Friday, October 28, 2011

OWS vs. the Octopus: On Making a Demand

Guest post by Ruth Jennison and Jordana Rosenberg

The biggest and broadest social movement we have seen in this country since the anti-Vietnam war protests has begun.  The anti-capitalist revolts in Seattle, the movements to establish and defend the rights of the undocumented in Arizona, the defense of organizing rights in Wisconsin, the robust and indignant response to the murder of unarmed black men by the Oakland Police Department have prepared the way, nationally, for this moment.  Internationally, the revolutions in the Middle East have raised the flag of full transformation.  These are our waypoints, our history, our archive of how we got here.  

The question we have asked ourselves, for so long now, has been: how far can they push us before something breaks?

Something has broken.  And re-formed.  And billowed – radiant and heterogeneous – into existence. 

In the face of barrages of moralizing media campaigns that told us that overspending on our credit cards and living “outside our means” was the reason for the recession, we now have the blossoming of an entirely more accurate alternative narrative.  Since at least the 1970s, the financialization of our economy has coincided with an unprecedented transfer of wealth from working people to the 1%.    There has been a near absolute reversal of the gains won by working class militancy in the 1930s, as well as a gutting of the gains won for people of color in the long civil rights era.  Such reversals at the level of finance and policy have been put in place through a steroidal injection of resources into the prison system, the police forces and wars: the repressive apparati of finance capital.

Even as veterans of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, nothing could have prepared us for the scope of what we have seen and participated in on the streets of New York.  Everything you have read about the tremendous energy generated by Zuccotti Park is true.  We have seen and love: transit workers shoulder to shoulder with tweens coming to social consciousness; street corner debates at the edges of Zuccotti that last so long the children fall asleep at the feet of their parents; when the food committee crosses the city to bring pizza to your working group, and your voice remembers it has a body that needs to eat; when the National Nurses United sets up voluntary shift rotations that make it feel just a little bit easier for the differently-abled to stick around, march, and wheel; when the human mic shouts “Free Mumia,” and it rings, in waves several times over, through One Police Plaza.

Zuccotti has given us a taste of what we want.  Even the briefest breath of the air outside of full alienation feels like enough to strengthen us for the fight ahead.  No-one wants this moment – so hard won – to end.  But there is a temptation to say that the occupation itself is the revolutionary movement.  Such a perspective partakes of some mixture of the long tradition of utopian communitarian social movements, a defanged lifestyle politics – whose injunction to “be” the change you want to see in the world has at times substituted for collective action – and the simple fact that the de-alienating atmosphere of this moment just feels really good.  

And this same utopian whiff of de-alienation produces the sheer optimism that re-opens a historically healthy and crucial question for any social movement: the question of what we want.  We have seen that there are diverse elements, in many working groups, that want to demand something in excess of the occupation itself.[1] These elements have not congealed, in any way, around a single set of demands. They are passionately interested in discussing the concerns of other groups, and constituencies, and communities.  In the remainder of this piece, we argue not for a specific set of demands, but wish to address concerns about the raising of demands in general.

Those elements beginning discussions about demands do face some some steep questions from the rest of the movement.   For the sake of clarity we have broken these questions down roughly into 3.

1)     What is the Occupy movement? 

Is it a clearinghouse – a hub? the center of a constellation? a member of the constellation? – by which other groups are inspired and to which other groups might bring their demands for solidarity?  We have seen this structure functioning quite well in rallies with Verizon workers, the anti-police brutality and anti-Stop-and-Frisk demonstrations, the foreclosure auctions, and so on.  There has been nothing – not even Zuccotti itself – that has been more inspiring than these actions.[2]  But, after the raid on Occupy Oakland last night, the terms of both solidarity and of demands have intensified.  Almost immediately, there was a call for the removal of mayor Quan from office.  This demand resonated nationwide not as a divisive or premature silencing of debate, but as a cohering of the movement around necessary next steps.  Today, the Oakland GA voted to call a General Strike for November 2nd. What solidarity actions should we take in New York?  Nationwide?  How does Oakland’s sharpening of demands affect the Occupy movements around the country?  It seems that, to even survive as a hub (much less to morph into an anti-capitalist movement that is able to truly challenge the State’s violent protection of the interests of the 1%) we may need to make some demands.

2) To whom do we make these demands? 

Wall Street, or. . .the State? We cannot make demands of Wall Street.  Wall Street, while it has taken on properly golemish proportions in the OWS movement, is not a coherent entity.  It is tentacular.  A blind and deaf octopus.  Here, we might draw on the wisdom of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Panthers, the sit-down strikes and the unemployed workers’ movements of the 1930s.  All of these movements had a double vision, an ability to produce syncretic understandings of the way that the State and capital work together to ensure the status quo.  The Panthers provide us with a particularly strong model: holding community-building in a tense and mutually constitutive dialectic with demands for the full restoration of what has been stolen, denied, or hidden from view. The vitality of such a perspective finds an echo in the strength, within OWS, of the solidarity actions against police brutality.  It is not coincidental or simply reactive that we have mobilized so strongly against police brutality.  It is not only because we have been pepper sprayed, tear gassed, and targeted with rubber bullets, that our largest, loudest, and most passionate marches have cried out against the violence of the State.  It is because we realize, in these moments of extreme violence, that when we speak out against capital, it is the State that answers.  It is the State that protects the interests of the 1% – the State that arms itself and brings itself down upon us, in the form of arrests, pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets.   

3)Another question that has been percolating in the movement is: what happens   if you hazard a demand and lose it?   

This is an understandable concern. For those of us too young to have participated in the fire last time, we have needed to read about vibrant cultures of resistance and victories in peoples’ history books, and in our archives.  If many people are being radicalized now, or given a sense of political community and possibility for the first time, there is a hesitation to hazard a demand and lose it.  Moreover, OWS is a loose constituency of many groups with many differing demands.  Within it, there may be concerns about marginization by the movement itself.   Many of our comrades of color might look with suspicion at a historical record scarred by the watering down and sidelining of crucial demands by white progressives and liberals.  But, if we want to evolve from a sheerly populist movement to an anti-capitalist movement with teeth, we need to have these debates.  We need to synthesize and motivate around the needs and wants of our constituents.  In the understandably protective feelings that people have about the occupation, some are expressing fears that demands will divide us.  But, if “divide” means that we lose the democratic opportunists and the Ron Paul supporters, maybe we should see it as less of a division, and more of a clarification of ourselves as principled anti-capitalists.  Furthermore, demands have an inimitable power to further conversation and debate that ripples far beyond us.  It is the fabric through which people discuss their relationship to OWS, and through which people who can’t occupy that particular space – for reasons of geography, health status, job, and so on – can take the debates to their communities.

And, if we don’t win a demand?  Demands function in many ways.  They exfoliate discussion, they clarify our objectives, they extend the optimism and vision of the occupation to real-life contexts.  The forging of the demand is itself a laboratory for the revolutionary process.  It necessarily entails and encourages a living dynamic between ourselves as the movement and those not yet in the movement.[3]

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.


[1] In terms of this question, we speak of our experience of New York alone.  
[2] Erika Marquez, "The Zucotti/Liberty Park occupation seems to be, indeed, a symbolic (and, sure, material) interpellation to the monopolistic, speculative real state/space control in the city. Yet, this temporary space seizure must give place, as it is occurring right now, to decentralizing the occupation. To barrio GAs, to school occupations, to one-night occupations, to occupying airwaves." Notes from an Occupied New York City, After October 14," in Lana Turner Journal http://www.lanaturnerjournal.com/general/occupywallstreetkaplanwinslowmarquez.html
[3] Vijay Prashad’s conception of a succession of demands/victories  as a way to nourish the “radical imagination,” is particularly germane here.  http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/10/06/zombie-capitalism-and-the-post-obama-left/