Me, Finkelstein & Occupy: Next Time a Revolution, Not a Peasants’ Revolt
Like any good movement, the Occupy movement has to conduct a serious self-criticism and look at what it did right and what it did wrong. At this point it’s pretty much disappeared. And that’s just a fact. I pass Union Square nearly every day and it’s a very sad sight now. When I go to Union Square the main occupants of the square now are the Hare Krishnas again. Well with all due respect to Hare Krishnas it was much more inspiring when the center stage was occupied by the Occupy movement. — Norman Finkelstein
1. With the people. “… Gandhi … dug very deep roots in the Indian masses. He was not speaking from the outside. He was among them. He lived like them. He dug deep roots and he was careful, methodical, to the point of tedium, organizer of every detail of his movement. … And he’s watching where every nickel and dime goes. This is the people’s money. Nothing is going to be wasted. Nothing is going to be squandered, let alone no one is going to be cheated. No one is going to get away with thievery. So the first rule is you have to dig very deep roots in your constituency. I’m not sure how successful the Occupy movement even initially was at that. I got the impression – it’s a superficial impression but nonetheless even surfaces tell something about reality – let’s say when you were in the Boston Occupy. There seemed to be a sense of “We the encampment.” Us versus them. Namely the world outside. We were the enlightened ones and surrounded by the corrupt society. That’s not how you build a movement. It has to be among the people. The moment it becomes us versus them you then become an easy target for the bulldozers because nobody cares.”
Finkelstein later in the interview expands on and re-emphasizes the point: “When you are a people’s movement you have one thing. Your only asset is people. And you have to deal with real people. Not the people of your imagination. Not the people you wish people would be. But people as they exist actually out there in the real world. So you have to be among the people. Hear what they’re saying, know what they’re thinking, and then you’ll be able to figure out what is a realistic demand and what is not.”
2. From slogan to demands. “… the Occupy movement never got beyond the speechifying to ‘Where’s the Beef?’ The ability to not just synthesize a slogan, which was brilliantly done, but then we have to move … to synthesizing a demand or a series of demands with the same criteria. Where is the consciousness of people? What’s the furthest you can reach them with, or their incipient consciousness? What are their demands. Obviously a demand like, nationalize the banks, no – people were nowhere near there. But demands like, if you had four demands. One, a moratorium on student loans. Two, a public works program. Three, a major increase in taxes for the rich. And four, something on the mortgage crisis which is hitting so many people badly.”
I would add a third criticism, which Finkelstein does _not_ state, and it comes from my sense early on that Occupy was anti-intellectual or at least afraid of being accused of eggheaded intellectualism.
3. Empower expertise. Finkelstein touches on this issue at various points in his interview, particularly in the following:
“Number one, to the extent that politics is an intellectual debate, a debate over real ideas and the so called market place of free ideas, you have to be able to defend your position against other people out there. Otherwise in a course of public debate, public so called discourse, you are going to be trounced. You’re going to look the fool. That’s why we like a person like Ralph Nader out there who can tell you everything about regulation, everything about the tricks and the thievery and so forth, the cheating of the banks and the corporations, because we recognize that politics is in part about that public debate – discourse and being able to make rational arguments that carry the day. So in that respect, no we do need to know the facts. We have to have a full and complete control over the facts. Otherwise we’re simply going to be easily dismissed in the course of a public debate.
Secondly, you have to put forth demands which can work. And it’s not enough to say I don’t like banks. Therefore “B.” Well you have to explain “B.” Does it work. Does it have a real possibility of working. Because you don’t want to mobilize people around a demand which then just blows up in their face. Then you lose all credibility. So A, you have to make a convincing case. And B, the case you make has to be rooted in reality. Otherwise a very short way down the road you are going to be made to look very foolish. As in we told you that wouldn’t work.
So no, I don’t think there’s a shortcut. We need people who are competent, who understand these things. And also we have to make ourselves reasonably competent.”
Of course, see 2, defending your position with Occupy-empowered expertise requires first having such positions to defend. Which Occupy never got to. And then, also, how, with such an absence of organizational structure, would Occupy have recognized and empowered individuals to be “its” experts?
4. We are the 90%. Reluctantly and with all respect to ‘99%’ as a galvanizing slogan, and this is entirely my own criticism not Finkelstein’s, but somehow sloganizing the conflict as between the 1% and the rest of us too conveniently avoids most of the real class conflict that controls U.S. politics. Doctors mostly aren’t part of the 1% but they’re sure part of the 10%, for instance, and they’re part of a healthcare system that costs double what it should. And most doctors (through the AMA) will fight like hell to keep things that way. Frankly, if you aren’t going to confront most of your enemies (which is what “We are the 99%” definitely indicates), but instead are even going to welcome them onto your side, that’s a prescription for aimlessness, confusion and finally cooptation/death.
Peasant revolts are a dime a dozen. If the successor to Occupy wants to be more than that, 1, 2, and 3 will be present early on. (I’ll leave 4 aside.) Still doesn’t mean such a popular revolution would be successful. That will depend on how bad things get. But, well, “pretty damn hellaciously bad” would about do it, and I see that coming fairly soon.