On demands, once and for all

by J.A. Myerson

Michael Moore thinks that what Occupy Wall Street should do is endorse a list of demands. Laying out some desirable measures, among them reinstating Glass-Steagall and campaign finance reform, Mr. Moore admirably makes it clear that he speaks for no one but himself. He’s just a fan of the movement who’s been looking at these ideas for a while and has some suggestions. But the question left lingering is the one that buzzes on the tip of the tongue every time anyone – Mr. Moore as well as commentators less sympathetic than he is to the cause – recommends that the occupation make demands. That question: what good would demands do Occupy Wall Street?

Presumably, the point of making demands on the government would be to try to influence the national dialogue to address the issues there contained. It must be this. Surely, no one thinks that, were the General Assembly to endorse a list of legislative demands, the government would send delegates to negotiate these demands with the occupiers; this is not a hostage situation, after all, but a social movement. Short of this fantasy, the extent to which demands would further legislative initiatives would be by helping to build public consciousness about the implied grievances and consensus around the solutions prescribed.

But this is already happening. People are talking now about student debt forgiveness, foreclosure protection, taxes on the wealthy, income inequality, campaign finance reform, staggering unemploymentand all the rest of it, without Occupy Wall Street having had to demand a single thing. Bernie Sanders’ introduction of an Amendment to the Constitution that would declare a corporation not a person shows this – the General Assembly did not have to make the demand for such an amendment in order for action to be taken. Rep. Ted Deutch’s introduction of the OCCUPIED Constitutional Amendment (Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy) also attests to this observation: all of the political advantages of issuing a list of demands are in motion even without the issuing.

Naomi Klein has said – in the presence of Mr. Moore – that the President’s shift on the Keystone XL pipeline could not have been achieved without Occupy Wall Street. The uproar Occupy Wall Street fostered over Bank of America’s plan to levy a $5 monthly debit card fee succeeded in foiling the proposal. Occupy Wall Street got Harlem tenants their heat and hot water back from an avaricious landlord who had cut off access. How could these victories have been better won if they’d been articulated in a statement of demands?

As long as we’re seeing these trends continuing, the movement remains much more useful to the cause without endorsing demands, even ones as sane as Michael Moore’s. There are already organizations who have issued those demands, and they all know that, in the current moment in the history of struggling for justice and equality, Occupy Wall Street is the rising tide that will lift all boats. It is the force that will shape what the country votes on and how it votes on those, that will shape what candidates will feel pressured to campaign on. That is why the major players in the labor movement and the environmental movement and the rest of an impressive coalition of diverse organizations with specific aims have declared themselves solidary with Occupy Wall Street. There is every risk of jeopardizing that coalition by endorsing views that the support groups potentially couldn’t get behind, on account of whatever institutional roadblocks exist for them.

Let the organizations already fighting for these demands fight for these demands. Occupy Wall Street’s assistance will come in the creation of political culture that includes protesting corporate control of the country without interruption every day and every night in hundreds of cities and towns.

The ultimate weakness of demands is their temporal limitation. A demand is essentially a statement of the conditions on which one will relent, and implying that relenting is possible casts the protest as temporary. In fact, Wall Street will permanently exert pressure on the government with ever-changing demands and campaigns and projects, and that is what Occupy Wall Street will have to do. The steadfast determination, the permanence implied in that word, Occupy, is not only the movement’s only hope for change – making people power a permanent countervailing force to wealth power – but also its good light. People like that this isn’t a weekend of protest and panels, that it operates, as it likes to chant, “All day, all week.” Demands would turn that chant into “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street, until you do the following things,” which is an unattractive rallying cry, not to mention its scansion deficiency.

One tires quickly of responding to the demands question. It has become the stock talking point that anyone can reliably be counted on to make. It is almost a matter of catechism in the mainstream press. It is asked polemically to do everything from dismiss the political sophistication of the occupation to denigrate the occupation’s ideology of direct democracy. At a certain point – the point where, as now, the people the least well informed hold the view most avidly – it is difficult to see the “Where are the demands?” question as anything more than “9/11 changed everything” or “Communism is good in theory but fails in practice:” the unquestionable official line for whose advancement no thought is required.

In fact the protesters have already made their demand. No one mentioned The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City the day after it was adopted by consensus by the General Assembly, because everyone was too busy peddling the rumor that Radiohead was going to play at Liberty Plaza Park. But that document issues a demand. It’s not on Congress. It’s not on the President. It’s not on corporate boards or the Federal Reserve or the media or the police. It’s not on any historically empowered body or individual. It’s on the 99%, the people of the world, the ones with no power, the mass majority that gets steamrolled by corporate control over the functions of government the world over.

To the people of the world, We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power. Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone. To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal. Join us and make your voices heard!

A different type of demand from a different type of movement.