So I’ve been tweeting up a storm today on the question of whether #OccupyWallStreet needs to compile a formal list of demands. (Spoiler alert: Nope.) I’m not going to rehash my whole argument here right now, but someone just tweeted something at me that gives me an opportunity to explore a piece of it.
Here’s the tweet, posted in response to me saying that “When people say #OccupyWallStreet needs to articulate demands, they usually mean they want it to embrace their demands.”
That was pretty well played, I must say. Apt, pithy, and deploying one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite activists. But let’s look at all of what Douglass said there:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”
This is Douglass is at his very best, but when he talks about making a demand he’s talking about planting your feet in the struggle, not drafting a bill of particulars.
The Montgomery bus boycott started out demanding a line separating the whites in the front of the bus from the blacks in the rear, so that black patrons wouldn’t have to give up their seats when the white section filled up. (Rosa Parks was obeying the law when she sat down that day.) Mario Savio made no demands at all in the most famous speech in the history of the American student movement. Malcolm X’s demands shifted weekly, sometimes hourly, and the suffragist and abolitionist movements both encompassed vast, unwieldy coalitions.
Now, I’m not anti-demands in principle. If you happen to be fighting a narrow, single-issue, clearly-defined campaign, then by all means articulate what you’re looking to get. But if you’re not — and Occupy Wall Street isn’t — then any demands you put forward should serve a tactical purpose, and the question of what to demand has to be preceded by a discussion of whether it serves your interests to make any demands at all.
Some folks at Occupy Wall Street want to see Congress overturn the Citizens United decision. Some want to see an end to US military adventurism. Some want to see Nick Kristof’s head on a pike. Would endorsing any one of these demands bring the group together, or would it peel people off from the coalition? If you want OWS to make demands, you’ve gotta have a solid answer to that question.
Some demands are certainly more innocuous than others. I imagine that demanding a financial transaction tax, for instance, wouldn’t in and of itself alienate many people currently in Liberty Plaza, and it might bring a few more on board.
But even if that demand could be approved smoothly and easily and without dissent, would its articulation bring the implementation of such a tax any nearer? I honestly don’t see how it would. A Google search on “transaction tax” and “occupy wall street” already returns more than twenty thousand hits, so the idea is already a big part of the conversation. And it’s not like a formal statement from next Tuesday’s GA is going to upend the legislative dynamic that currently pertains in Washington DC.
No. What’s going to change the dynamic in Washington DC, if anything will, is the continued growth of this movement. If you want to see Occupy Wall Street lead to a transaction tax, you want the movement to grow. If you want it to compel the demise of the legal concept of corporate personhood, you want the movement to grow. If you want it to overthrow global capitalism, you want the movement to grow.
It won’t grow if it’s completely contentless, of course. But it’s not contentless now. The General Assembly passed a “declaration of occupation” a few nights ago, and there’s some real meat there. I said in a recent blogpost that it was my sense that pretty much everyone in Liberty Plaza thought “that something was seriously broken in the American economy, that something was seriously broken in American politics, and that an accelerating concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small minority was at the root of most of of that brokenness,” and none of the many people who’ve read or linked to that post have yet disagreed.
If you think OWS has no message, you’re just not paying attention.
The OWS critique of our current national (and global) crisis will continue to unfold. Those discussions are ongoing, in a zillion venues. And I’m not convinced that this movement is any less coherent right now than the suffragists at the turn of the century or the lunch-counter sit-in crowd in the spring of 1960 or the London demonstrators over the last few months.
And at any rate the crucial task for Occupy Wall Street right now isn’t coherence, any more than it’s the articulation of specific demands. It’s resonance as an idea, as a movement.
You don’t win by making demands. You win by taking power or by forcing power to bend. Either way your stated demands are peripheral to the outcome — what you demand has only the vaguest relationship to what you win.