BE REALISTIC -- DEMAND NOTHING?
This morning I took issue with a Dahlia Lithwick column about Occupy Wall Street, and now Gordon Lafer makes arguments similar to Lithwick's in The Nation:
What makes OWS different from the mass marches against the Iraq War or at the 2004 GOP convention is not just that it's an ongoing occupation rather than a one-day affair. It's that this protest is not, at its core, voicing an appeal to lawmakers.
The OWS turn away from the political system began with the choice of location -- Wall Street rather than the National Mall. It is driven home, above all, by the refusal to encapsulate the protest in policy demands aimed at Congress. I don't know whether the absence of specific policy proposals is intentional or accidental. But I do know that it's part of what lends such power to the occupation and renders its targets so palpably uncomfortable.
The "demand for demands," The Nation’s Betsy Reed has noted, is misplaced. What would our rallying cry be? "The people demand a .05 percent transaction tax on stock purchases held for less than fifteen days"? Everyone knows what OWS is for. And its essential demand is powerful precisely because of its startling simplicity: "You know what you did. You have our stuff. Give it back."
A call for a transaction tax wouldn't be sexy, but why shouldn't it be one of several demands -- as opposed to none at all? Lafer's answer is that such a call is futile because of the hopelessness of our political system, and says OWS is doing what it's doing precisely because it recognizes how absurd it is to expect our politicians to do the right thing. I agree with him about the system:
Indeed, almost every policy demand that OWS might possibly voice has already been proposed, debated and defeated-- at a time when Democrats controlled all branches of government. Members of Congress considered but declined to enact proposals to impose a tax on Wall Street transactions; to limit executive compensation; to fund a mass WPA-style jobs program; to allow bankruptcy judges to mark underwater mortgages to market; to make it easier for Americans to form unions and bargain for better wages; to eliminate tax benefits for companies that transfer our jobs overseas; and to forswear any more NAFTA-style trade treaties. The OWS refusal to articulate policy demands reflects the conviction that any remedies that fit the scale of the problem are impossible to pass -- not only in the current Congress but in any Congress we can realistically imagine.
Yes, and so what? You shouldn't make a demand just because it will never be met by the political system? We've gone from "Be realistic -- demand the impossible" to "Be realistic -- demand nothing"? Why not make demands knowing full well that they're impossible in the current system, as a means of making them somewhat less impossible? Isn't that what movements have always done? At the very least, doesn't that clarify for observers just how reasonable many of these "impossible" demands are? And isn't that worthwhile?
Isn't "demanding the impossible" what the teabaggers did when they began demanding the repeal of the health care law (and shook up American politics, while also emboldening elected Republicans to challenge the law)? More nobly, isn't that what the civil rights movement did when it demanded voting and accommodations equality from vicious racists in the Deep South? What seemed more impossible than that? And yet by demanding this, they made observers question why it was impossible, and helped get us to the point where many of the demands weren't impossible.
Lafer argues that OWS may target the corporations directly:
If the movement moves beyond the occupied squares and into foreclosure defense (as has already begun in Los Angeles and New York) and student debt strikes-- if it becomes not only the voice but the arm of those resisting immiseration at the hands of the 1 percent -- then it may achieve by popular action what the political system is incapable of accomplishing.
That works for me. I just think, at some point, the movement has to announce some specific goals, and then fight for those goals -- even if, at this point, those goals are impossible.