OWS - What We’ve Been Waiting For

by Robin Hahnel, Alex Doherty

Occupy Wall Street represents a coming out party for a new movement that is rejecting formulaic demands and old tactics and is embracing new modes of resistance to political and economic elites.

First published: 01 November, 2011 | Category: 

Robin Hahnel is Professor of Economics at Portland State University. His most recent book is Economic Justice and Democracy and he is co-author with Michael Albert of The Political Economy of Participatory Economics. Here he discusses the composition of the Occupy Wall Street movement, his hopes for the movement and the question of demands.


You have been directly involved in Occupy Portland - could you describe the situation in Portland - its scale and the methods of organisation? How are decisions being made within the occupation zone and what is the make-up of the participants?

After several well attended planning meetings ten thousand people responded to the call for the initial rally, march, and occupation in Portland Oregon on October 6. Practically none of the organizers were from established progressive organizations or leftist groups. Organizations like Jobs With Justice issued last minute endorsements and emailed their membership about the event, and roughly twenty percent of the ten thousand people who showed up were the same people who have been attending rallies for peace, jobs, and no cuts in social spending in Portland over the past five years. But the overwhelming majority of organizers and attendees were not people who have been visibly active before. From what I have read of Occupy Wall Street protests elsewhere this is typical. In which case it is the most important thing about the OWS phenomenon, and the movement’s greatest asset. If this ever ceases to be true the movement will have failed.

At the end of what was by far the largest and most spirited march through downtown Portland in over five years a park across the street from the Court House and City Hall was occupied and has remained occupied ever since. As elsewhere, Occupy Portland is governed by a General Assembly of all who attend on a given evening. Committees established by the GA comprised of volunteers approved by the GA take responsibility for various tasks as needs arise. These committees then make reports and recommendations to the GA, which is chaired by people trained in procedures designed to promote participatory decision making that have now become commonplace in all the occupations. The goal of the procedures is to stimulate participation of those who often remain silent, and reach consensus even when opinions initially differ. At one point the GA in Portland approved a 90% decision rule for a particularly contentious issue – whether to “dis-occupy” the street that runs through the middle of the park and encampment. 90% of those present at the meeting voted to dis-occupy the street, and also voted that a 90% plurality was sufficient to override objections from those who continued to disagree. So the “official decision” of the Portland GA was to dis-occupy the street by the following morning despite failure to reach consensus. However, many of the 10% who disagreed on grounds that they believed Occupy Portland should not recognize the authority of the city government to limit street use sat in the street when the police came in the morning. The arrest was peaceful, humane, and people were released quickly after booking. Unlike most other cities, Portland’s Mayor, Sam Adams, is progressive to the point of being sympathetic to the OWS movement.  He personally attended the arrests in the street which were done peacefully and humanely. The street has remained open to traffic ever since, which includes major bus routes people rely on to get to work.

It is interesting to consider what was gained and lost from this outcome. The sit down and arrests made it possible for the 10% to continue to work enthusiastically in Occupy Portland, and it is possible they may have drifted away otherwise. The fact that the arrests were all peaceful made it possible for the 90% to continue to work with the 10% who had violated the GA vote. In effect, the outcome may have prevented important psychological losses among occupiers and thereby strengthened the occupation. On the other hand, Occupy Portland’s essential message to all looking on is that we can manage ourselves through extremely democratic procedures and still act effectively. I suspect that onlookers must have felt somewhat less convinced after the GA decision to de-occupy was not implemented, and the situation was saved only by the wise actions of Portland’s Mayor who, at least so far has sought cooperation rather than confrontation at every turn. The city overlooked the lack of a permit for the initial parade. The large contingent of fully equipped riot police assembled on the first day were kept away from the site of the occupation when it was being seized. The city government has chosen not to enforce its night curfew in city parks and its ordinance against erecting tents and temporary structures. (This has created problems for the city as homeless groups have now erected a tent city on property of a private owner who is cooperating with them and challenged the city ordinance against temporary structures on grounds that it is not being enforced on Occupy Portland .)

Compared to OWS and other occupations Occupy Portland has been fortunate in at least three regards: (1) The level of support – ten thousand at the initial rally and march, as well as continued support from those who are not encamped -- is larger than elsewhere when considered as a percent of the local population. (2) Because the city government is more progressive than most, negotiations over various matters have been cooperative rather than confrontational. And finally, (3) because Portland has mild, if rainy winters, it will be easier for the encampment to continue through the winter here than it will be in New York City, for example. All this can be summarized as: After all, Portland is Portland!

Regarding the occupation movement within the United States more generally how do you view the trajectory of the movement? How would you like to see the movement progress?

In Greece, Spain, France, England and elsewhere popular opposition to the global economic crisis came earlier. The OWS movement is clearly the awakening so many of us have been waiting for here in the US – wondering if, and when it would ever come. The “old” movement showed itself in Wisconsin during the winter. OWS is the coming out party for a “new movement. Like elsewhere, it was not initiated by established progressive organizations, who here in the US, as elsewhere, tried to launch anti-austerity campaigns with limited success. (I think it is very important for leftists to think about why this new movement seems to have more resonance with a larger segment of the body politic than older progressive movements do at this point, despite the fact that it has a more radical message and image than most of them.) Like elsewhere, its participants are largely from a new generation, as are its leaders. Like elsewhere, its message is simple and radical: The system is broken -- we need a new system. Those who rule will not solve pressing problems. We are going to have to solve these problems ourselves. We will do this by actually practicing, rather than paying lip-service, to inclusive, participatory, democracy.

OWS has gotten some very important things right, which is why I think it has succeeded where previous attempts have failed.

(1) In the US it is hard to find anyone who is not angry at the big banks -- and rightly so. Focusing on Wall Street and the politicians who pander to Wall Street was the right choice. It should have been the obvious choice, and when someone finally did it the outpouring of popular resentment has been overwhelming. Obama could not embrace this highly popular political strategy after his election in 2008 because he had taken too much Wall Street money and chosen Wall Streeters to lead his economic team in the persons of Timothy Geithner and Laurence Summers. Nor can Obama campaign against Wall Street now since his re-election strategy is to rely even more heavily on Wall Street money in 2012 than he did in 2008, and hope progressives will vote for him anyway, even if unenthusiastically.

(2) Instead of a laundry list of old demands, making the movement the message turned out to be brilliant. A bold movement which is inclusive, participatory, and democratic to a fault is a very attractive alternative to what even the mainstream media frequently portrays as rule by corrupt, quarrelsome, self-serving economic and political elites.

(3) Occupying a site after the initial rally so the OWS movement continues 24/7 was very important for two reasons. It signaled a level of seriousness that most progressive activities have lacked in the US for quite some time. When I was bicycling from an NPR radio interview about OWS and participatory economics in East Portland across the Burnside bridge to the initial Occupy Portland rally in West Portland I was mostly thinking about how many people would I see on the other side of the bridge: “Please be large! Please be bigger than all the other gatherings have been for the past four years” was all I could think. But even before I got far enough across the bridge and see, to my amazement, that there were five times more people there than I had even dared hoped for, another thought crossed my mind: “No matter how many or few we are, at the end of the day when the rally and march are over, not all of us will go home.” I realized that Occupy Portland would not be over. Some of us would stay and refuse to leave until we had solved problems which must be solved. Occupy Portland, like OWS and all the other occupations, was not taking “no” for an answer. We had drawn a line in the sand. The occupations also create the opportunity and the necessity of searching for new activities every day that will carry us forward. There will be a long winter and spring during which electoral chatter will sound increasingly hypocritical, hateful, irrelevant, and alienating to an embittered and jaded American populace. Because the occupations will continue they can provide a sincere and serious alternative for how to respond to very serious crises.

The extremes of inequality that exist within the United States and the faltering US economy have been pointed to as the driving factors behind the movement - do those factors capture the principle causes? If so can you describe the realities of the US economy that have pushed people into the streets?

There is no need to repeat here what is well documented, and now widely conceded in both professional and popular accounts. The past thirty years has seen the most dramatic increase in income and wealth inequality in the history of the United States. Income distribution is now even more regressive than it was during the “gilded age” and “robber baron era.” A mild trend toward greater equality that took place during the middle third of the twentieth century was been cruelly reversed. The last three decades have witnessed the most dramatic redistribution of of income and wealth from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy, and especially the super wealthy, that the world has ever seen. In truth the 99% slogan of the OWS movement is an understatement if one looks closely at the actual data. It is actually the top one tenth of the top 1% that has managed to rip off the lion’s share of the productivity gains we all have made over the past few decades. Not only is this grossly unfair, it is also a major reason our economic system is now so unstable.

That is why the 99% slogan has so much traction. The US economic and political system is now literally rigged to serve the interests of the top 1% of the population at the expense of the bottom 99%. Moreover, an increasing majority of the 99% have finally woken up to the fact that the top 1% have royally screwed them. When we were marching 10 thousand strong in Portland on October 6 at first we chanted “We Are the 99%.” But suddenly marchers changed the chant, to “You Are the 99%” as we pointed to the spectators on the sidewalks and in the windows of the office buildings looking down on us. What’s more, many of the spectators signaled back that they agreed.

Moreover, neoliberal globalization that has outsourced jobs to low wage countries for three decades, and the greatest recession in over eighty years show no signs of abating. (In an atmosphere where Republicans refuse to vote for anything Obama proposes, including a jobs bill, Congress passed one piece of major legislation with by-partisan support this month -- Three so-called “free trade bills” with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. Apparently the only thing that still has bi-partisan support besides defense spending are neoliberal treaties that cost American more jobs.) This means that the economic prospects of the young generation in the US are very bleak. Employment prospects for those with only high school education and for minorities were already bleak. But now college graduates cannot find jobs. This problem is particularly acute in Spain and Greece and has been much commented on. But it is now clearly true here in the US as well. A former student of mine came up to me after a workshop I did on participatory economics at Occupy Portland a week ago. She was hardly someone I expected to see at Occupy Portland. She had graduated from an MBA program at Portland State University. She had been a typical business student -- supportive of neoliberal globalization and more than willing to dismiss the unemployed as personally unworthy. She was very excited to tell me three things: (1) She thanked me for my lectures on capital and trade liberalization. She said she had been in frequent arguments with her father who was a union member about free trade treaties before taking my class, and my rigorous critique of capital and trade liberalization had changed her opinions to some extent. (Such are the moments teachers live for!) (2) She told me she had not been able to find a job – any job – for over a year now after graduating with her MBA. (3) And she told me I should not hesitate to contact her about doing more workshops at Occupy Portland because since she did not have a job she was there much of the day and an active member of the education committee responsible for scheduling events.

A common critique in the mainstream media is that the protesters offer no alternative to present economic arrangements. How much truth is there in that complaint?

I think this criticism – which has come not only from the mainstream media in its attempts to belittle the movement, but also from older leftists and progressives who have been organizing for decades, and who all have their favorite “demands” they would like OWS to embrace – is largely misguided for three reasons.

(1) Agreeing on demands will prove divisive. People participating in the OWS movement are very diverse – which is one of the great strengths of the movement. But this also means they would predictably have difficulty agreeing on specific demands. There is a better way to take care of this issue that the OWS movement seems to have adopted instinctively. Instead of issuing demands from OWS, better to issue statements of solidarity with actual groups of people in struggle for solutions to different problems, and then to search for concrete ways to help these progressive organizations and in their activities in the cities where there are occupations.

(2) Specific demands are really unnecessary because everybody knows what the OWS occupiers and supporters are for and against. Why state the obvious, and in the process turn great sound bites into boring policy wong talk? Right now OWS is saying loud and clear: We know the 1% are ripping off the 99% as never before. We know both the economic and political system is rigged to serve the 1% no matter how detrimental this may be to the interests of the 99%. We will no longer tolerate this. Nor will we any longer place our hopes in pleas to politicians who are in power only because of their willingness to serve the 1%. Instead we are starting to solve problems, and eventually crises, ourselves. We are going about this in the way we want all decisions to be made in the future – through participatory democracy. Any laundry list of demands will be less effective than this message.

(3) There is no chance that ruling elites will accede to any significant demands at this point in time – not even the ones that would pull the system that serves them well back from the abyss. Maybe this is less true in Europe than here in the US, in which case European protesters should put more priority on coming up with demands they can fight for and hope to win in the near future. But part of the power of the OWS movement here is that it says very loudly that the entire ruling establishment in the US is completely unresponsive. Republicans are hell-bent on scorched earth class warfare while feeding the destructive Wall Street monster everything it asks for. The Democrats are either powerless to achieve any reforms, and/or don’t want to, and/or are too gutless or discouraged to even stand up and fight for real solutions to any of our crises, which are numerous and growing worse by the day: The financial system remains unregulated and even more likely to suffer a crisis than it was before 2008. The recession is deepening and unemployment is rising with no jobs program or fiscal stimulus in sight. The healthcare bill that was passed created at least as many problems as it solved, and is now being dismantled in any case. Public education in America is under frontal attack by draconian budget cuts and demonization of its employees. Resolving the status of immigrants is a more distant dream than ever. And last, but certainly not least, any discussion, much less effective action to begin the urgent process of weaning America off fossil fuels and promoting energy efficiency before catastrophic climate change becomes a probability rather than merely an unlikely possibility has been defeated by the fossil fuel industry and its political allies.  What is the point of us arguing among ourselves at great length over a wonderful set of demands when there is no chance they would get a hearing? Isn’t it better, at least for now, to concentrate instead on the only thing that can help -- which is appealing to more and more people affected by our worsening crises to join and act with the only movement that has any hope of solving any of our real problems?

There is no lack of sensible proposals that would help a great deal. I have been speaking and writing about what needs to be done to prevent financial crises and pull us out of recession for well over three years, as have a number of better known left economists. People like us who have expertise in climate change policy have explained how we could reduce emissions dramatically and rebate the proceeds from putting a price on carbon to make the bottom 70% of the population financially better off.  In short, there is no lack of progressive policy expertise. More to the point, people within the mainstream who have bigger megaphones than policy experts on the left have trotted out plenty of specific reform packages that are perfectly sound and would be immensely helpful. The problem is not that nobody has good solutions. The problem is that ruling elites have paid absolutely no attention to good proposals, and show no signs of doing so in the near future.

Nor is there any reason to believe this situation will change here in the US for at least five more years. Between now and the election of 2012 Republicans will stonewall all real solutions to all problems. The Obama-led Democrats will try to frighten the electorate into voting for them simply because they are not as scary as the Republicans, while currying favor with mildly helpful proposals knowing full well there is no chance they can come to pass. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision will unleash a tsunami of corporate money into many more campaigns than in 2010, while the worsening crises will embitter an electorate toward those who promised change in 2008 but failed to deliver any relief. After the 2012 election, at best the US Congress will be slightly more conservative, and at worst much more under Republican control. After the 2012 election more state houses and legislatures will be under Republican control. After the 2012 election, at best Obama will remain in the White House, further committed to and locked into collaboration with Republican non-solutions, and even more willing to thumb his nose at progressives who voted for him because they had nowhere else to go. At worst we will have a Republican in the White House who makes Bush/Cheney a fond memory!

Five years from now a list of good demands will make sense and be necessary. And at that point I don’t think the movement will have much difficulty agreeing on demands for which the intellectual work is already largely done. But the truth is there is no need for the OWS movement to rush to agree on the best list of demands for reforms. There is plenty of time to come to agreement while the movement is becoming powerful enough so there is a chance of winning them.

Initially ridiculed the movement is now acquiring backing from major figures in the Democratic Party. What is your view of this development? Will the movement be co-opted by the Democratic Party, or conversely do you think the movement will drive the US government into taking more progressive positions on the economy?

As explained above, I do not expect the OWS movement to have much success in winning reforms in the near future. And this is most unfortunate and unfair. Unfortunate because conditions are deteriorating rapidly and reforms are desperately needed. Unfair because a large and powerful social movement deserves a group of self-serving politicians to pass laws that address their demands at least in part. The OWS movement may force Democratic candidates to change their rhetoric during election season. And some Democrats will try to run on OWS coat tails, just as some Republicans have tried to run on Tea Party coat tails. But for the foreseeable future there is little chance that Obama and the Democrats in Congress will do anything other than continue their complicit Washington tango with Republicans that addresses no problem afflicting the 99% while advancing the interests of the 1%.

I am more concerned with whether or not this new movement will be co-opted by progressives and leftists who are “old hands.” Let me be frank: If I thought old hands had better ideas than the new generation of activists I would have no objection to old hands who had little to do with launching the new movement creeping into leadership roles. But I believe an honest review of the evidence suggests this is not the case. Admittedly, many in the OWS movement are more politically naïve than many of the rank and file in older progressive movements.  And those who have remained active in progressive causes for decades clearly have more activist experience than many who have been the leading activists in the occupy movements so far. Moreover, OWS needs to reach out to traditional progressive movements in order to grow and eventually hammer out a coherent reform agenda. But the greater political sophistication of older movements, and the greater experience of their leaders failed to generate anything during the past three years as promising as the OWS movement. At least in Portland I believe that had the call for people to come out on October 6 come from the same people and organizations that have been urging people to protest here for years, many fewer than ten thousand would have responded. There are too many in the 99% whose ears are deaf when appeals come from old progressive movements. No doubt older movements and their leaders are not entirely to blame for this, but who is to blame is beside the point. In any case, it seems likely to me that “newbies” know something important that “old hands” do not. So my hope is that “old hands” concentrate on learning and following right now, and foreswear teaching and leading until they have learned some important lessons. As many of us pointed out when Obama justified choosing Geithner and Summers to lead his economic team based on their great experience, experience in failure is hardly a recommendation for leadership.

You say that the occupation movement has been dominated by 'newbies' yet it is very striking that the various occupy movements immediately started making decisions via consensus along with the rotation of important positions to prevent the emergence of a vanguard group. Such tactics are typical of anarchists and grass roots environmentalists. Are you perhaps overlooking the role of long time activists?

You are right that the organizers of OWS are well versed in a particular set of procedures for participatory decision making – consensus, blocking, etc. – which as best I know all the occupations use.  However, these folks do not seem to be members of organized anarchist sects or groups for the most part.

In the US there were people like this who played leadership roles in the original anti-globalization movement in 1999 and 2000. I first met them in Seattle and worked with them extensively in the spring of 2000 in Washington DC, and then again in the fall of 2001 in the Mobilization for Global Justice. The Ruckus society (out of San Francisco) is a typical group of such people. That movement would have peaked for massive demonstrations, sit-ins, and occupations against the scheduled IMF/WB meetings in DC in the fall of 2001. A week of activities had been organized and half a million people were ready to show up. However 9/11 happened two weeks before the IMF/WB meetings and those meetings and also the demonstrations were cancelled. The majority of those organizers moved over to help build the initial anti-Iraq war movement in the US in the fall and winter of 2002. They have been largely invisible for almost 10 years now, but have re-emerged as process leaders at the occupations. To what extent these are the same veterans of the anti-globalization movement – 10 years later – and to what extent they are newbies who are like them and play the same role they did, I’m not sure. My impression is they are mostly new folks because they are mostly in their twenties rather than their thirties or forties. For the most part they are process leaders and occupiers but do not ascribe to any specific political ideology or group, or at least that is my impression.



All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?