Monday, October 31, 2011

Occupy Wall Street is a Democracy Movement

By Mike Dorf

The notion that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has no demands is fueled in part by an arguably deliberate media obtuseness.  Judging from the movement's core catch-phrase -- "We are the 99%" -- it is clear that the movement centers around a complaint about economic inequality

There is, nonetheless, a kernel of truth to the media trope that OWS and its far-flung spinoffs remain an amorphous movement with demands no more concrete than, as my Cornell Government Department colleague Sid Tarrow puts it, "Recognize us!"  I agree with Tarrow and others that it is too soon to tell whether OWS will fade away or coalesce into a more conventional political movement, and if the latter, what its central focus will be.  But I also want to suggest that we may be looking at OWS through the wrong frame.

Most observers take OWS to be a nascent movement within American constitutional democracy.  Viewed this way, it is logical to ask what concrete policy changes the OWS protesters seek.  Do they want higher capital gains taxes?  A constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision?  More money for mortgage relief?  Yet what if we view OWS not as a movement for anything within democracy but as a movement for democracy?

In this view, we should not be comparing OWS to the civil rights movement or the women's movement but to the Philippine "people power" movement of 1986, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011.  Nobody thought to question any of those protesters about their concrete aims: What exactly would be the land policy post-Marcos?  What role would the state play in the economy if the Tiananmen protesters had succeeded in deposing the Chinese Communist Party?  What version of Islamic finance would be used following the removal from power of Ben Ali and Mubarak?  Such questions would have been rightly seen as premature because everyone understood that the protesters in these movements sought, first and foremost, democracy -- with most concrete policy choices to be made within the framework of democracy once it was established.

It may be difficult to see OWS as a democracy movement because the United States already has democracy, but from the protesters' perspective, this is hardly clear at all.  The protesters believe that government serves the needs of the rich and powerful, rather than the considerably greater needs of the poor and middle class.

That may describe OWS today but not forever.  Where will OWS end up?  I can imagine at least three sorts of possibilities.  One is that the movement injects some life into progressive politics but then runs out of steam, becoming something like a conventional NGO, much in the way that, after its founding as a grass-roots movement to oppose the Clinton impeachment, became a kind of all-purpose advocacy and lobbying shop on the liberal/left.  (Not surprisingly, MoveOn supports OWS.)

Writing in the NY Times last week, James Miller warned of a second possibility: That a small number of extremists could hijack the OWS movement, much in the way that anarchists have attempted -- with some success -- to hijack the anti-globalization movement.  The risk here is less that blood will run in the streets (although some might), but that violent tactics turn public opinion against the mass of peaceful OWS protesters.  OWS thus far has shown remarkable sensitivity to this risk and has taken steps to guard against it, but given the spontaneous nature of the rallies around the country and the world, it is impossible to rule this path out.

For me, the most exciting possibility is that OWS remains committed to directly deliberative democracy but solves the problem of scale.  With Chuck Sabel, I have written at considerable length about what direct deliberation looks like within the context of representative government, rather than as a replacement for it.  For OWS to embrace what we call "democratic experimentalism," however, would appear to require OWS to come to see itself as a movement for structural political change within the existing political framework.

At first blush, that may seem unlikely.  OWS seems to have an uncompromising commitment to unfiltered direct deliberation (rather than the direct deliberation nested in representative government that Sabel and I and others imagine).  The "human microphone," born of necessity when the authorities forbade electric amplification, might be thought to serve as a metaphor for the movement as a whole.

But on reflection, I think that OWS support for any particular form of deliberation is thin.  Few people join mass street movements to express a preference for direct deliberation over representative government.  The rank and file of OWS may accept or even like the directly deliberative "general assemblies" but only because they feel so strongly that the established representative government does not hear their voices or represent their interests.  Their goal is a politics that responds to people's needs, not any particular form of government.

There is thus potential in OWS for efforts aimed at campaign finance reform, as Larry Lessig suggested on NPR last week, as well as for something like democratic experimentalism.  For either of those to occur, however, would require that OWS come to see itself as working within the system.  To my mind, that is what makes OWS potentially so interesting -- the possibility that it could become both a democracy movement in the way that liberal revolutionary movements have been on the international scene and a movement for reform within the existing American framework.


tjchiang said...

The comparison with movements for democracy is very illuminating, but left me a little unsatisfied at the end. The Tiananmen Square protesters and the Eygptian protesters didn't have concrete policy choices about minutiae, but they did have a concrete goal in mind: get rid of the Communist Party/Mubarak. I have not seen OWS with something simliar even on this higher level of abstraction. What would it be? A new constitutional convention?

Michael C. Dorf said...

I share Professor Chiang's feeling of dissatisfaction and I think he puts his finger on the apparent paradox of a democracy movement within a democracy. It cannot ask for the removal of the tyrant because there is no tyrant, but any particular reform proposal will seem like mere meliorism. My interest in OWS stems not from the fact that it has figured out how to channel a kind of revolutionary fervor for systemic change into a peaceful reform movement but that it is at least working on the problem.

John Hall said...

Yes, a very welcome piece. It has been in the back of my mind for a week or so that we need to broaden the frames through which we chart the [potentially many] strands of development pulsing through Occupy. Let me put two more on the table.

PUBLIC SPHERE. To be sure, this concept is over used and subject to contention. But let's not miss the forest for the trees. What is especially impressive about Occupy is the commitment to multiple kinds of direct "personal" communication between strangers, through multiple media [direct, web, internet, cell phone, etc.]. Occupy has created a space for new apparatus of public communication, centered on people who are Occupying on the ground, but radiating outward in many directions. Voices are being heard that have never been represented by anyone else, and indeed, if nothing else, the movement is a striking critique of the lack of capacity of established institutions to engage broad publics.

COUNTERCULTURE. Mike Dorf's piece rightly points to a difference between seeking reforms within a [hollowed out] democracy and experimenting with new democratic forms [under new social and technological conditions]. Occupy folks are seeking to live out new visions of how society could be organized, rather than simply reforming old ones [though there are and will continue to be demands on old ones]. One additional trajectory that I already see signs of in California is the development of a new and relatively heterogeneous counterculture. As with "the" counterculture of the 1960s and '70s, there are and will be diverse tendencies. What they share, and what binds them in relative coherence is antagonism toward existing political culture.

The lack of an agreed upon set of goals would not be surprising within either of these frames. A public sphere, by its nature, is the site of dialogue, conversation, debate, in much the way that Anne Kane has characterized the 19th century Irish land movement [see her forthcoming book, out within the month]. And countercultures are not about goal attainment by seeking redress or reform within an established order, but rather concerned with created new cultural forms... in this case, of politics. Each of us will have our favored comparisons, but I think the Puritan revolution, described so well by Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down deserves consideration.

John Hall,

William Carleton said...

I think there is a tyrant, in a sense. The tyrant is money: money as speech, money as access, money as interest. The incident at one of the (rare) public meetings of the deficit reduction "super committee" the other day was very revealing: someone with a point of view, though perhaps not invited, was escorted from the chamber and the meeting was recessed until "order could be restored." At a general assembly at #OWS, that person could have shut down all progress until her views had been heard. We have a hard time putting a finger on it because it is so normative, but the upshot of #OWS could be as simple as realizing a world in which money is understood to inherently de-legitimize politics and policy decisions. What would a world look like where everyone's voice is equal? Direct democracy, republican form of government, some other variation - it almost doesn't matter, as long as those with money can't amplify their voices, can't jump their turn, can't privilege their agenda over anyone else's.

Glen Salo said...

I believe that OWS reflects a deeper disatisfaction with the monetization of value over labor; or what FDR spoke of in his first inaugural address (March 4, 1933):

More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

And yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.

Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.

Recognition of that falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, and on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.

Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation is asking for action, and action now.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing great -- greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our great natural resources.

BOTTOM LINE: Rebuild the manufacturing base of this country.


Paley Rene said...

Occupy has created a space for new apparatus of public communication, centered on people who are Occupying on the ground, but radiating outward in many directions. Voices are being heard that have never been represented by anyone else, and indeed, if nothing else, the movement is a striking critique of the lack of capacity of established institutions to engage broad publics.
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