SocialistWorker.org’s Doug Singsen, a CUNY budget cuts activist involved in Occupy Wall Street since its planning stages, asked me to respond to 3 questions as part of a roundtable discussion on OWS. Due to space limitations, SocialistWorker.org won’t be able to run all the responses in full, so below I have posted my unedited answers to their questions.
Read the full roundtable discussion later this week at SocialistWorker.org.
1. What has been the highlight of OWS for you so far?
There’s no question that the Oct. 5 mass labor march to OWS was a political turning point, since the collective, multiracial power of New York’s unionized workers was on display. It was electric.
That said, I think my experiences of tabling and selling Socialist Worker in Liberty Plaza have been the highlight for me. I have been selling this newspaper and talking socialist politics with people for nearly 30 years, but never before in the midst of revolutions and mass upheavals around the world happening in real time.
It dramatically shifts the nature and urgency of conversations, which tend to be about whether and how a revolution could happen here — at least among a significant core of activists.
We all feel that we are now part of a global rebellion, and we really are. The square has transformed the experience of isolation and fear so many unemployed workers and heavily indebted students feel. In a society that has so crassly destroyed most town squares, radical young people have recreated a giant one at the foot of the empire’s economic hub. It has collectivized many debates and created a temporary antidote to the alienation we all feel in this society.
2. What will it take to push the movement forward from here?
Labor is not simply one force among many. In Egypt, for example, it was the actions by 6,000 Suez workers who shut down the canal and strikes by tens of thousands of textile, airport, transit and other workers that landed the decisive blow that forced Mubarak out in early February.
Workers continue to be the pivotal force in Egypt’s revolutionary process. Collective action by workers has forced the trials of the Old Guard and is fighting for higher wages and economic equality to challenge elements of the old order who want to run that country in the same old way, just without the old dictator.
The current development at OWS of working groups in which leftist rank-and-filers are getting their unions more involved in marches, teachers’ “grade-ins,” solidarity actions and hopefully pressing for some demands, is a good sign. It must be cultivated and expanded.
Ordinary nonunion workers, like myself, must encourage our coworkers to come out in groups and discuss together how to take action in solidarity with teachers aides who are fighting cuts, postal workers fighting mass layoffs, etc.
The occupation’s multiracial character is notable. Daily occupiers, in addition to the allies who visit regularly — the majority of the Occupy movement — need to link up with the shoots of struggle against the prison industrial complex and disproportionate toll the crisis is taking on Black America. Whether it’s fighting evictions in Bed Stuy (a Black working-class Brooklyn neighborhood) or standing with postal workers facing mass layoffs in a workforce that’s 20% Black, we must see these acts as practical extensions of OWS.
The continued ambivalence among some occupiers toward elected leadership of any sort is a limitation. Every movement has leaders, the question is whether they will be democratically elected and accountable to anyone or informal and unaccountable.
What’s more, the monied forces of the Democrats, such as MoveOn.org, may not make any headway among the core activists at OWS who are to their left, but they and other Democratic Party entities are all too willing and skilled at taking over and diverting mass movements into the tepid and ineffective electoral cul-de-sac.
Ignoring the Dems will not work. An explicit political statement must be made unequivocally to the Democrats and Obama, whose policies of indifference to the needs of the poor and workers are driving this movement. Demanding independence from Republicans and Democrats, who are both architects of this crisis, is key.
But that is not the same thing as arguing that all parties are bad, as some people do, because their only experience is with corporate-run parties. Activists should never conflate the interests of parties that cater to the ruling class and aim to extend the status quo with those that express workers’ interests and aim to overthrow it. Wall Street is organized, the state is very well organized — just watch their police arm, the Democrats are organized; our side must be organized, too.
3. How can OWS win change?
The former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass had some magnificent advice for us. He said:
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.
I am sympathetic to the argument that demands early on might have stifled the dynamism of the movement. Perhaps that’s true, I don’t know. But we have reached the moment when OWS, through its working groups, perhaps, must put forward concrete demands.
Whether it’s taxing the rich, and putting a number to it, wiping from the books all student debt, ending foreclosures by the banks or any number of demands that people debate all the time in the square, they must be advanced and argued for so that millions can potentially take them up and figure out how to push them through actions.
We may not win the demands we make, but if we do not make demands, we certainly cannot win them.
The occupation of the squares is a tactic that can drive a new left forward. But if the resistance by some to making any demands wins out, then it doesn’t mean demands won’t be made — the Dems and wanna-be co-opters will be sure of that. They just won’t be very useful demands.
Let’s dream big and for the first time attempt to organize our side’s power to tell Wall Street’s that we don’t want to live like this anymore. We can’t live like this anymore.
I will admit the political energy of OWS is intoxicating and I am more hopeful than ever that I may live to see some of the changes we’re fighting for, but this is just a start. The U.S. has only just joined the global rebellion after years of relative dormancy. This is just a small taste of where we need to go. But it tastes so good.