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OWS & the Leadership Question

By Eugene Goodheart

I have not participated in OWS. I view it from the outside as reflected or refracted through the media. Friends and family who have gone down to Zuccotti Park speak of the experience with enthusiasm. Anyone who believes that there is a gross disparity of wealth between the super haves and the have-nots must be grateful to the movement for having changed the political narrative from an obsession with debt and deficit to one of gross economic inequality. OWS is both a reaction against the unprincipled behavior of those who have power in our political system and the system itself. It attacks Wall Street greed and the support that it receives from government. Americans of all persuasions know that we have an unacceptably high unemployment rate, but what many do not know or did not know until recently is how great the disparity in wealth is between the 1% and the 99%. In random interviews of pedestrians on the streets of New York conducted before OWS came into existence, an NPR reporter, Paul Solmon, elicited responses that reflected a generally held mistaken view that economic inequality in the country resembled that of the Scandinavian countries. OWS has delivered a powerful message that inequality more closely resembles the disparities in developing nations. Whether or not Obama was inspired or pressured by the presence of OWS, he has become more forceful and aggressive in making the case for economic fairness since the movement appeared on the scene.

There is an urgent need to support Obama in his efforts, and here is where OWS has fallen short. In its profound disillusionment with the political system it has lumped together both major parties and their leadership, including Obama. The anarchist anthropologist, David Graeber, credited with providing philosophical inspiration for OWS, believes that Obama has simply bought into the Republican agenda and does not deserve support. Obama has already been heckled by a group of occupiers while giving a speech. In an interview, a young articulate participant in OWS spoke of his indifference toward the upcoming election. It didn’t matter whether the next president would be Romney or Obama. Neither in his view deserved support. He was unmoved by Todd Gitlin, a survivor of the 1960s, once president of SDS, who reminded him about the role of Nader in the Bush-Gore election. He was envisaging the possibility of the creation of new worker’s party in the future. Though he made it clear that he was speaking for himself, his sentiments are clearly shared by other OWS occupiers. Obama in 2008 received major support from the young. Their counterparts in 2012, many of whom are 99% occupiers seem to be devoting their energy elsewhere.

If the aim of the occupiers is profound structural change, why should they be concerned with who wins or loses an election? Given the perceived corruption of the system, it makes little difference to them, who triumphs in the coming election. But the election of a president does make a difference. Working for structural change need not preclude active support for practical, incremental solutions to problems. Stimulating the economy to create jobs, revising the tax code to increase revenue, reducing deficits and debt are the immediate and urgent economic problems of the moment and they need to be addressed politically. One would think that such legislation could give the OWS protestors some of what they want: another government stimulus package, genuine regulation of the predatory financial sector, higher taxes on the wealthy, greater subsidies for higher education etc.—in other words, legislation already enacted, under threat and requiring improvement. Given the deplorable parade of Republican candidates, presidential and congressional, should there be any doubt in the eyes of the occupiers where their own interests lie?

In disclaiming a representative role, the occupier in the interview was dramatizing an essential feature of the movement, its principled leaderlessness. David Graeber views it as a movement devoted to radical social and political change. His vision is of a leaderless horizontal democracy in which all participants have a voice and decisions are arrived at by consensus. That vision has been realized in general assemblies in which participants in all their diversity of views are equally free to express themselves. Its aim is to achieve uncoerced consensus. OWS views its strength in the diversity of its views and claims, so that it cannot be captured or defeated by a single issue. The other side of diversity is diffuseness and a lack of focus, which may make it easier for those opposed or indifferent to the movement to give it a not so benign neglect. A political system cannot be expected to function effectively on the basis of consensus exclusively, unless of course the consensus is coerced. As for the ambition to create a new political party, it is hard to see how the anti-hierarchical system Graeber and the occupiers envisage would allow for political parties, since the very existence of parties would be inimical to the ideal of consensus. The question is whether a leaderless movement can get beyond protest to formulate a realistic program for change and influence its enactment. Right now it acts as if there are unspecified ways of making necessary change. (It is something of an irony that the left embraces a leaderless OWS, while complaining about Obama’s lack of forceful leadership.)

The choices for political action are the following: 1) work within the system to make it as fair as possible 2) create a new system 3) protest against the system in place without offering realistic positive alternatives. As for now, OWS, to the extent that one can generalize about a heterogeneous movement, has for the most part opted for 3 and dreams of 2. I believe its most promising future lies with 1, that is, making connection with those in the prevailing system such as Elizabeth Warren and, yes, Barack Obama who have already demonstrated their capacity for enacting positive changes and promise more in the future. In order to do so leadership is required as it has been in earlier popular movements such as the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Its success in achieving major legislation was in great part due to the relationship Martin Luther King formed with President Johnson. Unlike the Tea Party, its counterpart on the Right, OWS has at least until now made no effort to connect with the political party closest to it or with the institutions that are empowered by our Constitution to enact and execute legislation.

OWS and its offshoots are in an early stage, so it may be premature to expect what their maturing may achieve. There is, however, already evidence that the leaderless model may persist. In its organization it resembles somewhat the counter-culture of the 1960’s concerned above all with establishing enclaves of democratic community in which all views, no matter how diverse and opposed are respected, with the utopian goal of arriving at consensus. The counter-culture of the late 1960s was essentially a social and cultural movement. It had an adversarial political dimension in its anti-war stance and in creating the ground for the struggle for civil rights for African Americans. It made an enormous contribution in reshaping the social and cultural life of the nation, changing, as it did, the manners, morals and education of a generation for good or ill. It did not however change the political and economic structure of the country. If OWS and its allies throughout the country resemble the sixties counter culture in their political disposition (disaffection from “business as usual” politics), they confront a situation that demands political solutions. In its extravagant display of epater le bourgeois (its sexuality and drug taking), the counter culture of the 1960s became the target of liberals as well as conservatives. (“Liberalism” became a pejorative in counter cultural circles.) OWS has thus far avoided the opprobrium even of some conservatives who view gross inequality as a problem. Whatever reservations one may have about its political wisdom, it commands respect for its seriousness and sobriety and for what it has achieved in dramatizing the problem of gross inequality.

In a recent OP-ED in the NY Times (Dec. 16) “Worker-Owners of America, Unite,” the historian Gar Alperowitz may in effect be representing a vision of society that OWS would endorse. He speaks of local cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism and bureaucratic socialism that seems to be emerging in the United States. “Some 130 million Americans…now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private sector unions.” He cautions his readers: “it’s easy to overestimate the possibilities of a new system” when compared to “the power of Wall Street Banks and the other giants of the American economy.” The local cooperative, the kibbutz and the worker’s council are appealing and valuable institutions, but they have never proven to be adequate to the requirements of a national, let alone global economy. These institutions do not obviate the need for a central government that has the capacity to both stimulate and regulate the economy. There is no reason why effective government from the center cannot coexist with local cooperatives.

OWS can follow the path of increasing alienation from the levers of power or enter into a dialogue with those in power closest to its interests. There are serious structural flaws in our political system such as the 2/3rd’s rule in the Senate that can block virtually all legislation. But our constitution has built into it the openness to amendment (perhaps too difficult to achieve, given the conditions for enacting amendments) as well as accommodation to conflict in allowing for parties. It is not our political structure but human agency in the form of cultural biases and special interests that is mainly responsible for the egregious power of money in distorting the political system. Since our system calls for the existence of rival parties, each one with the possibility of assuming power, the ideal assumption is that each party has something of value to contribute to the political system. When party members speak and act as if the existence of the other party has nothing to offer, they betray the system, which depends on the give and take of compromise. Certainly, this is the case with the current Republican party, which cannot even abide the enactment of Democratic sponsored legislation such as the healthcare reform act, contemptuously characterized as Obamacare, that had its inspiration in an earlier incarnation of the Republican Party. Notwithstanding the incendiary Republican rhetoric charging the Democrats with having enacted socialist legislation, the healthcare reform act is in fact an example of constructive compromise (the Democrats' adopting a proposal originated by moderate Republicans in the past). The same is true for “the grand bargain” of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce deficits and debt proposed by Obama (deficit and debt reduction a main concern of Republicans and tax increases of the wealthy a Democratic concern). The promise of our current system worth preserving, though betrayed in practice, is of the parties articulating differing views that can be combined for the common good when they do not absolutely contradict each other. When these views are irreconcilable, they offer alternative possibilities for governance. Like other constructive populist movements before it (think the Civil Rights movement), OWS has an opportunity to improve the functioning of the political system for the common good. Seizing the opportunity requires leadership.


From January, 2012

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