In formal political economy, Acemoglu and Robinson have a famous theory of democratization, which might illuminate the splits inside OWS. Non-democracies are characterized by elite control of the policy making process. Occasionally, non-elites are able to solve their collective action problems and temporarily threaten the elites with rebellion. Elites can respond to this threat by repressing, temporarily reforming, or democratizing. When a movement is weak, it can be easily repressed. If it is a bit stronger but not overwhelmingly powerful, elites might alter a few policies here and there, but not change the identity of who gets to decide future policies. Because politics is fickle and promises aren’t worth anything unless they are institutionalized, the temporary policy changes won by a political movement aren’t going to last unless the identity of the people deciding policy in the future changes. A sad example of a regime’s worthless promises is the 1381 Wat Tyler peasant rebellion, where the king promised amnesty to the anti-landlord rebels, only to have them hanged once they put down their arms. Zuccotti square is our pitchfork, and we shouldn’t put it down for non-credible promises from our elites. But what is a credible promise? What could we demand that would last and work well after we’ve gone back to normal life (in my case referee reports and regressions)?
In Acemoglu and Robinson, when protesting citizens have enough political power, they demand and win democracy instead of just redistribution. In this way, democracy is a commitment device, ensuring that non-elites get to decide policies even after they have demobilized from the streets. If one admits that de jure U.S. politics, while democratic in form, has certain parts of it (e.g. monetary policy, financial regulation, tax policy) captured by elites regardless of the politician in power, then this democratization model becomes pretty applicable. Perhaps it took Obama’s election and subsequent ineffectiveness to really communicate the extent of elite capture of U.S. politics, although the evidence has been accumulating for decades. In any case, many of the folks in Zuccotti square think that electoral politics is completely run by the rich, and so it takes street politics to force reform. The problem is, as in Acemoglu and Robinson, that mobilization is generally temporary: you don’t get people protesting on the streets for years. A lasting victory would depend on converting this mobilization into institutions and durable policy gains.
The claim that OWS is partially a democratization movement has been made by Hardt and Negri. I think they are right, because from the inside it exhibits the fractures that all democratization movements face. Social democrats want the movement to cash in the temporarily political energy for economic policies to generate economic growth right now. I understand this, as political power via the street mobilization and media is fleeting and there is a worry that we will lose it before we actually secure anything at all. But the radicals claim a bigger, better demand: “real” democracy. The ability to set policy is worth much more than any particular policy, and democracy is the institutional setup that gives everybody the ability to participate in setting policy.
So radicals want the movement to continue to try and build political power so that we can demand not just financial transactions taxes or even a jobs program, but all that and the ability to have a say over all kinds of other decisions, from incarceration to the environment. This is why the overarching concern for the anarchists is to build the organizational architecture of the occupation, growing its semiotic and spatial reach. This makes the whirring of activity around Zuccotti square an amplifier for all the popular economic justice struggles, from Sotheby’s workers to anti-foreclosure activism to movements to democratize the Fed. I like the metaphor of OWS as a wildlife garden for a left political ecology, which is attracting and cultivating a biosphere of demands, grievances, ideologies and cultural practices to evolve a stronger left. This is also why we are sometimes accused of having a “grab bag” of disconnected issues: its because one of the promises of the movement is power for the majority over all kinds of decisions, instead of making demands from the incompetent and decadent elites that currently make those decisions. Its part of the idea that this is just the beginning; we have a long winter and a longer struggle ahead, and need to use this moment to set ourselves up for building more political power in the medium run. So we’re not going to coalesce and harden into “demands”, but instead continue to nurture a culture of a thousand different demands and recruit people and develop a hegemonic agenda (that we don’t have yet!). But the promise of that power and hegemony is grander: democratic control over policy making writ large. Occupy Everything, until we get all our demands and we don’t have to make any more.