‘We will ask nothing. We will demand nothing. We will take, occupy.”
-Graffiti from May 1968
“What are your demands? What do you want?” These are two questions frequently posed to the Occupy movement. According to some, in order to be “taken seriously” and to be “effective” at achieving gains, social movements like Occupy need to put forth a list of concrete demands addressed to the state. Occupy, so far, has for the most part not played by these rules. While supporting particular community campaigns that may include specific demands, Occupy itself remains outside of existing structures as it strives to develop a new mode of politics that breaks radically from the existing system. As well it should.
Why shouldn’t Occupy focus on coming up with a clearly defined list of immediate demands? Certainly, we could easily enough come up with such a list, one that would include items such as free health care for all, stopping bank bailouts, ending US wars (and closing military bases), and increasing social spending for things that people actually need—like public transportation. There is nothing objectionable about the contents of these demands; in fact, they reflect some of the many reasons that people have become involved in Occupy. The society we seek to create would indeed be one where healthcare and public transportation would be universal rights, where there would be no more wars for empire, and where bank bailouts (and possibly banks themselves!) would be a thing of the past.
What is problematic about such a list of demands is that it tends to create a false picture. For starters, it presents as separate and distinct, issues that are in reality deeply related, even inseparable. It suggests that progress will come piecemeal; first we win this, then we win that, incremental gains adding up over time until eventually… we achieve a just society. Furthermore, such lists tend to stand in the place of clear explanations of what the fundamental driving force is behind each of these particular injustices that we oppose: namely the global, capitalist system, a system whose very nature, as an effective anarchic dictatorship of the 1%, is to perpetuate social inequalities, economic exploitation, imperialist wars, and environmental devastation, through its endless pursuit of profit at all costs. Such lists tend to keep us from seeing the whole picture, and thus from reckoning with the need for a more radical break with the current social structure.
Some in Occupy say that we should focus on a few specific issues and strive to find practical solutions. Yet, can we separate the call for increased social spending from ending the wars, from the need to overthrow the rule of the 1% that sets the frame for US foreign policy, without confusing matters and misleading people into a naïve political perspective? If we understand capitalism, a system where the means of economic production and the social surplus are privately controlled by a few as the problem, then we must find some way to illuminate and to challenge that system rather than only demanding local changes to it.
Furthermore, there is a problem with expressing our politics in the form of demands: demands generally are addressed to the rulers of the existing system. But if we understand capitalism and its government as being the target of our critique–indeed, our enemy– then how can we honestly appeal to these existing institutions to fix our problems? That state, in the last instance, seeks to ensure the continued functioning of the capitalist system—to keep the profits flowing, and to subordinate the people to that unquestionable end. Why should Occupy appeal to a capitalist state as if it honestly could or would end inequality, when that state is necessarily complicit in maintaining this system through its executive, legislature, courts, police, and army? Not only will such an appeal ultimately fall on deaf ears, but by continuing to address this state as if it has the potential to be other than what it is, we risk lulling people into wishful thinking. We risk trapping even our own activity into a vicious circle whereby we continually make demands on the state that we know it can’t grant, only to continually have the state prove (again and again) its “real nature” to us. Perhaps worst of all we risk exhausting our precious energies talking to the deaf powers that be, rather than talking to people far beyond the walls of government in order to develop new forms of genuine people’s power.
Some will argue that we should still come up with a list of demands, “realistic” demands that could be accommodated by the system; they say that winning something is better than nothing, and that people gain courage only slowly, through winning victories. Fair enough. Others argue that we should make “unrealistic” or “transitional” demands on the state precisely so that we can show others that this state—contrary to its democratic ideology—cannot or will not satisfy those demands; all the more evidence to “expose the system.” The former position assumes that the system is still capable of granting significant reforms—against much evidence to the contrary. The latter point of view assumes that people “can’t handle the truth,” that they need to go through this Sisyphusian charade of making demands on the existing state in order to come to see that state as part of the problem rather than the solution. As if big ideas like revolution and the need for system change are beyond the ability most people to grasp. Similarly, this view assumes that the system is not already exposed in the eyes on millions of people, indeed, exposed to the point that many people will not bother much with (what they themselves see as naïve) struggles around immediate policy demands, since they realize that the problem runs much deeper. To the contrary: our ongoing assumption is that millions of people in this country already sense on various levels that fundamental change is needed, that the current system is itself the problem.
To help unite these millions should be our primary task.
If Occupy focuses mainly on demanding only what can be satisfied by the system, we effectively accept the continued existence of that system in advance. Under pressure, capitalism may accept a few reforms that ultimately leave its core operations intact. Certain sorts of demands may even help the system regain its teetering legitimacy, or to reclaim a bit of social stability. But in all seriousness, do any of us really believe that even the most effective pressure campaign can get the existing state to rethink the “sacred” right of private property, or the rule of maximizing profit at all costs? If not, why should we pretend like we do?
When Occupy refuses to come up with a list of demands, it not only refuses to play by the established mode of politics, but it announces to others across the world that they need not play by those rules either, that that game is rigged, that it is wrong…and that even people here in the “belly of the beast” are gaining the courage to speak what so many of us have known for years. The refusal to “demand” has a content of its own. It says that we demand not a seat at the table to play along, but that we are out to change the game, even to flip the corrupt game board completely. We don’t demand that the system change. We declare forbidden truths about how deeply sick the system is—and we call others to come together to overwhelm it and to replace it with something better. We ask of it nothing. We rather ask everything of our brothers and sisters among the 99%. Together, we must demand our world back.
While the Occupy Movement has refused to reduce itself to a list of set demands on the system, campaigns have developed in and around Occupy that have made clear demands. For instance, the Occupy the T campaign demands “No cuts. No hikes. No layoffs” and “A sustainable, affordable, and comprehensive statewide transportation plan that works for the 99%.” These campaigns exemplify both the opportunities, and the dangers of demand-based politics. On the one hand, the struggle around concrete day-to-day concerns, anchored in clear defensive demands has allowed occupiers to engage a broader public of T-riders and T-workers, and to establish themselves as defenders of the 99%. This is all to the good! On the other hand, however, the orientation of these demands towards the state bureaucracy (with its tone deafness to radical ideas) tends to pull back Occupy’s more bold or “utopian” visions in order to allow us to “get into the established conversation” happening in the government and the mainstream media.
We would argue that the proper use of such principles or demands is not in lobbying to get the state to actually accept them, but in initiating broader and deeper conversations and relationships between occupiers and other members of the 99%. We must not confuse such “demands” with our actual goals of movement-building. Where they are a starting point for developing deeper conversation and solidarity, such clear “demands” play a useful role. But where they tend to suppress such deeper conversations, and where they get us to turn from our fellow T-riders and workers and to look instead to the state for saving solutions, they are a danger. Whatever becomes of such campaigns, it remains crucial that the Occupy Movement does not set its overall horizon as getting piecemeal reforms from the system, but rather continues to hold out the call for a more radical break.
Much to its credit, the Occupy the T campaign declares what is unacceptable, seeks to unite broad and diverse sectors of the 99%, and promises to engage in direct action and to build actual resistance to any T plan that does not meet our minimum standards. In this sense, the campaign is a way to engage masses of people and to raise fundamental occupy principles by “riding the rails” and through shared direct action. To the extent that it helps bring T-riders and workers into the struggle by identifying a contradiction of capitalism that affect them directly, the Occupy the T struggle provides a site to fight for reforms in a revolutionary way. This struggle has the potential to bring up larger questions of the system’s irrationality (economic, social, ecological) and to draw others into the movement, since the T’s budget plan affects millions across the greater Boston area. Ultimately, this MBTA plan is but the latest attempt to make working people pay more for less, so that capitalists, bond-holders, and big banks can continue to see their profits rise.
Occupy has declared its goal to be the creation of a society that prioritizes the needs of all before the profits of a few. This declaration is not directed to the existing structures of power, but rather to people still outside of the movement and abused or abandoned by the system (most T-riders included!). Whatever immediate struggles we engage in, we must make it our main goal to expose the system by its roots and to empower ordinary people to challenge it by their concerted action where its structural problems are produced, where it is most vulnerable, and where the people actually have potential power: in workplaces where our labor makes things run, in neighborhoods where residents far outnumber the bank-agents that come to evict them, among debt-enslaved students whose collective refusal could burst a trillion-dollar bank bubble in an instant, to the riders and workers of our trains and buses, whose collective action could force the State Legislature to its knees. The goal is not so much to get the state to change the situation, but to prepare the ground for the 99% to seize control of these situations ourselves. Imagine the new possibilities that will appear as we assert the creative, collective power of the 99%!
In short: beyond making demands on the system, let’s occupy its key joints. So we can take the system down, and bring forth something fresh and new.