Mind the Gap


Between the sentiment at the Occupy encampments and the liberal wing of the Democratic establishment lies a moat unbridgeable even by the tallest trees. Between Occupy and the Republicans lies a universe.

What seems reasonable to the Democratic leadership in Washington and to their far-flung minions in the districts is a tepid negotiation with finance capital. The corridors of the White House might as well be renamed Wall Street: apart from the Banks’ errand-boy Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, there is the Chief of Staff, Bill Daley (previously on J. P. Morgan Chase’s Executive Committee where he was in charge of Corporate Responsibility) and there is newly hired Senior Campaign Advisor Broderick Johnson (recently lobbyist for Bank of America, Fannie Mae, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Keystone XL). These are the scum of Wall Street and Washington, emblems of the pay-to-play system and of Financial Power. To them, the Occupy movement is an irritant, and a potential liability come election time.

President Obama came into office on the shoulders of a robust liberalism that took him as its delegate and hoped that he would enact its agenda. But much of that program was just dirt off Obama’s shoulders. If there were one political gesture that might have held fast to those commitments and helped build the confidence of the people it would have been the Employee Free Choice Act. Currently only 6.9 percent of workers in the private sectors are in unions. If more workers were unionized, and if unions continued to be touched by the social movements that gather around them for a wide range of social issues along the fault lines of gender, sexuality, and race, then the continent of the Left would be infinitely stronger. But Obama’s support for even this modest gesture was not to be. The President walked away from the Act and has put no political capital behind it.

The Occupy movement is quite right to prevent incorporation by the Democratic establishment on terms that would be odious. It wants for something much grander, which is a complete overhaul of the system. The feel at the encampments is similar to that in France’s 1968: réforme mon cul, reform, my ass. The ensemble of the present has to be thrust into the air, spun around, expunged of its toxins and then reassembled in practice as justice incarnate. It is exhilarating to be around such sentiments that are totally fed up with reality, and have already grasped the future in jolts in the general assemblies and in the joy of social interaction.

Mind the gap. Avoid the corruptions of Reality.

But then one has to walk the plank into the present. There is a way to do that without being mesmerized into Ordinary Politics. I recommend the following tonic:

  • Down With the Three Capitalist Ministers. It is right for the Occupy movement to call for the unconditional surrender of the delegates of the Bankers from the White House. Geither must go, but so too Daley and Johnson. That’s a start. It is a minimum demand. If we think of others among them, let’s list them. They must all go.
  • Up with the Delegates of the People. It is right for the Occupy movement to call for the election of those among us who have demonstrated their commitment to the broad ideals of the 99%ers. I have in mind people like Cheri Honkala, running for the Sheriff of Philadelphia, Amaad Rivera, running for City-Councilor-at-large in Springfield (MA), Luis Cotto, running for City Council in Hartford, Bill Dwight, running for City-Councilor-at-large in Northampton (MA) – fearless people who we need to stuff into the bureaucracy so that they can put forward the kind of creative endeavors to further the people’s approach. For example, Amaad Rivera is the legislative arm of the No One Leaves Coalition, which has created mayhem for the banks as they try to maintain Springfield’s place as the city with the highest number of foreclosures in New England. We need to have such delegates in positions of authority to carve out space for the political movements such as Occupy and No One Leaves, and to throw the contradictions of the system (its values against its reality) in the face of the 1%. The movement must harness electoral politics as its adjutant, to use when necessary and in homeopathic doses.
  • Celebrate the Multiplying Social Body. One of the great occasions of the Occupy movement has been its lack of narrow demands. This has allowed the million grievances of the various fragments of our social reality to be aired and to make them present. Nothing has been purposely left outside the movement. The door is open. There are some who under cover of what Jo Freeman called the “tyranny of structurelessness” try to hijack the movement; but they will be unmasked for their arrogance. There is too much popular expectation to allow things to go backstage. If we demand that sexual violence and police brutality be at the forefront, as important demands as bankers’ compensation, then it should be so. It is because there are a million grievances that the millions feel that this is our movement.

The debate around demands bewilders. As Ruth Jennison and Jordana Rosenberg put it at Lenin’s Tomb, “What, after all, is a demand? That we liberate New York, or Oakland, or Cleveland from the grips of financiers? That we must have returned what was stolen from us and given to the banks and to the 1%? That we deserve to live a life free of police repression and violence?  That we want an end to imperialist projects and wars, and the restoration of social services and education? If any of our hesitation to demand comes from a fear of losing, let’s look around us and see how strong we are. For the first time in a lifetime.” After the remarkable General Strike in Oakland, that strength is now before us. It is true that struggles like these do not follow a text-book, and that it is in the fight that we learn how to fight, as Rosa Luxemburg put it a century ago. And it is also the true that in the heat of these struggles, slogans emerge that germinate programs and agendas. It is time for us to agglomerate these and throw them in the face of Order.

To move from celebration of our strength to the creation of a sharp political instrument is tricky and it must be done with care, and with patience. Of course we shall need concrete demands, and of course we will need to build a political carapace around the energy of the Occupy movement. These things shall come.

The Future only contains what we put into it now.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

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