Demands, Democratization, and OWS

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.

10 thoughts on “Demands, Democratization, and OWS”

  1. Suresh – much to like in what you say. I do wonder about something though. You say " We'll take a jobs program, thank you very much, but don't think we leave the park just because a bill passes the legislature" … but of course there isn't any hope of any bill passing a legislature in the next year with any reformist measures. So I don't see the policy debates being about cashing in now and going home. Rather, it seems the issue is to create a broader left agenda to fight for in years to come. One we cannot hope to win and go home by the time leaves have turned or fallen and snow has covered the ground. Ironically, this is also why I have found it irritating to hear the "gadfly left" utter curmudgeon-like demands that #OWS make demands. Because it's not like there are people who are waiting to sit across the table and bargain out a collective bargaining contract if demands would be made. But it does also mean that the notion of creating a platform is an important one – because it forces us to imagine what we seek. And this we have perhaps not done in some time.

  2. I like this very much. The metaphor of the OWS movement as wildlife garden for left politics is apt.

    I am both hopeful and concerned about the prospects for the wildlife garden — for taking us towards a properly hegemonic agenda.

    The absence of tightly edited program of demands has not been causing me to lose sleep.

    But I think, with Arin, that developing a platform can be useful — for recruitment and for the long-run. Hence that a bit of gardening may be in order.

    (Not that it's better. But was struck this week by visit to Occupy Chicago. As you know, they have have drawn up a somewhat mild 12 demand platform. Working off a close to consensus model. Seems 9/10 ensures passage.)

  3. I happened on an OWS spin-off meeting at Washington Square Park. It was chilly out, and about 20 people showed up.

    The meeting was opened by a man who jumped on the speaking stack and proceeded to recite an epic poem about the oppression of the masses everywhere in the world. It was all there—the mortgage crisis, the bank bailouts, Wall Street profits, Iraq and Afghanistan and every war and civil disturbance for the last decade. He read the poem in a high-pitched, keening, liturgical chant, and insisted that everyone recite every line after he read it. Everyone dutifully did, just like in church. The only line I can remember was, “And the monarchy in Nepal was challenged by the people.” (Chorus: “And the monarchy in Nepal was challenged by the people.”) This went on for ten minutes. (I timed it.)

    After that there was 20 minutes of inconclusive discussion of what we wanted to do at the next meeting.

    Then it broke up.

    That’s OWS: insufferable rants; meetings about meetings. The only thing that’s striking about it, to a tragic sensibility like mine, is that it seems to be the best that the Left can do.

  4. Arin and Josh: So the question is how to build that autonomous source of lasting political power. One answer is to get a message to middle america via the media: "We are here to get you jobs and debt-relief", and attract new members, new energy, etc. Another answer is to build the existing economic justice infrastructure we do have with the energy of OWS (I like to think this is happening with the various other struggles that have gotten a kick). A third answer is to hunker down and eke out a space (physically and symbolically) for fringe left ideology, hoping to evolve some viral mix of ideas and practices (that's what I mean by hegemony). All of these have obvious problems and potentials. I agree with Will, too. In its current incarnation, its bad theatre. But we're working hard at changing that.

  5. I agree with this post. I might go even further — it's impossible for the elite to make any binding commitments. The only success that come from a democratization movement is the increased capacity it gives to the non-elite — the 99% — to solve our collective action problems. This comes partly through concrete technologies of coordination, like the General Assembly, or whatever it involves into. (Does anyone else remember Hannah Arendt's argument in On Revolution about the universality of the local council, from town meetings to Soviets, as decision making body in revolutionary situations?) But probably more importantly, it means changed expectations, norms and language. You're much more likely to think of rioting in response to an injustice, if past experience teaches that other people are likely to be rioting too. And the hegemony of the language of liberty, fraternity, and equality, however degraded in practice, makes it easier to organize egalitarian projects and harder to organize hierarchical ones. More of that, is what I'm hoping for from this.

  6. Correction… counter-hegemony. Whether a full-fledged Popular Front movement can be hatched from such elementary beginnings remains to be seen or "proven", but its goal should not be to replace party-political and sovereign power, but to displace it and put a quasi-permanent check upon it.
    Then its demands should never cease, as if in a final fulfillment, but rather be channeled into and generate constantly community-building, reparative activity, despite the dominating wishes of the "centers" of power, or their attractions to a complacent majority.

  7. As an old Leftist, I've been both supportive of the movement and alarmed by a perception of its lack of focus. This article has given me a broader perspective and, to a great extent, legitimatized OWS strategy. One caveat I have is that we're 12 months away from an presidential election and I think it would be a debilitating mistake for the movement not to fully engage in and effect the process.

    It is simply inarguable that the only thing the elites recognize is power and demonstrating ineffectiveness or indifference in that regard at a time when (admittedly partisan) control of the entire political structure is up for grabs would be an enormous setback from which the movement probably wouldn't recover for years, if at all.

    On the other hand, supporting clearly flawed candidates exposes the movement to charges of cynicism, hypocrisy, being co-opted, etc. and could lead to dissension and divisiveness.

    It is the urgent task of the movement, it seems to me, to find a way to credibly effect the outcome of the election without losing its independence or its soul. There may not be a perfect solution to this dilema but partial (or least bad) solutions should be explored.

    In any event, keep up the could work. I'm happy to have found this site and will return to it often for thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas.


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