What Are They Occupied With?

4 Oct

Many now ask what are the ‘Occupiers’ occupied with? Though heartened by their growth, we are concerned both with the form and the content of their demands. Today, we will discuss only the content of these demands, and hope to follow up with a discussion of form.

Since it began, Occupy Wall Street has spread to a number of other cities, and has shed light on the activities of other, similar groups, already in existence. We had the opportunity to visit Occupy Wall Street last Friday, participating in the march from Zucotti Park to Police Plaza, and we have followed closely the debates over what the new ‘Occupy’ movement means. Some of the contours of the debate are familiar. Critics ridicule their street theater and ignorance. Sympathizers worry about the lack of clear demands. Supporters argue that the process-orientation is the demand, it even ‘prefigures’ the new utopian society within the constraints of the old; or more moderately, they argue it is a necessary tactic to attract a broad base of support. (For the most recent demands at OWS, see this General Assembly declaration). We are somewhere between sympathizers and supporters, but have the following concerns about the ‘movement’ as it currently exists.

Content problems

The lion’s share of the debate has revolved around the lack of demands and the absence of clear organization. The claim to represent 99% yet unwillingness to erect any formal structure of representation has been a visible worry. Yet our concerns begin with the content of the claim to represent 99%. In a recent post, Doug Henwood quite reasonably pointed to the charm of the claim to 99% – it is universal. For the Left, this is indeed an advance over the highly fragmented, minority-based politics of the last decades. (Though we note the ‘class, race, gender, etc…’ language seeping back into the general demands.) The attempt to articulate the shared interests of a (vast) majority is a more promising direction to go than the more fragile alliance of numerous minorities. Back in the 1990s, the political philosopher Iris Marion Young pointed out that if you add up all the ‘minorities’ victim to some kind of oppression you end up with a vast majority, so why call them minorities? And as we ourselves have argued, roughly 80% have a shared interest in changing the structure of investment in the US economy. (Henwood also believes that 80% is a better marker of class politics.)

So what is the problem? Well, 99% is most decidedly not 80%. In fact, the critique of the 99%, especially when the 1% is exclusively held to be rich bankers and their lackeys at the Fed, has much more in common with American populism than it does with progressive class struggle. The critique of sinister, East Coast interests, the demand for fairer monetary policy, the assault on the ‘big corporations’ in defense of the little guy is just as much, if not more, petty bourgeois as it is working class. The demand for a ‘People’s Monetary System’; the desire to break up big corporations; the defense of local banks against the massive Eastern money interests are all the bread and butter of classic, nineteenth century American populism. The latter, as we know, was just as effective at absorbing and redirecting America’s agricultural and industrial workers as it was at channeling their needs and efforts.

While some populism at the moment is certainly better than nothing, it is too crude a way of addressing the underlying inequalities of economic power and the sources of economic stagnation. For one, it implicitly hives off the financial class from the rest of the economy, rather than connects the growth of finance to problems with advanced industrial economies since the 1970s. As we have attempted to argue, ‘financialization’ is about more than the emergence of the super-rich and the rise of hedge-funds. Moreover, there are more sources of economic unfreedom than simply indebtedness and a massive banking industry – the strikes of the 1970s were directed against employers, after all, and the recent strikes by Verizon workers remind us of that. Finally, a critique focused on the top 1% of the wealthy, and on the overweening power of corporations, at best leaves ambiguous what kinds of social power would be acceptable in a reformed economy. Here, some of the petty bourgeois anxiety of the protests is especially problematic. A modern economy, even run ‘socialistically,’ would of necessity be composed of extremely large agglomerations of machinery and labor, even if these did not take the form of ‘capital’ and ‘corporation.’ It would also include immense global trade networks, which cannot be modeled on anything like a spontaneous barter system.

All of this might seem exceedingly harsh or over-interpreted. Where, one might ask, can one actually find these ideas at the OWS or any of the other movements itself? No single set of ideas can be pinned on them, and that is there virtue. Be that as it may, it is more of a non-response. There is no consensus, but there are clear tendencies, some stronger than others. The 99% claim has emerged as the most powerful tendency, and as far as we can tell, it has the basic content described above. Our arguments are not offered as a reason to reject the movement but in the spirit of reflection and internal criticism. We do not think the current efforts are useless, ridiculous, or pointless. But we do think that, as they develop, some serious disagreements and points of direction will have to be settled. On that front, we hope 99% become 80.

9 Responses to “What Are They Occupied With?”

  1. George Finch October 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    You have to start somewhere, and while the the intellectual critiques of the present world economy is critical, you need people who feel the pain to agitate first. NPR Liberals do not change things. Their main idea is basically to stir the pot and thus bring emotion and passion into the debate; that is- bodies and real flesh in motion, not intellectual chit chat. Sadly, many of the left are now well paid professionals and some a tad to close to what they oppose. You need something like the people on the streets are doing. True, it has to morph into a more structured movement, and when bad weather comes and they return to their committees, the real work starts. They will need help. so instead of writing a critique, join them.

  2. scott October 4, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

    Stick to analysis. Your analytical points are valid, but insisting that a popular movement channelling real anger must not be too “crude” or simplistic illustrates why professors should study movements rather than lead them. Starting with anger at the lords of finance as part of a conversation about how our economic “leaders” have failed us doesn’t strike me as wrong-headed at all. You acknowledge this in your post but don’t really take it on board fully – why do these folks have to have a fully-formed agenda, complete with PowerPoint slides, when fully three years after the crisis there has been no public space even to discuss our anger about these issues? You don’t get to enactment of the balanced, reasonable, wonky proposals you like to talk about until people have a reason to care about them, and that reason is anger, which needs space and time to play out and to help identify all the things that need to be changed. Let’s give them more space and time and less tut-tutting.

  3. thecurrentmoment October 4, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    We thank both of the commenters, but they make the opposite of the point they intend. Act first think later is not progressive, and it insults the intelligence of the very people they think they are defending. Moreover, the two commenters fail to engage with any of our actual arguments, instead deciding that the validity of our arguments rests not on their own merits but on our prior willingness to take the loyalty test of expressing unwavering and repeated support for the movement (preferably with proofs of our attendance). That is dogmatism. ‘George Finch’ insults the protesters by assuming that they are merely unthinking units of emotion in action, rather than serious persons making and debating arguments. We prefer to think of them (and in our experience in New York many of them have been) as reflective, reasoning individuals seeking to act on principle and engaged in a process of self-criticism. That is why our first concern is with the content of the claims they have generated, and it would be worth the commenters taking those claims seriously. ‘Scott’ reproduces the same dichotomy by insisting that we ‘stick to analysis’ (not sure what he takes the post to be) and insodoing abandon any critical perspective on the activists. Scott’s world seems to be populated by unreflective spastics on the street, and wonky egg-heads in the academy, each thinking and doing in isolation. Just give the people on the street ‘more time,’ he says, and they will spontaneously generate the solution – that is, so long as the arm-chair theorists, or anyone who has read a book, doesn’t get involved. We, on the other hand, don’t think there is any inherent tension between theory and practice, you can do both at the same time. That is why we go to the protests and criticize them. Any ‘movement’ that rejects arguments simply because they seem to be the result of study is doomed at best to dogmatism and at worst to be mastered by events rather than master them.

  4. George Finch October 5, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    With all due respects, you either missed the point or are getting a tad defensive about your your view, which I said was probably okay. To engage in action does not mean you are not thinking. Rather, your analysis leads you into action and not writing as column, as insightful as it may be and has its place. But in the final “analysis’ it is flesh and blood action on the streets, if you will, that wins the day, witness the civil rights movements of the 60s and the labor movements. They were well organized and though out, but it was arguments that won the battle. It was people willing to make sacrifices that did the trick.

    By the way for over 30 years I have organized at different levels and believe I know what works and what does not. Do not get defensive and throw your ego out the window, This is serous stuff, not a term paper. Yeah, I go for the throat, so find a knife and shoot me.

  5. thecurrentmoment October 5, 2011 at 2:49 am #

    Sorry, George, we can’t figure out what your problem is with us. You agree with what we say, but don’t like that we say it, and you object to what we do, even though you don’t know what we do.

    • George Finch October 5, 2011 at 4:02 am #

      That’s funny. Enjoy your commentaries, just saying ,I wish there was more commentary on the organizing needs going forward. There are boatloads of ideas about how to rectify and address ‘financialization’, a process that has been occurring for decades, but how we do actually stop and change it. My perspective is as a former organizer who has studied movements, and realize just how hard and demanding it is to bring about change. More than likely, it is not going to occur through the political process unless there is a ‘ground swell’ for change. We are probably saying the same thing, but from different perspectives. Still, your response was funny and justified

      • thecurrentmoment October 5, 2011 at 11:31 am #

        Ah ha! Well, in that case we may very well be saying the same thing. Anyhow, our two cents would be, it would be nice if the organizers spent a little less time in front of banks and a little more time doing things like trying to stop foreclosures – say, like they did in Spain. I think the success of the claim to represent 99% and attract a truly broad base of support depends on them connecting with the interests of those other 98% or 79% or whatever. They could use the same tactics, but show up at foreclosures and defend families. Show people in (if you’re from Boston) Dorchester and Roxbury, or (if you’re from NYC) Queens, Brooklyn, Jersey, that you’re actively on their side, not just rhetorically. But that’s just a thought about a possible tactic.

      • George Finch October 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

        Keep following this. Right now seems they are accomplishing a few important things. They are developing a sense of community or ‘solidarity’, if you will, and giving a visible,unified face to the rage that is out there but in unseen clusters. It will be interesting to see how today’s union involvement will turn out, as well as the events planned for D.C. later .

        All along, one of the main problems of the left or progressives has been a national base. For various reasons it isn’t the AFL-CIO. The other is a propensity for making insights and chit chat, rather than doing the risky, uncomfortable, and sometimes mundane work required to organize and change things. Social media is fine, but there is no substitute for old fashion organizing. As I understand it, Egyptian youth spent a good deal of time in the neighborhoods educating and organizing people before they hit the streets.

        The youth here also seem to be educating themselves on some of the things you mention. Hopefully, a practical action agenda will emerge. Stay tuned. Don’t know where this is going. But if Congress screws with my social security, I will be out there with them.


  1. Consider Magazine » Blog Archive » Endpoint - October 7, 2011

    […] A pessimistic take on Occupy Wall […]

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