I work in health care ethics, and there is a saying in the hospitals, “Nurses Eat Their Young” (see for example this podcast from the radio show “White Coat, Black Art” on the topic of nurse bullying). Well it seems to me that the same can be said of left-wing activists. Once again a bunch of young activists from a “left” perspective are trying to do something and raise awareness about the economic injustices currently occurring and the (allegedly) “left-wing media” seems incapable of figuring out what is going on. The same thing happened after the G20 in Toronto, and I wrote about that here. I am a philosopher, and what we do is analyse arguments, so I am going to comment on the ridiculousness of mainstream commentary on the occupation. I am beginning with a response to Sally Kohn’s Piece “Follow No Leader” but will add to the discussion as I read more inane commentary from journalists who seem content to point out their own incompetence and call this “reporting.”
I don’t see this post as a defense of the movement as much as it is a criticism of journalism.
The sections I examine are as follows:
1. I Demand One Demand (this post)
3. They are Middle Class the Hypocrites!
4. Those “Smelly” “Jobless” Hippies Should Just Try Harder if They Want to Succeed
5. Focus on What They are Wearing
6. Are Journalists Simply Incompetent?
This list will grow as I read and run across new inane commentary in the media. Guess what journalists, I am an oldster, well out of my 20s, I earn well over $100K per year, and not only can I figure out why there is a protest, but I also think the protesters have a legitimate point.
1. I Demand One Demand
This part of the argument against anarchist activist movement implies that if there is not one clear demand, then the movement has no purpose whatsoever. One demand, or there is no coherent demand. Indeed, this requirement that there be one single demand seems to be one that the activists themselves have taken on as a legitimate request, since the poster for the Occupy Wall Street movement asks “What is our one demand?” Asking for a single demand is not a legitimate request, and occupiers should resist the request rather than embracing it. The reason that it is illegitimate has to do with the difference between considering a movement in its inception, versus reflecting back on a successful movement.
Kohn demonstrates this criticism when she writes:
But the Occupy Wall Street protests seem, tactically and optically, like an end in themselves—for the protesters, the self-expression and disruption of the protest is the point. For grassroots organizations like those in the New Bottom Line, protest is a means to an end—a tactic they employ to get the system to recognize the entire community’s needs and demands. It’s the opposite of anarchy—an appreciation that to challenge autocratic power, we must build the power of those who have been targeted and marginalized, those who are together organizing for an alternative vision. (Source)
Kohn does not think this kind of amorphous protesting has any tangible effects, and she contrasts this with what she considers to be effective organizing:
If you want to see the difference between effective organizing and pantomime, compare Occupy Wall Street with the New Bottom Line coalition, a group of community organizations that have put together protests across the country to demand that big banks put back into our economy what they drained from communities. (Source)
But later in the article Kohn cites the civil rights movement as a positive example of organizing (see point 4 below). By putting these two aspects of her argument together, I am supposing that Kohn believes the civil rights movement had a coherent message and a single demand.
If this is indeed what she believes, then her analysis is shockingly naïve. It is true that the civil rights movement had a single demand: “end racial oppression.” But it is not true that there were no sub-arguments that went into this demand.
In order for racial oppression to end, a number of sub-oppressions had to end as well (and we are not there yet so this work is not over).
The civil rights movement did have the single demand to end racial oppression, but this demand included a number of sub-issues:
- End educational segregation
- End Jim Crow laws
- End unequal job opportunities based on race
- End the barriers to equal voting rights for Black Americans
- End unequal policing of Black neighbourhoods (the Black Panthers)
- Equal respect for Blacks
From what I have read by the activists who are involved in organizing the Wall Street occupation, they, too, have a single demand: “end economic injustice.” Just as with the Civil rights movement, this one specific demand seems to break into more specific demands:
- The economic system of advanced capitalism has lead to environmental disaster; we need urgently to address the environmental crisis. The environmental crisis is an issue of economic injustice because climate change affects poor countries more than rich countries and it affects poor individuals within rich countries more than it affects rich individuals within those same countries (this effect is well documented, I will add research when I can be bothered to look it up for the lazy journalists).
- Economic inequalities are now affecting the government. The government of the United States is no longer a government “of the people, by the people” because of the influence of corporate dollars on the election process.
- Advanced capitalism has no concern for women’s rights and undermines women’s equality. Since raising children is not a “profitable” endeavour and one is not paid for one’s participation in this activity, any economic system driven by salaried employment is going to disadvantage those who do caregiving work. (Here is an example)
There are more specific demands, but it seems to me that most of them are tied to the economic injustice of advanced capitalism.
It is not surprising that unfettered capitalism might lead to these kinds of economic injustices. When Adam Smith first described a theory of Capitalism in The Wealth of Nations, he argued that there were some things that a Capitalist system would never be able to adequately address. He said we needed governments to look out for these things. Among them were precisely education, health care, taking care of the poor and the tendency of capitalism to lead to a concentration of wealth. To counter these aspects, he suggested there should be taxation and that wealth should not be inheritable and that the state should look after the health care and educational needs of the population.
Kohn’s analysis is naïve because it neglects the fact that it is always difficult to identify injustices. It is only in hindsight that we can pick a clear message from the disparate actions that go into large-scale movements for social justice. Yes, now that the civil rights movement has been widely successful, we can identify all of their specific requests (end Jim Crow, End Segregation, Legislate Equal Opportunity, etc.) as requests that relate to a single goal (end racism and racial oppression), but at the time a movement is developing this is usually far from clear to those observing.
True, Movements for social justice have always coalesced around an issue. But at the time the movement began it was rarely clear (especially to those outside of the movement) what the “one demand” was.
One important thing to note about this section is that it is clear what the civil rights movement was demanding. But this is only clear in retrospect, once we have already undertaken a pretty extensive analysis of what constitutes “racism.” It was not at all clear at the time.
“I have a dream” that we will arrive at “the promised land” is not a specific demand.
Bibliography: Link Round-Up of Decent Places to Follow the Protest
This is more or less my “Bibliography” section. I am not involved in this movement in any way, but I found it pretty easy to figure out what they are doing and why they are doing it just by reading the internet. This is exactly the same way that I was able to sort out what was going on in the G20. If you read and can research, then you can figure out the movement. It is simply not that difficult. Granted, I do have advanced degrees and these degrees were aimed at teaching me how to research. But come on journalists, I am sure you can do better! I believe in you!
Hey journalists, did you know that most protest movements set up websites these days? Here is the one for Occupy Wall Street. If you go on the website and spend say 1/2 hour a day listening to what the protesters are saying you can more or less piece together why they are protesting. It is one of the pretty amazing things about the internet. There is actual information on it!
The New York Observer seems to still understand what it means to report on something rather than just spouting some unfounded and unresearched opinions.
The AnonOps blog where Anonymous reports their take on the protests.
The Anonymous site “The Plan” where they describe what their plan is, and have a bunch of quite amusing videos about the protest.
The Adbusters discussion of the occupation, which includes the original call to occupy and a live feed covering the protest.
And, there is always the method of following the Twitter Hashtag #OccupyWallStreet
Ok, now that you know what modern info dissemination is all about, I am sure you journalists will stop screaming “I am incompetent” and wearing this like some kind of badge of honour.