Democracy, pluralism, and Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street movement is metastasizing, or salubriously spreading, depending on your perspective.

Over the weekend protests occurred across the globe, with occupiers taking over Times Square, resisting removal in Chicago, and mobilizing in Madrid. Monday marked the month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. And its coffers are swelling. These are heady times for a young leftist, to be sure, and there’s much about the occupations to be analyzed and scrutinized. Peter Frase’s recent disquisition was arguably the best of sundry movement pieces; Freddie deBoer‘s stuff has been similarly astute. I’ve written precious little about the movement thus far, partly because of my involvement in it. Allow me to end that silence.

The beauty of this rebellion lies in its decentralized, democratic character; the absence of top-down control has precipitated a participatory, pluralistic movement. Different local contexts should prompt different iterations. And that’s exactly what has happened. Broadly speaking, of course, this is a left-of-center movement. But some cities have a sizable anti-capitalist (predominately anarchist or socialist) contingent. Others? Not so much. Tactics are similarly divergent. Here in Des Moines, protesters—myself included—were willing to get arrested by state troopers to establish an occupation site. But when the city offered us an alternate space late last week, the general assembly accepted (save for a few stalwart dissenting voices). More militant occupations might regard our decision as debauching the movement; we opted to establish an encampment and fight large financial institutions rather than state troopers.

What we’re also witnessing is a movement that’s the most participatory, democratic movement in decades. (Let’s bracket, for now, the larger discussion of whether this more robust form of democracy is normatively desirable. Just briefly, I’d argue a just society requires that people have substantial control over the decisions and forces that shape their lives and circumstances—in short, self-determination. The occupation’s general assemblies, for all their faults, represent a radical counterpoise to Schumpeter-style democracy.) The occupations’ conscious attention to procedure—not just grievances or demands— is redolent of the New Left. There’s genuine risk in this: Undue emphasis on procedure can encumber effective political action, as Jodi Dean has argued:

Once the New Left delegitimized the old one, it made political will into an offense, a crime with all sorts of different elements:

–taking the place or speaking for another (the crime of representation);

–obscuring other crimes and harms (the crime of exclusion);

–judging, condemning, and failing to acknowledge the large terrain of complicating factors necessarily disrupting simple notions of agency (the crime of dogmatism);

–employing dangerous totalizing fantasies that posit an end of history and lead to genocidal adventurism (the crime of utopianism or, as Mark Fisher so persuasively demonstrates, of adopting a fundamentally irrational and unrealistic stance, of failing to concede to the reality of  capitalism).

Now, Dean is obviously less sympathetic to the New Left than myself. (The chief failing of Hayden et al. was their inability to leave a lasting mark on electoral politics, something we occupiers need to remember as the movement progresses.) There’s a nugget of truth in Dean’s critique, though. If the movement focuses too much on building community and involving everyone in the decision-making process, it could provide all the benefits of “public, counter-establishment communal space[s]” and still render itself politically inert. That said, these are not insignificant benefits. Marc Stears argues in his superlative book Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics that the “SDS and the New Left… further emphasized the possibility that the struggle for democratic reform could transform the immediate lives of those who were involved in it, even if the ultimate democratic prize was always expected to elude them.” There’s the potential for a comparable effect here. If occupied spaces are wellsprings of hope and empowerment amidst stagnating wages, rigid hierarchies, and atomization, that’s nothing to pooh-pooh.

Another valid critique is of the “We Are The 99 Percent” mantra. Here’s Will Wilkinson:

But isn’t it true that the Occupy Wall Street movement and the “We are the 99%” message are creations of the left and embraced predominantly by the left? When Mr Hayes says that the 99% message is brilliant and true, what does he have in mind? I suppose it is that our political economy is rigged, especially with regard to financial economy, to benefit a relatively small number of powerful people at the top of the income distribution. I think this belief is indeed “widely shared by folks who aren’t liberals”. For example, I believe it, and I’m not a liberal in the sense Mr Hayes intends… If “we” really are the 99%, why have we failed to use our overwhelming democratic heft to set in place reforms that would unrig the system and put the 1% in their place? The obvious answer there is a great deal of ideological disagreement within the lower 99% of the income distribution, and even if a large majority agrees that Wall Street is ripping off the nation, there is no consensus about what should be done about it.

It’s exceedingly difficult to argue our political economy isn’t inordinately tilted toward capital or that the 99 percent haven’t received a surfeit of wealth over the past 30 years. But, as Wilkinson notes, the question is where that analysis leads you. Would breaking up the big banks ameliorate endemic corporatism? How about a financial transactions tax? What role should finance have in our economy? These are all important questions. But their answers are informed by one’s ideological proclivities, not merely whether one is among “the 99 percent.” The “99 percent” rhetoric is accurate as a critique of a system that, largely due to cronyism and corporate capture of our political institutions, doesn’t work for a huge chunk of the population. But when used to efface legitimate ideological disagreements, the analysis runs aground. A movement backed by the full 99 percent would be a watered down, anodyne one. We’re looking for systemic changes—not a broad-based occupation that, say, opposes breast cancer.

Legitimate criticisms notwithstanding, the movement’s possibilities are invigorating. Just a month in, Occupy Wall Street has already shifted the conversation. And the denouement doesn’t appear near. I can’t wait to be a part of—and help shape—what comes next.

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43 thoughts on “Democracy, pluralism, and Occupy Wall Street

  1. Shifting the conversation may be the most the movement can and should hope for. As you say, the movement risks losing momentum and influence if it congeals into a centralized and controlled set of policy proposals. Better to stay fluid and pluralistic, a mode of operation that makes more sense for people rejecting the status quo.


    • The strategists of this movement understand Sun Tsu a lot better than most, it would appear.
      Indeed, it may lose momentum by creating a centralized set of policy proposals. But, more importantly, it would open itself up to attack — because a lot of its opponents are concentrated in the media. Right now, about the only coherent counter-narrative is “Hippies!” — and that doesn’t change minds.

      The lions sing and the hills take flight.
      The moon by day, and the sun by night.
      Blind woman, deaf man, jackdaw fool.
      Let the Lord of Chaos rule.

      It’s not mandatory to come up with a set of demands — not when everyone knows through your variety what is going on.


      • Sun Tzu wrote of formlessness as a method of determining the enemy’s vulnerabilities and forcing those vulnerable areas to be the terrain upon which the battle occurs. Nowhere did he write of the successful general allowing his objectives to remain inchoate and nowhere did he write of an army without a general.

        It would be one thing if “everyone knew” what OWS wanted. The Outlier does as good a job as I’ve heard of distilling things down as I think can be done: meaningful democracy in place of a corrupt crony capitalism that appears to be, functionally, oligarchy. I can dig it — plenty of our laws reek of corruption.

        But particularly if Mr. Gude’s citation of Jodi Dean is right, and the procedure-centric diffuse focus of the movement makes it a “crime” to exclude any grievance, any problem, or any issue from discussion — and it is similarly a “crime” to speak for others — and it is similarly a “crime” to not come up with a solution to a problem that fails to comprehensively address its complications — and it is similarly a crime to offer a complete solution to a problem and thus promise “utopia,” then what you have is a recipe for paralysis.

        At some point, someone has to prioritize objectives. When everything is a priority, nothing is. If the priority is diminishing the power of large corporations on the creation of public policy, okay, that’s a priority and an objective and like I said, I can dig it. I can engage with that idea, try it on for size and see if I like it, I can propose policies that advance that objective and see if other people will rally to support them, and maybe things will actually change.

        But as it stands, Rufus F.‘s reference is trenchant indeed.


  2. What is the demand? Nothing short of DEMOCRACY.
    What is the action? Building a society that values each human being through an exemplar community that puts a premium on DEMOCRACY.
    What is the Problem? The crony capitalism of Wall Street is corrupting the democracy of the United States of America.
    The demand is reasonable. The complaint is valid, and the methodology is peaceful.
    Let it grow!


  3. Why does everyone romanticize Democracy, while completely ignoring the tyrrany of the majority?

    Remember the majority? The people who brought you slavery and segregation, who would trample your rights for being outside the mainstream?


      • Well, last time I checked there were more than a few ways to mitigate against the respective evils of pure democracy and pure sortition; for example, Federalism, localism, Porcherism, republicanism, etc. It’s nice that we theoretically have a system where I can benefit from few impediments towards voluntary cooperation but robust walls between me and someone who wants to hurt me.


  4. Not sure how Sun Tsu would lead to strategic unrigging of the system. Maybe this is just the first step.

    It lacks Clausewitz influence. A concentration of forces on a single key structure that would completely collapse or change the rigging of the system.


    • Second Step, Joe. First was #egypt and #libya. At least if you believe Anon (and that’s up to you. they’re kinda crazy).

      SunTsu says bend or you will be broken. Acorn was broken because they were too static a target, and too large. The Occupiers bend under the wind of media attention, and are not broken.

      War is politics by other means. At this point, the occupiers provide a potent force of intimidation, if nothing else.


  5. Why do you support breast cancer?

    Joking aside, I intend my one-liner as only a slightly exaggerated form of the mentality I have often seen in New Left groups. You’re with us or you’re against us, as one of their opponents preached, and as the leftists have always practiced.

    I would of course insist that things aren’t so simple. But that message never gets heard, because everyone already knows the libertarians are the simplistic ones.


  6. Does anyone know this, because I’m curious: Who are the 1%? I’m curious because my understanding—and please correct me if I’m wrong—is that the primary thrust of #OWS concerns that specific breed of capitalism that makes money off of money, that derives wealth by “tricks on paper.” If that’s true, then it’s important to know how many of these folks make up the 1% because, hey, I’ve never liked those tricksters, either.

    The CEO types, I realize, have some liberal targets on their heads, too, but for different reasons. Related, perhaps, but different. The point is, if #OWS too broadly defines its targets as lumping in the true job creators (whom Americans like, even if liberals think they’re making too much and not paying workers enough) with the tricksters (whom almost no one likes), then I think that’s the difference between a predominantly leftist movement and a more broad-based one.


    • Outside of a few insane people, I don’t think you’d find a person who’s upset at the actual job creators in this country – small businesses.

      But, you’ll find plenty of people mad, including small business owners, about a system where corporations can buy the store.


    • Does anyone know this, because I’m curious: Who are the 1%? I’m curious because my understanding—and please correct me if I’m wrong—is that the primary thrust of #OWS concerns that specific breed of capitalism that makes money off of money, that derives wealth by “tricks on paper.”

      I know that those protesting are protesting several things, and I think you might be conflating two issues, Tim.

      One of the things is that subset of people who created financial instruments that allowed them to make money at the expense of the economy, using methods that might have been considered illegal had they not first gotten the industry deregulated. These, I believe, would be the “tricksters” you are referring to. The credit default swap would fall into this category. (As an aside, I think they are also upset with those in charge that allowed the deregulation to happen under their watch.)

      The 1% is a sperate, though tangential issue.

      The income of the 1% has risen 281% since the end of the Carter administration. Comparatively, the income of the working class has only risen 25%. In addition, over the past decade the exponential growth of health insurance and healthcare costs has meant that even though wages have increased some, incomes for them on whole have decreased. Part of the rationale (and I would argue that it is a compelling rationale) of the protesters for wanting to change this trend is partly that it is unlikely that the value to production of the 1% is growing that much faster than those that actually produce, and that the system therefore needs to be tweaked. In other words, they feel that an improper redistribution of wealth is already occurring, and has been for a long time. They wish to stop and/or reverse this redistribution.

      The other part is a fear that one very, very tiny end of the spectrum beginning to grow wealthier exponentially over time while the vast majority begins to move toward losing more and more wealth annually is not sustainable.

      Most people I know that are taking part in these demonstrations are not attempting to bring down democracy and capitalism. They are trying to make it sustainable.


      • Tod,

        That’s the distinction I was getting at, the one between financiers and executives. Michael’s link was exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!

        As for the opposition to executives, you say:

        Part of the rationale (and I would argue that it is a compelling rationale) of the protesters for wanting to change this trend is partly that it is unlikely that the value to production of the 1% is growing that much faster than those that actually produce, and that the system therefore needs to be tweaked.

        If the system needs “tweaking,” we don’t get there with this line of argument. It fails to address the nature of the entrepreneurial model, in which the owners and top executives who take on risk stand to make huge profits or losses. Their value is not merely in their labor and number of hours they put in; it is in their risk combined with the circumstances of the market. To suggest the earnings of executives ought to be based on that of their employees discounts what might be the most significant part of their contribution.

        It also fails to take into account the threshold earner phenomenon and the clarion call of cultural critics to work less and spend more time in non-economic activities. It also fails to account for the fact that, in real terms, the poor have experienced significant economic improvement in the past 30 years. The rest of us, too, get the benefit of the new technology and other cheap consumer goods that corporations invent, develop, manufacture, and distribute, many of which undeniably improve our lives.

        If there are wrongful disparities in bargaining power, or other wrongful behavior, we should address them. But the mere fact of income inequality, on its own, does not prove anyone is acting wrongfully, or even that anything needs “tweaking.”


        • I’d contend that part of the rationale of the protesters is that the trend toward greater and greater wealth inequality is evidence of a corruption of the “entrepreneurial model, in which the owners and top executives who take on risk stand to make huge profits or losses.” Recent history has shown the game to be rigged, so that the “or losses” part of the equation has been removed for too many players. Joseph Cassano was allowed to retire with his wealth intact despite what he did to AIG and by extension the global economy. Dick Fuld is working on Wall Street again, even though he took risks that destroyed Lehman Brothers. If the model held and his losses for failure were commensurate with his personal profits for success, he should be living on the streets now, shouldn’t he?


          • Perhaps. I’ll repeat my separating the financiers from the executives, as I have no love for the former. I recognize finance is essential to markets and capitalism generally, but I have an abiding Jeffersonian skepticism of it. Where I stop short is bashing executives who lead companies that create real jobs and wealth.


            • The issue with executives is that, in the Fortune 1000 sphere, they seem to occupy a an echelon of special privilege in which either success or failure are handsomely rewarded in multiple successive positions, where it seems that the only failure is upwardly mobile failure. AND that, to the extent their compensation matches actual performance in terms of bottom line, that is frequently come by not by creating jobs, but by eliminating or offshoring them. Executives rarely go places in boardrooms by reference to their successes in increasing the human carrying load of American-employment-law-protected workers.

              The people who really should be given credit for creating jobs in the private sector, as has been said, are 1) innovators that allow for successful new companies to be started, and 2) small private investors who do the majority of the risk taking that actually leads to job growth.


        • But the mere fact of income inequality, on its own, does not prove anyone is acting wrongfully, or even that anything needs “tweaking.”

          I would agree, but only up to a point. You can only separate the 1% and the 99% so far until the 99% rise up and do something ugly. That the results of such an outcome might well make everything worse is an argument for tweaking before it gets to that point.


  7. OWS is just a bunch of malcontents that are attracting other malcontents. The cops should have dispersed them but the cold weather will.


    • Absolutely,
      Dang malcontents. If the labor force really wants to get competitive the minimum wage should be reduced to $1.00 per hour to match Chinas. China CEO’s market mangers work for 1/2 of what they do here. Would be neat to see how “trickle up” poverty evolves. That would really separate the tough from the weak. $8 a day, I could do it, could you?


  8. I am not sure if the OWS is a leftist movement yet. If it is it is radically different from earlier leftist movements in the US. These earlier movements were notable by their embrace of foreign tyrants such as Stalin in the 1930s, and Mao, Castro and Ho in the 1960s. So either the OWS isn’t a leftist movement since I have not heard of any of them worshiping Kim Jon Il the way the New Left in the 60s embraced such mass murderers as Mao. Or the left has undergone considerable moral development since the 1960s and the kids today are a lot smarter and more decent than guys carrying pictures of Mao and Ho back in 68.


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