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Occupy Wall Street and the Art of Demanding
(Photo: Sunset Parkerpix / Flickr)

Occupy Wall Street and the Art of Demanding

(Photo: Sunset Parkerpix / Flickr)

Of all the internal controversies Occupy generated, the one over whether the movement should adopt specific demands may have been the most significant. The resistance to raising demands, particularly on the state, is understandable since the notion of demands has become associated with negotiation, legislation and similar “business as usual” that would blunt and even compromise the radical edge of the movement. Anarchist and quasi-anarchist currents have played a role in rousing that reluctance among people who may not be ideological anarchists but who may be receptive to the anarchist message on this issue for a number of reasons but especially because of two kinds of fears.[i]

One fear is that whatever success the Occupy movement attains may become narrowed down or even wiped out through judicial, legislative or governmental administrative undermining or sabotage. This is a rational concern based on real historical experience. However, the real root of the problem lies on the strength – or weakness – of the movement, and not on the pitfalls inherent to the demand for reforms itself. This becomes especially evident when the movement weakens after the reform has been gained leading to a change in the relation of forces that in turn propitiates the cooptation, bureaucratization and sellout of movement leaders. This has been the case with the American labor movement since the late thirties. Labor reforms like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) granting workers the legal right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining were already born with limitations in coverage and other features undermining worker autonomy, betraying the original goals that people fought for. Later, organized labor was unable to defeat subsequent legislation such as the post World War II Taft-Hartley Act that undermined many of the positive features of the original legislation. But this has been, more than any other factors, the outcome of labor’s weakness relative to the increased power of the corporations, not of raising demands by the workers on the state as such. The labor movements and left parties in western Europe generally succeeded in winning labor and welfare state reforms that were substantially more comprehensive and favorable to the working class and the poor, not because they did not make demands on the state but because they were much stronger than their American counterparts.

The dynamics of demands for reform and how reform is affected by the changing relation of forces can also be seen in another important mass movement, the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was organized most of all around one powerful demand on the government: “Freedom Now,” which centered on the call to end Jim Crow in the southern states. Although this single demand remained the principal focus throughout the duration of the movement, demands were also placed on private businesses and institutions, particularly outside of the South.

As a member of the UC Berkeley Campus Chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in 1963 and 1964, I participated in two-person teams that visited merchants along Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley’s principal commercial road, asking that they sign contracts promising to hire one African-American out of every two new hires, a form of affirmative action before the term was invented. Similar demands started to be made of bigger businesses through big demonstrations that took place at Berkeley supermarkets (shop-ins,) Oakland’s Jack London Square, and San Francisco’s auto row and the Sheraton Palace Hotel.

Having gathered new strength in the early sixties, the Civil Rights Movement reached a fever pitch from 1963 onwards with hundreds of demonstrations dominating media coverage. It was this change in the relation of forces between the movement and the political establishment that compelled the Kennedy administration, which had been at best lukewarm in its support of civil rights (Kennedy had even appointed William Harold Cox, a Southern white racist, to the Federal bench in Mississippi in June, 1961) to reverse course and support, for the first time, substantial civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act putting and end to Jim Crow was eventually approved under Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in 1964, and subsequently supplemented, once more as a result of the pressure of huge mass protests, by the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Left-wing analysts such as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward analyzed the dynamics of the Civil Rights Movement in terms of the centrality of massive disruption as an incentive for power holders to give significant concessions, which became implemented by being channeled through the electoral and party systems. Thus, Piven and Cloward indicated that “in the years 1963 to 1965 the balance of electoral considerations shifted decisively to favor the granting of black rights in the South,”[ii] bringing to fruition the successful civil rights and voting legislation.

This is a useful account of the events that took place but it understates the major development that both parties, and not just the Democratic Party, were forced to support the passage of civil rights legislation because of the dramatic change in the relation of forces. Piven and Cloward themselves recount how after the white racist Southern Democratic senators led an eighty-three day filibuster, the conservative Senate Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican, rose on the Senate floor to proclaim: “This is an idea whose time has come. It will not be stayed. It will not be denied.” After cloture had been finally invoked, 27 of 31 Republican senators voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act that was signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.[iii] Something similar happened with the Voting Rights Act the following year when every Republican senator except J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina voted in favor of it.[iv] It was clear that a powerful movement had shaken the whole country to its very roots, dramatically transforming the relation of forces in its favor allowing them to succeed in imposing an important part of their reform agenda on the whole political system.

Today, there is a real possibility that the US Supreme Court may significantly weaken the Voting Rights Act; it is even being discussed that the Act is no longer needed. Voting restrictions of every sort, such as requiring official IDs, large-scale removal of voters from the rolls, and barring former felons from voting, have become widespread throughout the country.[v] Although this is not the place to develop a full analysis of this retreat, it is the weakness of the black and other oppressed groups that has greatly changed the relation of forces, thus allowing the opposition to make inroads against past gains. Undoubtedly, the cooptation of movement leaders, either directly into the Establishment through the Democratic Party, or through other pacifying institutional mechanisms such as NGOs and foundation grants, have played an important role in this process of decay. But these have been both as much a consequence as a cause of the movement’s weaknesses.

Another fear tapped into by various kinds of anarchist and quasi-anarchist thought is that a partial victory might lead to loss of motivation among the rank-and-file to keep fighting, and to the decline of the movement. One problem with this way of thinking is that it easily leads to an unintended elitism in the sense of being indifferent and even hostile to “small” victories that may improve the lot of the oppressed and alleviate, although certainly not solve, their problems. People holding this view sometimes assume, implicitly or explicitly, that defeat is better than partial victory because it supposedly radicalizes and enlarges movements. If we follow this line of reasoning, the problem is not raising demands, the problem is that a successful, but partial, struggle might extinguish the radical or revolutionary flame. This leads to an ideological posture of “revolution or nothing” which if it were to be correct, it would mean that under current conditions in the U.S.A., no movement is worthwhile. This ideological posture is harmful and mistaken: defeat can paralyze and demobilize people, although this is not to deny that those who remain active may learn from defeats. On the other hand, partial victories often make people feel empowered and confident and willing to reach for more radical goals.

Given the possibility of only partial victories at best, or of defeat at least in the short term because of a possibly unfavorable relation of forces, a radical movement has to develop a perspective for the long haul, including an attempt to understand the systemic conditions and crises that make radicalization and revolution more likely, if certainly not inevitable, and how movements and organizations are to respond to changing conditions.

Short of a revolutionary situation, movements undergo an ebb and flow with the inevitable loss of people and cadre in the downswing of the socio-economic and political cycles. We need to have a better and sharper understanding of what it takes to preserve and enlarge what E. P. Thompson, in his essay “Commitment in Politics,” described as the conscious minority,[vi] referring not primarily to the leaders but to the long-term, politically conscious activists who are involved for the long haul and who constitute the heart of movements.

Think of Rosa Parks. She was not a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bayard Rustin, but neither was she simply an “average” black lady who was just tired while riding a segregated bus and spontaneously, out of nowhere, started a big movement. This is a convenient romantic fiction for a profoundly individualistic American political culture allergic to politics, especially organizational politics. Rosa Parks was a seamstress who also happened to be the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and attended classes at the left-wing Highlander Folk School in Mount Eagle, Tennessee. She was, in the best sense of the term, a civil rights cadre and thus part of the conscious minority in the black community.

Activists, like Parks, who constitute the conscious minority are the repositories of the collective political memory that allow movements to benefit from the political and organizational experience of seasoned cadres and to avoid the same mistakes that were made in the past. It is the size of this minority, and the quantity and quality of its experience, which enriches the political culture and sophistication of movements. This contributes to the depth, scope and radicalism of the next political upsurge, improving the chances of political success. With success, the political and ideological distance between the conscious minority and the rest of the mass movement is reduced and bridged.

Raising demands on the state has functions and purposes that are often underestimated if not overlooked. Demands can act as a form of consciousness raising, helping to develop a sense of entitlement that may exist only in a latent form among large number of people. The Occupy movement has shown its enormous capacity to affect the popular consciousness as witness the rapid popularization of the ideas about the 1 and 99 percents. When raised by a mass movement, demands can bring to the surface ideas that have a latent support in the moral economy of the 99 percent of Americans but have not yet been articulated as expectations that people think are legitimate and possible.

Demands can also be necessary and important in unifying diverse movements that may emerge in the multi-racial and multi-cultural environment of the United States. Occupy might trigger movements in minority communities that are likely to come out with their own specific demands. For Occupy, this would present a challenge and opportunity to attempt to unite all the movements under a common set of demands.

There are political and intellectual currents in the United States that are different from anarchism that have also been opposed to raising demands on the state. These currents may not have (yet) been a significant factor in the Occupy Movement – at least not in New York, Oakland, and other big northern and western cities – but they have historically been much more influential than anarchism. The Tea Party, a right wing expression of those currents, rejects out of hand the taxing power of the government and its spending on matters such as education and social services, although except for a relatively small libertarian fringe within it, it supports increased defense spending. Similar currents have existed in American labor unions and in the American left. Even in the Great Depression, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) remained opposed to unemployment insurance legislation as late as November, 1932. Based on the American ideology of voluntarism championed by Samuel Gompers, the by then deceased long-time leader of the AFL, who, along with other AFL leaders had insisted that such remedies should be left to the collective bargaining process between workers and employers and be excluded from any state intervention.[vii]

Historically, the right has tried to redefine and idealize voluntarism in liberal and democratic terms as people helping themselves and others free from a bureaucratic government running and dictating their lives. But this voluntarism has been put to the test with disastrous results. Under the form of private charity, it became the dominant form of what passed for social services before the 1930s. But the great limitations, grossly inadequate coverage and frequent moral and religious intrusion of this private philanthropy played an important role in bringing about the development of broad scale government entitlements during the Great Depression.[viii]

In the 1990s, the weakness of the left and the rising influence of fashionable ideas such as communitarianism,[ix] and the concern expressed with the decline of “civic engagement” by Robert D. Putnam,[x] an influential Harvard political scientist, led some leftists to succumb to the ideological pressures of voluntarism to one degree or another.[xi] Well-known leftist social scientists, such as Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, became defensive in their attitude toward the welfare state,[xii] or as in the case of the leftist Christian Jim Wallis, signaled an even clearer political retreat.[xiii] Even Barbara Ehrenreich, an excellent left writer, confessed to being a “recovering statist.” [xiv] She regretted having previously placed her hopes in an undifferentiated fashion “on the federal government as a positive instrument for social change,” and her previous definition of “progressivism” as the “defense of government.” [xv] Ehrenreich then went on to channel Samuel Gompers’ ideas arguing for the organization of unions and to forget about demanding government services, creating instead alternative services like those offering information, contacts, referrals and a place for people to gather, thereby retreating into the very voluntarism, albeit with a left-wing gloss, that the most sophisticated right-wingers have long been advocating.

The OWS reluctance to formulate demands might have been beneficial initially in that it might have created a more welcoming atmosphere to newly radicalized people.

But as movements develop and mature, they need to state more clearly what they stands for and not only what they stand against. Movements need to develop some kind of theory to guide their actions, not as an obscure, technical body of thought only accessible to the select few, but as the clearest possible ideas about the nature of the enemy and of the movement. Movements must address the problems they are likely to confront as they go from point A – where they are – to point B – where they want to be.


[i] See Stephanie Luce, “Pushing Demands at Occupy Wall Street?” Against the Current, #156, January/February 2012, 3-4.

[ii] Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements, New York: Vintage Books, 1979, 239.

[iii] Ibid., 246.

[iv] Ibid., 251.

[v] For a useful recent account of the restrictions of voting rights throughout the U.S. see David Morris, “Democracy Under Attack,” Huff Post, April 4, 2012.

[vi] E. P. Thompson, “Commitment in Politics,” Universities & Left Review, No. 6, Spring 1959, 50-55.

[vii] Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years. A History of the American Worker 1920-1933, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960, 345-355.

[viii] For a thoroughgoing historical account relevant to this issue see Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse. A Social History of Welfare in America, Tenth Anniversary Edition, New York: Basic Books, 1996.

[ix] Communitarianism is an intellectual and political current which, among other things, counterposes the social obligations of the members of a community to the expansion of individual rights. See, for example, the work of the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, particularly his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982 and Democracy’s Discontent. America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap Press at Harvard University Press, 1996. For a systematic refutation of the communitarian perspective see Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[x] See, for example, Robert D. Putnam, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” The American Prospect, Winter 1996.

[xi] For an extensive discussion of these issues see chapter 2 of my Social Decay and Transformation. A View From the Left, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000.

[xii] Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, “Secondary Associations and Democratic Governance” in Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, Associations and Democracy. The Real Utopias Project, Vol. 1, edited by Erik Olin Wright, London, New York: Verso, 1995, 54.

[xiii] Jim Wallis, Who Speaks for God?, New York: Delta Book, 1996, 41-82.

[xiv] Barbara Ehrenreich, “When Government Gets Mean. Confessions of a Recovering Statist,” The Nation, November 17, 1997, 11-16.

[xv] Ibid., 11, 12.