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Discussion: Left critiques of Occupy Wall Street -- How did I get here? By know-it-all subtraction?

Occupy Wall Street. Photo from Solidarity.

This article first appeared at the Kasama Project website under the title, "Occupy critiques: How did I get here? By know-it-all subtraction?". It is a response to sections of the US left on the Occupy Wall Street movement that has sprung up across the United States, and is inspiring similar initiatives in other parts of the world. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Mike Ely's permission in the interests of discussion. Comments are welcome.

[For more on Occupy Wall Street, click HERE.]

* * *

By Mike Ely

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself,
Well…How did I get here?!

Talking Heads

>> Warning: This is a rant out of love. <<

October 4, 2011 -- There is a method swirling around: Where people look at this new moment, this new development … and they scan it like a static structure, and they compare it to their own previous beliefs and practices. Eureka! I know what’s wrong! Suddenly they express alarm, or dismay, or deep worry, that things are not being done right, by the rules (which have accumulated in the old leftist closet for decades).

By a simple process of subtraction, they come up with a subset of “what is missing” from this new movement. And they quickly assign themselves to be the critics or patronising instructors of “what is missing.”

In short: it has been a very short leap (in conservative leftist thinking) from “This movement is bullshit and will go nowhere” to “This movement is ok, but I know what it needs.” In fact, you knew it all along, right?

I see that in the encampment of Occupy Chicago, i read it in a dozen discussion.  And you see it too.

How should we appreciate and approach novelty?

First of all: things are not what they seem. You have to examine something in its dynamic motion … not by linear subtraction.

Second, things are not repeats of the past. Things may look similar to something you saw or experienced, but a decade later (or five minutes later) it may not have the same meaning. And so your previous summations, verdicts and correctives may be utterly out of space and time.

Third, there is a need for a bit of humility — and an easing of that “know it all” assumption (that we are conscious, they are objective, we know, they need to listen, and so on.) Let’s face it, most leftist groups over decades have not done that well — isn’t it a bit naive to think that the solution is to foist your special preconceptions on the next mass movement?

Isn’t some dynamic study, appreciation, learning and even transformation required?

This movement (any movement) has weaknesses — and may have fatal flaws. We need to help identify and transform those things. SKS posed (in an interesting and well-researched discussion) the fact that if you don’t have leaders and structures, then the “white shirts” of the oppressor are quite willing to be your leaders … and you will have trouble developing direction.

All true. But then, if we identify a problem (say we spotted from a million miles away) how do we address it? What is the process (unity-struggle-transformation) look like in the real world?

The old eyes of even young activists — a matter of bad training

One of the problems with fixed conceptions is that people tend to see the new through the eyes of the old.

But even things that seem similar to what a previous generation experienced (the ever-heavy shadow of the 1960s), it may not ACTUALLY have that meaning in a new time.

Understanding requires fresh, flexible and ongoing investigation and summation. Real work. And dogmatism is lazy. In addition,  frankly, it requires a kind of scientific humility that the previous left rarely considered (theoretically, ideologically or practically).

A NEW situation isn’t just a replay of old situations. Life is not on recycle and rinse. You can’t just show up and run old tapes — even if you have been trained on old tapes. It takes a process of communist work to even understand the dynamics and lay of the land.

We (here on Kasama) have talked for a long time about expecting ruptures, about understanding how to prepare ourselves to be flexible in the event, how to look for “our Mississippi”, how to expect fracture lines to produce eruptions and stir people (as opposed to thinking that social movements are mainly generated by the grind of “slow patient work” by activists).

All of this is now in play.

And it is a good time to revisit the corrective that: the people (in their large numbers and movement) are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant. Without this understanding, it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.

These words (part of our communist legacy) are not a prescription for tailing or romanticising or accepting serious flaws in the real.

These words (and this approach) are a precondition for actually learning — just as learning is a precondition for actually influencing and leading. Better to be students (of reality and others) first — especially in a novel situation — than “swing into action” with knee-jerk and exhausted assumptions.

I saw one comment (a sincere, interesting and thought-provoking comment!) on Kasama about how the occupations need the theory of “transitional demands” — the one Trotsky stressed in the mid 1930s. It is 70 or 80 years later … how has it been working for you? Is that really a starting point/brainstorm today?

OMG, this violates our rules!

A dear friend of mine wrote (musing on Facebook) an honest question:

“Can you recall another movement in the past that was essentially demand-less like this one? That’s not a diss either, I just find the whole thing fascinating.”

Fair question. And I apologise here, publicly, for the harshness of my reply at the time.

But let’s ask:
What does it mean that this gets posed? (And not just once, or by one person!)

It kinda had me blinking and sputtering.

  • I saw a hundred rebellions in the US without demands. The LA rebellion … what was its demand?
  • The peasant uprising in Hunan 1927?
  • May 1968 Paris?
  • The May 14th Movement in China?
  • What was the demand of the underground railroad before the Civil War?
  • What demand did John Brown make? (In Kansas I think it was “Uh, die muthafucker.”)
  • What was the demand of the Sanctuary Movement during the El Salvador war?
  • What was the demand of the resistance to the Nazis in France, or Italy, or occupied Soviet Union?

We will need demands at key times (and need slogans at others) ... I’m not against this movement having demands. But still ... what is the content of the approach taken by many?

Lots of moments HAVE and NEED demands (“Stop the war” or “Free Mumia” etc.) Sometimes we are demanding concessions and retreats by the ruling class (“Free all political prisoners!”). And we are not wanting to make unwinnable demands(!) in such cases, but we intend to win them! (And sometimes do win them.)

But what does it say that often some of our active folks can only conceive of our movements in relation to demands on the ruling class (which is a posture that ultimately assumes their power and even on some level concedes some legitimacy). Mesmerised by the permanence of power, much?

It is worth thinking about why THE PIG MEDIA keeps demanding demands — what are they wanting (or, ironically, demanding!)? What will they do with all of this if they get specific demands? How are they influencing thinking by constantly complaining about the lack of demands? (I saw a report on the PBS News Hour that said they expected demands soon from Occupy — including higher taxes — Talk about trying to force us onto THEIR terrain!)

This emerging movement avoided some tidy list of demands — and has channeled a deeper mood of discontent that has not yet found itself a program. Is that wrong? Perhaps we could learn something here that the routinised and creaking left has forgotten.

I think this movement needs a set of critical voices (internally) — and it obviously has them. And I think we need to forge an attractive pole that speaks to (and helps creatively articulate for) the most radical anti-system currents within the movement, and (within that and alongside that) we need our own communist voice (shocking, open, searing, far sighted).

The need to ORIENT ourselves

So I am (again) not arguing for tailing and romanticising.

But I do think (with all respect and love) the “criticisms” of most of the left are uninformed and conservative. And subtractive in a know-it-all way. And further, that there is a naive sense that “we” somehow “know” what is needed. Without work? Without real investigation? Without being in the tissue of this generation and its active debates?

Let’s give ourselves a reality check (and I include myself): Why is the novel treated as “strange” by so many leftists? What is the mindset?

People are really almost surprised that new things emerge ... when that is what we should be poised to expect and learn from. People seem unable to “swing into action” to orient ourselves in a new situation.

That is what we need to do: orient ourselves, through investigation and study and practice — in order to apply a mass line, and actually contribute. In the absense of such work and orientation, we will speak without helping. We will lecture without knowing (while, of course, thinking we know what they need).

Let me give a self-critical example:

The moment I had the OWS broadsheet in my hands, I read the Declaration of Occupation — a list of grievances. And I (scanning it as a fixed thing) quickly noticed what was on their list and what (in the laundry list of my mind) was missing. (“Nothing on immigrants, check. Nothing much on war and empire, check.”) So, BANG, insta-criticism! What more do we need to know? There are GAPS(!) in their texts (produced under difficult conditions by friggin' consensus rules!). And “we” know what needs to fill them.

What is wrong with that method? What would it lead to?

I am not saying that an tinge of US nationalism is not something to note. I’m obviously not saying that questions of war and empire are not important. I’m not saying that excluding the undocumented from this movement would not be a problem. I’m not saying we don’t have a role in moving things on such matters.

But I am raising what is our method, and how does our role emerge, and how do we imagine participating in the maturing and deepening of a process. (And of course within a day or so, the Occupy Boston had published something discussing immigrants … and so the discussion rolls.)

Really people should be a bit more humble, open minded, dialectical, patient, generous and aware of the novelty of things. Not give up critical faculties and tail this … but geez. It is one long crab fest by the veterans of the left’s previous epic fail. Mao mocks those who think they can “pull on a sprout to make it grow”. Yes it has weaknesses, yes it needs to mature and transform, yes we know somethings that can contribute. But what is our method?

I want to call out in passing two things I have heard:

One is the idea of taking over organisationally. Someone (not from Kasama) discussed getting key people into key positions, etc. It is important to pay attention to who controls key positions in an organised movement … sure. But as a method we need to lead by line (by having an articulate and open political pole) and not mainly by organisational methods.

The other is being “the best fighter in the day to day” — the assumption that we arrive and become the best footsoldier of whatever is — with the assumption that the respect gained by dilligence will translate (someday) into political influence. This method does not work.

I want to propose two things are taken to heart: One is the mass line (which we have discussed on Kasama here and here. The other is the concept of “leading through line.”

And I will leave it there.


Assessment of Occupy Wall Street so far

By Fred Feldman

I estimated there were about 30,000 people (maybe more) participating in the October 5 Manhattan rally and march supporting Occupy Wall Street. The whole time I was at the gathering point by the Foley Square courthouse, people were continually pouring in from Chambers St. and Park Row.

Unions' role

There was a modest but significant trade union participation, although the TWU had called the action and others sponsored it. The turnout was overwhelmingly, but far from exclusively young. We should keep in mind about this that trade unionists are unfortunately at this time only the 7 percent or less. The working people who make up this movement and respond to it are largely in the 92 percent who are not organized today. That's a general point, though, and doesn't let the officials off the hook for their unwillingness or hesitation to bring out the ranks to a demonstration with such a strong anti-establishment character.

By the way, in the whole course of my time with OWS and supporters Wednesday I never ran into a single person I knew except for a lone Militant salesperson, -although I knew quite a few of them had to be around.
(Certainly, Solidarity and ISO people at least.) To me, that was a sign of a real mass demonstration going vastly beyond the usual suspects, who include ourselves, of course.

I left Foley Square (I did not participate in the march) in search of Zuccotti Park and the OWS center. It was easy to find, to my surprise as I am an expert at getting lost (people consult me about how to get lost) - straight down Broadway past Cortlandt St. to Liberty St. The park is right there.

I think there were about a thousand people "hanging around" as part of the action. I had been prepared for a somewhat "hippy-looking" crowd (whatever that really means) but I didn't see it. They were overwhelmingly young, and pretty much appearing and acting the way young people do. The older people pretty much did likewise for their generation. Very long hair was not predominant among the men, nor super-short hair or baldness among the women, and whatever. Of course, they may have been urged to rein it in by the very competent leaders, organizers, guides, or whatever, to be on best behavior because lots of supportive folks were coming in that day. Frankly, they looked to be a lot of regular folks, if you have an open-minded attitude to what constitutes regular folks today..

I checked out the library which they maintain to help the participants. (In any new environment, the first thing I check out is the library, and since these people had one, I did so.) It was full of good stuff to pass the time with. But the only item that could be designated Marxist that I saw was Jack Barnes "Capitalism's Growing World Disorder." I saw no anarchist literature --- no Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin, Prince Kropotkin, or other names I am used to seeing when those folks are about.

The Avakian Revolutionary Communist Party seems to maintain a not-well supplied book table at the park. No other such direct propaganda intervention as far as I could see.

They had a lot of water and coffee available.I availed myself of the coffee, which was a needed waker-upper. There was a medical area that I clumsily stumbled through, and a food area.

The leadership spent a lot of time preparing people for the arrival of the vast numbers of supporters. A young woman helped orient people about the need to make room for the people who were coming. Then she oriented us on the people's mike, in which people in front shout out whatever a speaker is saying to people behind them, who do likewise for the people behind them. Of course, when the crowd arrived, many layers of this process were needed. She estimated it at 20,000, which seemed right to me, but I could see as I headed home that thousands of people had not even made it into the park, which was packed

I enjoyed the people's mike a lot and participated to the best of my limited ability. It reminded me a lot of the 0ld Original Saturday Night Live which had a regular routine called "News for the Deaf," in which a reporter just screamed at the audience. Having moderate to severe hearing loss myself, I would not have been able to hear clearly almost anything that was said on the platform area (just a raised part of the park on the Broadway side} without the people's mike..

Role of union officials

I have read a number of items that refer to the desire of the trade union officials who spoke to the rally to "coopt" the demonstrators.

Its hard to imagine that they could conceive of doing anything else. I mean what else are they capable of doing today.

At the same time, I think they were inspired on a certain level. OWS is the first development (I don't think Wisconsin quite pulled it off due to the DP weight) since Obama's election (which was a false dawn, of course) to seize the initiative from the far right, and the latter are screaming in agony about it (as is -Bloomberg and many other right-thinking citizens. This is not supposed to be possible in the United States where the only debate is supposed to be how for to the right go -- extreme, less extreme, or moderate.

Despite the radical character of this protest and its confrontation with the whole range of powers and principalities, I think they see this as a force that they can use use to save the Democratic Party from simply becoming a pure and simple party of finance capital, and conceiving of going a little to the left now and them - giving them a little something they can boast about having won, say, at least once every four years.

Obama's latest news conference shows his deep resistance to any such shift, whether or not it results in his electoral defeat. He is the man of the finance capitalist rulers over US and much of world industry. He's happy there and does not intend to play any Rooseveltian games. He IS more Hoover than Roosevelt, as Louis Proyect, among others, has pointed out (partly because Roosevelt faced a union movement that was politically stronger then than it is now). And most of the Democratic senators and reps seem similarly at home with the status quo.

They are actually kind of glad have something to lean on when they say to the rulers and their politicians: "You got to give us SOMETHING, or else the young people, including the young workers, will go nuts."

Anarchist leadership?

I have been told, and it seems logical that it might be true, that this whole thing was initiated by anarchists. If that is true, I want to stress that the leadership (and yes, Virginia, there is a leadership) they are intelligent, responsive both to the ranks and also to those outside the ranks). They are not adventurist, which does not mean that they cannot smell openings to expand the narrowing freedom which has been available to protesters in NYC and elsewhere. They do not stand before the masses as dictators and masters, but as leaders of the oppressed and exploited working people to find their way. But frankly, that does not mean to me that these people are not leaders. They just don't seem to be assholes.

Of course, it has also been shown that they can be set up by the cops in the totally engineered coming wit (which does not mean that the cops cannot trick them into things like the engineered confrontation on the Brooklyn Bridge, which a comrade on the Marxism List (totally sympathetic to these new forces) noted that the late Fred Halstead, a revolutionary who was an important leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement, would have known how to avoid despite the cops

This is inexperience. And in the long run, the only cure to inexperience that can be counted on to stick is experience. (The Marxmail contributor offered the same conclusion.)

If this is anarchism (and I don't deny it - I just don't KNOW it), it is a different kind than we have confronted for a long time. This would be anarchism attempting to function as a guiding current in the actual struggles of working people - related to the IWW and the revolutionary syndicalist trend in the international workers movement which was very influential before ANY of us were born.

This is not the anarchism of the Black Bloc types who basically try to raise again the fallen banner of \Weatherman.

No demands? No problem

I think the lack of specific demands is positive at present.

OWS, not super-massive as yet in terms of participation, is the first general revolt against the whole attack on working people. It is an expression at last of the until now largely unexpressed outrage at the whole range of these attacks.

This is an assault on Wall Street broadly defined - Wall Street as the governing power of the USA, financial capitalists who represent the ever-deeper merger of financial and industrial capital on a world scale. This is not just financial spetzes, mathematical "Masters of the Universe" and so on. This is the not the reactionary financial capitalists fighting the more progressive industrial capitalists. To the extent that this fight ever occurred, it is over. They are basically one, and what we have is not simply banking or industry or banking vs. industry but the latest development of imperialist finance capital.

In this sense, "Wall Street" simply is the US ruling class.

In fact, the rulers know exactly what OWS represents and what it demands. It is opposed to their course against working people - the slashing of Social Security, medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing, heating, water, and, of course, human rights on every level. These are also the makers of today's permanent war, whether it is the war in Iraq or the Liberation Bombing of Libya.

So I agree with OWS that adopting specific demands would be a mistake under present circumstances. It would trivialize, not deepen, their impact. Tax the rich" axis a trap just now

And especially if the demands were for "tax the rich," as a number of friendly critics of the protest have suggested. At this point, I think tax the rich demands would be as big a trap for OWS - the equivalent in more broadly political terms of being hustled by the cops onto the auto lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge.

"Tax the rich" is a political trap for now Today, In the current political context, starting to push tax answers to the problems points toward the propaganda of Shared Sacrifice, even though no credible tax-the-rich proposals is going to threaten the rulers' old age security, medical care, food, housing, and so on as the attacks on working peole do. Our axis today should be defending working people and such things as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, food stamps, housing assistance, heating assistance, ending homelessness, and so on.

We should remember that Obama (in his more left posture, after it turned out that his eagerness to throw the elderly and the sick iinto the meat grinder to produce more wealth for big capital was destroying his chances of re-election and possibly the Democratic Party as well) insisted that he would support slashing social security and all the rest only if there was some modest new tax imposed on the rich so they would pay their "share." Some of the union officials who spoke at Zuccotti Park sought to sell the myth that taxes are the central issue that faces us today. By no means. The defense of working people of all kinds against this brutal, life-destroying assault is the key and the demands that rise from that which, in my opinion, are not primarily demands about taxes..

Personally, I don't think anybody who is not rich should pay any taxes at all. This is their society, not ours. It is their deficit, not ours. If anyone has to tighten their belts, well, a lot of them could afford to lose weight.

But I will not fall for covering slashes in basic human needs by little or even medium-sized tax increases on the rich and nothing more - really much less - is possible today.

OWS is the deepest mass-based or mass-responding mobilization against the whole assault on working people. They don't need to get tangled in developing their own tax plan, or picking one up from the liberals who advise them.

OWS as inspiration for other struggles

OWS in Zuccotti Park or elsewhere in the country is not the "final conflict," assuming there will ever be one. (I have no clue.) One of the most important aspects is the capacity of OWS to inspire and legitimize other struggles in workplaces and on the streets or schools or wherever. In the long run, this may be its biggest and most important impact. It is really not important whether OWS leads directly to the "final conflict.." I rather doubt it. But its impact will live on.

Meanwhile we should support and spread OWS wherever we are. This is US, finding our half-strangled voices at last.

Nice one, Mike, but what,

Nice one, Mike, but what, exactly, does Communism, historically or theoretically, have to do with this?

Seems to me that what you are criticising is...umm... Communism/Communists and not just Communism's Others (Trotskyists, Maoists). It certainly scores against myself as a Communist and against the national and international Communist organisations I was a member of or worked for (until the Soviet Communist tanks rolled into Communist Czechoslovakia, 1968).

So maybe you are working with a Communism of the imagination - as do quite a number of, actually, 'Liberation Marxists' (Like Teologos de la Liberacion) for whom I have the greatest respect.

In the meantime, however, I am happy to walk alongside you, full of admiration and critical concern, for the new emancipatory movements that are springing up worldwide without even Marxist licence or prediction.

More Observations from Occupy Wall St.

By Stephanie Luce

Picking up where we left off?

It was a strange feeling to be in Zuccotti Park (once called Liberty Plaza Park), right next to Ground Zero. I was with thousands of people listening to speeches through the “people’s microphone.” The crowd looked so similar to those of the late 1990s/early 2000s “anti-globalization” movement - and we used that method for communicating then too. Things had gone poorly in April 2000, when most of the big unions decided to lobby at the Capitol against Permanent Normal Trade Relation (PNTR) status for China, while on the other end of the mall thousands of young people were blocking streets attempting to stop the IMF and World Bank meeting. Despite some common ground built in Seattle, we were a ways off from a real alliance between the labor movement and the other burgeoning environmental, student, anti-imperialist movements.

It seemed like things were beginning to change, however. In the summer of 2001 the AFL-CIO put someone on staff for several months to build labor participation for the coming IMF/World Bank meetings to take place that fall. People were mobilizing around the country, and the world, to build a common movement against neoliberalism and “structural adjustment.” The weekend of September 6-9, 2001, over 1000 labor and community activists convened in Cleveland for the Jobs with Justice conference. Spirits were high, and there was a real sense that the world was about to change.

Little did we know how it would change. Only two days later were the 9/11 attacks. And suddenly the movement we had been building collapsed.

It has taken ten years, but the scene at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) seems to suggest we’ve rebuilt what we had been building then. OWS was started by a group of mostly young people, seemingly unfocused, seemingly mostly white, seemingly not very strategic. But whatever they were they created a space that was flexible enough to allow others in. That hasn’t happened smoothly in all cases, and certainly is not yet enough, but anyone who goes to Zuccotti Park seems to feel the same thing. A sense of exhilaration at the audacity, the feeling of freedom and possibility.

TWU Local 100 was the first union to endorse Occupy Wall Street. Individual members had already been participating in events at Zuccotti Park, but the unions were absent. Local 100 took a bold move to come out early in support of a movement that was still hardly covered by the media, and mostly denounced as a fringe circus. Once Local 100 endorsed, the flood gates opened and unions and community groups jumped on board. Many have endorsed a large community/labor march in New York. Others not based in New York have expressed general support for the Occupation (such as the Steelworkers).

Quickly the Beyond May12 coalition helped pull together a labor/community march in support of the Occupation, and with less than a week’s notice, got most of the city’s largest unions on board, and pulled off one of the largest marches we’ve seen in the city for some time.

Photo credit: Mat McDermott


Where did this come from?

Some writers have suggested that OWS sprang from nowhere, completely spontaneously. That is somewhat true, but misleading. As I said, the movement is in some ways picking up from where we left off before 9/11. But in other ways, this is just one moment in a series of fightbacks that has been going on for awhile, particularly since the economic recession hit. You wouldn’t know it from mainstream media sources, but there have been an incredible number of protests over the past few years, involving large numbers of people. Of course there was Wisconsin, but there have also been large scale strikes (e.g., Verizon, nurses, longshore), hunger strikes and prison organizing (e.g. Pelican Bay, Georgia), environmental justice protests (e.g Tar Sands), foreclosure fightbacks, bank protests (New Bottom Line), economic justice rallies (One Nation), immigrant rights campaigns (the DREAM Act) the US Social Forum, which had 15,000 people plus numerous large scale marches, and more.

Then there are the international protests - the Arab Spring, Greece, Portugal, Spain, China, London, South Africa, Benin, Brazil, and more. While the US is often US-focused there is no doubt that protests elsewhere have inspired and motivated many here. The idea that resistance is possible, and that fightbacks can win, helps put more people into motion.

As social movement scholars show, we don’t know which of these protests will be the one to spark a larger movement. We try and try, and lose a lot, until one time it sticks. Occupy Wall Street is clearly building off the momentum of resistance seen around the country and world over the last few years, and tapping into the memory of where we were ten years ago.


We are all Troy Davis; We are all Sean Bell

Occupy Wall Street started out small and got little attention. It is possible it would have fizzled out as people went home. But four days into the occupation, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. This provoked outrage across the country, including among many at OWS, who joined in with others out to protest the execution. This brought new energy, as many people were feeling outraged and disempowered by a racist legal system.

The connection was strong in New York, where protestors have long pushed around by the police. Anyone who has been to a march in this city knows that at least since 9/11, but perhaps since Seattle, the NYPD has used aggressive tactics to keep control over protests. Barricades are used to channel people into narrow spaces, separating marchers from supporters, and often breaking marches into pieces. I’ve been in that situation a lot. In 2002 we were protesting the World Economic Forum meeting in New York. The police continuously stepped into the line of the march with barricades, breaking us into pieces, and pushing us around. At one point they barricaded us from both ends of a block and began pushing. I was in the front, and suddenly a line of NYPD were shoving barricades into my stomach. When I tried to attend the massive anti-war protest on the eve of the Iraq War, I and thousands of others never made it to the actual march because police would not let us enter the street where the march took place. They had cordoned off major parts of the city, giving protestors confusing and sometimes incorrect information about how to enter.

These tactics are alienating and disempowering, and seem a complete violation of our Constitutional rights, but of course are nothing in comparison to the daily harassment of people of color in this city. That ranges from the infamous “stop and frisk” to violent arrests and sometimes death. There are already groups fighting police brutality in New York, and in the early days of OWS and after Troy Davis was executed, some OWS protestors marched through streets chanting, “We are all Sean Bell, NYPD go to hell.” Saturday, September 24, the forces merged in a spontaneous march, and this is when the NYPD took action, beating and arresting people. When the news broke about the police attacks on peaceful protestors, a lot more people started paying attention to OWS. A large spark that moved the OWS from a small protest-as-usual into this larger phenomenon was this intersection. The Troy Davis execution made clear to many of us just how powerless we are.

But what are the demands?

Many on the left have expressed frustration at the lack of concrete demands coming out of OWS. This surprises me a bit, because it is one of the things I find so liberating. Often, when we make demands in our struggles they immediately limit us to the short-term and winnable. Our demands certainly tend toward the least common-denominator and the pragmatic. I understand why that is the case: it builds a broader base and it puts in place something we might win. But it limits us.

Some people point out that the uprising in Egypt started with a concrete demand. That is true. But the demand that “Mubarak must go” is so much less than the demand “Change the system.” I’m not suggesting that “Mubarak must go” was the wrong demand for the time and place, and the victory of this was incredible. But here we have a moment to dream big.

Even in Wisconsin, much of the demand got framed as “reasonable.” We’ll agree to your concessions if you let us maintain collective bargaining. This “message” polled well, but again, it limited our imagination.

The effects of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and imperialism go wide and deep. They interfere with just about every aspect of our lives: the way we work, the way the economy runs, how families are structured, citizenship and rights, police brutality, environmental destruction, the human life span, what we eat. Occupy Wall Street has left open a space for us all to feel we are a part of the movement. If the demands were already set many of us might feel outside - that there wasn’t a place for us, that we couldn’t dream about our issue, that we had to stay “on message.” Our fightbacks are so often balkanized and diffuse. Occupy Wall Street feels exciting in part because it doesn’t force us to choose, to prioritize. We have a few weeks when we don’t have to reduce our dreams to a slogan on a flyer. Where else do we get to chant “We are all Sean Bell,” “Tax the rich,” “End foreclosure,” “Democracy now!” and “We got sold out, Banks got bailed out” all in the same afternoon?


In the meantime, we push the organizations we belong to clarify and step up their demands. Just about all of them tie into the spirit of OWS, and there is no reason why we can’t continue to push in those arenas where we all work on a regular basis. OWS allows us to be more bold and militant in our demands that we are already working on, whether that is student loan forgiveness, a millionaire’s tax, single payer health care, ending the wars, ending the death penality, expanding immigrant rights and protecting the rights of workers to organize.

True: we don’t have real forces pushing for greater change: public ownership and democratic accountability of the Federal Reserve; federal jobs programs to hire more teachers and health care workers; repeal of NAFTA and other trade agreements; and serious reforms to the political system. We need those. Hopefully Occupy Wall Street will finally create some political space to grow the organizations required to build the real alternatives.

Slight Correction

I agree with all of the commentators about the importance of OWS-- although I tend to think that clear demands are crucial if the movement is to survive and grow. However, the veterans of Bloombergville and NYers Against Budget Cuts (NYABC) are NOT in the leadership of OWS. While some did attend some of the planning meetings, they did not provide leadership. In fact, many of the B-ville and NYABC folks-- especially those in organizations (Solidarity, ISO, Organization for A Free Society) have been frustrated with the General Assembly, where consensus has allowed small minorities to block decisions supported by large majorities. Instead, they have focussed their energy on the Labor-Community Outreach Committee, which bears a great deal of responsibility for winning TWU 100's support-- and with it many of the other major NYC unions-- for OWS. The unions' involvement has played a big role in giving a clear, left-wing political direction and demands (tax the rich, etc.) to OWS-- marginalizing the right-wing populists (Ron Paul supporters, LaRouchites, etc) who were present at the beginning of OWS.

The limits of consensus

Column: Paul D'Amato [1]

The limits of consensus

The consensus model of decision-making comes from good motives, but can hamper a struggle. This article was first published in 2000 during the global justice movement.

October 10, 2011

WHEN TRYING to come to a decision--whether it is a trade union meeting or a group of student activists organizing against sweatshops--participants naturally are happiest when everyone ends up on the same page.

In other words, consensus is always a preferable outcome to a group trying to make a real decision about something than being divided. And often consensus is the result after a thorough discussion, because the group already has some level of basic agreement over goals.

But hoping for general agreement after a thorough discussion is very different from requiring it to move forward.

Consensus with a capital "C" is a method of operation that requires everyone to agree before a decision can be made. It is a practice that has a long history in the United States, and is often associated with the Quakers.

Though its popularity reached its zenith in the 1980s, its use has become widespread among green activists, many anarchist groupings, and some student activist in various campuses. It was the method of decision-making used among many of the activists who went to Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization.

Though consensus comes from the best motives--a desire that everyone agree--it is inferior in practice as a method of operation to democratic majority rule.

In many cases, consensus is put forward consciously as an alternative to democracy, which is characterized as "the majority wielding power over the minority," to quote one defense of consensus.

What is not usually acknowledged is that consensus, by denying majority rule, offers in practice its opposite--minority rule.

A description of how consensus works will make this clear. To quote the same defense of consensus cited earlier: If individuals "have STRONG objections to a proposal...they can block the proposal...The block gives each individual ultimate power to influence decisions that affect him/her."

Any individual or group of individuals can hold up the decision-making process indefinitely. That is rule of the minority, sometimes a minority of one.

This method of operation--as any participant in the meetings in Seattle to plan the November 30 action will attest--produces meetings that last a very long time, sometimes six hours and more.

Three results are possible: either the individuals who are "holding up" the meeting feel compelled to give in just so a decision can be made; the group splits up into smaller groups who "do their own thing"; or a soft compromise is reached to try and hold it all together.

The idea behind consensus is that no one should be compelled to do what they do not want to do. But what is consensus if not a compulsion to agree?

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THE OTHER defense of consensus is that with it there are "no leaders, no followers." But all struggles produce leaders--people that others look to because of their experience and ideas to move the struggle forward.

The question is--what kind of leadership will develop? One that is democratically and publicly accountable, or one that is undemocratic, unnacountable and behind the scenes?

Consensus ensures--by driving out most ordinary people who can't afford to stay in endless meetings, and by refusing to vote for and hold accountable formal leadership--that some kind of informal leadership will make many of the decisions.

Consensus historically has never been the mode of operation in workers' organizations, and the reasons should by now be clear.

Workers depend on their success in fighting for their rights against employers that they wield power as a collective. If consensus were used to debate whether or not to strike, most strikes would never get off the ground. And a union certainly could not tolerate a situation where a minority of workers who opposed a strike were permitted to "do their own thing" to defeat it.

Democracy is a superior method of organizing in struggle. Democracy encourages the fullest debate and discussion, followed by a prompt majority decision and action. The minority is not compelled to change views, but merely to abide by the majority's decision.

Once the decision is implemented, its success or failure can then be opened up for renewed discussion. After such a debate, the majority might decide that the minority was right after all!

By this method of operation, participants in the struggle learn from that struggle and by their own decisions and actions how best to move the struggle forward. By adopting, in most cases, a compromise, consensus prevents such sharp assessments from ever taking place.

Where democracy encourages open and sharp, clarifying debate, consensus tends to minimize debate and differences in order not to upset the possibility of consensus being reached.

That is why in virtually any mass struggle--whether it be the Flint sit-down strikes of 1937 or the French strike wave in 1995--workers have instinctively organized their struggle on a democratic basis.

Once you accept that complete unananimity is the exception rather than the rule, then you must also accept that decisions will be made either by the majority (democracy) or the minority. Consensus, in permitting a minority even of one to prevent a decision supported by the rest, is based in the final analysis on the rule of a small minority.

This article was first published in the April 2000 issue of Socialist Worker.

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Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [4].

On #OWS, Co-optation, and the growth phases of social movements

Here's the thing: our messaging, our strategy, and our tactics must change based on the external landscape. When we become embraced by the Democratic Party and its allies, we must go further than what makes them comfortable. That's if we want to win more than concessions and easy reforms (that currently exist within the realm of possibility), and achieve game-changing substantive/structural reforms (that currently live in the realm of impossibility, that we didn't imagine we ever could see in our lifetimes).

We should aim for nothing less -- why aim for closing up shop soon when we have no idea what we're capable

Phase 1 = vanguard moves in, initiates occupation, largely dismissed, but staying power piques curiosity, and police misconduct/violence draws attention and wins sympathy.

Phase 2 = vanguards in other cities recognize potential, initiate occupations. At the same time, initial occupation gathers steam, grows, large membership orgs endorse and give legitimacy that wasn't present before, now the mainstream media start to change tune. Focus of coverage is human interest story of life in the park; and what do they want?

Phase 3 = mainstream media interest explodes, NGOs, labor, community, and establishment orgs engage supporters, connect existing campaigns to #occupy frame, amplify visibility and suggestion of social movement. Democratic leadership embrace movement, as do party-related and electorally focused orgs. Media coverage attributes power to movement, queries whether it's a Tea Party for the left, whether it will gain electoral power and legislative victories.

Phase 4 = ?

We currently find ourselves in Phase 3. Senior members of the White House administration, and the President himself, have expressed support for OWS. Democracy for America, a Howard Dean initiated group just sent an email blast to more than a million members tonight selling yard signs that say "We Are the 99%" with co-branded urls: and OWS is embraced by the establishment as a means to amplify existing agendae.

Bloomberg gives tacit "permission" for our occupation, effectively rendering it non-threatening and normalizing it. Result is rise in media coverage of occupation as nuisance to neighbors.

This is a natural and necessary phase. So now what?

We're in this for the long haul. There are no "solutions" that can be presented quickly to make us go away. And so there will be moments where our presence is no longer an uncomfortable and unknown variable, but rather is normalized and integrated. It's in those moments that we have to push the envelop, pry open the space of possibility even farther. We go as far as we can to destabalize, but maintain momentum. And when that's the new "normal" then we go farther. That's how change happens, how we shift the terrain and the terms of the game.

From an actions perspective, that means getting tactical, and mobile, activating the rest of the city, executing higher-risk actions, civil disobedience and arrests.

From a media perspective, we have to get ahead of the game. We no longer need to legitimize. Or articulate the problem. Both are clearly established. So, given this new moment how can we use media strategically?

We must draw a line, disavow the Democrats explicitly, make our messaging a little uncomfortable. Yes, perhaps, split the support, lest we not be co-opted. This will be painful, internally, as it won't always achieve comfortable consensus. But to hold this space and expand the realm of possibility, we have to go farther than others are ready to go. It's how this started and we can't be too shy to be bold.

-Beka Economopoulos

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