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In mere weeks Occupy Wall Street has challenged prevailing perceptions of the U.S. left, the status quo, and the relationship between the two. Overcoming the police suppression and media blackout of its vulnerable beginnings, OWS has absorbed energy and tactics from the Middle East and caromed them across the United States. While many people initially wondered when the NYPD would crush the movement, the discussion now involves, regardless of what happens at Liberty Plaza, what will be occupied next.
In contrast to the union- and party-dominated protests earlier this year in Wisconsin, OWS has achieved dynamism and staying power specifically by excluding itself from the institutional politics of the state and the Democrats. Following the meaningless victory of “hope” and “change,” protestors’ message has perforce been forcible occupation.
It’s then disappointingly ironic that many segments of the movement agree with the liberal establishment that protestors ought to propose specific reforms. For on one hand, people have been holding Liberty Plaza because their hopeless rejection of the system has paradoxically led to the liberating understanding that we can take control of our lives, not because people yearn to regulate financial transactions. On the other hand, Bill Clinton wants to hear the occupiers’ demands not merely because the Democrats would like to appropriate the protests, but because demands are guaranteed to do nothing other than re-legitimize the institutions that are in position to grant them, the same institutions that are responsible for helping to produce the problems being protested in the first place.
Thankfully, protestors’ demands have not congealed, as the form of forcible occupation and consensus-based organization is vastly more radical than the political content presently being articulated in Liberty Plaza. One conspicuous sign in fact demands the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, and signs requesting “student loan forgiveness” similarly reproduce a dependence on the state that belies the movement’s faith in direct action. If Vietnam War protestors can burn their draft cards, what’s to stop people from collectively walking away from their debts?
Through an apparent combination of sincere beliefs and tactical concerns, the majority of protestors I’ve encountered condemn not capitalism per se but “corporatist-capitalism,” “unregulated-capitalism,” or “corrupt-capitalism.” These qualifiers partly reflect the sizable presence of libertarians in the park, whose hatred of the Federal Reserve reflects their desire for the good old days of capitalism, notwithstanding slavery and the mass industrial and state violence of the late 1800s. Qualified capitalism’s liberal critics, however, merely seek to return to the 1970s or at earliest the 1950s. Of course, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and other reformists are unable to explain why the regulations and taxes of Keynesianism were overcome by capitalism’s inexorable need for growth in the first place. Slavoj Žižek’s observation that the real dreamers are the ones who think that the status quo can sustain itself has been countered by “realistic” liberals who amputate history and causality by seeking to fix the present by returning to the past, environmental ruination, labor exploitation, and imperialism be damned.
Demonstrating an even greater incongruence between the radical form of occupation and its conventional politics is the ever-present demand for “jobs” (cogently critiqued here), which obfuscates that our lack of work is not so egregious a problem as our need, in a society of mass abundance, for work in the first place. Work in capitalism, inherently insecure, stultifying, and onerous, is not created to meet people’s needs – as evidenced by workers’ sleep deprivation, anxiety, and the fact that workers cannot even retire after a lifetime of toil without the assistance of Social Security and other subsidies – but to produce profit for work’s creators. If protestors truly want jobs, they can offer to work for lower wages, which is exactly what union leaders have been agreeing to for years. But protestors of course mean that they want well-paying jobs. But if jobs’ ongoing lack of profitability precludes employers from creating more work, then where are these higher wages supposed to come from? Are employers expected to simply give their money to workers and thereby ignore the entire purpose of capitalism? And does the refusal to forfeit their wealth in this manner make employers “greedy,” or does it merely make them rational economic actors in a competitive economic system whose reason for being is profit? Liberals defend capitalism while simultaneously condemning capitalists for being capitalistic.
On a more practical note, reform, if that is what is myopically desired, has not been historically won through mere demand or entreaty, but through bargaining leverage that resulted from the threat of revolution. FDR instituted the New Deal not out of magnanimous caprice but to ward off communism, telling recalcitrant businessmen, ‘“I was convinced we’d have a revolution… and I decided to be its leader and prevent it…. I decided half a loaf was better than none – a half loaf for me and a half loaf for you and no revolution.’” Similarly, Martin Luther King exploited the threat of militant Black Nationalism to force the racist Montgomery Chamber of Commerce to desegregate. Current demands for reform ignore the elementary bargaining tactic of demanding a lot in order to gain a little. In refusing to present their demands as threats and in only asking for a little, advocates of reform are likely to gain even less.
While some worry that without demands OWS will dissipate, the movement might dissipate no matter what. Yet, the logic of the movement’s form, its occupation of physical space and its leaderless, consensus-based rejection of establishment institutions, invests it with great potential power. If this movement migrates to the arenas of our everyday lives – our apartment buildings, workplaces, and schools – it can become transformative. For it to endure, however, it will have to attain a clearer grasp of the system that it is contesting.
Joshua Sperber lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at email@example.com