Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupying: now with more (or less) focus

On my last post, I mentioned that I've been involved with the Occupy movement in our area.  I got the following comment:

"Honestly, my only problem with the Occupy movement is a lack of focus. If they were a little more unified and had actual goals I think it'd be easier to understand. But I think the majority of the people out there are more lost than not."

I've found this to be one of the most common criticisms of the Occupy movement, at least by those who are at all sympathetic to it.  I find this criticism to be both fair, and deeply flawed at the same time.  That I can think something like this means, among other things, that I am an incredibly frustrating person to argue with.  =)  But no matter.  I also think that this criticism, and why it's flawed, is incredibly important, so I begged the commenter's patience for me to be able to respond in a full post, rather than just in a comment.  Since you know how often I post here, and now I'm writing a second post in under two weeks, you must know that I think this is important!

Okay, in essence I have three reasons to think that this criticism is flawed.  They are all independent of each other--which is to say, I think that any one of them would function well on its own, even if the other two didn't pan out; or to put it a different way, they don't depend on each other.  That said, I think they're all also consistent with each other--they don't cause each other problems.  (And so ends today's brief lesson in critical thinking.)  I do think there's something of a natural order to the responses, so I'm going to go through them one by one.

1.  Reports of our lack of focus have been greatly exaggerated.

I've certainly seen any number of news reports, man-on-the-street remarks, newspaper editorials, etc., complaining that they can't even tell what we're protesting.  Yet if you look at the signs, read the stories of the participants, see the posts on places like Facebook and others, I think it becomes clear that there is a basic nexus of issues.  Almost all of the protests boil down to issues about the disproportionate sway of money over our government, the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, and the betrayal of our public by the government in collusion with the banks for the bailout.  And really, even these issues all boil down to one broad point--crony capitalism of the worst sort.  We are protesting our near-complete loss of power, and a system that reinforces this loss, concentrating the power into fewer and fewer hands.  Really, that comic above sums it up pretty well.

The problem here is that the real issues don't sum up well into 10 second sound bites, which is all that makes it onto the news anymore.  The issues are complex, and the various slogans dreamed up by us placard-painters are only pointing to them, not stating them outright.  So things look far less focused than they really are, and the media doesn't seem to be eager to correct this perception.

Having said that....

2.  Gauge your strength before choosing your target.

There is a very genuine sense in which OWS has not chosen its targets, or made its demands, and there is a specific rationale for this.  Occupiers--all of us, not just those in NY--need to be able to get a clear assessment of the real strength of OWS before issuing any demands.  If this movement proves to be very strong, as I hope it will (and I think it's headed that way), then we don't want to sell ourselves short by demanding--and maybe getting--some token concessions, essentially blowing the power it has with very little to show for it.  On the other hand, OWS needs to be careful not to overshoot and make demands that it does not have sufficient power to fight for, which is another way to blow what power it has.  It is very tricky to gauge this, and even the best process could screw it up.  The process that the GAs of OWS have decided on will be to convene a congress next year (no, of course I can't remember when) to formalize a list of demands to which they expect the President and Congress to respond.  The current threat of power (as of the plans right now) will be to form a third party if the current parties are unwilling to engage with OWS to achieve our goals.  This could change between now and when the congress convenes, but this is the most updated version I've seen so far.

But all of that pales before....

3.  No demand is big enough.

This reason comes from this piece from Charles Eisenstein, reposted variously across the interwebs, called "Occupy Wall Street:  no demand is big enough".  I can't possibly do justice to his eloquence, so I hope you'll follow the link and read it, but I will excerpt the core part for my purposes here:

"Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for its lack of clear demands, but how do we issue demands, when what we really want is nothing less than the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible? No demand is big enough. We could make lists of demands for new public policies: tax the wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment, end the wars, regulate the banks. While we know these are positive steps, they aren't quite what motivated people to occupy Wall Street. What needs attention is something deeper: the power structures, ideologies, and institutions that prevented these steps from being taken years ago; indeed, that made these steps even necessary. Our leaders are beholden to impersonal forces, such as that of money, that compel them to do what no sane human being would choose. Disconnected from the actual effects of their policies, they live in a world of insincerity and pretense. It is time to bring a countervailing force to bear, and not just a force but a call. Our message is, "Stop pretending. You know what to do. Start doing it." Occupy Wall Street is about exposing the truth. We can trust its power. When a policeman pepper sprays helpless women, we don't beat him up and scare him into not doing it again; we show the world. Much worse than pepper spray is being perpetrated on our planet in service of money. Let us allow nothing happening on earth to be hidden."

And finally, I'll throw in one fourth reason, which doesn't really stand alone, but is often operating in the background of my thoughts on this--at least now, people are starting to pay attention.  You know, I've spent the past 5-7 years of my life trying to get people to think about the sustainability of our institutions, of our economy, of where this is all going; for the past two years, it's even been my job to do so.  And I will claim with certainty, and some humility, that all of the work that I, and everyone who reads this blog, and everyone we read, and everyone who works on this in any capacity--all put together--have not had as much success getting people to pay attention to these issues as OWS has in only two months.  I'm glad we've been doing all of this work for the past few years, because finally people are coming and starting to learn about it.  I credit OWS with this.  Sure people might have come around on their own, or all wandered over to us eventually, but how wonderful that it is finally starting to happen en masse.  And I will stand on a cold streetcorner all winter, every chance I get, if I can keep that momentum going--to just get people to wake up.


  1. Thank you. I admit that I've mostly been hearing nebulous things about the Occupy movement (mostly Boston not Wall Street... guess where I live! :-P) but not actually been tracking down info.

    And those that were "handing out info" at UMass were less than reliable sources (oh my gods they are terrible spokespersons you don't even want to know how much incendiary language they were using relegating them to unreliable narrator status...) and I found it hard to find actual data.

    On the other hand, I got to be the first (today!) to talk to my mother about it. I didn't know it was possible to be less informed than I.

    But again, thanks for the more info. I will be looking more into the movement.

  2. Thank you for this. I'm a strong supporter of the OWS movement, even though, I've had the same criticism - that being, that not having a clear focus might be detrimental to the movement. At the same time, I've always understood that it's about a lot more than can succinctly articulated in 25 words or less, because it's what I've been writing about, like you, for the past half dozen years or so. It's just not as simple as "this is our list of demands", and requires a real overhaul of what is a very broken system.

    I really hope that people do start to listen, because none of the alternatives are very palatable.