Responding to “Declaration of the Occupation”

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve been reserving judgment on Occupy Wall Street. I’ve recently left New York, and so while I know some people close to the action, I am merely a social media voyeur on another coast. I’m friends with both bankers and radicals and don’t see that as a problem. I know that OWS is significant, but is it right?

Thankfully, the NYC General Assembly has released a Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. This seems like a good thing since it deflects the main criticism of the movement: that it’s so unfocused in its intentions that there is nothing to take seriously.

I’m going to pick through this declaration and see what I can find.

As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

Hmm. This is not a great start. They are uncritically invoking this “corporate forces” rhetoric despite the weakness of the idea. Literally, corporations are boring. Lots of do-goody non-profits are corporations.

So there’s a sense that there are some big corporations that are at fault, that have wronged people, but which are they? How does one distinguish the wrongful corporations from the ones that are just going about their business?

As this protest started as an occupation of Wall Street, I would have guessed that it was objecting the financial services industry in particular. This does not appear to be the case.

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people,…

Brilliant. I’m on board.

…but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth…

This is may be a subtle point, but corporate existence depends on lots of consensual behavior. Consumers consent to consume, employees consent to work.

Generally, our modern capitalism affords consumers an absurdly wide range of consumption options–though thisis limited by access to technology, available disposable income, and availability of transportation. No doubt some corporations extort those with more limited options by controlling retail inventories (though the possibility of this control is being increasingly disrupted by technology). But are these consumers the ones driving the ‘corporate forces’ that the Wall Street demonstrators are protesting? Arguably, the more these consumers are vulnerable to extortion, the less they can be the driving market of ‘corporate forces’. So, of the 99% who are purportedly represented by the demonstrators, probably a good number–say, those in the 2%-50% bracket–are consumers who are consensually complicit in the triumph of corporate power (whatever that is).

Labor extortion is a more serious problem. But again, however much corporations depend on a captive labor force, these workers will be exploitable because they are replaceable. Higher skilled workers contributing to a corporation will individually contribute more to corporate success. They will also be more mobile, implying once again consent.

My point is this: blaming ‘corporations’ acting ‘without consent’ for economic problems clouds our individual agency in our choices when participating in the economy. My guess is that most of the people who read this far into this post (all six of you) are to some extent consensually complicit in ‘corporate power.’ It’s worth keeping that in mind, if only because the possibility of progress through traditional political channels is so dismal right now.

…and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.

I think I agree with this. I’m not sure what a ‘true democracy’ is or whether or not I’d want one. California, my new home, seems to have gutted itself through its referendum system, which is probably the most ‘true democratic’ system out there. Then again, that’s partly due to the influence of economic power over referenda, which seems unavoidable. By this logic, referenda are not truly democratic.

What about true representative democracy? I used to have faith in Clean Elections, a system of public campaign finance reform. The Supreme Court ruled part of this legislation unconstitutional on free speech grounds, which means we are truly hosed.

The most promising thing to come out of the recent protests, in my view, is the possibility of a constitutional convention to fix, among other things, campaign financing and corporate personhood. Lawrence Lessig is involved. It’s cool. It’s quite possibly the Best Policy Outcome of Occupy Wall Street.

Incidentally, this is along the lines of what Seymour Lachman proposed to fix New York State’s broken legislation in Three Men in a Room. Maybe if they really wanted to sick it to Wall Street they could go two for one.

We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

These statements are vague and hyperbolic. Corporations are composed of and operate in service of people. They also vary in their evilness. See Michael Porter’s Harvard Business Review article on Creating Shared Value for a view on how boringly mainstream notions of corporate social responsibility have become, and moreover how the creation of social value is once again coming to be seen as an important source of economic value.

None of this is to say that it’s a good thing that economically powerful corporations exert undue influence over our government. But not all corporations are up to these games, and many non-corporate organizations that are just as self-interested, wealth-driven, and oppressive exert political influence. Our political and economic problems are due to a wider, thicker network of power than this Declaration would have you believe.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

I don’t understand this one.

They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.

Ok, true.

They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Ok, yes. However, these inequalities and discriminations are endemic to society at large and are not particular to ‘corporations’. As has been noted, the Occupy Wall Street movement itself has internal problems with race and gender.

They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.

Not sure about the poisoning part. But yes, good god yes, monopolized subsidized corporate farming is bad.

Wall Street is a silly place to organize a agribusiness protest, but if this declaration makes anything clear, it is that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is no longer just about Wall Street.

They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.

Ugh. Animal rights. Now you’ve got me considering lobsters again.

They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

Ok, sure. I mean, some of them. Others have been innovating in the workplace and treating their employees well. Is this clause designed to attract generic labor discontent? Interesting that they have placed an emphasis on working conditions rather than general unemployment, which is probably the bigger issue at the moment. Is it any less logical to blame corporations for unemployment?

They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.

I had to think about this one.

Yes, it is terrible that students are hostage with education debt. If I were a student in debt in New York right now, I would be pissed off and in the streets.

But corporations…are they the ones holding students hostage? By what mechanism? Is it because corporations aren’t providing universal college education, or is it because they aren’t employing enough people out of college? Or is this a critique of the companies that provide student loans?

This is one of the most emotionally compelling clauses in the document, to me. Not because it makes any sense, but because it is tragic. Nothing makes it clearer that Occupy Wall Street is made up of, in part, desperate students who have been promised opportunity and are now angry about their prospects for the future. Holding corporations accountable for fixing this future is almost hopeless, but what hope is there?

They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.

I’ve heard that outsourcing in a lot of industries is declining, actually. This seems like more general misplaced worker angst. This worries me because it can turn so quickly to anti-immigration rhetoric. (Note that immigration is one issue that this declaration steers very clear of. Why is that?)

They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

Well, at least some of the culpability and responsibility. Limited liability protects shareholders but you can still sue a company.

They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.

I got nothing.

They have sold our privacy as a commodity.

Sure, yes, ok. Though it’s ironic that the Occupy Wall Street protests have benefited so much from social media like Facebook, which are precisely the corporations selling our privacy. See above note about our responsibility/complicity in the economy.

But, ok, Tumblr is probably not evil. I mean, it’s just so cute.

They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press. They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

Hmmm.

They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.

See above.

They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

Ok.

They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.

Oh, hey, an intellectual property issue! Glad to see someone snuck this one in!

They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts. *

These are bad. I’m getting dizzy. The asterisk goes to this footnote: *These grievances are not all-inclusive. Looks like some issues didn’t make the cut.

To the people of the world,

We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

Peaceably assemble, check. Occupy public space, check.

Create a process to address the problems we face…

Oh dear.

There are a hell of a lot of problems.

But I think this may be the secret sauce of the document.

As somebody way outside what’s going on, one of the best pieces for getting insight into what’s going on has been Nathan Schneider’s This is Just Practice article. Nathan’s frustration with social media getting the credit for the movement’s success is interesting. He thinks that it doesn’t do justice to the social connections and dialog that is happening on the ground. Contrast with this article from Tech President saying that it was skilled social media usage that has lead the originally tiny movement to grow and gain national attention.

This video from CBC news is also revealing. Drew Hombine, sleepily representing OWS, dismisses the accusation that the movement’s policy goals are unfocused on the grounds that the point is to “build an ideal society in the heart of darkness.” It’s the establishment of a fresh venue for grassroots dialog, not any particular policy position, that’s the goal.

So, what does that add up to? There is a core of the movement that is training itself in grassroots, consensus-based activism. And there is a much larger surrounding network of people watching and legitimizing via social media. That’s powerful. If it actually gets people to think and act differently in society, it doesn’t matter what the legislative policy response is. (Though constitutional reform, if not mangled by special interests in the process, would be a huge plus.)

What could the outcomes be?

One possibility is that it could change the way people engage with the economy as consumers and laborers. If you are living in a tent in a public space and depending on your fellow activists for help, as people in Liberty Square seem to be doing, then you are divesting to some extent from the system that allows for “corporate greed”. If the core group could promote a low-consumption lifestyle or a targeted consumer boycott through its digital social network, that could have a significant economic impact. Similarly, they could make it so socially painful to work for certain kinds of organizations that mobile, high-skilled workers choose to find other jobs in order to avoid social stigma.

So much for the economy. There is the wider phenomenon of the de-legitimation of the government. When asked if OWS was at all related to the Tea Party, Hombine claimed (to my suprise) that yes, it was. “Original Tea Party members — members of the party before it was taken over by corporate influence — are with us.”

That’s consistent with a lot of Tea Party rhetoric, which is vitriolic against the “permanent political class.” I’d recommend to anyone who would like insight into the Tea Party ideology Codevilla’s The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It. Like the OWS movement, it defends the Tea Party’s inconsistent political positions on the grounds that what they are rejecting is the entire political system in its current incarnation.

For Codevilla, the Tea Party’s tactic is to use its grassroots appeal within the Country Class (contrasted with the Ruling Class of left-leaning elite university graduates) to elect new representatives that are not part of the permanent political class. Once in the legislature, these representatives can cause nuisance and get demands met.

Interestingly, OWS appears to be in the business of setting up alternative governance and communication structures, and causing a nuisance from without not from within. This is the anarchist agenda.

Will these tactics of dissent merge as we approach the next election? Some have argued that it will be hard for mainstream groups like labor unions or MoveOn.org to work with the anarchists within OWS. Time will tell.

To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

Join us and make your voices heard!

Godspeed. You’re evolving. If passion about animal rights gets you out of bed and into General Assembly meetings, more power to you. I hope that the dialog within the movement will cause it to work out its internal contradictions and maybe wring out the weak ‘corporate forces’ rhetoric in favor of something more actionable, something that takes more responsibility for the way things are. I’m eager to see where you go.

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