Posted by: Doug Henwood | October 21, 2011

OWS: it never stops!

Edited version of my October 22 radio commentary.

Sorry for repeating myself on Occupy Wall Street, but it seems pretty important. An acquaintance in Australia posted this to a discussion group the other day:

This is I truly hope the very beginning of the reconstruction and the rediscovery of an American Left. I keep banging on about this, but American comrades must understand how this is galvanising the world. If the Left in America re-emerges as an historical agent, then a lot will become possible.

All this, from what started as a small encampment in a small park at the narrow southern tip of an island off the coast of America, as Spalding Gray once called Manhattan.

A major controversy of the moment is whether to make demands, and if so, of what kind. The demands working group has come up with a list I find quite admirable, perhaps because it bears a lot of resemblance to things I’ve been saying all along. I’ve already posted the text here. That draft must go to the OWS general assembly for approval—approval that may be in considerable doubt.

There are objections on specifics. No mention of the prison–industrial complex. (Mass incarceration is a horror, but the role of prison labor is wildly exaggerated.) No mention of, as one critic put it, the racialized nature of poverty. I think there’s a great virtue to simplicity, instead of getting into the usual laundry list. And should by some miracle something like this be enacted, there’s no doubt that it would disproportionately benefit people of color, even as it also benefitted many people of no color.

But there are objections to the very notion of demands. Some think that “demands” are for terrorists, not peaceful assemblies. It’s a good thing that the labor movement never thought that way in its heyday. A lot of anarchists believe that demanding remedies of the state legitimizes the state. I wonder who else could mobilize the resources to meet the challenges of deprivation and environmental destruction. They also believe that jobs suck, and demanding more of them would only make things worse. I doubt that that would resonate with the 25 million un- and under-employed. To this camp, making demands are an opening to being co-opted. They might also be the way to win adherents and win something good.

The twinklers have come up with their own manifesto, the Liberty Square Blueprint . It’s remarkably vague, invoking a rambling set of principles, which they weirdly refer to as “bullet point visions.” (There’s a strange New Age Corporate cast to a lot of their language—a mix of cybertopianism and orgo-localism.) They want to “empower marginalized people to express themselves, build community, and engage systemic/cultural discrimination”? Who are the “we” that grant “them” this power? And how?

The economic planks include:

“Create an economy in harmony with nature…based on sound ethical assumptions and observed  individual and market behavior through behavioral economics and econometrics.” I have no idea what that would mean in practice. Could you generate electricity that way? And econometrics? Vector autorregressions will set us free.

Also, “Implementing and improving community currencies, barter, sharing, and trade systems.” Barter is a major waste of time, and as David Graeber has been arguing, hasn’t really existed in a major way in any society known to anthropology. Community currencies are fine for haircuts, but scissors? Steel? It seems they haven’t thought through the role of economic scale at all. Perhaps their devotion to open-source software has obscured the institutional complexity required to produce the computers and networks it runs on.

And “eliminating financial/resource speculation that supports the current economy at the expense of future generations.” Who exactly would do this, if not a state?

This is hard stuff. I do worry about this movement being hijacked by Democrats for electoral purposes. I think that working for candidates would be a disastrous compromise. We don’t want to lose long-term utopian desire in the course of devising shorter-term concrete demands. The key is to pressure the powers that be without becoming their pawn—to make practical demands that are not death to passion or the imagination.

Full employment is no small demand to make. The bourgeoisie hates it, because it would strengthen the bargaining power of the working class. It, plus the other planks of an expanded welfare state mentioned in the Demands draft, would give people the confidence and freedom to think about a better world. This isn’t fictional: it happened in the 1970s, as the transformation of consciousness among middle-class college students spread into the working class. Quality of work life—in a real, not a GM sense—became a central concern in organized labor, at least among the rank and file. It was one of the things that alarmed elites, leading to the crackdown of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Spontaneous gatherings will not replace the state any time soon, and if we want a better world, we need a better state. To use the jargon, this is extra-parlimentary pressure on the parliament. Relying on the state involves trusting an institution that has demonstrated itself to be often violent, corrupt, and oppressive. But I see no alternative to the state.

This is a very important discussion to have, and one of the great things about OWS is that we’re having it.

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Responses

  1. I also see no alternative to the state (not if we are to do many of the things I would like to do). However, I feel economic folks have not really confronted many of the serious issues. First, instability – this thing is crashing way too much. Paul Krugman has stated that the current system may be inherently unstable – it can last a generation or so, but not much longer. Second, the system seems intent on destroying the environment and cannot handle things like health care. If we are to reform our current system, how can we make it more stable and how can we make it responsive to the environment, health care, etc.? I don’t know of an alternative, but right now I feel the onus is on the current state and maybe even on capitalism itself to justify its existence and explain how its terribly, costly failures can be remedied.

    As for the demands issue, my problem is not per se with making demands, but I think the problem is not A, B or C policy, but rather, is systemic. Specifically, our government has been hijacked by the 1% and is currently responding only to the desires of the 1%. I feel if we can fix this – meaningfully fix it – then we can deal with the other specific policy problems that are all merely a symptom of this systemic problem.

  2. Fun fact: “Open Source” is basically a corporate twist on the free software movement. If Google and IBM are on your side, you’re not exactly a radical. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html

  3. I think you could be wrong on this one. I’m thinking that OWS needs help to endure and continue to allow mainstream support (by which I do not mean Democratic Party support, but just ordinary citizens) to coalesce around it — and hopefully overwhelm some of its sillier aspects. One could even say that the Demands Working Group was trying to seize control, rather than letting demands evolve out of a consensus process you rightly point out is difficult to scale up. But, as a fairly ordinary, not so young, working person who very much supports OWS, I’m not particularly drawn into the Demands Working Group process either. I appreciate your concern for developing a serious politics, but I, for one, and I’m sure there are many like me, don’t have the tools to engage in the high-level Marxist debate that seems to likely to ensue at the New School this afternoon.

    I do worry about the fact that while OWS leadership doesn’t exist, decisions still seem to get made.

  4. I find the “blueprint” ludicrous, as I am sure you do. It’s a lovely document that lovely people wrote for a lovely future. and we can get back to it after victory. Until then, however, I think your Demands are a better start but they miss a few basic things, and In my humble opinion it should be rejected as it stands now.

    The major problem is that it doesn’t play to the strength of the movement. Like it or not. This was started and is animated by anarchists with the capacity for small autonomous and dispersed action based on informal networks. You need demands that allow the movement to grow organically, from this base outward, drawing larger groups with other orientations in. by putting everything on a very complex state action, this demand means effectively the end of OWS as it is and its replacement by another movement, lead by NGOs, trade unions and other large organizations that can push such a plan forward. These other organizations are not there, at least not at a stage where they have either the will or the capacity to take up such a radical plan. So all that this plan will achieved is to open up a process of “empowering” the Democratic Party to win another election while watering down some tepid job creation programs.

    What is needed is initial goals rather than demands, that don’t require state action (or require very little) but state ACQUIESCENCE, can be enforced and achieved through direct action at least for the first state, in such a way that the victory MATTERS to a lot of people, especially the weakest sectors of society, can be achieved IN SMALL DOSES, and is a PROXY for the larger problems of capitalism, and allows for larger sections of the population to coalesce.

    For example, the focus could be on foreclosure and debt. Stop evictions, stop loan payments, etc.

  5. “the 1970s, as the transformation of consciousness among middle-class college students spread into the working class.”

    Wrong. Again. You may find it was the other way round, much much earlier, and a worldwide phenomenon.

    Your getting your chickens and eggs muddled again. If you’re not careful, you’ll be Rush Limbaugh by Monday.

  6. [...] Doug Henwood (via azspot) LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

  7. Thanks, Evildoer. That helps me elaborate on my thinking.

  8. [...] millions who depend on capitalism for daily bread (Doug Henwood said something to that effect on last week’s Behind the News). Two months ago, though, these same critics would have said that organizing even a [...]


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