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Notes on the Occupy Movement

The Occupy Wall Street movement was long coming but is certainly a sharp departure from the usual protest: instead of a one-day demonstration, a 24/7 encampment; not a list of demands, but a stark statement about wealth concentration. This movement seeks not justice, within the prevailing system, but, albeit implicit, a massive redistribution of wealth.  Unlike the Madison Spring when direct action gave way to electoralism, the Occupy protesters  disdain to be coopted by either political party and describe themselves as post-political. And it revives an almost forgotten practice of “participatory democracy”, remembered only as the leading edge of the New Left of the 1960s. Let’s stipulate these achievements and focus, instead on what comes next.

As these lines are written, several events threaten to alter the landscape fundamentally. A New York winter is upon us which makes an outdoor encampment difficult.  The tent city at the park is, at best,a temporary solution, but the tents overwhelm the scene. The Mayor hints, darkly, that health conditions at Zucotti Park may force him to order the police to evacuate the site.  How can Occupy avoid becoming a social service organization in the wake of the presence of homeless people and  other deprived souls?  And despite the movement’s spread to more than 100 cities and towns around the country, and the huge Oakland march that shut down for a day  the fifth largest US port, nagging questions remain: will this purportedly leaderless uprising craft an organizational plan that can help it survive ebb times? Are there other objectives beyond the sweeping call for income redistribution, a call that has been interpreted by liberal politicians as raising the taxes of the very rich? While it was a stroke of genius for the assembled protesters to refuse to reduce their resistance to a set of manageable demands, how long can utopian thought sustain them?

What “post-political” signifies, in the main, is Occupy’s refusal to become entangled in mainstream electoral politics. But the movement has a class analysis when it poses 99% of the population as the have-nots against the 1% of the haves(in fact, the wealth concentration is in the hands of only 0.01%  (a hundreth of one percent). But by posing the conflict in these terms a few aspects of the protest are masked: this is largely a movement of the dispossessed “new” middle class of salaried professionals.  Of course, since the protest began older people, unemployed and employed workers, labor unions and progressives have joined the fray.  Since the Depression of 2007-, they have discovered that the economy no longer has room for most of them.  But alienation goes beyond joblessness and falling economic prospects. These grievances may be solved within a political system willing to accommodate some of the disaffected. What it cannot do is address political and cultural disaffection. Like the New Left that, for the most part, enjoyed a degree of affluence born of the favorable US position in the global economy and the permanent warfare state, the current generation of what C.Wright Mills termed “the new middle class” of brain and other salaried workers,  harbors a deeper critique of the system than the garden variety of left-liberal program of jobs, jobs, jobs.

The rise of temporary work has cast a huge shadow over the professional and technical caste. People need to work because wages are still the major source of food on the table and a roof over one’s head. But very few jobs offer fulfillment. For millions life has become precarious. Increasingly, the job itself is under siege because employers—public and private—only hire on a contract basis, do not offer health care coverage, pensions or paid holidays and vacations. In short the precariate has reached the new middle class, where the term signifies the proletarianization of the once-privileged.  The political system has failed to address this dimension of the crisis. It is less capable of addressing the social and cultural alienation that marks this revolt. For example, many college graduates are employed in one of the more precarious sectors, the service industry, especially food services. Although some servers earn a living wage, primarily on tips, more are stuck in third rate restaurants where tips are smaller and steady work is almost non-existent. Low wages and temporary employment have forced young people to share apartments and other living costs. If they want to live alone or with a partner, they are obliged to hold down more than one job. And, whereas the traditional labor movement once boasted that it was the movement that brought us the weekend, its decline and the rise of the non-union service economy has taken away Saturday and Sunday for many. Will the Occupy movement articulate the broader dimensions of alienation beyond  income disparity?  In other words, will it become the social movement of a generation?  So far, there are few indications of a public discussion about these issues.

Finally, the question of organization, a perennial  agony of movements of protest and resistance. The Occupiers understandably distanced themselves from a variety of predatory forces ranging from Tea Party members, left-liberal democrats to the seriously weakened socialist and communist groups. They reject the conventional forms of hierarchy, both for their own movement and for society. Internally, horizontalism has become an inviolable mantra and practice. When some of the organizers entertain the prospect of posing the problem of organization, of an office, new forms of governance, they hesitate on the belief that participants see the hated bureaucracy. Some even say that to pose the question has become risky because spontaneity is elevated to the status of religion among participants.

The Occupiers might do well to examine the history of radical organizations. They would discover previous efforts, and not only by anarchists, to implement democratic forms of organization that resist the normal patterns of elected leaders and representative government. One of the forms is governance by federation rather than central bureaucracy.  In this model, the movement is united by co-equal participants who may send delegates to coordinating meetings. Another, the workers council  and popular assembly movements  that occasionally go beyond the workplace into neighborhoods. Of  course, the danger of evolving into hierarchies is always present, an event that, together with ideological conflict destroyed the leading organization of the New Left, SDS.

Federation and popular assemblies presuppose a general agreement among participants with principles and analysis of the situation. In order to achieve these principles, a relatively long period of discussion and education are necessary. Will the occupy movement initiate these processes in a sustained way? And if so, what are the starting points? It is hard to predict results, but we may be certain that lacking attention to forms of organization and an education and ideological process, the movement’s prospects are likely to be limited.

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