NEW YORK (Frameshop) – As OWS heads into its first winter, the time has come to have a serious discussion about whether or not the movement should shift its focus and take up as its top priority the goal of influencing the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election? Should OWS become “occupy the Democratic Party” as a strategy of influencing the outcome of 2012 elections–yes or no? My answer is: No, it should not. Why not? Let me answer that question with another question: Is it possible to transform a gambling casino into a public park or a school or a hospital, simply by walking into it and playing blackjack? Of course not. If a park, school or hospital is what you want, you need to go out and build it.
Seeing Politics Beyond Parties
Let me try to explain my reasoning.
For as long as many of us can remember, the two-party system in its current form in American politics has not played host to meaningful politics, but rather has been the place where meaningful politics goes to die. The reason for this is clear: money.
Even candidates who are 100% driven by ideals of economic justice, true forms of equality, and sincere commitment to progress cannot overcome the corrupting presence of money in American politics.
This is not even a question of individual choice or freedom or belief. Once a system has been saturated by money in the way that ours has been (you decide how long it has been that way), then the institutions themselves become large engines of corruption and stasis.
This is where we are, today.
I am not saying that political parties are de facto bad. I am not making a blanket argument against voting or against state power or against capitalism or authoritarianism or hierarchy–although I am sure many a lazy critic will accuse me of those sins. Instead, I am simply articulating a syllogism for politics in 2011 that so many of us know all too well: because the two parties are corrupt, and, yet, because most people believe that the two parties are the only avenues for political change, most attempts at change seek realization throughout the parties and, thus, fail.
That was not necessarily case in the first half to the 20th Century when the political parties were still agents that facilitated real change. But in 2011, it has become all too true.
This leads to the next point that so many of us already understand.
Be the Change, Don’t Ask for It
There are many ways to state this next point. If, for example, real change is what you seek, do not go to the two corrupt political parties and ask them for change, but instead bring public support to your efforts with the goal of directly bringing about that change. Shorter: Don’t ask the parties for the change you want, just be it.
In a sense, this point is the main argument as to why shifting all OWS to the 2012 party contest is a bad idea.
Rather than asking for economic justice and real democracy, OWS has engaged in direct action and horizontal organizing. As such, it has taken up a central place in American consciousness despite being castigated by the media, maligned and ridiculed by elected officials, and brutalized by police.
The success of the OWS is what they have done–not what has been as a result of a petition or a request.
And this leads to my third point.
Two Guiding Lights: Direct Action & Horizontal Organizing
In my estimation, what should be the two guiding lights for OWS are not the political parties, but the innovations OWS has brought front and center to American politics.
OWS did not invent direct action or horizontal organizing. These practices have been around for some time. But OWS did shuttle those two forms of politics into the very center of American civics.
The appeal of OWS based on direct action and horizontal organizing not only drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets all across the country–many of who took up residence in the public square–but also drew support from and gave inspiration to millions of others across the country and around the world.
Many pundits believe that it was the OWS camps–the tent occupations–that have been the main strength of the movement. And yet, while these camps have been important symbolically, OWS participants engaged in day-to-day horizontal organizing and emphasis on direct action has been its true strength–a strength largely hidden from press and politicians wholly dismissive of anything but dominant forms of hierarchical, party-owned civic practices.
Despite a full-out violent assault on peaceful OWS participants by truncheon and mace-wielding police forces, enthusiasm for direct action and horizontal organizing has endured.
These two guiding lights have burned so bright, I believe, because they have accomplished something that millions and millions of Americans had given up believing was possible: a form of American politics beyond the two corrupt parties.
Political Message vs. Civic Experience
In the end, the success of OWS has moved beyond the act of crafting a new political message to the monumental achievement of generating a new form of civic experience.
Because of OWS, a growing number of Americans with unwavering energy have tasted for the first time what it means to be fully engaged in politics without giving oneself up to the authority, influence, budgets, arguments, priorities, and demands of the two-party system.
I would estimate–based only on intuition–that 100,000 to date have experienced this new kind of politics created by OWS. Already, this small number has had a huge influence in our national consciousness. Imagine what would happen if 1,000,000 people had the experience–or 10,000,000.
Real change, in other words, will come when the common sense understanding of what the experience of politics is–what it is, today, and can be, tomorrow–has changed for enough people in this country to make a difference.
Will that take a year? 4 years? 10 years? I have no answer to that question. But it will come because the current status quo in American politics is untenable.
Staying Grounded, Staying out of the Casino
Ultimately, if OWS were to abandon the guiding light of direct action and horizontal organizing in favor of a guiding light of 2012 election victory, that switch would weaken the bonds that hold OWS together. The movement would begin a rapid decline.
And yet, this basic point is much easier to see for people participating in OWS day-to-day than for pundits looking in from the outside.
It is far easier to critique a message from afar than it is to empathize with a new experience. And, realistically, since one of the main targets for OWS change is large corporate media who help to maintain the corrupt two-party status quo–there is not much incentive for pundits to truly understand the grounded reality of the movement.
In fact, can appreciate what OWS has accomplished and urge participants to say focused on direct action and horizontal organizing that has given them strength, but beyond that, my advice is not appropriate or needed.
The various affinity groups that, collectively, make up the daily life of the OWS have and will figure out very well for themselves how to keep moving forward. They know the key to change is not, simply, to abandon what they are doing and walk into the casino or a game of blackjack.
They know in their hearts that they are unstoppable.