How Radical is Occupy Wall Street?
There’s been a mild lull in Occupy Wall Street activity as of late — chalk it up to the turkey and the cold, I suppose — and the respite from breaking news has allowed me the chance to take a step back and reflect a bit more on where the movement stands today and, forgive the phrase, what it all means. Specifically, I’m interested in examining the influence of radical politics on Occupy, determining whether or not Occupy is indeed a radical movement; and, perhaps most vexingly, whether or not it should be.
As to whether or not Occupy is radical, I’d say that it’s not only too soon to tell but probably not worth the time. For an organization of its size and breadth to be described as one thing or another — radical, reformist, incrementalist, whatever — it would probably require a more centralized, codified, and organized leadership apparatus than Occupy currently has. (It’s probably a stretch to call it an “organization” at all.) How can we say anything definitive about Occupy when Occupy encompasses not only groups of people in New York City, but also Philadelphia, Oakland, Los Angeles, and countless other venues throughout the United States and the world?
Besides a few online hubs of streaming video, and Twitter hashtags, there is no home-base of any kind for Occupiers. Essentially, they are no more easily reduced into one political category than are the American people as a whole. You could gain some insight from analyzing the participants along demographic lines — Occupiers tend to be white, educated, and left-wing — but as of this writings, Occupy’s politics are vague and amorphous enough to preclude any useful or edifying categorization into well-worn and comfortable political form.
Eventually, however, the Occupiers are going to congeal into something more easily distinguished, labeled, embraced, and refused. The idealism won’t dissipate and die-out, but the vigor and shock of the new is inherently ephemeral; and as Occupiers become increasingly a part of the political topography, they’ll either splinter, assume a form more readily transferable into traditional politics (not necessarily entirely or even primarily, mind you) or, likely, both. And a fascinating and excellent recent cover story from New York‘s John Heilemann — who is a much better journalist than his work with Mark Halperin would indicate — offers a glimpse into how that process is occurring already, and a hint as to how it might proceed in the future.
The narrative crux of Heilemann’s piece is to set up Occupy Wall Street’s New York City apparatus as one increasingly run by two clearly differentiated, but currently cooperative, ideological camps: reformist social democrats on the one hand, radical pseudo-anarchist utopians on the other.
The former is composed of people who more or less should find a home on the left-most edges of the Democratic Party. They’re more liberal than is the norm, sure, and unapologetically so; but they’re not fundamentally negatively disposed to the entire American liberal democratic edifice — they just think it could be operated with far more decency and righteousness. They tend to be more experienced in politics, having worked previously as activists and organizers; and their goals are often more specific and concrete: a financial transaction tax here, a national, government-funded jobs program there, etc.
The second group is composed of more political neophytes; but, from Heilemann’s telling, these are the people with the technological savvy that has distinguished the Occupy movement and has allowed it to catapult to national prominence and influence with a breathtaking speed. As is often customary with the kind of people fully plugged-in to modern technology’s vanguard, however, they are also the ones more likely to speak of the Occupy project in the kind of airy, romantic language that is both profoundly inspiring and operationally problematic. After quoting some of the more extravagantly utopian talk coming from the movement’s radical wing, as it were, Heilemann writes:
This kind of talk is common among a certain sort of OWSer, especially those who are newbies to public agitation. But then there is another sort: committed activists. Among the OWS prime movers, a goodly number, including Yotam Marom, were involved in Bloombergville, the sidewalk protest near City Hall against the city’s budget cuts that took place last summer. While their vernacular is at times as airy as Husain’s, their politics are much firmer, steeped in the cut-and-thrust of battles for tangible objectives. And, unlike Husain, who invoked the phrase “leaderless movement” again and again, the activist prime movers make no bones about the fact that OWS has a leadership cadre—and that they are part of it.
“Anybody who says there’s such a thing as a totally nonhierarchical, agenda-less movement is … not stupid, but dangerous, because somebody’s got to write the agenda—it doesn’t fall out of the sky,” says Marom, who in some ways is Husain’s mirror image. A 25-year-old veteran of the New School occupation and co-founder of the quasi-socialist Organization for a Free Society, Marom was raised in Hoboken by Israeli parents and has lived in both a commune (in Israel) and a collective (in Crown Heights). Articulate and charismatic, he came to OWS with a bone-deep wariness toward many of the far left’s ingrained tendencies, notably “the glorification of process and vagueness,” he says.
At the outset, Marom represented one pole in a pivotal debate that illustrated immediately how easily OWS might be riven by factionalism: Should the occupation have demands? The media was asking incessantly what the protesters wanted. And so were important players in the institutional left. “Early on, the unions came down and were trying to figure out how to plug in,” recalls Teichberg. “They said, ‘We can’t get behind you until you have a concrete set of demands.’?”
Marom and others agreed that demands were necessary. “Working families from the South Bronx aren’t gonna come to a general assembly for four hours to express their own demands,” says Marom. “Demands are one way for them to hear that it’s about them without them having to be there. Demands also give us clear markers and clear targets. If our demand is about housing, we know Chase is fucking over the housing market. Etcetera.”
But the resistance to demands within OWS proved stronger than the pressure for them, and the former stance prevailed. For one thing, explains Michael Premo, a 29-year-old Brooklynite activist who has worked on issues from HIV/AIDS to housing since his teens, “even people who are for demands can’t figure out what the demands should be.” For another, although there were and are plenty of proposals that most OWSers could get behind—from a moratorium on foreclosures to a hefty Wall Street transaction tax to debt forgiveness for student loans—articulating demands for any of them would exclude others. And at a time when the movement’s main goal is growth, that seems self-defeating. “When we can put a million people on the Mall,” says Berger, “then we can have demands.”
In retrospect, I think those who argued against demands look the wiser. But that’s not to say that such a style-over-substance modus operandi is going to be useful in the long-term. In one of the article’s best vignettes, Heilemann describes what occurred when Rev. Jesse Jackson met with some of the Occupy organizers. I think his advice is worth heeding:
Jackson looked at Berger and asked, “What does Lyndon Johnson mean to you?” Berger shrugged. “The Vietnam War?”
Jackson folded his hands across his belly and declaimed, “Civil Rights Act of 1964—LBJ. The Voting Rights Act of 1965—LBJ. Medicare—LBJ. Medicaid—LBJ. Child Nutrition Act—LBJ. Jobs Corps—LBJ.”
A few of the OWSers greeted Jackson’s words with skepticism, but most found them powerful, inspirational. “The connection with historical movements is what gives this so much moral credibility,” says Berger. “For someone like him to tell us ‘You have a history, tap into that history’—literally, I have goose bumps.”
The question is whether OWS will heed the message of Jackson’s riff on LBJ: that the protesters need to ally themselves with semi-simpatico elected officials, and that merely howling about the depradations of the existing economic and political order won’t be sufficient to change either. “At some point, movements must take on some form, some identifiable agenda,” Jackson tells me later. “At some point, water must become ice.”
The problem, of course, is that for a significant part of the Occupy leadership, using the LBJ model Jackson delineated would be tantamount to failure. Here’s how one of the most influential members of the leadership describes his mission — you tell me if this sounds like someone who’d be content to point to a piece of paper with President Obama’s signature at the bottom as the result of all his work:
“But this really isn’t about having a few demands for reform of the Fed or the transaction tax,” [Teichberg] goes on. “We’re talking about changing our society, so we no longer measure each other in terms of money, but based on fundamental things. What makes us special is not what we are against but what we are for: equality, unity, mutual respect. Those are very important elements of this new human system we want to build.”
Yeah, the Civil Rights Acts were nice — but could you describe any one of them as creating a “new human system”? I think not!
It’s easy to make fun of this kind of talk, of course, but it would be a mistake to figure that the Occupy movement could survive without its more ideologically ambitious, shall we say, participants. And, to their credit, it sounds like those who hold a position of influence within Occupy, but are not themselves quite so radical, understand this. Indeed, in an article that’s on the whole very sympathetic and displays these activists in an overwhelmingly positive light, I’d say that this was the quote that impressed me the most, showing as it did that — despite what their most strident critics would have you believe — many of the most important Occupiers are well aware of the delicate balance between poetry and prose that their movement will require if it is to succeed:
OWS will need to navigate the fork in the road between radicalism and reformism. “I don’t think it’s an either-or,” says Marom. “People who only want reforms are probably just handicapped by cynicism. And if you don’t want reforms as a revolutionary, then you’re not a revolutionary, because people need the foundations on top of which to survive. And people need to win things, to feel like it’s possible to win.”