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I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea where the Occupy Wall Street movement ultimately is going or how it intends to get there.  But as I’ve mentioned before, the OWS protesters are the only people to have explicitly pointed out who the dealers are in the economic Three-card Monte game that has been used to hose working- and middle-class Americans for more than 30 years now.  That alone is enough to merit my wholehearted support for their efforts to end America’s ongoing impoverishment of the many for the enrichment of the few.

Where I run into difficulty is in trying to understand how, exactly, OWS intends to stop the United States from continuing what by now has become business as usual.  As mentioned previously, the options for effecting change essentially boil down to either (i) negotiating, compromising and working within the existing system, or (ii) trying to completely replace the existing system, root and branch, with something entirely new.  

Yesterday, fellow Kossack David (“thereisnospoon”) Atkins nicely captured these two options in a post over at Digby’s:

Leaderless movements can indeed succeed just as they did in Tahrir Square.  But without a defined legislative agenda and the leadership to put that legislative agenda into place via the established process, the only thing leaderless movements can really achieve is systemic overthrow.  That is perhaps what many in the movement are advocating or hoping for.  But in Egypt, Libya and Syria, there were doubtless massive majorities in favor of deposing the regime.  America is still deeply politically divided into culture camps . . . .

If systemic overthrow is in the cards, it will be a long, painful and very likely bloody process.

If, on the other hand, the movement seeks change along more traditional lines, then it is going to have to muddy its feet in the nasty realm of politics and hierarchy.  It is going to require leaders and defined legislative goals.  So far, the Occupy Movement has fiercely rejected those things.


The broader question is whether many progressives have lost all faith in the electoral system entirely.

If that is the case, then systemic overthrow is all that is left.  But in America, systemic overthrow won’t be as in Tahrir Square.  The broad swath of conservative America will never come along for the ride, but will fight tooth and
nail against the protesters, not just rhetorically but physically as well.  Many of the Right have been itching to do so already.   Real systemic overthrow will require a lot fewer drums, and a lot more boxes of ammunition.  But use of that, too, would be contrary to the spirit of the American Left.

So it’s difficult to understand where precisely the change will come from.  Politicians don’t respond to protest movements any more than Dems were cowed from passing the ACA by the Tea Party protests.  It takes more direct lobbying, electoral activity and leadership than simple protest to achieve legislative change.  If electoral and legislative politics are eschewed, then revolution is all that is left.  But that revolution will not be peaceful, and the American Left would need to be prepared for that eventuality. (emphasis added)

At this point, Occupy Wall Street seems to have no interest whatsoever in compromising its “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based” process by adopting any of the more hierarchical structures necessary to effect specific legislative change.  As Todd Gitlin reports, the Occupy Movement “likes government more than corporations, but its own style is hardly governmental.  It tends to care about process more than results.” (emphasis added)

The degree to which having a direct-democracy, non-hierarchical process is so very important to OWS can be observed by clicking here and reading through some of the minutes from the NYC General Assembly meetings.  Or you can just click here and read about how Occupy Atlanta refused to deviate from their process even to accommodate the schedule of John Lewis – the current Georgia Congressman and forever grassroots Civil Rights hero who had hoped to address the Occupy Atlanta assembly last Friday.

In fact, if I were asked to clarify for a low-information voter what the Occupy Movement’s actual goals are right now then I think I would point them to this interview with David Graeber, in which Graeber explained that OWS is working to create “a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature,” and that “we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a question of visions and solutions.”  That pretty much sums up what I see OWS doing at the moment and nicely explains why the Occupy Movement is so concerned with maintaining the purity of its internal process.

But like David Atkins, I still have a hard time understanding how – once OWS has created its visionary alternative to our current system – that alternative is supposed to actually replace our current system.  In his interview Graeber sheds almost no light on that issue, simply acknowledging that how this might be achieved “is an interesting question.”

In fact, to date I’ve seen very little indication that anyone involved in the Occupy Movement is thinking at all about how the changes necessary to redress the plight of the 99% can be achieved if OWS indefinitely continues its refusal to participate in the existing political arena.  (To be sure, the idea of effecting change by force and violent revolution is anathema, entirely counter to the principles OWS espouses and – besides – impossible to achieve.  Forceful, violent revolution is simply not in the cards and nor should it be.)

The best understanding I can muster -- after untold hours spent reading first-hand reports from Occupy sites, reading and watching interviews with the protesters and the original OWS organizers, reviewing news articles and the NYC General Assembly minutes -- is that OWS somehow either doesn’t believe this question needs to be addressed at all, or else feels that because our existing system is so clearly unsustainable whatever alternative the Occupy Movement ends up creating will sort of inevitably have to replace our current system:

“The world can’t continue on its current path and survive,” Ketchup told me.  “That idea is selfish and blind.  It’s not sustainable.  People all over the globe are suffering needlessly at our hands.”

                                    --“Why the Elites Are in Trouble
                                    Chris Hedges

(h/t Plutocracy Files).

Well . . . maybe.  It would certainly be nice to think so.  But I still have my doubts.  Humans don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to avoiding long-term pain and self-destruction.  One only has to read Jared Diamond’s Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed for examples of people refusing to stop doing what any fool could see was clearly leading to catastrophe and self-annihilation:  “What was going through the mind of the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree?”

And what do you suppose will be going through our minds if the United States self-destructs because the people who came together and came up with some really good, truly revolutionary ideas for changing the American system were all unwilling “to muddy [their] feet in the nasty realm of politics and hierarchy”?

Like I said, I’m all for the goals of the Occupy Movement, I support their efforts without reservation, and if right now the people who are actually doing the protesting and drawing attention to the economic injustice rampant in our society feel that the movement is best served by its horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, consensus-based process then I’m certainly not going to contest the point.

But I also agree with David Atkins that if the Occupy Movement intends to create something more than a set of aspirational goals – if it intends to effect some concrete changes that will actually make things better for the 99% – then eventually the “process” to which OWS is now wed will have to give way to some standard hierarchical organizing, negotiating and compromising within the existing political arena.

How that evolution of the Occupy Movement might take place seems to be something we could all profitably spend some time thinking about, on our way to the revolution.

Cross-posted at Casa Cognito.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (11+ / 0-)

    Politics is the neverending story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.

    by swellsman on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 09:14:21 AM PDT

  •  OWS is being rational (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Supavash, Urizen, TexasTwister, blueoasis

    OWS is keeping a nebulous, demand-free stance because that is a good negotiating position.

    Let the other side make the first offer. Let the politicians show us something. The OWS can take it...or leave it...or ask for even more (my favorite).

    Besides, this gives the media something to cover other than the Republican primary.

    •  No one has to make any offers (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      because (1) OWS generates no real pressure and (2) it would be insane to make offers when there is no idea if they are relevant.

      This reminds me of those who insisted the way to get a public option was to keep up pressure on progressive democrats in the house.

      •  OWS does generate pressure. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Urizen, blueoasis

        The overlooked benefit of OWS is that local activists get to meet each other. And they get to meet each other and form networks outside of the context of the Democratic party.

        If I have 100 activists who are hard-core enough to camp in a park and get arrested, that is enough to primary a blue-dog Representative.

        You are correct that, "there is no idea if they are relevant".  That's a feature, not a bug. There is no reason for OWS to show all -- or any -- of their cards now. Let the politicians wonder and worry for a while.

        Even our friends at Rasmussen could only find 10% of Americans who disagree with the fundamental OWS message, “The big banks got bailed but the middle class got left behind." Ras has OWS at a favorable rating higher than Congress...

  •  I got involved early on with the October2011. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    org Stop the Machine website and had the same questions, back in June.  The overall hope appears to be to try to illuminate the problems we face and provide a spark for a larger movement.  Questions asked like, "how are we really going to get money out of politics", were met with answers primarily indicating we'll figure that out later.  Sooner or later, the tactics, actions, and plans will have to address specifics on how to cause the reforms sought.  That is where the rest of us are at, thinking about ways for this to evolve to force the actions through the political system.

    S.A.W. 2011 STOP ALL WARS "The Global War on Terror is a fabrication to justify imperialism."

    by BigAlinWashSt on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 09:37:44 AM PDT

  •  The point of OWS is to generate ideas (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    swellsman, TexasTwister, blueoasis

    in the public consciousness rather than to generate programs.  The problem with the left over the last few decades has been that it lacks imagination and ends up boring the shit out of mainstreet.  Let's allow / encourage people to think about what our society is without going all anal on them with wonkiness and limiting ideologies.  Let's create an environment for people to think in rather than present them with lists of specifics.  America's problem is general, fussing around with the specifics is counterproductive.  We basically sank the healthcare discussion with our factions, wasting a lot of time demonizing everybody in sight instead of generating a broad public concensus.  Let's not start trying to do that all over again.

    •  Oh, I understand that . . . (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      . . . and, in fact, Atkins cites Gitlin's suggestion that OWS might form some kind of alliance with other, established organizations in which OWS acts as a sort of concentrated source of leftish pressure, energy and idealism, and the more formal organizations step in and try to use that pressure, energy and idealism to implement specific reforms.

      Personally, though, I'm not sure that this advances what I understand OWS's goal to be.  If the problem is, as you say, a lack of imagination from the established actors, then it is entirely appropriate for us to hope that OWS may, in fact, come up with something new.  But if OWS is the group coming up with new solutions, it seems to me that OWS is going to have to be the group to try to get those solutions actually implemented.  If the established players wanted to implement these new solutions then presumably they would have thought them up themselves.

      And like I attempted to put across in the diary, I'm not trying to insist that anything specific be proposed or done right now.  I'm simply pointing out that, eventually, OWS will have to evolve into something other than its current horizontal, direct-democracy structure.  Hopefully, it will be able to do so in a way that preserves the best of the virtues its current structure already fosters (openness, buy-in, etc.)  I just wanted to suggest that at least a few people should be thinking ahead to how that structural evolution can be accomplished when the time comes.

      Politics is the neverending story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.

      by swellsman on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 10:10:39 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't see why it has to (0+ / 0-)

        evolve into anything systematic.  If it builds enough informal street momentum, the hacks who are our politicians will trip over each other trying to figure out how best to pander to it (like the pugs are doing with the teabaggers).  The great leaps forward that occurred in the sixties sprang from vague ideals expressed by marchers and folksingers.  We shoot ourselves in the feet when we start defining things too much.  What our (the left's) approach to politics has lacked since the 80s is general idealism, simple statements ordinary people relate to.  OWS is providing that, even if all that's it saying is "get the rich bastards off our backs".

        Everyone will eventually decide for themselves who they want to vote for (or if they want to vote), then those who want the votes can try to win them.

        •  I hope you are correct about all that . . . (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Terrapin, Justanothernyer

          . . . but I wouldn't put too much stock in thinking that this is all that is necessary to effect change.

          First, the Republicans are falling all over themselves to pander to the Teabaggers not because they're scared of a bunch of middle-aged people in rascal scooters with Lipton teabags tied to their tri-cornered hats, but because the Teabaggers devoted an awful lot of time, effort and money (with the substantial assistance of Fox News, the Koch Bros., and astroturf outfits like Freedom Works) into direct electoral politics.  

          Simply stated, the Teabaggers proved all too willing and capable of taking out any Republican who didn't toe the line on (i) no taxes, (ii) repealing the Affordable Care Act.  They had specific goals and they fought directly in the existing political arena to get what they wanted.  Republicans pander to these people because Republicans don't want to get primaried, not because the Teabaggers "shifted public opinion."

          Second, the great leaps forward in the 60's did have marches and folk singers, but they also relied - in fact, I'd argue that they mostly relied - on a highly disciplined, top-down hierarchical structure that made specific legislative gains possible.

          In fact, for the first part of the 20th century the Civil Rights Movement engaged in almost no direct action at all, but instead devoted itself to education, legislative lobbying and litigation.  Only with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 eliminating that "separate but equal" claptrap did the movement now have formal, legal cover to engage in direct action protests like sit-ins, marches, rallies, strikes and boycotts.  But they never used them as substitutes for discipline and organization of direct political engagement.

          When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, the Montgomery NAACP already had its plans in place to institute the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Its president already had spotted MLK, Jr. as the person needed to lead that boycott, and it already had its legal team prepped and ready to challenge Alabama's busing laws all the way to the Supreme Court - where, in fact, they secured a major initial victory and placed King in the national spotlight.

          That victory didn't come about because of some folk singers and one tired woman who had had enough, it came about because of a strongly organized group that already had met and planned exactly what concrete steps it would take in order to overturn some very specific law.

          The same kind of organization was evident in the later Freedom Rides, organized by several different formal organizations all of whom later organized again under a formal umbrella organization.

          The 60's are remembered for the marches and the demonstrations that make for great video, but it was the same old systematic, hierarchical organization that made the great leaps forward that we saw in the 60's actually possible.

          Politics is the neverending story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.

          by swellsman on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 11:08:33 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Check your facts re Lewis and OWATL (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    swellsman, blueoasis, where4art

    Lewis showed up unnanounced on his way to another speech, the protesters decided not to end their meeting to give him the stage and Lewis thought that was OK:

    Lewis had been en route to a Pride event when he stopped by Woodruff Park.

    “They didn’t really deny me,” Lewis said. The protestors decided he could return after their agenda items had been completed, but because of the Pride event, Lewis didn’t have time to wait around. The group has since issued a statement saying, “We are dismayed that anything we have done would seem to show disrespect for a man whom many of us revere, and apologize to everyone who was hurt or angered by our actions.” And they say Lewis can come back.

    Lewis said he was not dismayed, despite his key role in the nation’s struggle for civil rights, that he was not more eagerly received when he initially stopped by the park.

    “These are different times,” he said.

    •  Yeah, I wasn't trying to imply . . . (3+ / 0-)

      . . .  that Lewis had been scheduled or anything, and I certainly wasn't trying to imply that Lewis had been treated disrespectfully.  In fact, I kind of like the idea that a truly grassroots, people-powered movement might not simply stop what it is doing because some random Congressman showed up.

      But, of course, Lewis isn't some "random Congressman," which in my mind makes it a little different.  What I intended to get across -- and perhaps I could have spent a little more time explicating this -- is that having a bona fide hero of the Civil Rights Movement show up to address a modern day, grassroots, people-powered movement is the kind of thing that I, personally, would probably have interrupted the process for.  If someone like John Lewis had shown up but had limited time, I think I would have made an exception.

      But, of course, others' mileage may vary and I'm not saying that Occupy Atlanta was wrong to decide not to do so, I was just trying to point out that the commitment to the process is strong enough that - given this opportunity - they valued the process more.

      Politics is the neverending story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.

      by swellsman on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 10:26:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for a thought-provoking post (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nookular, blueoasis, ManhattanMan

    Thank you for your thought-provoking and well-articulated article.

    Like you, I am grateful and supportive of the OWS effort to bring awareness to what I see is a toxic and long-standing problem of economic inequality in America.

    I am a little nervous about trying to tell OWS about how they should run their show, because 1) I'm just one guy with an opinion (and we all got 'em) and no real expertise in the area of political movements; and 2) they have so far succeed admirably without my advise or direction.

    I totally agree with you that the path of political action is preferable to the path of insurrection and war.  For that reason, I am writing and calling my various representatives to tell them I support and agree with OWS, and I am suggesting that representative should as well.

    "The fool doth think he is wise: the wise man knows himself to be a fool" - W. Shakespeare

    by Hugh Jim Bissell on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 10:22:19 AM PDT

  •  There is no requirement that OWS (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    swellsman, Urizen, cybrestrike, blueoasis

    engage in traditional politics. There are plenty of people around who are willing to do that. It is possible that the existence of OWS will change the nature and terms of the political playing field. I hope that it does. I think that it can best do that be creating a climate of public opinion that makes it clear that a sizable portion of the American public is fed up with politics as usual. If OWS can help bring that about it really is not necessary that it convert itself into a traditional political organization.

    •  I'm not entirely sure about that . . . (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      nookular, Terrapin

      . . . based on the arguments made in support of OWS's very existence.

      Now look, I'm all in favor of OWS changing the climate of public opinion.  I'm all in favor of OWS "raising the people's consciousness" and no I'm not using that expression ironically.

      But as I understand it, one of the main justifications for OWS, for its horizontal structure, its insistence on direct, participatory democracy, its leaderlessness and its autonomy, is that this is the best way to come up with new visions, new solutions to our problems.  To come up with visions and solutions missed or ignored by our regular political actors.  

      All well and good, I agree.  But if OWS is necessary to create these new solutions, it seems to me that OWS is also necessarily going to have to be the people to try and get them implemented at some point.  And that necessarily means going into the regular political arena and fighting (not right now, of course, and I'm not suggesting we should have any specific goals immediately, but at some time in the future this will have to happen) to get those solutions enacted.  

      It doesn't seem to me that OWS can afford to leave this to others to accomplish because - let's face it - if our regular political actors had any interest in enacting whatever new solutions OWS comes up with they'd have done so already.

      Politics is the neverending story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.

      by swellsman on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 10:43:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It is one way. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        It may not be your way, but your efforts to make sweeping pronouncements on what is the BEST way for everybody else to proceed seems less than appropriate to me.

        If you want to influence the directions of the OWS movement, I suggest that you attend a general assembly. That is what I am doing this afternoon.

        •  Sigh . . . (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Terrapin, Justanothernyer

          . . . I am not trying to make sweeping pronouncements of what is best for everybody else to be doing.  What I am pointing out is that if actual change is to be effected, that change either comes from working within the system, or from replacing the system.

          Actually, let me back up.

          If the people who are involved with OWS don't actually want to effect change, but just to raise the public's consciousness about economic inequality and unfairness, that's fine.

          If the people who are involved with OWS do want to effect change, and have come up with a 3rd way to do so, wonderful.  That'd be great too and I look forward to learning what it is.

          But if the people who are involved with OWS do want to effect change and don't have a third way to do so, then I think we are stuck with the realization that it is impossible to simply sweep away the existing political/social/economic structure in one fell swoop.  Which means we are back to talking about how to effect change working within the existing system.

          And - again - I could always be wrong about this, but if OWS really is the new, original way to try to get things done, the way that is necessary because none of the other political actors can be relied upon to truly look out for the interests of the 99%, then I think it is also fairly self-evident that the people involved in OWS will eventually have to be the ones responsible for getting involved in our existing political arena in order to shepherd through the changes that they want to see take place.

          I don't think any of these statements should be at all controversial or disruptive in any way to what I understand OWS to be doing right now and what I understand OWS's goals to be.

          Politics is the neverending story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.

          by swellsman on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 11:20:57 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  My view of OWS (0+ / 0-)

            is that they are a new movement committed to taking a new approach. They are not a bunch of fumbling amateurs trying to do traditional politics. If you want to understand their approach then you would be well advised to listen to them. If you are not interested in doing that, then they are not too likely to be interested in listening to your advice.

            •  Again . . . (0+ / 0-)

              . . . I tried to get across in my diary that, to the extent possible, I am listening to them.  I cannot make it to Liberty Plaza Park, but I've made the effort to track down and read the minutes that get published each day so I can read - in the protesters' own words - what is going on up there.

              I have spent a good deal of time listening to the videos and statements that circulate on the web, and to trying to wrap my head around what is - as you say, and I agree with you - something new.  I've tracked down the initial announcement of this movement on the AdBusters site and followed the record of the movement's evolution there since well before Sept. 17th.  (And I mean the original, original call, the one AdBusters made in February for a "million man march" on Wall Street.)

              And I've been fairly active here, as well, keeping up with what is going on with OWS, what people on the ground are actually saying/reporting, and trying to make sense of it all.  I don't think it is appropriate to suggest that I've not been listening to them.

              By the way . . . I post diaries fairly often and I usually have a pattern when it comes to comments.  I post the diary, ignore it for a few hours, then come back to see what discussions it has spawned in my absence and only then weigh in.  I usually figure that - having dropped the diary like a precipitate - it is up to the commenters to determine how the resulting conversation then crystallizes.

              As you probably can tell, I decided to take a decidedly different approach today, with this diary, because I was afraid that it would be misinterpreted.  But I think if you go back and re-read what it is I've actually written here you'll see that in no way have I criticized the movement, or even critiqued it.  

              All I have done is point out a few things that I believe to be true statements of fact, and that I believe accurately assess how the movement is likely to evolve if it is to evolve productively.  I could, of course, always be wrong.

              But just as with OWS's own horizontal, direct democracy structure, the hive-mind available on the Web makes for a great source of input, and DKos has gotta be the best place to get as much input (and, importantly, as much genuinely sympathetic input) regarding the movement as possible.  Hence, posting the diary here.

              Politics is the neverending story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.

              by swellsman on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 11:42:04 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  No, they don't. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    For an example of what else they could do, I suggest popping some popcorn and watching "V for Vendetta."

  •  no (0+ / 0-)

    In what sense does a leaderless action need to begin engaging in legislative process?

    You're missing the capacity for leaderless action to continue to exist as a leaderless zone.

    I don't know that Egypt will somehow become an autonomous zone like Chiapas Mexico, but to suggest that OWS must become, basically, a NGO or lobbyist organization is to miss the potential of self-organizing movements and societies.

    They may have to CONTEND with legislative process, as the state attempts to deal with them, but they don't have to BECOME it.

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