In order to gain an air of legitimacy, say commentators across the political spectrum, the “Occupy“ movement must make “concrete” demands. Their platitudes about the evils of Wall Street, we’re told, will not suffice. They must ask the powerful for concessions of sorts, even though this only promulgates the dependency status of the many vis-à-vis the elite. It is in this framework that the mainstream thinks, because they never imagined a world where the 99% didn’t have to kneel down and beg before the reprehensible power elite of this country
They want something concrete. However, this movement will not embrace the “concrete,” for beneath the cement lies the beach, to paraphrase a famous Situationist saying: sous les pavés, la plage.
The “demand” baloney is primarily cover for the union and non-profit leadership, as they attempt to lurch forward and co-opt the movement, throwing it to the hounds of the Democratic Party. Already I have witnessed this effort firsthand, in the New Orleans Occupy movement. In last week’s solidarity march (October 6th) from the Orleans Parish Prison to Lafayette Square, there were several representatives of local unions, most notably SEIU, some of which encouraged a chant of “Vote!” during the post-march rally. There were plenty of people of principle in their midst to drown out such “conventional wisdom” with the obvious retort: “Yeah, that didn’t work out so well for us last time.”
Fortunately the bureaucrats were in a minority in this demonstration, as seems to be the case elsewhere. Instead, we see an encouraging maturity on the part of the protesters, who recognize that our political system is merely an extension of the financial industry: generally useless for addressing the ongoing economic malaise of the many.
Fitting that young people are the forerunners of this prescient social movement. They are the ones that never enjoyed the fruits of the real estate boom or the tech boom before, and instead are ruined by a lifetime of student debt and poor employment prospects. Many were raised in the cozy confines of the suburbs, rooted in a positivist world-view where the sky was the limit, so long as they applied themselves and excelled in school. They were sure that after procuring a degree or three, they would be on their way to six-figure salaries and the same comfortable existence their parents had. While they may have faced mid-life crises, or simply resigned themselves to passing critiques of their staid suburban lives over cocktails with friends (a la Richard Yates’s Frank Wheeler), they surely wouldn’t know economic turmoil.
And yet, that is precisely the condition of significant portions of Generation Y. Real unemployment (U-6) for 18-29 year olds remains above 20%, while the student loan default rate has neared 10% in recent years. However, the statistics risk trivializing the frustration behind the birth of this movement. This simply isn’t about too few jobs with too few benefits and education that is too expensive and bankers that are too greedy. While all of these are component parts to their collective frustration, the overarching theme is “precariousness.” There is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the protestors: a feeling of being stuck. In a nation where most everything has been bureaucratized, and reduced to trivial component parts, these protestors seek space for imagination: an “American Dream” broader than the cliché consumerist suburban life.
As such, this movement has more in line with the French protests against the CPE (cContrat Première Embauche) of 2006 than the Arab Spring earlier this year. While the former dealt with a specific “demand”; i.e., repeal of the new labor law, the movement was spurred on by a much larger redress: the increasing precarité of life in the neo-liberal world. The slogans of the day dealt much more with frustration of the increasing isolation of the citizen from the decision-making process, specifically with regards to economic policy, which is heavily insulated from public opinion by European Union bureaucracy.
I was on the streets of Paris then, and have participated in the New Orleans branch of the Occupy movement today. The similarities are striking, though the latter has a ways to go before it shakes the foundations of power in quite the same way.
Nonetheless, there is potential as long as concrete isn’t poured all over the movement. The Democrats, and their enablers in the union and liberal non-profit world, would love to deflate the movement by converting it into a legislative “demand.” However, American precariousness is too vast and far-reaching to be addressed in one, neat congressional bill. Furthermore, it is futile to ask anything of Congress, as they have almost entirely been elected on the heels of support from the same malicious forces the protests oppose: corporations, hedge-fund managers, and bankers. If we make demands of Congress, the best we will get are vacuous gestures or half-measures. If we ask that they “tax the rich,” we get the Buffet tax, which has multi-billionaires paying only what their secretaries do. If we ask for employment stimulus, we get corporate handouts supposedly designed to encourage hiring, much of which gets spent on CEO bonuses. If we ask for student debt relief, we get a myriad of relief options that all fall far short of what most “first world democracies” offer: higher education that is practically free. Meanwhile, this movement exists as a point of frustration with business-as-usual: an effort to offer an alternative to a political system that is essentially a revolving door between oligarchs, political bureaucrats and the puppets in power.
In resisting the temptation to go the easy route of making specific legislative demands, the Occupy movement is demonstrating a political sophistication not seen in this country in decades. It is more of a throw-back to ’68-‘69 than the anti-war protests of 2002-2004, insofar as there is an embedded critique of the overarching structure of this society. As such, there is greater potential for success. The chance of actually shifting the locus of power from the 1% to the rest is much greater in a spirited, innovative protest of this nature. As long as it remains as imaginative as it is today, the movement will endure. Just don’t pour concrete on it!