does Occupy Wall Street need a demand?

My thanks to Facebook friends and others who have attended Occupy Wall Street and provided independent reports. The question on my mind is the one that every academic “expert” seems impelled to ask: what do the Occupiers want?

“They have to organize around specific demands and specific targets,” [Occidental Professor Peter] Dreier suggests.”

“But if the movement is to have lasting impact, it will have to develop leaders and clear demands, said Nina Eliasoph, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. … ‘So there is a tension between this emotionally powerful movement,’ she said, ‘and the emptiness of the message itself so far.'”

Nathan Schneider’s FAQ page says:

What are the demands of the protesters? Ugh—the zillion-dollar question. …  In the weeks leading up to September 17, the NYC General Assembly seemed to be veering away from the language of ‘demands’ in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there—which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand. When you think about it, this act is actually a pretty powerful statement against the corruption that Wall Street has come to represent. But since thinking is often too much to ask of the American mass media, the question of demands has turned into a massive PR challenge.

It is a political act to take over Wall Street and turn it into a space for free speech, where diverse views can be expressed and collective decisions made, free from coercion, money,  majority rule, or status. That is a symbolic statement in favor of civil society against both state and market.

The consequences are quite unpredictable. If the idea is to impress the American people with an alternative model of how society should be organized, I think it will fail. The model will look unattractive.

If the idea is to build a coalition or social movement that can gradually coalesce around actionable demands and develop power as voting bloc or durable protest movement, then it has potential. This process will take time and patience. Participants will have to overcome difficult coordination problems, especially since I am confident that they will reject the traditional strategy of revolutionary movements: purging most of their diversity in favor of a disciplined “vanguard.”

If the idea is to demonstrate that a substantial minority of the American people is angry because Washington’s response to the economic crisis has been too timid and overly moderate (not too radical), then I think the objective is worthy. Probably between 14% and 24% of the American people stand to the left of the Obama Administration on economic issues, and they have been largely invisible to the rest of the public. That invisibility has been a problem for the administration itself, whether the White House sees it that way or not. The only potential danger lies in misrepresenting the 14%-24%, which is very diverse and may look different (demographically and ideologically) from the people occupying Wall Street.

Tahrir Square is an inspiration, but the Egyptian protesters had a concrete demand (“Mubarak out!”), and they succeeded because the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood joined them. I think the best guess is that those two institutions will now run the country, with some tolerance for the secular “democracy” movement. That’s a major achievement but not one that looks like a model for the United States.

In Dynamics of Contention (2001), Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly analyze mechanisms, processes, and episodes as components of contentious politics. Mechanisms are specific phenomena, such as taking over a public space, clashing with the police, or obtaining media attention. Processes are concatenations of mechanisms. The Civil Rights Movement was a process encompassing many mechanisms, from bus boycotts to training programs; from famous speeches to votes in the Senate. Episodes, finally, are large historical events that result from processes: the fall of Jim Crow or the ancien regime in France.

It seems to me that what we observe on Wall Street is small collection of mechanisms. Similar mechanisms have also been observed in Madison, WI, and overseas. The question is whether they can merge into a process and achieve an historical episode. That will require: 1) collaboration with very different kinds of mechanisms, such as mainstream union organizing efforts and electoral campaigns, and 2) some degree of consensus about objectives. Both require a different set of mechanisms from the ones that have been reported so far from Wall Street–but the sequence is perfectly healthy as long as it progresses to the next stage.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.