By Marco Deseriis and Jodi Dean

Originally published by Possible Futures, a project of the Social Science Research Council.

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 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 is too early for 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 a finite 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 Žižek, 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, 2003). 
  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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