Carts, Horses, and the Political Road Not Followed

by Warren Davis

January 19, 2012

The Labor Working Group (LWG) is one of the most influential components of Occupy Philly. From time to time, there are calls in the Occupy movement for a more explicit and defined “program” or set of demands. The following was submitted to the widely-subscribed LWG e-mail list in response to some recent calls for a program, especially as the LWG discusses its next steps and taking its work to a new level. The author is one of the conveners of the OP LWG.

After hearing the discussion at the last LWG meeting and reading the comments on the list especially by folks who couldn’t make it to that meeting, it is clear we are determined to accomplish much more. This is a terrific group to be involved with by any measure.

One thing that comes up now and then is the question of political elections and demands or platforms. These are not always or necessarily part of the same discussion, but the topic is very important to our self-conception and our aims. Here are some thoughts in general, not directed at anyone in particular.

Photo: Kaytee Riek

Since our very first meeting of the LWG on the plaza outside City Hall in the dark of night many months ago, we have been keenly aware of the different interests within the labor movement broadly speaking: that is, of union officials, staffers, activists, unorganized and unemployed, retired, and those who simply identify as part of the working class. We affirmed then, and have reaffirmed numerous times since, that all of those interests are best served by avoiding the manipulation or exploitation of the Occupy movement (that is, “What can we get out of Occupy?”), and by bringing “labor” to Occupy because we belong there, need to be part of it and helping it to grow, gaining strength in its unity, and making a real change.

From that first day we have talked deliberately about how we can move beyond the fixed space of Occupy Philly at City Hall to grow ourselves, our movement, into a more representative and inclusive one, reaching out to those already in struggle in their workplaces and communities. We want to support and assist, and where there are no clear efforts perhaps to help create, the fight backs against the cruel and relentless austerity wreaking havoc globally on the working class and poor and enriching the elites as never before.

For as long as we all can remember, the usually accepted wisdom has been that we must use the political system to fix these problems we face. The established elites promote this fear of change as a means to maintain the status quo. Change outside the hallowed halls of Congress and our local councils and state assemblies is portrayed as a means to revolutionary insurrection. Yet our greatest leaders have always said that change only comes about when we act independently of the established system and force the powers that be to relent. One very potent reason this status quo has prevailed is the fear among the Jane and John Doe’s of the country that the alternative to working within the system is an unknown and likely would resemble a catastrophe.

The imagined chaos and suffering from some sort of “revolution” would be too much to contemplate. “Better the evil I know than the evil I don’t…” On balance there is still a majority of Americans who are “comfortable,” relatively speaking, with cars, TVs, three meals, a roof, free education (for what it’s worth these days), and some form of health care despite the creeping costs.

It is difficult to say when we might reach the “tipping point,” that is when more than enough Americans will have reached the point where they no longer consider themselves “comfortable,” and begin to imagine that systemic change is actually a better option. When going on strike and risking the loss of a home or car is no longer a consideration, because the home has already been foreclosed on and there is no money left to fix the car that no longer runs. Many already know this, and many more understand it; but still enough haven’t seen the alternative as realistic or likely to be better than what exists now. That is a powerful “common sense” that the elites continue to exploit masterfully in so many ways.

But the Occupy movement has brought the anxiety of the many into focus, and by every measure the movement resonates widely. We can all see the potential for its ability to represent the origins of a broader fight back against the austerity drive. What is clear from the beginning of Occupy is who we are and who we stand up for. We all know very well which side we are on. And that’s all we need to know at the beginning, because we all start from different places. Just because we know we oppose the thievery of the 1% doesn’t mean we have all learned about each other’s concerns and struggles.

So many of us still have differences over the rights of immigrants, LGBTQ people, to abortion, a social safety net, and so many more concerns. These differences will not be papered over, nor will they be resolved quickly. And there are differences over strategy and tactics for change, electoral and otherwise. All of these differences are not only important but will require engagement and dialogue to resolve or accommodate in serious and meaningful ways. One thing we should know, these differences will not be resolved by simply writing up a list of “common demands” or a “program” to which we all sign up.

The broad left has tried for many decades to bring to the masses a program for salvation, a defined strategy for lasting change, and has failed miserably for the most part. The key difference this time with Occupy has been that those programmatic demands have not been the prerequisite for participation in this movement. The only requirement has been that we all identify with the many and oppose the few who would lord over us. Rather than a weakness, it is a strength. And it’s an opportunity: the common spaces provided a center where we could begin to collaborate and speak out, make ourselves visible–not just to the elites, but just as importantly, to each other.

Photo: Occupy Philly Media

Out of these now extinct spaces we have developed the beginnings of a structure of relationships, the promise of active networks of people who are finding out we have more in common every day we interact. We will need to continue to build on this, to reach out, offer support to folks in motion but struggling in their isolation, with the hope that building relationships across social and political divides will strengthen the coalition. Mutual support is eventually the result that will help to cement unity in our diversity, and the trust that comes from it will eventually help us to overcome those social and cultural differences that presently divide us and make us vulnerable to the corporatocracy.

The upshot–and the lesson Occupy has taught us and continues to inform our work–is that any defined political expression will come after we genuinely share this dialogue and extend meaningful and consistent mutual support. The political expression (the “program” we can all unite around) must and will come after we figure out how we reach an understanding accommodation, how we gain each other’s trust and confidence, and then collectively decide what our capacity is to change the system. The alternative–to insist that potential allies and supporters of the movement must sign on to a list of demands before they are accepted into the movement–would be self-defeating and wrong. Unity is not imposed, it is earned.