Saturday, October 29, 2011

What are Demands Good For?

When the idea that OWS does not need or should not have demands has made not only this blog but a Planet Money podcast, we may be moving beyond the assumption that it’s alleged incoherence is, in some sense, a failing.  Though I have heard some vague rumors that the NYC group is planning to have a “platform” by the end of the month—anyone on the ground know anything about that?

But I’m a policy guy (and a boring analytic philosopher, who can’t discuss Deleuze), so I think it might be worth asking: why might you think a group like OWS needs demands?

There are two obvious pitfalls to having demands, which seem to be pretty well understood now.

First, the elements of the 99% that have been coming out to various Occupy protests are pretty diverse in terms of substantive politics.  They may be united by a sense that something is wrong, and even a general idea that what’s wrong is that 1% have too much stuff and 99% too little, but not necessarily by much else.  Keeping them all together may be in some degree dependent on keeping the plan vague.  Any demands made would alienate lots of people—e.g., I imagine that the Tea Party might have a broader base had it stuck to the “we're mad about government bailouts” identification of the problem, rather than becoming focused on policy proposals that were more or less on the political right.

Second, having a set of demands would require bringing to a close the open-ended discourse that people are currently engaging in, and which seems to be a significant part of the draw.

The “pro-demand” side of the argument would basically be, “Okay, but what can you do unless you have a proposal?”  I think it’s a good question, but the situation is a bit more complicated than it might appear.

First, there are plenty of things you can do without demands.  Off the top of my head, here are a few that OWS seems, from my distant vantage point, to be doing already:

  • Have a conversation
  • Engage in mutual aid
  • Raise awareness about a problem
  • Make people feel good (if you think this is trivial, reflect on how much we consume corporate-produced media to accomplish this)

So, you can do plenty without demands.  The one thing you can’t easily do without demands is change the behavior of elites.  The concept of a “demand” is not at home in democratic theory—it is an immigrant from negotiation theory.  Demands are fundamentally things you demand of people, typically people who have power you do not have to change a situation.

Without demands, the main thing you can’t do is go to members of the political and/or economic elite and say, “do x or we will retaliate thus-and-so,” where the thus-and-so is: not buy your stuff, not vote for you, burn your institutions down, etc.

This is one of those things that sounds stupidly obvious when I say it, but I think is important to any discussion of demands.  You don’t have demands for yourself.  You have demands because you accept the power of another actor.  To have demands of Wall Street or Washington is to accept that Wall Street and Washington will continue to largely control your fate.

I also think the question of demands marks an important option for the OWS movement, as a result.

On the one hand, the regulative ideal of the demand-less approach is to create a space where the role of the existing elites becomes irrelevant.  Enough people join the movement that we don’t make the system fairer by fixing the system; we make it fairer by displacing it with something else (and the crux of this would be the “engage in mutual aid” thing—I don't have to love your politics to be willing to feed you or teach you).  I like this ideal, but it’s a big project, and I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I’m pretty pessimistic about it happening.  I’d love to be wrong!

On the other hand, forming demands might allow significant changes to be made—the Tea Party has been a fairly important factor in GOP politics and OWS could be a significant factor in national and local politics as well (likely, regardless of critique, on the Democratic side of the aisle).  But these changes will be modifications of the existing system, to a large extent.  No one will accept a demand to commit class or political suicide.

◊ ◊ ◊

Note: I want to put in a more public place than buried in a comment thread that I was probably too snarky by half in my response to Steven Mazie’s article in the comments to this post.  I stand by my view that Rawls is more radical than he’s often made out to be, but I didn’t need to be obnoxious about it.


  1. I've been thinking for the last week or so that something like a list of grievances -- `bads' of the status quo -- might be preferable to both a list of demands -- goods to be achieved -- and the inchoate expression of frustration and disappointment with the status quo. With respect to the inchoate expression, a list of grievances allows the Occupy movement to explain to people *why* they are frustrated and disappointed and provides a starting-point for practical reason (we want to remove these bads; what are the best means to do that?). And I think a list of grievances has numerous advantages over a list of demands:

    - A well-formulated and actionable list of demands seems to require an understanding of the causes of the problems with the status quo. But then, before we make a list of demands, we have to make a list of grievances anyways.

    - Demands are made against a second or third party -- as you put it, elites. I'd rather encourage direct or democratic action, by the very people who are frustrated or disappointed with the status quo.

    - Relatedly, a list of demands will be much easier to co-opt. If OWS says `we demand a more equitable distribution of wealth', it'll be easy for Democrats to turn that into a sound byte pseudo-argument for letting the Bush tax cuts expire. Now, I'm all for letting the Bush tax cuts expire if that's the best we can do to promote a more equitable distribution of wealth. But a more equitable distribution of wealth goes well beyond the tax code!

    - The sense I get, following the protests from the Midwest, is that there's quite a bit of agreement on the rough outlines of the problem, but almost no agreement on possible solutions. So, at this stage, it would be easier to agree on a list of grievances than a list of demands.

    - Removing some well-defined bads is a much more open-ended project than realizing some well-defined goods. A list of grievances encourages pluralism and experimentation with different possible means, rather than fixing on one set of means from the beginning.

  2. I think the first step should be the following, which we are in negotiation state currently for:

    Our demand is that you recognize we have no demands.

    See where it goes from there; will they accept? The biggest problem is we are operating inside their language. As a result, as you point out, any ceding to their demands (come up with demands) means the existing power structure is perpetuated. Get them to accept our language and we begin to bend the discussion towards fairness.

  3. From what I can tell, many of the activists who are refusing to make demands are doing so because they see themselves, and OWS in general, as revolutionary. The same does not appear to be true (or as true) of those who are pushing for specific demands.

    Reformists make demands of the system. Revolutionaries make new systems. Right now OWS has reformists and revolutionaries working together, but I don't think that will work any better than it worked in the alter-globalization movement.

  4. What keeps getting lost in conversations about the Occupy Movement is that it has always been, and continues to be, an effort to reclaim democracy and re-empower people to speak for themselves. And while there does appear to be a fairly uniform set of grievances emanating from the Occupations--wealth and income inequality, unemployment, debt, corporate control of the political system, etc.--there most certainly isn't a uniform theoretical or ideological conceptualization of these grievances, and there isn't anything close to consensus on what to do about them.

    All the more reason why I am sick to death of hearing otherwise sympathetic parties breathlessly insisting that OWS is not a movement "against capitalism." In fact, there are many, many Occupiers who do believe that capitalism itself (and not "corporate greed" or "corruption") is the ultimate source of, e.g., income inequality, unemployment, debt, etc. and that the only meaningful solution to these problems is to abolish capitalism. So it's simply not true that Occupy is "not anti-capitalist." In fact, it contains a very strong anti-capitalist strain. It also contains a very strong anarchist strain. But these strains are at best ignored (you don't see Keith Olbermann inviting avowed socialists and anarchist Occupiers on Countdown, do you?) or written off as "fringe elements" within the movement.

    The implicit or explicit marginalization of radical and revolutionary elements within OWS is itself a kind of co-optation.

  5. I am reminded of Franz Fannon's comment that the oppressed do not look for freedom but to become the oppressors. Reminds me that I formulated that independently, ten years, or more, prior to reading that in Fannon - ugh, all the good stuff's already been written. Anyways, when I get the impression that someone's underlying sentiment is "we're oppressed", I tend to interpret that as "I want to become the oppressor".

    Also, drop the "corporate greed" slogan. It's absolutely loathsome, as it implies a willed impetus to do ill for it's own sake. Hearing it, gives me the same gut feeling I get when I hear religious people talking about original sin.

    Finally, I doubt you're going to see much success getting people with very little in common forming alternative communities - the root being unity. And what's the antonym of unity? Diversity. You can have unity, or you can have diversity, but you can't have both.

    It's been at least ten years since I studied Aristotle, and from what I recall part of the purpose of politics was moral education, the goal being communal virtues. Since this is a unifying process, it is also a de-diversifying process.

    You're likely to get some pushback from the people you're trying to de-diversify.

  6. @NJ Jun

    Are you saying you're not against corruption? I see corruption and greed everywhere, from top to bottom. Once you overthrow capitalism, whatever that means, you're still gonna have all the problems of greed and corruption.

    I am reminded of Eric Voegelin's observation that socialists (read: anarchists, too) are no more concerned with the provision of goods under socialism than Christians are concerned with the provision of goods in heaven.

  7. No, Joel, I don't believe I said any such thing.

  8. Also, Joel, why do you believe you can't have both unity and diversity? That seems like an extremely contentious claim to me.

  9. Here's the problem I see:

    A) The past hundred years, or so, has conditioned people to view socialism/capitalism as an either/or choice

    B) The history of those who have openly professed "socialism" is largely a history of creeps, loons and weirdos who have advocated ludicrous inanities.

    One thing is obvious: the objective, material class-interests of the middle-class and underclass are diametrically opposed. So, right off the bat, the phrase "the 99 percent" is lumping together two groups whose interests are diametrically opposed.

    How about "the 69 percent", excluding the top 1 percent and the bottom 30 percent? Those championing the lupenproletariat, whatever they may be, are not Marxists.

  10. Wow, Joel. (B) is an extraordinarily contentious claim. Are you going to defend it, or just assert is as though it were self-evidently true.

    Nor is it "obvious" to me that the class interests of the middle or underclass are "diametrically opposed." Diametrically? Really?

  11. They are logical opposites, mutually exclusionary, by definition. To unify is to de-diversity, by definition. "Out of many, one" is a political act that replaces the many with the one, an act of unification, which relegates the many to a subsidiary role.

    It's like saying that "you can't have your cake and eat it, too" is contentious. It's like listening to someone claim that they can drink all the beer they want, eat all the processed starch they want, and not get fat.

    It's the "daddy, I want a pony" school of political theory.

    Every girl "deserves" a pony.

    *clicks fingers*

    That's it. When I observe the OWS-types, all I hear is a four year-old girl saying "daddy, I want a pony". I'll side with the one-percent over that any day.

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Joel, have you read Haeckel, Youmans, T.H. Huxley Ostwald, Malthus, Ploetz, Galton, Spencer, Graham Sumner, de Gobineau, Burgess? You're right -- the "good" ideas have always already been thought by others...

  14. Not sure why you rattled off a bunch of names. Anyways, my impression of OWS types is a bunch of people who think that if we all hold hands and sing kumbaya enough they will eliminate the competitive nature of reality.

    Why do you think it is that a hippy celebrations like burning man are held way out in the desert and cost a few hundred dollars? To keep out the non-cooperative riff-raff.

    See, community is about both equality AND exclusion. Equality for insiders, exclusion for outsiders. They are two sides of the same coin. You can't have one without the other. I would point out that you're seeing this right now in the resolution of the cooking staff in the occupy movement to exclude outsiders from partaking of the communal meals.

  15. Look those names up, Joel. I think you'll find some kindred spirits in the bunch.

  16. Joel,

    This is a warning. I deleted one of your comments above. You will refrain from using language with racist/bigoted connotations such as referring the "mating rituals" of the "underclasses" being "the law of the jungle".

    Besides being philosophically absurd, historically uniformed, and morally tone def, such comments are clearly intended for provocation, and thus they are not of philosophical merit.

    Another violation and you will be banned. the editors of this blog will not allow it to devolve into a platform for such crass bullshit.

  17. Who can’t discuss Deleuze?

    Since it came up, I’m curious, how many people here have read Anti-Oedipus Capitalism and Schizophrenia?

    The reasons I ask is, first, most of what’s being written here, when I read it, one of my reactions is –this person hasn’t read Anti-Oedipus, --this person hasn’t read Anti-Oedipus, because if they did, they wouldn’t be writing this, they wouldn’t be thinking this way, posing false problems, etc.

    Second, I’ve been mulling through that book for two years now, over and over again. Why? Lots or reasons. One being that in my studies, thus far, it’s the most important critique of capitalism I’ve found. I say this even with regard to Marx’s critique in that Deleuze and Guattari have worked through methodological problems and some of the bad philosophical presuppositions in Marx.

    I’m sure you’re all as busy as I am, but for those here who have not read it, I don’t mind going through it one more time, have a reading group? Either I can give anyone interested my contact info or if enough people are interested maybe some room could be made on this site for discussing Deleuze (and Guattari), Anti-Oedipus? Boring analytical philosophers are welcome!

    Also, Daniel, what you’re saying here is good and fine. What’s a good Nietzschian question? Who wants demands? Mostly, the very people, or at least their ways of thinking we’re against (or should be). We should not let them dictate what we do, those who demand demands.

    More importantly now is the general strike being called for by Occupy Oakland. We should be asking our university administrations to shut schools down on November 2nd, and if they won’t we should be urging other students, faculty, and workers to not show up to school that day.

    And since it came up (redundancy!), can we please not even mention this stupid, pathetic, supposed “divide” between “analytical” and “continental” philosophers ever again? Aren’t you all tired of that silly crap? We are better than that. We can work together and pose good problems and try our best to solve them.

    Thank you all for this site and your ideas.

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. @99 Philosopher

    You're still not addressing the basic proposition that the middle-class considers itself in direct class opposition to the lumpenproletariat.

    When you casually lump together those two distinct groups you are shutting off huge numbers of the population.

    Life produces morality. Different life produces different morality. You can't expect different conceptions of virtue to occupy the same social space without conflict, a conflict where one will emerge victorious over the other(s).

    So, "underclass" is now racial? Huh, never got that memo. Fine. Now, I'm not a fan of "capitalism", but if your solution is to tell me that I have to submit to the type of social environment I grew up in I will regard it as a declaration of war.

    And vast swathes of the American middle-class will treat it with the same regard. The motto is "from many one" not "from many peaceful coexistence between a vast diversity of conceptions of the good life". The OWS seems to thing the latter is a compelling vision.

  20. Nathan,

    I think our tribe is, by its very nature, more pensive and less prone to overt action than most others. I think of philosophers in kind of the way Tolkien thought of the Treants in the Lord of The Rings. They held long meetings,and spent centuries doing nothing, but when the consensus to act was reached, they made formidable enemies.

    But to be fair, over at Brian Leiter's blog he has posted a link to a schedule of teach-ins occurring in association with the Occupy Chicago camp.

    And my local is bringing in philosophers from local universities for teach-ins as well.

    Exciting times.

  21. We're coming around, 99! We're coming around! :)

  22. Joel,

    "Underclasses" is a bigoted and anachronistic way way to refer to the poor and marginalized. Referring to their "mating practices" as "rule of the jungle" is barely thinly-veiled racist language. Both statements are unacceptable.

    As for your claim that "life produces morality and different life produces different morality". What is your evidence for that claim?

    As I see it, life no more "produces morality" than a single electron produces chemical science.

  23. Junius, you're awesome. Thank you. This is one of the best posts I've seen on this blog.

    Yes, we should all be mobilizing for the general strike (and solidarity strikes) at our universities and colleges. Yes, we should be planning teach-ins. Yes, we should we be doing all of these things and more. Why aren't? Why are these discussions not being had here and on other academic blogs?

    I'm wondering how long philosophers and other intellectuals in the 60s went on chattering with each other behind behind closed doors before they finally said "fuck it" and joined the protests against the war en masse. Every philosopher and academic I know--and I know quite a few--is behind Occupy 110%, yet only a handful are doing anything about it beyond chattering, myself included! To paraphrase Joe Hill, "Don't Talk, Organize!"

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. P.S. @Junius

    Yes, down with the analytical/continental divide!! For a beautiful example of what total awesomeness that can ensue when philosophers abjure "the divide" and collaborate openly, freely, and cooperatively with one another, see Notice the fantastic discussions there (from all different sorts of perspectives) about OWS!


  26. Jun, and 99%, let’s not beat ourselves up here:

    “The great conquerors, from Alexander to Caesar, and from Caesar to Napoleon, influenced profoundly the lives of subsequent generations. But the total effect of this influence shrinks to insignificance, if compared to the entire transformation of human habits and human mentality produced by the long line of men of thought from Thales to the present day, men individually powerless, but ultimately the rulers of the world.”
    Alfred North Whitehead


  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. Junius, I would recommend Hardt & Negri's Empire for an updated and somewhat more coherent critique of capitalism. Mille Plateaux is certainly a revolutionary text in critical theory, but if you want something a little more immediate, Empire is a necessary read.

  29. If different life doesn't produce different morality then morality is a product of something other than life, i.e. morality exists independent of life. Also, morality simply comes from the Latin meaning "custom", meaning that morality is simply whatever common practices are extant at any one point in time. Where customs are different, morals are different, that's all morality is.

    Hmmm, I'm not sure which comes first: the marginalization or the marginality. There is a vast swathe of individuals in the US that are entirely marginal TO ME. About the only thing I ask is to have as little contact with those individuals as possible. That is my first political goal. Everything else comes second.

    Right now my impression is that I'm being asked to choose between siding with the top one percent or the bottom twenty to thirty percent. The top one percent wins that in a walk.

  30. Joel, here are some suggestions for achieving your "first political goal":

    1. Deport "those individuals" en masse
    2. Round up "those individuals" en masse and imprison them in concentration camps
    3. Summarily execute "those individuals"

    What do you think?

  31. This comment has been removed by the author.

  32. "Where customs are different, morals are different, that's all morality is."

    "There are no morals; there are only the folkways" -- William Graham Sumner

    See! I told you you'd find kindred spirits among the aforementioned list of names, Joel!

  33. Oh, you've got to be kidding me, my nice long comment where I was totally right about everything got eaten.

    Let's try a shorter version.

    1. I was being tongue in cheek about the analytic/continental divide (myself, I've thought a lot about Gadamer and Heidegger, and I've recently been on a Honneth kick). But I really haven't read any Deleuze!

    2. Joel is not doing himself any favors, but there's a grain of truth to what he says - the straightforward interests of the 2nd% and the 98th% aren't the same thing. In particular, if you pretend that what I want (middle class white guy) and what's wanted by the folks who live 2 blocks over from me back home (working poor African-Americans), you're missing something. In a better world, our interests might align, but especially those of us from percentile 2-70 or so are going to have to adjust our expectations.

    We played by the rules and many of us got screwed anyway, but the game has been rigged *in our favor* from day 1.

    3. Unity-diversity... is this that hard? Unity on some things, diversity on others. Conceptual puzzle solved!

  34. I'm actually inclined to agree that, in the US, we've got different sub-cultures that have, largely, achieved Joel's lofty goal of not having to mix with the untermenschen. That does, in part, give rise to different moral perspectives.


    1. This is probably a bad thing. It promotes either conflict or alienation.

    2. It's not at all inevitable. I'd spin this from a pragmatist standpoint rather than a relativist one - joint action comes first, then joint moral perspective. Refuse to mix with the "lumpenproletariat" and, sure, they'll seem different and strange. Work with them, and you'll find/create things in common.

  35. Joel,

    Arguments from etymology are dubious. For example,
    1.'person' is derived from the Greek 'persona'
    2. A person is a character in a play (Dramatis Personae)
    3. Therefore, persons are just characters in plays.

    (3) is clearly false. Persons are more than just characters in plays.

    Likewise with 'moral'. Simply because the word originates from a term meaning 'custom' is does not follow that there is nothing more to morality than custom.

    Finally, I certainly do believe that morality comes from something other than 'life'. I believe morality is derived from reason, and from our second-personal recognition of the rights/feelings of others. I know you hate name dropping, but it is worth reading Stephen Darwall's "The Second Person Point of View" and P.F. Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment" to get clear on on this score.

    I am also curious as to your background with resepect to notions of justice and well-being? Have you looked at Rawls's "A Theory of Justice" or Frankena's "Ethics"?

    Two clarificatory questions I would like to ask you are:

    1. Are you a devotee of Ayn Rand?
    2. If you are unwilling to approach a subject philosophically and to seriously consider your interlocutors positions in a constructive, dialectical, fashion or to be educated about your own philosophical assumptions (to the extent of taking offense when someone suggest that you perhaps read what thinkers like you have had to say in the past to sharpen your views)...why are you hanging out in the comments section of a blog run by professional philosophers?

  36. (2) above should read: (2) A "persona" is a character in a play.

  37. Daniel,

    I disagree that the interests of the 2nd% and the 98% are not the same. It may be true that their subjective (psychological) interests differ. But surely, being that they are human, their "all things considered", ideal, or deliberative interests converge. It is not the fault of the 98th%, long denied access to education, power, and primary goods, that they are incapable of reasoning out precisely what their own non-subjective interests are. The fact that their consideres interests converge with those of the 50th%, the 35th%, and even the 1& gives us sufficient reason to educate the, put them on more egalitarian standing, de-marginalize them, and raise their level of well being, so that we can all pursue our common good together.

  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

  39. 99, I wasn't implying that it was the 98th% that had gotten it wrong! I think the shelter from reality that most of us in the US mid-ranges enjoy is a much bigger epistemic vice than any putative failure of reasoning on the part of the higher percentiles. (I'm also absolutely unconvinced that their reasoning is worse, but only have anecdotal evidence for that).

    I think I have may have been insufficiently precise. What I was aiming at was that what is good in the immediate sense for me, a pretty affluent white guy, are things like: I want to get tenure, I want to keep my house and my lights on, I want to be able to save for my daughter's education and my retirement. I take it that those are not just things I want, but things that are in some real sense good for me.


    Doing most of those things, in the way I currently conceive of them, requires maintaining my position in a system that is very, very bad for many people. What would be in the narrow interests of lots of people the world over would be to say, f*** my entitled ass and take a bunch of my stuff. And there simply isn't a way to make everyone in the world's life as comfortable as my life is simultaneously.

    So, I agree with you that there's a broader sense in which all of our interests may converge. But we're not going to see it unless many of us seriously re-think what our interests are, and more importantly change the structure of our lives significantly so they mesh better with others'.

    As a side point, I don't think it follows from us all being rational beings - even if you buy that as the source of all morality, which I don't but we can fight about that elsewhere (go team Hume!) - that all our interests converge. It could certainly be *right* for me to do something not in my own *interest,* at least on any sense of "interest" that keeps it conceptually distinct as a subset of reasons. And I think we should - otherwise, among other things, it makes the concept of altruism mysterious in a way that it need not be.

  40. N.J, thanks for the compliment but... uh, well, I don't think the analogy is very apt.

  41. @Dan

    "And there simply isn't a way to make everyone in the world's life as comfortable as my life is simultaneously."

    As comfortable? Perhaps not. But then again, perhaps we're too comfortable -- unsustainably so, in fact -- and in order for ALL of us to survive, let alone enjoy a *modicum* of comfort, perhaps that means that SOME of us will have to radically rethink our own priorities and interests. (I say this as an assistant professor at a no-name regional public liberal arts university in Texas with no children and a spouse who is underemployed. I am not affluent by any means, but I am certainly not "poor" either. Our family income is almost exactly equal to the national average for white people.)

  42. N.J., I think we agree on that point.

  43. This comment has been removed by the author.

  44. Professor Levine: thank you for making lemonade from lemons. Also, mad props on saving your own post from hijacking.

    99: I've done some work on philosophy of race and Holocaust studies, and I was quite serious when I implied that some of Joel's remarks are eerily reminiscent of various social Darwinists (at best) and various racial hygiene theorists(at worst). FWIW

  45. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  46. OK, so this comment thread has been seriously Godwin-ed. I'm closing it now (or attempting to).