Occupy and the 99% Opposition
Something is happening, but we don’t know yet what it is.
The first half of 2012 saw a wave of people-powered actions protesting foreclosures, evictions, racial profiling, student debt, union busting, climate change, war and other problems of the 99 percent. They were conducted by local and regional convergences of Occupy Wall Street, community, labor, and environment groups, and individuals who just showed up.
The actions reached a crescendo in April and May, following the “99% Spring” program, which aimed to train 100,000 activists in the history and techniques of nonviolent direct action. Thousands protested (and some were arrested) at Wells Fargo in Des Moines, GE in Detroit and many other corporate annual meetings. On April 24, for example, community, labor, environment and other groups, along with Occupy San Francisco, entered Wells Fargo’s annual general shareholder’s meeting, mic-checked CEO John Stumpf, and held up the meeting by laying out the grievances of the 99 percent against the bank. Downtown bank janitors struck and joined the action. On May 1, 30,000 New Yorkers and people in 125 other cities joined May Day protests initiated by Occupy, unions and allies. Calling NATO the “armed wing of the 1 percent,” thousands protested the NATO summit in Chicago in late May, demanded an end to the war in Afghanistan and called for a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial transactions. That same weekend a thousand people from around the country paid an uninvited visit to the Bethesda, Maryland, home of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner demanding a financial transactions tax, principal reductions for underwater homeowners and an investigation of the bankers who caused the mortgage crisis.
These actions are continuing, albeit at a slower pace. On June 17 in New York, for example, a line of thousands stretching for twenty blocks marched silently down Fifth Avenue to protest the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies; 299 organizations, notably unions, civil rights groups, student organizations, Occupy Wall Street, Common Cause, religious groups, gay and lesbian activists, and representatives from the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arab and Jewish communities endorsed the actions.
While protests are nothing new, many of these actions represent a new formation based on direct action by a broad coalition targeting not so much the government as the centers of power that control and manipulate the government. This new formation is not just Occupy Wall Street, but it’s not the progressive wing of the Democratic Party either.
And while the elections in November make it tempting to interpret the significance of these actions primarily in terms of their impact on the electoral process—indeed, Occupy’s language of inequality has already altered the rhetorical landscape—there is much more to them than that.
A Non-Electoral Opposition
Movements based on nonviolent direct action, like the labor movement in the 1930s and the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, have often served as the equivalent of an “opposition party” in America. Such a “non-electoral opposition” can play some of the critical roles of a political party, bringing together different constituencies around common interests and presenting a critique of existing policies and institutions—and alternatives—to the broader public.
This was very much Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision in the months before his assassination. The Poor People’s Campaign planned to use an encampment in Washington, DC, as the bastion for an ongoing interracial movement to challenge the distribution of power in America. An “economic bill of rights” called for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, unemployment insurance, a higher minimum wage, low-income housing and expanded education, all to be paid for by ending the war in Vietnam. The campaign won support from American Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American and poor white communities; King’s engagement in the Memphis sanitation workers strike was part of the coalition-building effort for the campaign. In a 1968 speech to the Poor People’s Campaign he called for “opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty.”
King was responding to a political dead end. Efforts to address the impoverishment of Black America like the War on Poverty were collapsing in the face of the Vietnam War. More votes for Johnson (like more votes for Obama today) might have arguably been necessary to forestall the right and protect existing social programs, but provided no exit from an unacceptable status quo. A non-electoral opposition offered another pathway to change—a pathway that was tragically cut off by King’s assassination.
The idea of a non-electoral opposition tends to surface when the existing political parties collude to preserve the status quo. In the late 1960s when the German Social Democrats and Christian Democrats formed a “grand coalition” that controlled 95 percent of the seats in the Bundestag, the New Left countered by establishing what it called the “extraparliamentary opposition.” An “independent” or “democratic” opposition—contrasting with the sham opposition in the parliament—played a critical role in the upheavals in Poland that led to the rise of Solidarity and the downfall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. As Adam Michnik put it in Letters from Prison, the purpose of Poland’s independent, democratic opposition was not to take power but to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the ruling system and help the people empower themselves in all spheres of society. The independent opposition “must be constantly and incessantly visible in public life, must create political facts by organizing mass actions, must formulate alternative programs.”
Could today’s direct actions be the building blocks for a non-electoral “99 percent Opposition”? An opposition not to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party but to the corporate party of the 1 percent, which dominates the entire political system? It’s too soon to know, but we can get some hints from looking at the potential elements of such a bloc.
Notwithstanding rumors of its demise, Occupy Wall Street has produced diverse manifestations that, while unlike the original occupations, are quite different from familiar organizations like political parties, party factions, trade unions or issue- or constituency-based NGOs. In New York City (the example I know best), more than fifty OWS working groups and other collectives meet face-to-face at least once a week and maintain almost daily online interaction. Occupy maintains a continuous presence on the streets and in the parks, with a number of marches, pop-up demonstrations and educational programs on a wide variety of issues every day. While there are no longer daily General Assemblies in Zuccotti Park, assemblies are often called in connection with other actions or to address particular concerns. Meanwhile, there is a dense and rapidly evolving system of information sharing on the web and through frequent conference calls on “InterOccupy” that stretches out throughout the country and around the world.
This all takes place within the context of wider coalitions. Working groups typically include people who are active in related but non-OWS community groups and NGOs. Many OWS actions are either in support of other groups or organized by wider coalitions. The highly visible May Day events, for example, combined OWS’s own street actions with a rally and march organized by a coordinating committee that included many of the city’s immigrant and labor organizations.
OWS is currently planning a three-day convergence in New York City to mark the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Liberty Square on September 17th (S17). Encompassing assemblies, cultural events, trainings, and direct actions, the convergence will have a strong focus on what Yates McKee of OWS calls "the general condition of debt-servitute imposed by Wall Street on the 99%." According to McKee, "The debtor is a potentially powerful political identity that connects the dots between student debt, housing debt, medical debt, credit card debt, municipal debt and more; the issue of debt provides a gateway into a more radical conversation about capitalism itself and the alternatives we want to build. S17 will not just be a commemorative ritual or one-off Day of Action, but rather a launching pad for a new phase of long-term mobilization.
The dramatic confrontations at the Bank of America, GE, Wells Fargo and other corporate shareholders meetings over the first half of 2012 involved a kaleidoscopic convergence of organizations and networks that parallel OWS and often intertwine with it. Last fall, according to George Goehl of National People’s Action, a loose alliance that included Jobs with Justice, National Domestic Workers Alliance and National People’s Action, developed a plan to “align and aggregate corporate campaigns around shareholder meetings.” Others, including Rainforest Action Network, the Steelworkers, SEIU and the New Bottom Line, began joining them for a weekly phone call to plan what they called “99% Power.” They joined with some large organizations like MoveOn and the UAW for the massive “99% Spring,” which in one week in April trained nearly 100,000 people in the history and practice of nonviolent direct action.
While 99% Spring deliberately avoided telling trainees what to do, thousands, many newcomers to direct action, poured into the 99% Power corporate accountability actions of the subsequent weeks. The anti-NATO actions in Chicago represented a similar coalition of local community organizations, OWSers from across the country, unions and individual protesters, combined with peace activists from around the country and around the world.
The shareholder actions focused attention on the corporate domination of politics. They also suggested an embryonic common program, not by holding a convention and propounding a platform but by making the links among issues ranging from taxes and bank regulation to healthcare and housing to climate, militarization and imperialism. At the Wells Fargo action, for example, protesters demanded that the bank invest in green jobs and energy instead of financing payday lenders and private prisons. In the Chicago actions, National Nurses United’s demand for a “Robin Hood tax” on financial transactions linked speculation with healthcare.
Such actions provide venues in which to lay out to the public a concrete program for structural change to democratize the corporate economy. One element of that program might be socially responsible and just criteria for lending and investment—the “triple bottom line” that requires that social and environmental as well as economic criteria guide corporate decision-making. It could include social auditing, in which the entire range of impacts of corporate behavior must be taken into account in evaluating success and failure. Those could be backed by stakeholder representation in corporate decision-making, including workers, consumers, members of affected communities and environmental guardians. Means of such representation might include collective bargaining, representation on boards of directors and direct stakeholder representation in planning and management.
Such an opposition program could provide the opportunity to show the real benefits that diverse constituencies would get from democratizing the banks and other corporations: access to affordable housing; a shift in investment to clean energy; greater economic stability; decent jobs with democratic representation in the workplace; and tax money for public needs. It could draw together a wide range of constituencies around their common interest in such corporate democratization. In the era of Citizens United such a program is hardly likely to pass Congress—but that is exactly the reason that a non-electoral opposition is necessary. When the political playing field has become so tilted that the1 percent win no matter what, it can use the people-power methods of grassroots organizing, narrative construction, issue reframing and nonviolent direct action to draw together the 99 percent and undermine the power of the 1 percent.
Above All, Speaking Truth to Power
The emerging opposition is largely inspired by and highly interpenetrated with OWS. Both use direct action to confront the institutions of the 1 percent in the interests of the 99 percent. But as OWSer Natasha put it, “Occupy is not just about the targets that you hit with direct action but also the horizontal, collaborative, and open process of working towards” its goals. Not only is Occupy different from the corporations and governments it targets, it differs from conventional NGOs and trade unions, who might be Occupy allies, but whom Occupy would nonetheless consider “vertical” rather than “horizontal.” Many OWSers would agree that realizing its radically egalitarian and horizontalist principles in a post-encampment phase is a tough challenge. But it is not one they want to resolve by abandoning the principles that have made Occupy attractive in the first place. There is an inevitable tension between OWS and more conventionally organized groups, but it can be a constructive tension, challenging the rest of the opposition to be less bureaucratic and more horizontal, while encouraging OWS neither to isolate itself nor to surrender its defining characteristics.
And then there are the issues that arise from the fact that many of those active in the anti-corporate campaigns like progressive trade unions and MoveOn.com are also active in electoral politics, specifically, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Indeed, some OWS supporters have accused MoveOn and others who function within the Democratic Party of simply trying to divert OWS into electoral channels. But for many in this sector the decision to engage in direct action campaigns represents a significant change, partly in response to OWS, partly from a recognition that, as MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben put it, “We know that whoever wins in November, they are still going to be listening more to the 1 percent than to the rest of us because our political system is completely broken.”
It may seem paradoxical for such organizations to be functioning within major party electoral politics and at the same time as part of a non-electoral opposition. But it is a response to the paradoxical nature of the situation we face.
Critics of electoral-oriented strategies point out that both Democratic and Republic parties are dominated by the 1 percent and pursue its interests against the interests of the 99 percent, making electoral politics nearly worthless for fundamental social change. Changing this would require changes in power relations that are most likely to occur outside the electoral arena, so that even third parties are unlikely to provide an effective means of change. But those who believe in the value of electoral politics point out that there are big differences between Republicans and Democrats and that electing one over the other can make a difference on issues ranging from gay, women’s and labor rights to basic social protections.
The problem with this age-old debate is that there is nothing contradictory between these arguments. There can be big differences between political parties, yet no party provides real solutions to the problems of the 99 percent. What’s necessary is a strategy that takes the truth of both into account.
A non-electoral opposition can include groups that participate in the electoral process as long as they do not try to subordinate that opposition to their electoral objectives. Above all, what must unify the different factions within the opposition is consistent support of the interests of the 99 percent against all politicians—regardless of their ties to or the previous support they have enjoyed from members of the movement. The mass protest at the home of Timothy Geithner illustrates the kind of action a non-electoral opposition must be free to take. As George Goehl puts it, “Truth telling underlies the power of Occupy”; a broader opposition will be powerless unless it speaks truth to power regardless of political expediency.
And in the end, even an adversarial non-electoral opposition can actually benefit those in the electoral arena by awakening the 99 percent from fear, isolation, complacency and despair. In King’s vision, the Poor People’s Campaign would inspire millions of poor people to vote. Some unions explicitly supported Occupy May Day because they believed it would help progressive Democrats in the upcoming elections.
People’s power movements have engaged millions in demonstrations, general strikes and occupations only to see the wealth and power of the 1 percent continue to expand. Perhaps the idea of a non-electoral opposition can provide an alternative to the Scylla of cooptation and the Charybdis of isolation and irrelevance. Today, when the government, the political system, and both parties primarily represent the interests of corporations, banks and the 1 percent, the time for a non-electoral opposition may have returned.
From now until November the attention of media and citizens alike will be focused on the elections. No matter who wins on November 7, we can be confident that the 1 percent will still be in power. The job of the nascent non-electoral opposition is to draw together the 99 percent not around a candidate or a party but around our common interests, the structural changes they require and the direct actions we can take to begin realizing them. As Adam Michnik put it early in the emergence of Poland’s independent opposition, “Nothing instructs the authorities better than pressure from below.”