Part II: Can OWS Sustain The New Discourse?
Occupy was able to alter the national discourse last year because the mix of slogans, forms of activism, and the creation of the Commons at Zuccotti Park stood in sharp contrast to the hollow political bargains, entrenched and expanding economic inequality, and tactical misuse of state power on the Brooklyn Bridge by the police. The world shifted that late summer day, and the potential for a sustained national social movement was born. That said, nine months later, May 1st was a powerful reminder that the hard work of political organizing requires more than weekly plans and powerful slogans. While the May 1st march was spirited and filled with a mix rarely seen in years, we also have to remember that the call for a “general strike,” and the early Spring, triumphalist predictions that millions would march, were way short of the expected mark. As May Day made clear, whether or not OWS continues to build a powerful movement and sustains that counter-authority depends on resolving the inevitable strategic tensions that the past year has wrought. I will focus on what I consider six primary ones.
If OWS responds to every social, economic, and political issue in the world, it will come to stand for nothing. OWS has responded to a wide variety of social, political, environmental, and economic calls for justice that can be found within the needs and interest of the 99%. I would argue that strategically OWS’s authority stems primarily from its dual focus on economic inequality and reclaiming public space as a right of the people to their Commons. Many issues can fall within this focus: from fracking (a clear economic and environmental risk to everyone) to stop and frisk (with its marginalization and incarceration of young men of color, thus removed from the labor market). Our strength lies in the powerful messages related to student debt, foreclosures, under and unemployment, tax unfairness, privatizing public space and (on the political front), the auctioning of elections through Citizens United and the lobbying access of corporations. The underlying coherency to these issues allows different work for different campaigns while staying focused on very, very similar targets. Long haul success requires those touchstones to be made by a larger and larger audience who over time begins to hear the OWS more clearly. Without that clarity, OWS’s authority and arguments stand to be lost in the cacophony of issues and arguments that flood mainstream media and its outlets.
This strategic dilemma is intensified if OWS responses are primarily about what we are against and not what we are for: does OWS have solutions, demands, and ‘asks’ for the 99% to support in their own work and lives? There is no question that OWS’s early strength came from its focus on solutions rather than narrow demands, and as it created a Commons for simple, collective exchange. Over the last 30 years so much activism has been so narrowly focused that it has been refreshing to step away from short term solutions and remind people of the long term depth of inequality that needs to be corrected. At some point, however, OWS will need to coherently point a way forward that resonates with the conditions and aspirations of that part of the 99% we expect and need to mobilize. We need to actively struggle with the political awareness that part of the power of the right rests in its dangerously false yet compelling demands for lessened government, free market growth, and heterosexual, patriarchal families.
Some of what OWS does, contains a powerful positive message in its work—above all, taking back the Commons, creating places safe to play and to disagree, militantly standing up against the tyranny of the growing police state. We also need to create equivalent external messages and campaigns primarily related to economic inequality and political unfairness so that the part of the 99% we seek to reach will not grow disinterested and disengaged. Not seeking solutions that build campaigns of lasting power is a form of class, racial and social privilege that OWS does not want to be labeled with.
Militant direct action leading to arrests can be a useful tactic when it serves the strategic purpose of building the movement; when it becomes an end in itself, it undermines the movement’s authority. The world not only watched but responded to the early arrests across the Brooklyn Bridge, Oakland and elsewhere as the velvet glove of state power came off. Over the first six months, the state’s exposed iron fist helped expand OWS’s reach as members of the 99% reacted in anger and disgust. However, over time, risking arrest in small numbers and publically unrecognized actions depletes OWS of valuable energy, wastes resources, and creates no tactical or strategic advantage. Developing actions that court arrest must serve the strategic purposes of exposing state power to a wider and wider audience and/or clarify a form of unfairness, immorality or inequality that draws more and more actors to our movement.
For that to occur, these kinds of actions need to be far larger and orchestrated in ways that achieve the above aims. I would like to suggest mobilizing direct actions that personalize the 1% (or, even better, the .01%) who are involved in intensifying economic inequality and political unfairness. For example, targeting the homes, businesses, and country clubs of those who fund SuperPacs through OWS vigils, non- violent direct action marches and street theatre would be great outreach, drive the 1% nuts, and, if followed with mass arrests, expose whom the state continues to serve. Because their homes and businesses can be in many states, we could thus engage other Occupies, deliver powerful national messages, and build our ranks accordingly.
OWS must be a movement open to all; it cannot be a sustained social movement equally supported and created by all. This is a debate as old as the fight for social justice: can those who suffer the most from injustice actually build and lead the social movements needed to combat it? A close read of the history of progressive social movements reveals: they created organizational forms that invited and sustained those extraordinary few who were exemplars of both the experience of oppression and the capacity to fight it, without denying that most of the day-to- day work was carried out by educated activists who used the power and privilege of their skill sets in the cause of social justice. We must work with the historic awareness that for every Fanny Lou Hamer there were a hundred college- and high school graduates like John Lewis and Diane Nash in the civil rights movement.
This historical fact carries with it the bitter, bracing insight that many of those who have suffered the most social injustice may not always be in a position to most effectively fight against it. The multiple hardships of homelessness, underemployment, family stressors, and environmental threats inside and outside the home understandably minimize the numbers who can consistently and strategically engage in the long-term fight to end oppression. This does not mean the most oppressed are indifferent to the conditions of their lives, much less that they are inherently less able, lack insight. It means they can’t go to a lot of meetings, don’t have time to read and study what to do next, or go out for coffee and reflect on what happened at the last march. It also means that those who are in a position to engage in long-term strategic struggles need to constantly assess their potential to misuse their power and privilege to marginalize those with less resources from playing a vital role in the ways they can that contribute to movement-building: tactical insights, personal strategies of resilience, pitching in.
Inequitable dynamics of power and privilege are not only found within the 1%; they exist within the 99%--and, unless examined and worked with, within OWS itself.
Awareness of economic inequality and political unfairness is not a guarantee of personal insight regarding one’s own misuse of power and privilege. Issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ablism, and basic elitism have surfaced enough in OWS to cause all of us discomfort. As someone who has been engaged in these issues all my adult life, they cannot be adequately addressed either through heartfelt, once-a-month sessions comprised of equal doses of guilt and anger, or genuflections of romanticized piety directed at the oppressed. Instead this work must be the individual and collective responsibility of each Occupier and in each OWS event or action so that we begin to construct a world where diversity—social, intellectual, and personal—is embraced as a fundamental resource. If we are to stand for what distinguishes OWS from the 1% (and from those parts of the 99% who are openly racist, sexist and homophobic), this work must be seen as important every day of the week.
While OWS champions the 99% in action, its internal workings are designed for far fewer.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, we called it “participatory democracy,” where everyone attending a meeting got to vote and to speak on every issue. It came to be known as “hard-ass democracy,” as those with the hardest asses could thus stay until the middle of the night and win all important votes. GAs and other forums that function in a similar fashion relegate almost every working person with a full-time job to a position of potential marginality. While we need to hold on to the value of horizontalism and forms of democratic consensus, they need to fit within the context of the working lives of potential Occupiers if OWS is to grow and thrive beyond our present numbers.
This also requires us to consider how we sustain ourselves as an independent group capable of sustained long-term growth. What distinguished the strategic independence of both the 1930’s labor and the 1950’s-mid-60’s civil rights movements was that they each operated from an independent financial base through membership dues (unions and churches). We need to develop a similar independent financial base that incorporates membership dues (sliding scale, with no increase in power or status for wealthier members), donations, and, if given without restrictions, foundation funds so that we can pay OWS organizers a living wage, continue to feed folks at our Commons, and handle the other normal expenses of movement building.
Concluding comment: the above strategic issues are dilemmas and possible suggestions to be worked on together. As stated in the Introduction, I believe OWS has the potential to be the most important progressive social movement in at least 30 years. To realize potential, however, takes the kind of effort people displayed back in Zuccotti Park—minus the thrilling rush that comes with any new, close relationship. Now it’s the testing and trusting time—dilemmas replace certainty, fears intertwine with hopes and expectations. But could anything be more worthwhile? Let’s get to work!
Steve B is a professor and a participant in OWS. His involvement in social movements began during the civil rights era.
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