.  But it’s hard to argue with success.  Do we really think having clearer demands would have done a better job sparking the political imagination?  For all the gripes about the Occupiers being too mushy, the demand for demands has its own mysticism.  It imagines that great manifestos actually make movements.  So let’s be patient, and be part of this movement in the making.

3.  Healthy social movements are multiple.  The occupation of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan sparked this phase of our political life, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that it is just one node in a wider conflict.  The genius of Occupy Wall Street was to set an example of resistance, and offer a model of community-in-action.  This model is spreading.  But it can’t be the same in every location.  When we ask, “Will the occupations become a movement?” we seem to be expecting, literally, the occupation of Zuccotti Park to morph into some post-modern political party (readers can substitute their favored party: Communist, Socialist, Progressive, etc.).  This, I think, misses the point.  We don’t need a unified movement and in any case total unity is impossible to achieve when we get down to the level of factional politics.  So criticism, suggestion, strategic intervention and parallel action are all completely reasonable and healthy.  More is more.

By way of example, one of the best recent actions in Los Angeles was organized not by Occupy L.A., but by the post-ACORN community organization ACCE.  They spent a week focusing on the impending foreclosure of one family home in South L.A.  The took their people to the bank that holds the mortgage, they protested on the front lawn of the CEO of that bank, and they lobbied Fannie Mae.  In the end, they won.  Rose Gudiel, who missed on payment, and was facing foreclosure and eviction, won a mortgage modification and can keep her home (see Peter Drier’s account here).  This was a well-executed series of actions, but here in L.A. as in other places well-executed actions don’t always get traction.  It helped immensely to have the occupations in the news, changing the overall flow of public discourse.

And so the Occupation Non-Movement may well remain a non-movement and still be  successful.  Zuccotti Park may be cleared out by the police and the occupation will still be successful.  It has sparked a million conversations that otherwise would have been muted.  And it’s the conversations, rather than the manifestos, that make movements move.  That’s not to say it doesn’t matter what direction the occupations go, only to say particular modes of development are not required to make the occupations worthwhile.

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