Americans in the “Occupy Wall Street / We Are the 99 percent” movement have been organizing themselves in horizontal (as opposed to hierarchical) democratic structures that open a window on new forms of social relations. It has been quite consciously planned that way, inspired by the experiences of the globalization movement and of the Arab Spring and Spain, and resembles the occupation of the Capitol building in Wisconsin earlier this year. Their organization through assemblies does not conform to the methods of traditional political parties.
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post interviewed David Graeber, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and one of the initial organizers of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests. He explained why the critics asking for a list of demands are missing the point of the movement quite dramatically: “You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.”
The way that the movement has self-organized is first of all by the occupation itself, which attempts to create a space in which direct democracy can take place. It institutes a process which allows people to come to a consensus about what their demands would be. A Declaration by the Occupation of NYC, unanimously voted on by all members of the occupation last Thursday, makes clear that at the root of what they oppose is the corporate takeover of government and all the necessities of life. The preamble states: “… that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.”
Liberal left groups like MoveOn.org claim that “The occupation of Wall Street—and the occupations throughout the country—are expressions of the same spirit and dynamic as the Take Back the American Dream conference.” But this is fundamentally wrong: MoveOn is a top-down group tied to the Democratic Party, a political email pyramid based on the Obama campaign. Their “Rebuild the Dream” conference is an attempt to create an artificial grass-roots movement modeled on the Tea Party.
In his interview, Graeber commented: “The real difficulty is how to work with people who are top-down and have a funding base, as it means there are things they can say in public and things they can’t, and groups where people can say whatever they want and the whole idea is to be decentralized. One problem I’ve already heard of is that people are coming in and changing the tenor of the general assemblies to speeches, and that’s not really what it’s supposed to be about. So you have to balance the aspect where you’re trying to show what direct democracy could be like and the effort to link up with groups that have a form of organization we’ve rejected.”
Matt Stoller of the Roosevelt Institute visited the occupation at Liberty Plaza in its second week and these were his impressions: “What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, ‘we matter’. … They believe themselves to represent all Americans who are frustrated by politics and finance. Whether or not this is true, what is happening is that there is a belief that their actions matter, that they themselves are moral beings who have dignity and power simply by the very act of self-expression. …
“Many of the angry establishment liberals are frustrated that this protest has no top-down messaging strategy … But these people, who represent the rump of support for Obama, are not part of the conversation here. The conversation is global. And you can sort of tell that this protest really bothers the community on Wall Street, stirring up deep existential questions for the people that work there, many of whom know there is a spectacle going on in the streets below.”
It seems to me that the point is this: by asserting their own morality despite their lack of power, they are challenging the moral authority of Wall Street, and thereby challenging the moral compunction to pay debt. But this is in fact what the economic and political power of finance is based on. By extending credit, bankers make a claim on someone’s wages or property for the conceivable future. If debt were abolished tomorrow, the hold of banks and corporations on people’s lives would be ended.
Answering the criticisms that the movement does not have clear demands, former SEIU organizer Stephen Lerner pointed out: “There are lots of people with concrete demands about principal reduction and closing corporate loopholes. We haven’t had a shortage of demands and solutions. We’ve had a shortage of mass movements that are courageous and heroic and driven by a sense of right and wrong.”
“Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” makes a more profound challenge to the system than all the policy demands of left parties put together. How far it will be possible to take it remains to be seen. But what is clear is that there is a huge reservoir of support from people throughout the country facing eviction, bankruptcy, and unemployment. Ezra Klein summed this up: “It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy – work hard, play by the rules, get ahead – has been broken, and they want to see it restored.”