Below is a piece by Walter Benn Michaels written last March. I am posting an excerpt from it because it hints at but doesn't get to a point I've been thinking about, namely, that Occupy was a proto-party. What do I mean by that? Well, consider the discussion of demands. It went round and round between specific demands, impossible demands, no demands, the premature nature of demands, etc. There was no 'one demand' (contra Adbusters' call for one). Most folks, myself included, thought the absence of demands was a weakness, a problem, or even a symptom (the position I took). At the same time, what was announced, early in September? A declaration of occupation that took the form of a list of grievances and a statement of principles of solidarity. These general statements don't make much sense when viewed in terms of movement politics. They are too broad, too amorphous. They establish the set of ideas that bring people together, that provide a common basis for political struggle. They are the sorts of ideas incorporating a body of and in struggle, a militant political body. To limit them would be to stunt or deform that body.
Further, what else was happening? The formation of multiple working groups. Some were focused on operations. Others focused on political issues like alternative banking, education, and foreclosures. Again, this suggests a party not a moment. A party focuses on operations as well as multiple issue categories on which it formulates a position and struggles for outcomes. Or, better, a party is an apparatus for formulating positions and struggling for outcomes. To be an effective apparatus, it also has to concern itself with its own operations. Hostility toward party thinking, fear of centralism and vanguardism, and a generalized mistrust of leaders and hierarchies prevented this sort of step from being taken.
Such fear and mistrust was justified. It made sense given the compromise and failure of both the mainstream and the sectarian parties of the last decades. Occupy as it continued operated primarily in ways that attempted to build trust, confidence, and capacities. The most recent inspiring steps coming from Occupy participate in this building. But, they are losing what made Occupy so inspiring: it's large, general, proto-party energy. Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy are important, admirable. They seem, though, to be rooted in the sense that Occupy's failure was its broadness, its absense of specificity. In response, they are more focused, essentially single issue groups that have a hard time either extending themselves or in providing a particular that can hegemonize the political field. Strike Debt in particular is working on this (it's well aware of the importance of this move; yet, its focus on debt seems more like issue politics than anything else; this seems clear when its goals are presented as a debt jubilee. There is nothing wrong with this idea, but it is an issue for a movement, a component of a platform, not a positive idea that can name a political subject).
The question of what Occupy Wall Street wants has been a hard one to answer—despite or because of Adbuster’s founding call for “one” “simple” and “uncomplicated” “demand.” This is partly because the Adbuster candidate, “Democracy without Corporatocracy,” was a little vague and partly because the many specific demands that followed it—from reinstating Glass-Steagall to reforming campaign finance to establishing an “Office of the Citizen”—didn’t really capture the radical spirit of the movement. What emerged as most characteristic of OWS was something like a critique of the very idea of demands: we refuse to make any because we refuse to acknowledge that anyone has the authority to accede to them, or we will make only demands that cannot be met. But this strategy, not unlike the mechanism of occupation itself, has obvious limitations: going someplace just because you’re not supposed to be there and asking for something only as long as you can’t possibly get it doesn’t look like a recipe for changing the world.
Nonetheless, because of Occupy Wall Street, the world has begun to change, and it did so the minute OWS adopted the slogan “We are the 99%.” Economic inequality has been increasing for over half a century; in 1962 the bottom 80% of American households had 19.1% of the country’s wealth; by 2007 that number had dropped to 15.0%. But it took the housing crisis—when the loss became not only relative (the share went down to 12.8%) but also absolute (between 1983 and 2009 the net worth of the bottom 80% dropped from $65,300 to $62,900)—for redistribution (upward) to begin to look like a problem (Allegretto 5–6). And it took OWS to make redistribution (downward) begin to look like a solution. To bring the point a little closer to home, it has taken “We are the 99%” to help us professors get a clearer take on the fact that when it comes to class difference, even though we have understood our universities to be part of the solution, they are in fact part of the problem.