Some Concerns About Pushing Demands at Occupy Wall Street

by Stephanie Luce

October 23, 2011

The author posted earlier reflections on our Webzine about Occupy Wall Street here.

There is a debate going on about whether Occupy Wall Street should adopt a list of demands. A number of people I know and respect have supported the Demands Working Group in New York and have called for the General Assembly to adopt their list. The draft lists include great demands–there is nothing I’ve seen that I don’t agree with, and I’ve worked hard for some of those demands for much of my life. So I wonder why I keep thinking that pushing the list of demands is not the way to go right now. Here are some thoughts…

Photo credit: Joscarfas

First, I don’t think the left that I tend to work with has done an adequate job of theorizing the state and how to relate to it. I think we have a good critique of the structural ways in which the state supports capitalism, and we’ve thought a lot about non-reformist versus reformist demands. I believe non-reformist reforms are not only possible, but necessary. We, the left and social movements, actually won a lot of demands in the past century. But some of those demands were never even implemented, or were implemented poorly. Some of the demands were co-opted once passed. As I found in my living wage research, anti-sweatshop work and elsewhere: it takes one kind of power to get a law passed, and another kind to get it enforced. (We know this from our labor work as well–a contract is only as good as our ability to enforce it).

We as the left won space in the state (as well as in public institutions like universities and schools), and then often struggled mightily to maintain it and run it well. We faced opposition inside the state as the agencies we worked in were usually the ones underfunded or first to be cut in tough times. We didn’t always know how to manage ourselves and each other, or our programs. And then, when underfunded and poorly run, we sometimes further marginalized the people we meant to serve: welfare recipients, students of color, new immigrants. We alienated others who didn’t have the money to get their needs met elsewhere and depended on the state for support: laid-off blue collar workers, downsized middle managers, people struggling with a mortgage, people living in a high-crime area.

Do we have a good collective understanding of these failures?

We fought ideological opposition that was growing quickly to take advantage of our weaknesses. While we found openings in the state to push our demands, capital found even greater openings and used those to crush us. They exploited our weaknesses and blamed it on the state itself, on the left, on “liberals,” on the whole concept of collective and public space.

Do we have a reason to believe we will be more vigilant and effective in countering the right’s attempts to capture the state the next time?

We pushed for institutions that take effort and time to run. We assert that people are capable of governing themselves, but then when people do not have the time because they work too much or commute too far, when they don’t have the skills because they never learned them, when they don’t have the energy because they feel cynical and demoralized, we didn’t have great answers for how to keep our projects up and running and democratic.

We chant, “Tell me what democracy looks like!” and respond, but do we actually know what it looks like? I hate that chant because usually we are saying it while surrounded by barricades and police, and we are often on the defensive. Yes, democracy is bringing large groups of people together to act collectively, but certainly it is more than that.

So, I guess I’m saying I’d like more discussion about these challenges before we rush into the next round of framing demands. I’d love a public jobs program, but I’d also love to know who will run it and how.

We know capitalism does not work well on a whole range of dimensions, and we know the world can do better. But we also saw many supposed left models fail as well. And as far as I can tell, none of the models have done well at answering the questions of how to expand democratic self-rule, and self-governance. Do we know how to govern ourselves within the 99%, acknowledging and dealing with all those divisions within the 99% that have historically divided our movements, understanding the way that racism and patriarchy, nationalism, and hetereonormativity intersect with self-organization and self-rule?

Second, I am just feeling humble about trying again what feels like a familiar left pattern: frame demands (often through messy compromise, since someone’s demand is always left out and we are forced to prioritize), coalesce our forces, look for leverage, build a campaign, debate about compromise, end up with something that doesn’t look like we wanted in the first place, figure out how to regroup. It seems like it hasn’t been working so well for a number of years. Even where we have won, we seem to be losing in the bigger picture. We’ve been winning small campaigns here and there but losing in terms of the material reality of everyday life for most people, and losing the hearts and minds of those who have hopes and dreams for another kind of world.

Finally, it seems to me that OWS has already put forward some demands, and is winning! In New York they claimed a private space for the public. Here and elsewhere, they have asserted their right to protest and freedom of speech. As my friend Catherine Sameh says, “Intentional or not, this act is more than symbolic. They have won back public space and they have fundamentally ruptured what seemed like intractable neoliberal ideology about public goods, the public good, the collective.” They have demanded the right to create public and open community, to take care of one another, and have dialogue and debate about fundamental issues.

For me, the beauty of Occupy Wall Street is that it has pushed me into a new space where I have been asked to be patient and trusting and where I focus more on process and less on immediate outcomes. I don’t want to lose this space or momentum, just like the rest of you pushing for demands. I just worry that we haven’t learned enough yet from our own past, and that winning any demand without having sufficient movements and organizations to enforce it, and without a deeper understanding of democratic governance and the real and deep divisions within our 99% could end up as a loss.

Stephanie Luce teaches labor studies at the Murphy Institute at CUNY. She has been active in living wage campaigns and union work for many years.


6 responses to “Some Concerns About Pushing Demands at Occupy Wall Street”

  1. R Avatar

    I agree with Stephanie and Kate’s assessment of the “demands” debate. I was involved in the core group of organizers that helped launch the “Occupy Chattanooga” General Assemblies in Tennessee. Almost all of us came from an “activist” background with varying levels of experience, so what we had planned for the first assembly did not reflect the messy openness of many other occupations. Instead, we had an agenda, strong facilitation, and a process for cohering an initial list of demands through small-group and large-group meetings.

    While I don’t think the preparation was in vain, it eventually became clear to most of us that the demands process was hindering the development of the movement. The initial thinking wasn’t “to have a movement, we must have demands,” but rather “to have action, we must first have demands”–I guess we hadn’t yet absorbed the lessons around the country, that this wasn’t really the trajectory of the movement. The demands process did present our group with some time to build a bit of community and collective spirit (as opposed to a few hundred strangers in a park), but it eventually felt like it was just dragging on and only detracting from momentum. After recognizing this, we joined calls to table the demands process and begin endorsing and participating in actions. While the actions so far are very weak (some energized but relatively small demonstrations and a very small occupation that began this week), spirits are up and fewer people are at each others’ throats. I see it eventually building from here, but in what direction is hard to say…

    I’ve also observed the occupation in Atlanta, mostly from a distance, and the “demands debate” there. I don’t know what the initial adoption or presentation of demands entailed, but the process (as far as the whole occupation goes) appears to have stalled out. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, because I observed plenty of great work happening in action committees and was impressed with the relative speed at which plans could come together on issues like homelessness or police brutality (these two issues were the focus of demonstrations that took place while I was visiting). The general assemblies appeared to be limited to handling logistical tasks (like urging people to volunteer for childcare or food responsibilities).

    I asked around to get a sense of where actions were developed and how they were planned–most people said that this was the role of the working groups, which were often more together (and less draining) than the GAs. I got the sense that the actions and relationships themselves (for example, participating in a community vigil against police brutality after a young Black man was murdered by police only a few miles away) were often more educational and eye-opening for participants than having debates about whether or not issues should be on an official list or declaration. Maybe because I wasn’t an organizer in this context, I saw the “demand-less” glass as half full and was maybe more patient of the many young, white folks who were clearly processing and still coming around on many critical issues, particularly those of race/nationality.

    There were other very different responses from the left in Atlanta, though. I guess the counter-point to Stephanie’s recommendation would be the activity of the “Radical Caucus” of Occupy Atlanta that appears to be primarily concerned with messaging and adoption of “strategic” demands. They adopted their own demands to present to Occupy Atlanta, which were the reversal of recent MARTA (public transit) fare increases, an end to stop-and-frisk police harassment, and the repeal of the anti-immigrant state bill HB 87. They have also been vocal about defending anti-police chants during civil disobedience actions. While many of them also participate in the working groups, these appear to be the only actions of the caucus itself. The idea is that by defending anti-police chants and centering these three demands in the occupation, they will overcome the challenge of being a mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly non-immigrant, mostly privileged affair.

    That said, Atlanta was one of the relatively more inclusive occupations even before the formation of this caucus. All of these representational problems are viewed within this caucus as subjective challenges, simply matters of deep distrust of whites by people of color. While I don’t doubt the prevalence of that distrust, there are also objective things to consider, such as the access to enough leisure time to camp in a park and keep an occupation going 24/7, or to be in a space where arrest is a constant threat. These aren’t easy challenges to overcome if you have mouths to feed or lack papers, no matter the list of demands!

    Personally, I think those sort of activities represent a rush to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the movement and to inject our politics in the quickest way possible. If I were to “name names,” I would tell you which groups were behind this style of intervention, but that’s not what’s important in the discussion. The debates between the Radical Caucus and the rest of Occupy Atlanta seem to have limited the ability of the group to rebound from its eviction, but there are many willing to move past the sectarian fighting and push forward.

    The most important thing that I saw in Atlanta (and other cities with sustained occupations, from afar) was the space to rapidly develop relationships and actions in a way that was impossible in the lull preceding this OWS moment. I heard about many organizations and affinity groups that arranged relatively large workshops and study groups to discuss deeper issues. There were people putting radical politics out there in ways that did not stall the process or engineer splits. For now, I think we’ll have to be satisfied with this type of progress, and patiently struggle with folks as we engage in collective action (even if it is just in maintaining the space!).

    With the way the last 30 years have gone in this country, should it be surprising that political consciousness (particularly among those with relative privilege) remains confused and contradictory? I think this OWS moment may be an important preliminary step to getting prepared for the tasks ahead. The global economic and ecological crises are going to demand an incredible amount of energy and intelligence to confront, but it’s not like we can press “E7” on a vending machine and find it, as one comrade joked a few weeks ago. We still have to be patient and find more pedagogically sound ways of addressing the “big P” politics if we want the momentum to continue through the winter.

  2. kate griffiths-dingani Avatar
    kate griffiths-dingani

    Stephanie, thanks for this piece. I read it when you posted it and had to think for a few days before i felt i could respond. I agree with you that “pushing demands” won’t (isn’t anyway)work[ing], and framing this like a “campaign” wont work, and that even our winning campaigns often amount to little in terms of improving peoples lives, or at least, little in comparison to the problems that need addressing. I totally agree that now is a time to focus on the space opened up by the Occupy movements–my question is how do we help to build a space that allows for dreaming, debate and discussion that moves forward? Where there is space to being to imagine concretely what alternatives ARE possible and desirable?

    It seems to me there is a danger on both sides of the “Demands” debate, and in the debate itself; on one side there are lists and the problems of vision and preparation you raise. On the other, there is the danger of fetishizing vagueness out of fears, or perhaps out of the romance of openness, eg “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing.”

    So if we focus on process–I guess I’m wondering about the collective space for imagining the future. Is that the GA? The Occupy Wall Street Journal? Twitter? The myriad related occupy websites?

  3. Jacob Richter Avatar
    Jacob Richter


    There is the danger of identity politics in what you’re suggesting.

    Re. the prison-industrial complex, I’m all for “abolition of prison labour for the benefit of private parties.”

    Re. immigration laws, I’m all for “mandatory private- and public-sector recognition in professional education, other higher education, and related work experience “from abroad,” along with the wholesale transnational standardization of such education and the implementation of other measures to counter the underemployment of guest workers and all other immigrants.”

    More importantly, though, I’m all for “matching the transnational mobility of labour with the establishment of a transnationally entrenched bill of workers’ political and economic rights, and with the realization of a globalized and upward equal standard of living for equal work based on real purchasing power parity, thus allowing real freedom of movement through instant legalization and open borders, and thereby precluding the extreme exploitation of immigrants.”

    Sorry for sounding that detailed, but that original list I made here was merely part of a bigger list I had on hand, each component sounding that detailed, dealing with public education, tenant rights, local budgeting, taxation, working hours, right to bear arms, cooperatives, mass media, etc.

  4. Stephanie Avatar

    Jacob and Peter,
    I don’t object to your specific demands. But I think there are a couple of problems:

    1. You are going to leave out some important ones with these lists – such as what to do with the prison industrial complex and immigration laws. The left has a lot of good ideas – and while I agree that some are more important than others, and more foundational, there are some that affect certain communities much more than others. Making a list of the most ‘key’ demands runs a danger of making some groups feel they are excluded or less important to the movement.

    2. There is a lot of consensus within the Occupy movement on some basic issues (at least I think so, based on my own conversations and observations, and if you can believe the initial polls). That agreement is around the fact that there is too much inequality, too much power in the hands of a few, too little democracy, too little concern for the ‘average person.’ But beyond that I’m sure you’ve experienced a tremendous range in consciousness and education. I am all for the OWS space being a place to educate and discuss various proposals and visions and concepts, and I think we need to do a lot more of that to get more people knowledgeable of the issues and invested in possible solutions. As I said before, even if we win some basic demands, we will have a very hard time implementing them without an informed and ready-to-fight movement ready to go on each issue.

    3. And Peter, why not go for your big picture vision? Why not include workplace democracy and democratic control of the economy? This movement has inspired people with a the big picture vision so far – a vision of an alternative way of living our lives. I’d hate to narrow ourselves so early in the game.

  5. Jacob Richter Avatar
    Jacob Richter

    Some economically radical demands are more important than others, among them the proposals of left economists Hyman Minsky and Rudolf Meidner, and I feel these should be discussed (also as an out-of-the-box means of discrediting what remains of social democracy):

    1. Universalisation of annual, non-deflationary adjustments for all non-executive and non-celebrity remunerations, pensions and insurance benefits to at least match rising costs of living.

    2. Fuller socio-income democracy through direct proposals and rejections – at the national level and above – regarding the creation and adjustment of income multiple limits in all industries, for all major working class and other professions, and across all types of income.

    3. The realization of zero unemployment structurally and cyclically by means of expanding public services a) to fully include employment of last resort for consumer services and even b) to fully socialize the labour market as the sole de jure employer of all workers in society, contracting out all labour services to the private sector on the basis of comprehensive worker protections.

    4. The increase of real social savings and investment by first means of mandatory and significant redistributions of annual business profits, by private enterprises with more workers than a defined threshold, as non-tradable and superior voting shares to be held by geographically organised worker funds.

    5. The implementation of economy-wide indicative planning based on extensive mathematical optimization.

    6. Enabling the full replacement of the hiring of labour for small-business profit by cooperative production, and also society’s cooperative production of goods and services to be regulated by cooperatives under their common plans.

  6. Peter Myers Avatar
    Peter Myers

    What is wrong, at a minimum, to demand:
    a. tax wealth of the super-rich
    b. regulation of hedge funds and bands
    c. public works projects to create jobs.

    This is what used to be called “liberal” ideology, but now we are cowed into submission. If I had my druthers, I’d demand workplace democracy, democratic control of the economy by councils of workers (OK, no peasants), but that’s a dream that may never be realized, I fear.