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Modern American politics are corrupt, hyper-partisan, and gridlocked, yet the mainstream media has failed to cover this as anything but politics as usual. This blog allows me to post my views, analysis and criticisms which are too confrontational for posting in mainstream outlets.

I am your host, Josh Sager--a progressive activist, political writer and occupier--and I welcome you to SarcasticLiberal.blogspot.com

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do the Occupiers Need Demands?

This post is divided into two competing opinions on the topic of whether or not the Occupy movement should formulate demands: I posit that demands are needed to create unity among the occupiers and to promote support from the population at large. Doug Greene, another author for The Occupier, posits that demands are not the proper method of creating change, as the problems in society are systemic rather than limited to things that can change through incremental change. While both sides argue valid points, I will leave it up to the reader to determine which viewpoint is the more effective manner of changing the status quo; if, after reading both sides of the debate, you wish to make your opinions heard, please reply in the comments section with your conclusions.

Do the Occupiers need demands?

Occupy Demands: Why Demands are Necessary
By Josh Sager

One of the biggest strategic and ideological debates among the Occupy protesters is over the idea of demands – more specifically, whether to formulate a set of demands or to simply rally around the idea of “Occupy”. While both sides of this debate have valid arguments, I propose that a clear, coherent and fair set of demands would highly benefit the movement as a whole.

Occupier demands could be focused on both local and national issues, as long there are sufficient numbers of people behind the demands. Ideally there would be a multi-tiered set of demands – local, state, regional, and federal – which could be used to influence politics on every level. Local demands could focus on smaller issues, unique to an area (Occupy Harvard) and focus upon local politics to achieve change. State demands would be formed through agreement by local Occupations and would focus upon shifting policy on the state level, like the Wisconsin labor protests, as well as influencing senatorial/congressional elections. Regional demands would be formed by multiple state occupations such as the Northeast, Rust Belt or West Coast. The largest platform, the federal level, would focus on broad ideals of Occupy and national issues (campaign finance, civil rights, etc.). Each level could act independently of others.  Occupy Boston and Occupy LA would have different local issues, but would have a say in the decisions made by higher levels.
The benefits of having demands would be seen in three areas: political impact, creating coalitions and recruitment.

Politics is all about messaging, and a set of demands or goals is necessary to promote a cause. Clear and easily digestible goals - such as ending a war, passing single-payer healthcare, or campaign finance reform - can be used to push politicians towards supporting policies promoted by the Occupiers. If a politician sees the Occupy movement as a well informed and motivated voting bloc, rather than a protest with no unifying goal, they will be far more likely to fear electoral retribution unless they support Occupy demands. Without demands there can be little accountability for politicians who go against the spirit of the Occupations.

A defined set of goals can also be used to create coalitions of support while clarifying the central ideals of the Occupy movement. Clarity of message gives a movement a defined purpose for member's actions while contributing towards group unity. In addition to internal unity, an organization can more easily create coalitions with other, similar, groups that would otherwise be difficult to form. While it is still up for debate whether the Occupy movement wants to start forming coalitions, this is a necessary step before it even becomes an option.  One possible example of such a coalition would be Occupy and worker's rights organizations.  If the Occupy movement were to definitively get behind worker’s rights as a core policy platform, unions and worker protection organizations would be more likely to support Occupy.  

A clear set of demands could act as a recruiting tool to garner more support for the Occupy movement. By creating a set of policy demands that the occupiers can point to and say: ”Here is a problem that has harmed you, and this is what we can do to fix it”, whenever somebody asks the goals of the occupations, they can entice others to support and join them. If the Occupiers propose solutions that will benefit the common citizen and begin to rebalance the economic equality scale back towards the people, large numbers of people will respond positively. Large segments of the population have been harmed by the excesses of Wall Street and the corruption of Washington, creating great potential for mass-mobilization by the Occupy movement. Unless we have a clear set of goals, it is unlikely that we will mobilize any but the most motivated and informed citizens.

Without clear demands, increasing recruitment will be difficult as there will always be doubt as to the movement’s endgame. The unifying effects of demands can be seen as analogous to creating a magnetic compass. An iron needle can be magnetized through passing a magnetic field over it. Before it is magnetized, the iron molecules in the needle have magnetic polarities running in every direction, thus the magnetic polarities cancel each other out. When a magnetic field passes over the needle, the polarities align in a single direction and a magnetic compass is created. And just as a magnetic compass doesn’t work when it lacks alignment, a protest won’t work unless the protesters have common goals and demands.

The Case Against Demands

Beyond Demands 'We will ask nothing. We will demand nothing. We will take, occupy.” -Graffiti from May 1968

by Doug Enaa Greene and Jay Jubilee

            “What are your demands?” This a question frequently posed to the Occupy movement. According to some, in order to be “effective” at achieving gains, movements like Occupy need to put forth a list of concrete demands addressed to the state. Occupy has not played by these rules. While supporting particular campaigns that may include specific demands, Occupy remains outside of existing structures as it strives to develop a new mode of politics that breaks radically with the system.

            Why shouldn't Occupy focus on coming up with a list of immediate demands? We could easily  come up with  a list, one that would include items such as ending US wars and increasing social spending for things that people need—like public transportation. There is nothing objectionable about these demands; actually, they reflect many of the reasons people have become involved in Occupy. The society we seek to create would indeed be one where public transportation would be a universal right and there’d be no more wars for empire.

What is problematic about such a list of demands is that creates a false picture. It presents as separate, issues that are really deeply connected, and suggests that progress will come slowly with incremental gains adding up over time until we achieve a just society. Furthermore, such lists often act as substitutes for an explanation of the driving forces behind these injustices: namely the capitalist system, whose very nature is to perpetuate social inequalities through its pursuit of profit at all costs. Such lists keep us from seeing the whole picture and the need for a radical break with capitalism.

            Some in Occupy say that we should focus on specific issues and find practical solutions. Yet, can we separate the call for increased social spending from ending the wars, from the need for overthrowing the rule of the 1% that sets the frame for US foreign policy, without confusing matters and misleading people? If we understand capitalism, a system where the means of economic production and the social surplus are privately controlled by a few as the problem, then we must find some way to challenge that system rather than only demanding local changes to it.

            Furthermore, there is a problem with expressing our politics in the form of demands, which are generally addressed to the rulers of the existing system. If we understand capitalism and its government as being our enemy-- then how can we appeal to it to fix our problems? That state seeks to ensure the continued functioning of capitalism—to keep the profits flowing, and to subordinate the people to that end--through its executive, legislature, courts, police, and army. Such an appeal will ultimately fall on deaf ears.  Worse, by continuing to address this state as if it will violate its nature, we lull people into wishful thinking.  We risk trapping our activity as well: continually making demands on the state that we know it can’t grant, only to have the state prove (again and again!) its “real nature” to us. We risk exhausting our energies talking to the rulers, rather than to people beyond its reach.

            Some will argue that we should come up with “realistic” demands that can be accommodated by the system—that people gain courage slowly, through winning victories. Others argue for making “transitional” demands on the state so that we can show others that this state—contrary to its democratic ideology—cannot or will not satisfy those demands. The former position assumes that the system is still capable of granting significant reforms—against evidence to the contrary. The latter point assumes that people need to go through this charade of making demands on the state to eventually see its “true nature.” This view assumes that the system is not already exposed in the eyes of millions, to the point that many people will not bother much with (what they themselves see as foolhardy) struggles around immediate demands, since they see how problem runs deeper. To the contrary: our ongoing assumption is that millions of people in this country already sense that fundamental change is needed, that the system is the problem.

When Occupy refuses to come up with demands, it refuses to play by established politics, and announces to all that they shouldn't play by those rules either, since the game is rigged. When we refuse to demand, we say that we don't want to play their game; we want to put an end to it.  We don’t demand that the system change.  We declare how sick the system is—and we call for the 99% to join us in the creation of something radically different and better.
While the Occupy Movement doesn't have a list of demands, campaigns have emerged around Occupy that do have clear demands. The Occupy the T campaign demands “No cuts. No hikes. No layoffs” and “A sustainable, affordable, and comprehensive statewide transportation plan that works for the 99%.”  These campaigns show the contradictory nature of demand-based politics. On the one hand, the struggle around concrete concerns, anchored in defensive demands has allowed occupiers to engage with a broader public, and to establish themselves as defenders of the 99%.  However, the orientation of these demands towards the state tends to pull back Occupy’s radical visions in order to allow us to “be taken seriously” by the government. 

We would argue that the proper use of such demands is not in lobbying the state to accept them, but in initiating broader and deeper conversations and relationships between occupiers and other members of the 99%. We must not confuse such “demands” with our actual goals of movement-building. Where they are a starting point for developing deeper conversations, such “demands” play a useful role.  But where they suppress such deeper conversations, and where they get us to turn from our fellow T-riders and workers and to look instead to the state for solutions, they are a danger.   Whatever becomes of such campaigns, it remains crucial that Occupy does not set its goal as getting only piecemeal reforms from the system, but struggles for a more radical break.

To its credit, the Occupy the T campaign declares what is unacceptable, seeks to unite the 99%, and promises to build resistance to any T plan that does not meet our standards. In this sense, the campaign is a way to engage the people and to popularize Occupy through direct action. To the extent This campaign brings T-riders and workers into the struggle by identifying where capitalism hurts them directly, Occupy the T provides a site to fight for reforms in a revolutionary way. This struggle can bring up larger questions of the system's irrationality and draw others into the movement since the T's budget plan affects millions.  Ultimately, the MBTA's plan is the latest attempt to make working people pay more for less, so that capitalist profits can go up and up.

            Occupy has declared its goal to be the creation of a society that prioritizes the needs of all before the profits of a few. This declaration is not directed to the state, but to people who are being abused or abandoned by the system. Whatever immediate struggles we engage in, we must make it our goal to expose the system and to empower people to challenge its legitimacy by their concerted action where its problems are produced, where it is most vulnerable, and where we have potential power:  in workplaces where our labor makes things run, on our trains and buses, where concerted collective action could force the State Legislature to its knees. The goal is not so much to get the state to change the situation, but to prepare the ground for the 99% to seize control of these situations.

In short, not to demand:  but to Occupy.

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