The holidays are an inherently atavistic affair: we huddle someplace warm, eat meat, and then start fights with one another. This Thanksgiving, my own family's fight was about Occupy Wall Street. I found myself uncomfortably knighted as the resident conservative, and lambasted by my sisters and uncle for failing to mount a full-throated defense of Occupy Wall Street and the New York General Assembly. In my defense, I sympathize completely with the movement to the degree that I can discern their goals (more on that below), but I find myself continually frustrated by the movement itself.
With that in mind, here is my holiday wish list for four things I would like to see from Occupy Wall Street:
1) A coherent platform
Yes, I understand that part of the power of the movement derives from a feeling of inclusiveness. Yes, I understand that some people will feel alienated by specific policy prescriptions. The fact remains that if you want to change public policy, you need some coherent notion of what your goal is. It's not enough to say -- a near mantra in terms of the people I've asked this of -- most of us believe 'X.' Politics is about advocating for your positions effectively. You can't do that until you have declared them.
2) An understanding that the society of the movement is different from its political aspirations
Pete Seeger famously observed that whenever you have people gathering together, you are creating a political movement. It's a good point. The very act of a high-school dance advocates a set of shared beliefs: freedom of consent to dance with who you choose; a belief that young people ought to be supervised in their interactions; maybe a common agreement that meat-based hors de oeuvres are acceptable to snack on.
The problem for a movement comes when the style of its gathering begins to overshadow the substance of its grievances. Nixon could refer back to his 'silent majority' in part because Americans could conflate the very reasonable political demands of the anti-Vietnam protestors with the far-less palatable emphasis of the movement on drug use (in the case of Timothy Leary), violence (in the case of the Weather Underground), and free love (honestly, this may have been one worth fighting for).
To their credit, OWS has managed to largely avoid this so far. And our society has come a long way since the days when long hair was a political statement. But -- and I refer back to point one here -- when your agenda is fuzzy, yelling 'suits' at passing bank employees or fracturing internally over drum-circle hours alienates people who would otherwise agree with you.
If the process is the movement, then I'm staying out of the movement. I don't think I'm alone here. I have listened to monologues about the miraculous possibilities of technology when it comes to consensus-based direct democracy. I realize that social networking has created possibilities for group decision making that have never existed before. I realize that the future holds open myriad new technologies that may eventually translate into some sublime new method of political interaction. For the moment, though, the singularity has not arrived. People are still dealing with people. The easiest way to see this is to watch any given session of the general assembly. As Matthias Schwartz potently pointed out in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, operating by consensus gives the most power to the most vocal individuals and can make it impossible to move rapidly when you need an immediate decision.
Mayor Bloomberg tried to negotiate the continued occupation of Zuccotti park and OWS's inability to produce anyone with the authority to negotiate gave Bloomberg the political cover to vacate the park. That didn't need to happen.
Admittedly, consensus-based decision making has served Occupy Wall Street so far. And offering a voice to anyone who shows up is a marvelous way to bring people in to the movement. But if you are truly trying to represent the 99%, then at some point a portion of those 99% will show up who want to hijack your agenda. The easiest way to prevent those people from derailing the movement is to agree on some leaders who can speak for you.
4) Become more politically active
Matt Taibbi argued that OWS is objecting to a sickness within our political system. The movement, he believes, is "about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything." This may be true, but the best hope the protestors have to effect lasting change is to become involved in the upcoming elections in a politically savvy way.
Sitting in public parks and shutting down ports are fine ways to get media coverage, but if voters don't come out to support your cause in November, the slow creep of anti-populist legislation is going to continue unabated.
President Obama overturned an FDA decision on the morning-after pill last week. The first time in history that a president has done so. He likely asked for Van Jones' resignation at the first hint of controversy. He gave up on Elizabeth Warren and may lose the nomination battle for his most-recent consumer protection bureau nominee. The president is, it seems clear, planning to win reelection by running to the center. The White House knows, like everyone else watching the Republicans, that the Republicans are fronting such a ridiculous field that Democrats will have no choice but to vote for him. Occupy Wall Street is the left wing's best hope to push a progressive agenda in next few years.
My biggest Christmas wish is that they manage to do this effectively.
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