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.
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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 wife
And you may ask yourself,
Well…How did I get here?!
>> 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.
And I will leave it there.
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.
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.