Occupy Wall Street has been attracting a lot of attention, at least in the parts of the Internet I visit regularly. Most of the commentary I’ve seen so far, including from activists, is doubtful about the protesters’ ability to force change: numbers at the protests are increasing and unions are beginning to join in, but they’re up against a powerful system (and harsh policing). If you live in a society where the wealthiest 1% of the population control around 43 percent of the wealth (as of 2007) and income inequality is rising, a better deal for the 99 percent requires massive structural change.
Still, there’s a lot of optimism around the Occupy Wall Street protests. People in the US want to believe that things might get better. For those of outside the US, a shift in domestic politics gives some hope that the US might start playing a different role in the international system. The reasons to hope are small, but there are times when you cling to them anyway.
As the protests grow, those both within and outside the movement are starting to raise questions about what those involved in Occupy Wall Street want to achieve. As Betsy Reed put it, we’re seeing more and more demands for demands: “their failure to present demands is the most frequently heard criticism of the OWS protesters, not just in the mainstream press but from veteran leftists as well. What do these wan, angry young people want, anyway?”
The demand for demands isn’t new. One of the recurring critiques of the alter-globalisation movement was that it needed to be more organised. George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent was a good example of this: he argued that the movement needed to grow up, develop a manifesto and a program (which he was nice enough to provide an outline for), and start implementing it. This was also a debate that started happening around the World Social Forum fairly early on: what was it meant to achieve? What were its demands?
I understand why people want manifestos and plans for action. It makes it easier to understand the movement, easier to organise and find targets and gauge progress. Occupy Wall St has put out its first official statement, but it’s a long way away from the tightly-worded manifesto that many are calling for: it lists participants’ grievances, but there’s little attempt to connect these grievances within a coherent overarching analysis or to create an all-inclusive list of complaints. I don’t think this is a problem. In fact, I think there are a quite a few reasons to be cautious about pinning down the movement and its goals.
Firstly, the movement is still growing. Occupy Wall Street has, so far, been emphasising the importance of direct democracy. It’s mentioned several times in the first official statement, and is clear in the focus on using consensus decision-making and affinity groups to work through strategies and tactics. (This hasn’t been without problems, including the reproduction of existing privilege.) Handing out a manifesto now means that those who join the movement after that point can sign up to the manifesto, but won’t be able to help shape it.
Secondly, I’m not sure that anyone is able to tell, at this stage, just what’s possible. Should the movement be calling for relatively reformist (and hence more achievable) goals, or calling for the broad structural change that’s needed? Given the current US political situation, calling for policy goals that seem achievable today will mean falling far short of providing accessible healthcare and housing, or committing to workers’ rights. Refusing to put out a manifesto leaves the movement free to experiment with what might be possible without either being tied down to relatively limited change or being criticised for utopian goals.
Thirdly, and on a related note, when people start calling for the movement’s demands they often mean: which specific policy changes do you want? Policy changes are certainly required, but the potential for them seems limited. The US political system is a mess, and heavily shaped by economic power. If real change is going to happen, people may need to start thinking about direct action as well as trying to change the political structures that currently shape the US, if only to provide local safety nets. This kind of political imagination isn’t necessarily easily captured in the list of demands that people want to see.
Finally, it might be useful to think about what’s happening on Wall Street as a space, rather than a movement. As Chico Whitaker (2004, p. 111) wrote about the World Social Forum:
movements and spaces are completely different things. Without over simplifying things in a Manichechean way, either they are one or the other. Nevertheless, they can co-exist. Nor are they opposites, which means that they do not neutralise each other, but rather, they may even be counterparts. … Movements and spaces may be seeking, each one performing its roles, the same general objectives. But each one works in a way of its own, aiming at different specific objectives.
This sprang to mind when I read this in Manissa McCleave Maharawal’s article:
It was that it felt like a space of possibility, a space of radical imagination. And it was energizing to feel like such a space existed. And so I started telling my friends to go down there and check it out. I started telling people that it was a pretty awesome thing, that just having a space to have these conversations mattered, that it was more diverse than I expected. And I went back.
There’s value in having a space to organise, both literal and metaphorical, in feeling that there is a space where you can talk about the things that matter to you, where you can meet with other people who care and what to create change. Action needs to come out of that, but not at the expense of shutting down the space itself.