Since its appearance on September 17, 2011 Occupy Wall Street has transformed the surface of political discourse in America. Few can argue that its all-too-telling slogans, dramatizing the contradiction between the interests of the 99%, and those of the 1%, have given an essentially rudderless president the overall approach likely to lead him to an important victory in 2012. The pertinence of class division, an idea essentially banished from American thought since the 1970s, has returned to a central place. The union movement has breathed new life, and a host of original issues, such as student loans, have moved to the center of our consciousness.
So welcome has Occupy Wall Street been that some now argue that its task is complete, the message has been heard, and that it is time to return to the norms of everyday electoral politics. In fact, this would be a drastic error. What now needs to happen is that Occupy Wall Street has to mutate into a permanent, radical presence in American life. It needs a long-term perspective, not centered on the next election, nor on the economic crisis alone, but on turning the country in a new and progressive direction.
It is not often recognized that the country had similar movements from the time of the revolution until the 1970s. While such an independent left, radical, or progressive presence has sometimes been marginal to everyday politics, and has often been stigmatized in states of emergency, it has made its crucial contribution during long-term crises when the country needs to move in a genuinely new direction. There have been three such crises: the slavery crisis, the crisis over industrialization and the present crisis, which began in the 1960s. And in each case the country produced a vibrant left — the abolitionists, the socialists and communists, and the New Left, without which the country could never have successfully addressed its problems. These three lefts constitute a tradition, and Occupy Wall Street is the reawakening of that tradition. With that view in mind, I would propose two immediate steps for Occupy Wall Street and its supporters. In both, I build on the idea that we need to continue to occupy not just physical spaces like parks and public areas, but political and cultural spaces as well.
First, we need to go to the Democratic National Convention, which will be held at the Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, North Carolina, September 3-6, 2012, and we need to demand 99 at-large seats chosen from our ranks in order to represent the 99% of the American people who will be otherwise unrepresented. The Credentials Committees, both at the state and the national level has the right to grant unpledged at-large seats, including the famous “Super-delegates,” who played such an important role in the 2008 Primaries. It was the New Left that reformed the party in 1972 and we need to take advantage of that reform. We need to be in the convention hall, not just to re-nominate the president, a foregone conclusion, but to participate in writing the Democratic Party platform, not just its planks on banking regulation, mortgages, and student loans, but also on the withdrawal of American military forces from abroad, on the abolition of the continued violations of our precious traditions of civil liberties, on global warming, torture and immigrant rights. We also need to nominate our own candidates within the Democratic Party: not corporate liberals who mouth OWS slogans, but individuals who represent the point of view of the demonstrators, even when it is opposed — as it generally will be — by the Democratic Party officialdom, the president on down.
Our participation in the 2012 Democratic Party Convention needs to be modeled after the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s participation in the 1964 Democratic Party Convention. At that time, the unrepresented African-Americans of Mississippi came to the Atlantic City Convention, demanding that they be seated. Even if not to the same extent, today’s 99% will not be represented in the halls of the Charlotte convention, unless it is physically present and agitating on its own behalf. My second proposal is similarly based on recovering the lost heritage of the American left, especially the New Left: this is the revival of the teach-in.
The teach-ins of the 1960s were not restricted to ending the war in Vietnam, nor were they exclusive to the Universities. Rather, they were successful efforts to establish an alternative discourse — a counter-public sphere — to the official one, which was so suffused with sycophancy, special pleading, spin, distortion and outright dishonesty as to make genuine, deeply-felt discussion of the alternatives facing the nation impossible. Crucial to the teach-ins of the 1960s was the successful discrediting of supposedly expert opinion, such as the foreign policy “specialists” who brokered the war. Similarly, we need long, widely ranging discussions of US history, of capitalism and its inherent problems, of what new techno-ecological systems look like in the wake of the failure of the older model of socialism, of the effects of the present day crisis on literature, music and the arts, engaged in by ordinary people, not dominated by elites. Above all, we need to reduce the role of economics in our present debates. Economics is a highly specialized, micro-discipline with no, or the shallowest, perspective on the social relations, political organization and values around which our teach-ins need to revolve.
Carving out a space for ourselves within the Democratic Party, without losing our independence, and establishing a space for ourselves within the Universities, but also reaching out to the neighborhoods, are the next logical steps for those of us who have been occupying parks and other public spaces. A third step has already been occurring, the creation of caucuses within the union movement. In taking these steps we are really roots of American identity, not the radical anti-Government ideology of the tea party, nor the handing over of the country to the banks and insurance companies, as the Clinton-Obama Democrats have done, but rather to our great traditions of radical, uncompromising abolitionism, of cooperatives, democratic unions and socialist experiments, and of the New Left, with its still pressing ideal of Participatory Democracy, and its transformative role in the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay liberation movements. Unless we return to this legacy and bring it to bear today, the country will never recover not so much its economy but its moral grounding and place in the world.
Eli Zaretsky is an activist in the Occupy Wall Street movement at the New School for Social Research. His book, Why America Needs a Left: An Historical Argument will appear next month from Polity.