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<nettime> A Movement Without Demands?
Snafu on Thu, 5 Jan 2012 19:40:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> A Movement Without Demands?

Dear nettimers,

here is an article I co-authored with Jodi Dean on OWS, the question of 
demands, and the politics of the commons. It was published a couple of 
days ago on the Social Science Research Council online forum "Possible 
Futures" and is sparking some discussion here and there. I anticipate 
that due overworking madness I probably won't have time to answer 
questions and objections--yet debates on this list tend to take a life 
of their own.

I take the opportunity to wish the list a happy 2012,

A Movement Without Demands?
By Marco Deseriis and Jodi Dean


The question of demands infused the initial weeks and months of Occupy 
Wall Street with the endless opening of desire. Nearly unbearable, the 
absence of demands concentrated interest, fear, expectation, and hope in 
the movement. What did they want? What could they want? Commentators 
have been nearly hysterical in their demand for demands: somebody has 
got to say what Occupy Wall Street wants!In part because of the 
excitement accumulating around the gap the movement opened up in the 
deadlocked US political scene---having done the impossible in creating a 
new political force it seemed as if the movement might even demand the 
impossible---many of those in and around Occupy Wall Street have also 
treated the absence of demands as a benefit, a strength. Commentators 
and protesters alike thus give the impression that the movement's 
inability to agree upon demands and a shared political line is a 
conscious choice.

Anyone who is familiar with the internal dynamics of the movement knows 
that this is not the case. Even if some occupations have released lists 
of demands, the entire question is bitterly contested in New York, where 
only independent organizations such as labor unions have released their 
own demands. In this essay, we claim that far from being a strength, the 
lack of demands reflects the weak ideological core of the movement. We 
also claim that demands should not be approached tactically but 
strategically, that is, they should be grounded in a long-term view of 
the political goals of the movement, a view that is currently lacking. 
Accordingly, in the second part of this text, we argue that this 
strategic view should be grounded in a politics of the commons. Before 
addressing the politics of the commons, however, we dispel three common 
objections that are raised against demands during general assemblies, 
meetings, and conversations people have about the Occupy movement.

First, demands are said to be potentially divisive as they may alienate 
those who disagree with them and discourage newcomers from a variety of 
backgrounds from joining it. The argument is that insofar as Occupy 
aspires to be a movement that expresses the views and interests of the 
vast majority of the social body, every attempt to define it through a 
politics of demands entails a reduction of this potentiality. We call 
this *the anti-representational objection.*Second, it is argued that 
demands reduce the autonomy of the movement insofar as they endow an 
external agent---notably, the government or some other authority---with 
the task of solving problems the movement cannot solve for itself. This 
second objection is usually accompanied by the argument that the 
movement should focus on "autonomous solutions" rather than demands. We 
call this point of view*the autonomist objection.* The third common 
objection, which stems from the second, is that by meeting some demands 
the government would be able to divide and integrate (parts of) the 
movement into the existing political landscape, thus undermining the 
movement's very reason for being. We call this the *cooptation 
objection.*//Some counteract this third objection with the idea of 
releasing "impossible demands," i.e. demands that cannot be met without 
igniting a radical transformation of the system. The very impossibility 
of the demands is said to demonstrate the rigidity of the system, its 
inability to encompass much needed change. Impossible demands thus 
cannot be co-opted. This proposition is in turn rebuffed by pragmatists 
who argue that if demands are to be issued they should focus on 
attainable objectives so as to show that the movement can achieve 
concrete and measurable changes.

Let us first consider the *the anti-representational objection.*The 
objection begins from a basic and unspoken assumption about OWS, namely, 
that the movement is an organic and undifferentiated bloc comprised of 
people from all walks of life, and all racial, cultural, religious, and 
socioeconomic backgrounds. From this perspective, the slogan, "We are 
the 99 percent," is seen not as a rhetorical strategy and political 
fiction but as the designation of an existing sociopolitical entity that 
would define itself in opposition to the 1 percent.

The anti-representational objection takes two primary forms. In its 
first, it insists that it istoo earlyfor demands. Because the movement 
is still young, it is argued, there has not been sufficient time for the 
99 percent to reach consensus on the issues most important to it. 
Introducing demands now//would hinder the organic unfolding of a 
collective discussion whereby the movement can articulate its own 
interests and desires. In the second (and more radical) form, the 
anti-representational objection argues that it is never the right 
time////for demands. Demands always and necessarily activate a state 
apparatus apart from and over and against society. For example, 
anarchists and libertarians in the movement have repeatedly blocked 
proposals for introducing taxes on financial transactions and stronger 
oversight of the banking sector on the grounds that such proposals would 
expand the size of the government and the scope of its intervention.

Both the not now//and not ever//versions of the anti-representational 
objection obfuscate the fact that the 99 percent is not an actual social 
bloc. It is rather an assemblage of politically and economically 
divergent subjectivities. The refusal to be represented by demands is 
actually the refusal or inability to make an honest assessment of the 
social composition of the movement so as to develop a politics in which 
different forces and perspectives do not simply neutralize each other. 
Such inability is further obfuscated by emphases on democratic processes 
and participation. In order to avoid conflicts and pursue the myth of 
consensus, the movement produces within itself autonomously operating 
groups, committees, and caucuses. These groups are brought together 
through structures of mediation such as the General Assembly and the 
Spokes Council, which struggle to find a common ground amidst the groups 
members' divergent political and economic positions. In other words, the 
emphasis on consensus, the refusal of demands, and the refusal of 
representation may well have served the purpose of inciting political 
desire and expanding the social base of the movement in its first phase. 
Nonetheless, it has installed in the movement a serious blindspot with 
regard to real divergences, a blindspot that has high costs in terms of 
political efficacy as serious proposals get watered down in order to 
meet with the agreement of those who reject their basic premises.
Nonetheless, there is a truth in the anti-representational objection: 
demands are divisive. They animate distinctions between "for" and 
"against" and "us" and "them." This is the source of their mobilizing 
strength insofar as the expression of a demand provides not something 
that people can get behind but something that they must get behind if 
they are part of a movement or on the same side in struggle.

The *autonomist objection*is certainly better founded than the 
anti-representational objection. For autonomists (and anarchists), the 
practice of occupation and the very mode of existence of the movement 
are themselves prefigurative of a new, more democratic and more 
egalitarian world. The modes of action and interaction associated with 
occupation attempt to "be the change they want to see in the world." 
Participants work to act in accordance with the ideals of mutuality and 
egalitarianism animating the movement against exploitation and 
inequality. The autonomist approach, then, emphasizes the creation of 
autonomous structures and new political organizations and practices. 
>From this perspective, the problem with demands is not only that they 
provide life support to a dying system, but that they direct vital 
energies away from building new forms of collectivity ourselves. Demands 
focus the movement's attention outside when it should be focused inside.

As with the anti-representational objection, the autonomist objection 
proceeds as if the multiplicity of political and economic interests of 
the 99 percent could immanently converge. Yet where the 
anti-representational objection ignores political differences, the 
autonomist objection overlooks economic ones. The practice of occupation 
that the autonomists imagine is full-time. It demands total 
commitment---living, breathing, and being the movement. The politics of 
remaking the world is anchored in supporting the occupation, primarily 
logistically. Many of the activities of logistical support, however, of 
necessity are not prefiguring at all but rather require interaction with 
dominant arrangements of power. Legal support involves lawyers, permits, 
injunctions. Someone has to pay for and someone has to make the tents 
and sleeping bags. Someone has to do the work of growing and preparing 
food. So the very practices of prefiguration in fact rely on 
infrastructures, goods, and services that are by and large provided, 
maintained, and distributed through capitalist means and relations. 
Additionally, many who would like to support the movement work to earn 
an income. With needs, debts, and responsibilities of their own, they 
want to participate in the movement yet not give up their jobs. Bluntly 
put, their economic position doesn't give them the time that the 
practice of permanent occupation demands.

Both the anti-representational and the autonomist objections fail to 
recognize two key features of demands. First, we can make demands on 
ourselves. Second, demands are means not ends. Demands can be a means 
for achieving autonomous solutions. When demands are understood as 
placed on ourselves, the process of articulating demands becomes a 
process of subjectivation or will formation, that is, a process through 
which a common will is produced out of previously divergent positions. 
Rather than a liability to be denied or avoided, division becomes a 
strength, a way that the movement becomes powerful as our movement, the 
movement of us toward a common end.
If the truth in the anti-representational objection lies in its insight 
into the divisive nature of demands and the truth of the autonomist 
objection lies in its emphasis on making the world we want to live in, 
the truth of the *co-optation objection*//is its recognition of 
antagonism and division. The problem is that the objection as it has 
been raised in the movement misconstrues the location of the division 
that matters. The co-optation objection presents the problem as between 
the state and the movement rather than as a division already within, 
indeed, constitutive of, the movement itself. Instead of grappling with 
the multiplicity of different positions in the actuality of their 
economic conditions, the fear of co-optation posits that the strength of 
the movement comes from a kind of unity of anger and dissatisfaction 
that will dissipate in the face of any particular success. Thus, the 
anti-co-optation argument initiates a discussion about particular 
proposals, playing out their pros and cons. Will the demand for a 
national jobs plan mean that the movement has been co-opted by the 
unions? Will a push for a constitutional amendment to eliminate 
corporate personhood fold the movement into the Democratic Party? And 
isn't the support of partisan organizations such as MoveOn a symptom 
that this co-optation is already under way? In pursuing such a 
discussion, the co-optation objection obscures actual and potential 
connections among different proposals. It thus reinforces, in the 
attempt of preventing it, the very fragmentation that has long plagued 
the contemporary Left.
The problem that cuts through all the objections to demands is the 
movement's inability to deal with antagonism. So the very question of 
demands brings to the fore the fact of division within the movement, a 
division that many---but not all---have wanted to deny.

Fortunately, the truths animating each of the objections suggest a way 
forward. In order to metamorphose from a protest movement into a 
revolutionary movement, Occupy will have to acknowledge division, build 
alternative practices and organizations, and assert a commonality. The 
set of ideas and practices built around the notion of the commons 
fulfills this function. The commons is afinite resource //whose mode of 
disposition and usage is determined by the community of its users and 
producers. The finitude of the commons enables us to address social 
inequality and environmental limits to capitalist development in their 
dialectical unity.
Against those who claim private rights and particular interests, then 
the idea of the commons asserts the primacy of collectivity and the 
general interest---an idea found in Aristotle's emphasis on the common 
good as well as in the work of contemporary theorists such as Michael 
Hardt and Antonio Negri, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, Iain Boal, 
Elinor Ostrom, Eben Moglen, Slavoj Z(iz(ek, and others.
A politics of the commons acknowledges division in that it begins from 
the shocking recognition that the commons does not exist. Destroyed and 
privatized by over two centuries of capitalist enclosure and 
"accumulation by dispossession,"[1]what Elinor Ostrom calls "common-pool 
resources"[2]have been reduced to tiny pockets of the world economy. To 
be sure, informal economies and communal practices such as worker-owned 
cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, community gardens, 
occupied and self-managed social centers and houses, free and open 
source software, are diffused at a molecular level everywhere. Yet the 
natural and social resources such practices mobilize are quantitatively 
irrelevant when compared to the wealth that is appropriated and 
exploited by capital. For instance, while cyber-enthusiasts such as 
Yochai Benkler point to the Internet as a vast repository of knowledge 
accessible to everyone and often managed in common by the Internet users 
themselves,[3] these same technophiles overlook the fact that industrial 
production and agriculture rest by and large in private hands. Further, 
the apologists of the information commons often fail to recognize that 
such commons can be, and in fact is, functional to capitalist 
development as long as their fruits are productively reintegrated within 
the capitalist cycle. (One may think of the use of Linux in the public 
administrations of several developing countries and the adoption of open 
source software by corporations and military.)

If this is true, then the first question that stems from a radical 
politics of the commons is "how can truly anti-capitalist commons be 
created, recreated, and expanded"? It goes without saying that such a 
question points directly to the centrality of private property to 
capitalist accumulation---an issue that looms so large that most 
activists prefer to avoid it altogether. Demanding the creation and 
expansion of commons that are not subject to the imperative of 
accumulation and profit would make the divisions that are latent in the 
99 percent apparent. Weary of the historical failure of actually 
existing socialism---and lacking large-scale models of alternative 
development---most Occupiers seem to content themselves with a 
neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for 
fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors such as 
infrastructure, green technologies, education, and health care. As we 
have noted above, however, these demands cannot be properly articulated 
as they meet the opposition of anarchists and autonomists who reject 
demands and focus instead on communal processes of self-valorization and 
self-organization. For the autonomists, the organizational forms of the 
movement are already functioning, in many ways, as institutions of the 
commons. Such a perspective fails to recognize that the vast majority of 
the resources managed by the movement are produced and distributed 
according to capitalist logic.

In this respect, while neo-Keynesian and socialist positions downplay 
and overlook existing processes of self-organization, the autonomist 
perspective cannot address the issue of the long-term sustainability of 
the movement insofar as it fails to recognize that the massive 
accumulation of wealth in the private sector is a major obstacle for an 
expansive politics of the commons. In our view, the autonomous 
organization of the movement and a politics based on radical demands 
have to go hand in hand if durable transformations are to be achieved. 
Once an expansive politics of the commons is adopted as the centerpiece 
of the movement's strategy, demands become tactical devices in the 
service of such strategy rather than floating signifiers power can use 
to divide and conquer. From this perspective, every attempt the state 
makes to co-opt the movement through concessions enables an expansion of 
the communal management of common-pool resources---setting in motion 
institutional transformations whose political and symbolic power should 
not be underestimated.
Because a broad-based politics of the commons does not yet exist (even 
as the conditions are ripe for it) and will not emerge over-night, the 
tactical use of demands creates opportunities for testing and learning 
from experiments in managing the commons. For example, what if the 
environmental movement against hydraulic fracturing were to envision a 
national campaign to declare the ground waters a commons? This not only 
would prevent gas companies from putting at risk the lives of millions, 
but it would immediately empower water management boards elected by 
local communities with unprecedented powers. How would these governing 
bodies be constituted and how would they be run? Following this logic, 
we may also ask similar questions in regard to education, health care, 
and the production of energy. In each of these sectors, we may have to 
design solutions to manage these resources not as commodities but as 
goods whose mode of disposition and usage is determined by the community 
of their users and producers.

Such questions are only the beginning of a larger investigation that 
takes the commons not as a one-size-fit-all solution but as a mobile 
concept that can and should operate at different levels of granularity 
and on different plateaus. As a preliminary exploration, we suggest that 
a politics of the commons should operate on three levels: 1) the 
management of land and natural resources; 2) the production and 
reproduction of social life (including care work, housing, education, 
and labor); 3) the production and allocation of energy, knowledge, and 
information. Because these three layers interpenetrate one another, 
multiple conflicts arise as soon as one attempts to set priorities. Yet 
it is also clear that there are elements that cut transversally across 
these areas, namely, the understanding that the commons is a finite 
resource that can not only be extracted but needs to be actively 
reproduced. Such a notion, we believe, marks a decisive break with the 
capitalist system of production. This system has been thriving by 
constantly overcoming the limits to its own expansion---with the result 
of producing an unprecedented demographic explosion while bringing the 
life support systems to the brink of total collapse. The Occupy movement 
is an extraordinary opportunity to rethink this model. But in order to 
do so, the movement has to dispel the illusion that all proposals and 
visions are equivalent as long as they are democratically discussed, and 
begin to set priorities on the road to a truly transformative and 
visionary politics.


1. David Harvey,/The New Imperialism/(Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2. Elinor Ostrom,/Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions
   for Collective Action/(Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
3. Yochai Benkler,/The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production
   Transforms Markets and Freedom/(New Haven and London: Yale
   University Press, 2006).

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