With no visible leaders, without traditional "demands" and with a consensus-driven decision-making process in which everyone who can sit through a General Assembly has an equal voice, #Occupy Wall Street has succeeded where no other progressive-leaning movement in recent years has succeeded in building a mass movement that has changed the political dialogue in America from one about deficits to one about jobs, economic inequality, and Wall Street malfeasance.
That's no small feat. And the occupiers who have insisted on maintaining their participatory democratic form deserve plenty of props for accomplishing what more traditional progressive organizations like trade unions, MoveOn, and progressive Democrats have been unable to accomplish. In fact, the protests' open-source, participatory, horizontal structure may be one key to its early success, and the ease with which it has been replicated in city after city around the country and the world.
That said, it's time to ask whether the organizational forms and tactics which birthed the #Occupy mass protests are adequate to building a long-term movement which can change the country and the world.
Is it sufficient for the #Occupy Movement to concentrate indefinitely on democratic process and community-building among protestors or at some point, does the movement need to move beyond process and engage with more traditional forms of politics?
As someone who has participated in protest movements since I met Martin Luther King when I was 10 years old, and as someone who is also a student of protest movements both in my lifetime and throughout history, I fall into the latter camp. I believe that, in order to bring meaningful social change and greater economic justice, the #Occupy Movement, and/or offshoots which it inspires, can't solely remain in alternative communities which it creates in occupied public spaces, but must engage in the rough and tumble of politics.
That includes supporting, opposing, and even running political candidates who support the goals of the 99% movement from town council to the highest offices in the land; advocating for specific programs which fundamentally alter the economic and financial system; amending the constitution or changing the Supreme Court to take money out of politics; and pressuring office holders (including through non-violent civil disobedience) to enact fundamental reforms, much as the labor movement pressured FDR to enact the New Deal, the civil rights movement pressured LBJ to enact the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid, the environmental movement even pressured Nixon to enact the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the gay rights movement has pressured Andrew Cuomo to support gay marriage and Barack Obama to repeal "don't ask don't tell."
What we once called "the long march through the institutions" won't be quick or easy and there will be many setbacks along the way. The effort may even fail. But there's no choice if we want to change the country and the world. The only alternative to political engagement is to retreat into utopian communities (like some of the '60s generation who "dropped out"), or worse yet, give up on non-violence as hopeless and engage in symbolic acts of violence (such as a few in the '60s like the Weathermen or a some black liberationists did), both of which have always been dead ends.
But the conversation between old-line libertarians and first time protestors who are enamored with the participatory democracy of the General Assemblies, on the one hand, and long-time political progressives and activists who hope to build a political movement, on the other hand, on how to best move forward from #Occupy Wall Street, must be respectful, and include the best thinking of both tendencies.
So first let's give the libertarian argument its best defense. One of its best articulations is a recent blog by anarcho-anthropologist David Graeber who was present at the very beginning of #Occupy Wall Street. He tells an Origins story of #Occupy Wall Street in which a group of activists he describes as "horizontals -- people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action" split off from a demonstration originally organized by what he somewhat disdainfully calls "verticals -- that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement."
According to Graeber, a group made up mostly of such "horizontals" began to meet regularly in the weeks leading up the September 17 date called by the online magazine Adbusters for the start of #Occupy Wall Street. In a stroke of genius, they adopted the phrase "We are the 99%" to define the movement.
"We quickly decided that what we really wanted to do was something like had already been accomplished in Athens, Barcelona, or Madrid: occupy a public space to create a New York General Assembly, a body that could as as a model of genuine, direct democracy to contrapose to the corrupt charade presented to us as 'democracy' by the U.S. Government."
So when 2,000 people showed up on September 17, the General Assembly -- in which decisions are made by consensus -- became the organizing principal of #Occupy Wall Street. And when the #Occupy Movement spread to cities around the country, the General Assembly form seemed to spread with it.
And there was a certain scalable genius to the process. To start an #Occupy Movement in your town, you don't have to take the time to form a coalition of community groups and unions, meet in church basements to formulate demands, negotiate with the police for permits, put out leaflets, etc. You just have to pick a public place to occupy, put out a call on the internet, see who shows up, start your own General Assembly, and watch it grow.
And the result has been quite miraculous: #Occupy movements sprouting up in something like 800 locales. The media suddenly started paying attention. Politicians altered their rhetoric. The political conversation throughout the country changed from one about deficits to one about jobs and Wall Street greed.
And if that were the end of it, it would still make a great story. But the real question now is where does this all go from here?
The horizontals, many of whom describe themselves as small "a" anarchists, see the occupations and their consensus-driven structures as a kind of end in itself -- rather than a means to bringing reform, even radical reform, to the economic and political system. Here's how Graeber puts it, describing the occupations as
"a refusal to work with or through the government or other institutions which ultimately rely on the threat of force, and a dedication to horizontal democracy... It is almost impossible to convince the average American that a truly democratic society would be possible. One can only show them. But the experience of actually watching a group of a thousand, or two thousand people making collective decisions without a leadership structure, let alone that of thousands of people in the streets linking arms to holding their ground against a phalanx of armored riot cops, motivated only by principle and solidarity, can change one's most fundamental assumptions about what politics, or for that matter human life, could actually be like... If Occupy Wall Street has spread to every city in America, it's because our financial overlords have brought us to such a pass that anarchists, pagan priestesses, and tree-sitters are about the only Americans holding out the idea that a genuinely democratic society might be possible."
As well as Graeber articulates the "horizontal" libertarian perspective, in my view it's extraordinarily naïve and utopian. The horizontal tactics have worked well to rapidly spread a movement expressing the frustration of millions of Americans about economic inequality and the domination of politics by big money. It's helped create the political space to think and act to change society for the better.
But that's only the first step in the process of changing the country into one that's more equal and more democratic. Most of the 99% who need to earn a decent living, have a decent place to live, educate their families, and keep alive the hope that their children will have a better life than they did, cannot permanently move into tent cities where they spend their days and nights in endless meetings coming to consensus on everything from the goals of the movement to how to survive a winter sleeping outdoors in makeshift dwellings.
The movement spawned by the Occupations needs to begin considering the next steps. And that means looking at politics, both protest politics and electoral politics.
As former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, one of the few prominent Democrats who seems to instinctively "get" the #Occupy Movement tells one occupier:
"In order to turn this into something other than a visceral cry of despair, you need to figure out how to confront the actual problems and issues. You need to think about all of this more rigorously. If you're down in Zuccotti Park six months from now, having made it through a cold winter, I'm not sure whether you would deem that success. Trust me, the media won't be paying as much attention six months from now if it's just the same couple hundred people, right? I've been defending these protests and being supportive and saying that this is great. But saying all those things doesn't preclude you from recognizing that, just as with a chess game, there's got to be a next move... Think about the civil rights movement, the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, the labor movement, the women's rights movement, any of the social movements of the last hundred years... Look, I'm not a historian. But if you're going to understand how social change happens, I think those movements are where you have to look, those times when the levers of political power and economic power converge around shared values."
Bill Moyers -- who knows as much about the history of popular movements as just about anyone in America -- recently put it this way:
"Discouragement comes easily. But if the generations before us had given up, slaves would still be waiting on their masters, women would still be turned away from the voting booths on election day and workers would still be committing a crime if they organized.
So take heart from the past, and don't ever count the people out. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution created extraordinary wealth at the top and excruciating misery at the bottom. Embattled citizens rose up. Into their hearts, wrote the progressive Kansas journalist William Allen White, 'had come a sense that their civilization needed recasting, that their government had fallen into the hands of self-seekers, that a new relation should be established between the haves and have-nots.' Not content to wring their hands and cry 'Woe is us,' everyday citizens researched the issues, organized to educate their neighbors, held rallies, made speeches, petitioned and canvassed, marched and marched again. They plowed the fields and planted the seeds -- sometimes on bloody ground -- that twentieth-century leaders used to restore 'the general welfare' as a pillar of American democracy. They laid down the now-endangered markers of a civilized society: legally ordained minimum wages, child labor laws, workers' safety and compensation laws, pure foods and safe drugs, Social Security, Medicare and rules that promote competitive markets over monopolies and cartels."
If we consider the history of popular movements that made American society better, the inescapable conclusion is that the #Occupy movement is a beginning, but not an end.
As Bill Moyers puts it, everyday citizens have to research the issues, organize to educate their neighbors, hold rallies, make speeches, petition and canvass, march and march again. The movement needs to engage in the "long-march through the institutions." In other words, it needs to engage in the grubby, time-consuming work of politics, both of the protest and electoral kind.
That includes working to elect representatives like Elizabeth Warren and others who stand with the interests of the 99%. It includes further occupations, marches and demonstrations to hold representatives accountable like the "Occupy the Treasury" demonstration led by the nurses union to call for a financial transactions tax to curb the power of Wall Street, discourage risky high-speed trading, and fund healthcare and education. It includes direct action like moving people's money from big banks to credit unions and community banks. It includes drawing on the best minds like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich to formulate and agitate for other proposals to end crony capitalism like breaking up the big banks; re-instituting Glass-Steagall to prevent federally insured banks from gambling in the global financial casino; raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires; putting Americans to work re-building our infrastructure, etc., etc., etc. And if it's impossible to achieve many of these goals because of the domination of money in politics, it means changing the Constitution, whether through Amendment or through replacing one corporate Supreme Court Justice with one who believes that money isn't the same as speech and corporations aren't the same as natural persons.
If this evolution into a political movement designed for the long-haul does not begin, the #Occupy Movement will not, as Graeber argues, morph into a utopian alternative to the American government. More likely, it will fade away and be an interesting footnote to history.
None of this will be easy or quick. But Americans have done it in the past when through mass movements, they helped institute the reforms of the progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. If the #Occupy movement looks both to the past for lessons in movement-creation, and to the future in building on the Occupations to create a long-term political movement to represent the interests of the 99% against the oligarchs, I remain hopeful that it can be done again.
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