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.