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Sunday, October 9, 2011


J. R. [Ewing?] asks me what I think of the "General Assembly" model of decision making. I confess that I did not at first understand the reference, but as usual, Google provided the explanation. It seems that the "Occupy Wall Street" folks have adopted the practice of making decisions about tactics, strategy, and policy by a kind of informal collective discussion terminated by the reaching of a consensus, rather in the manner of the Quakers. This contrasts both with the command, top down, military mode of decision making [called, by the old Bolsheviks, "democratic centralism"] and the democratic mode, which involves taking and counting votes.

I shall begin my reply, as is my wont, by turning to the writings of my old friend, Herbert Marcuse. When Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man in 1964, America looked politically dead to him [he did not see, or did not justly appreciate, the significance of the Civil Rights Movement.] Marcuse had learned from Marx that revolutionary political movements begin with real changes on the ground, not with the speculations of political theorists. So he apologized in the Introduction of his book for the abstractness of its analysis.

" In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thus thrown back to a high level of abstraction. There is no ground on which theory and practice, thought and action meet. Even the most empirical analysis of historical alternatives appears to be unrealistic speculation, and commitment to them a matter of personal (or group) preference."

Happily, Herbert was wrong about his assessment of the existence of agents and agencies, although his general point was quite correct. Within three years, Europe and America had erupted, and Marcuse's writings, abstract and difficult though they were, became the inspiration for radical students in Germany [Rude Dutschke], in France [Daniel Cohn-Bendit], and in America ]Mark Rudd and Mario Savio.]

Following in the footsteps of my old comrade, I have been pessimistically bemoaning the absence of a genuine progressive movement on the ground in America, just at the moment when such a movement seems to be erupting across the country. So much for old men sitting on the ground and telling sad tales about the death of kings! [Shakespeare, Richard II, for those who are wondering whether I have lost my mind.]

What matters about the Occupy Wall Street Movement [hereafter referred to as OWS, for convenience] is its energy, its anger, its enthusiasm, and its ability to unite a wide variety of people in a protest against the growing contrast between the wealth and privilege of the few and the impoverishment of the many. The slogan, "We are the 99%" is absolutely brilliant. Never mind that in an America grown grotesque in its inequality, even $500,000 a year does not quite put you in the 1%. What matters is that the slogan perfectly captures what is wrong with this country, and in a way that unites virtually everyone against the few.

As I have often said in the past, movements like this are not like brain surgery, where the choice of the precisely correct technique executed with delicate skill can make the difference between life and death. They are more like landslides, in which rocks, trees, shrubs, and great gobbets of dirt tumble helter-skelter down a hillside. If you are trying to be part of a landslide, all that matters is that you are tumbling down the right side of the hill. You may be only a pebble. Malcolm X will be a boulder, Martin Luther King a mighty tree. But your pebble will be part of the landslide.

The most important thing for the OWS is to maintain its energy and include as many people as possible. To accomplish that end, decision making by "General Assembly" is probably a good idea. It is open, inclusive, and unhurried, rather than closed and exclusive, like top-down decision making. And it does not draw sharp distinctions between winners and losers, as voting does.

But how can such a collection of people get anything done? Doesn't it need a program, a set of clear priorities, a fund-raising arm, an executive branch, offices, phones, contact lists, and all the other paraphernalia of a successful political movement?

Not at this point. What is happening is the awakening of a great sleeping beast. When genuinely progressive candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, appear, folks energized by the OWS will flock to her campaign. What is much more important, the existence of politically aroused masses will encourage potential progressive candidates to enter races around the country [and also will lead ambitious candidates to adjust their politics to respond to potential voters -- in public life, purity is not required, only responsiveness to popular demand.]

The key to this analysis is the fundamental fact that in America, only about half of the eligible voters actually vote. Tomorrow, I will explain in detail why this is the central fact about American politics. Now, I have to go to a meeting of the local Chapel Hill branch of Occupy Wall Street.


Ioanes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ioanes said...

It is quite puzzling that you think OWS people would vote for a new progressive candidate. I might be mistaken, but I also sense that you think their vote could change something. I hope nobody flocks (are they sheep?) to any campaign and keep their personality. The Spanish movement 15M from which OWS was influenced was many times asked to form a political party. Each time the movement got closer to the system it lost strength. If the success of these movements is that some professional politicians are going to include their demands in their campaigns, there´s little hope for any change. The idea (the idea the 15M brought to America) is that we have to start building up relationships as to stop our dependence on our greedy capitalist system. The “General Assembly” is a goal in itself. I heard complaints about its ineffectiveness and sluggishness. That is exactly its revolutionary point. Fast and effective revolutionary tactics are those of Lenin. And we all know how the Leninist avant-garde destroyed the revolution. The pace of the General Assembly is revolutionary, we don´t need prompt answers to global problems. Some do need a clear and fast plan for their specific situation. Yet, that´s not the main purpose of the assembly. The assembly can show solidarity with trade unions and the demands of the workers, but, as today, its goal is to stop time, to create disturbance in the system, to reunite the people, to make them aware of their capabilities and the worthlessness of the system, to provide them with real hope not based upon promises or propaganda, but on facts, relationships and infrastructures they have built themselves. This movement, like the Spanish one, goes beyond the traditional political analysis, and will oppose representative democracy or dissolve in the system. And, by the way, I think they should stop inviting rock stars (Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky ….) to their meetings. Salud y alegría!

Unknown said...

I'm sure everybody but me (until a few minutes ago) has seen the site

which contains running updates about what the NY-based protestors need. (It also contains links to websites that are accepting donations.)

I finally had a chance to donate something today. The amount I was able to contribute makes me perhaps a speck of dust on one of the pebbles Professor Wolff describes, but after looking at the list, I realized that there are things (like tea and ice) that small donations can provide in spades. The landslide metaphor reflects this nicely.