BY BOONE SHEAR AND CHRISTOPHER SWEETAPPLE
As we write this article, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is in its third week. The growing occupation and related protests have garnered an increasing amount of participation and support from community organizations, organized labor, activists of all stripes and everyday people. Occupations and events have spread to over 750 cities. The central slogan of the movement, “We are the 99%,” alludes to the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a narrow global elite. And it also invites a new way to imagine socioeconomic class in which the interests of working people, people of color, the unemployed, immigrants, the homeless, students, and the middle-class are grouped together, connected by the shared conditions of joblessness, debt, alienation, environmental degradation and precariousness. There is room for everyone in this movement!
Earlier this month, as part of a national walk-out in support of OWS, around 150 students and Amherst residents kicked-off an Occupy Amherst project. It shouldn’t be surprising that this initial push was student-driven. At UMass, students, faculty and staff have increasingly felt the impacts of increased private exploitation, declining public support, and a transformation in the University’s mission that has brought it in line with market values and corporate interests at the expense of transparency and democratic governance. For example, this summer the university shifted up to $5,000 per-student of health care costs onto the already overburdened backs of students and families, without our consent or even any discussion.
This is only the latest blow. Steadily rising fees for students and declining real wages have fostered increasing debt for many and have even priced others out of UMass entirely. Increases in part-time and contingent labor combined with a shrinking job-market are devaluing practices that aren’t in-line with market values and entrepreneurial activities and providing bleak job prospects for an increasingly debt-ridden graduate student body.
Student concerns and proposed remedies—like erasing student debt—are part of growing array of potential gains for the movement. Many of the OWS participants protesters themselves carry signs articulating concrete demands: More jobs! No more foreclosures! Wall Street reform! Better health care! and so on. Yet, others have articulated more general complaints: one sign read, “One day, the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich.” Some who are interested in discrediting the movement have cast the lack of consensus around specific demands as indicative of mere whining and as just another example of people failing to take responsibility for themselves. While this criticism largely misses the point of the protests, as community groups and labor unions lend their support to the protests, pressure is mounting for the movement to formulate political strategies around the various grievances of the protesters in order to take advantage of this moment of opportunity.
But there is another “demand,” one stemming from the heart of the movement—performed in the assembly decision making process, the claiming of space, and insistence on ongoing conversation—that should remain central if we want to respond in any serious way to the social, ecological and economic challenges in front of us.
What do we want? Everything.
We might think of this as a meta-demand. Rather than making concrete demands that recognize, and thus legitimate, the existent political-economic structures that have failed us, we should resist the urge to engage with taken-for-granted authority. This would open space for us to imagine and discuss new social institutions, relationships, and ways of being in the world. In-line with this possibility, some of the protestors are asserting that the conversation and the process itself is what the movement is about.
The idea of creating a new world is dangerous stuff. And we carry internalized, ready-made defenses against this kind of thinking, habits and dispositions we rely on to divert us from a deep investigation of structures producing inequalities. Some of our organizer friends, and the organizing inclinations within us, feel an urgency to not lose this moment. The energy and people power should be used to begin to strategize and mobilize around concrete, pragmatic politics. People are hungry, need access to housing and resources, and need to live in safe, caring communities. Our own futures look increasingly bleak, as we are tens of thousands dollars in debt and face a retracting labor market. This no time not to act.
OWS is opening political space for concrete gains to be made, and that should be pursued. But we are also suggesting that specific demands from the system—whether in the OWS protests around the country or right here on campus in response to the stifling, untenable economic position UMass Amherst students find themselves in—also can be a way to suppress debate and action. Why? Because each demand that calls for a modification of our political-economic system accepts and leaves in place the system as such, and thus keeps intact the fundamental causes of our difficult predicaments.
As this movement grows—whether through OWS or by other means—let’s recognize the tension between reform and revolution. Let’s do more than ask to be a little bit less exploited. Let’s keep the conversation open, and imagine, build, and demand everything.