The Dog that Caught the Car

OWS is losing public support, to 33 for-45 opposed from 35F-36O a month ago. The project is suffering from a variety of problems mostly related to the lack of focus and leadership that appeared to its adherents as a virtue when it began. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have happened, but it might be time for advocates of more income and wealth equality, and fixing the economy so ordinary people can make a living in it, to move to new tactics. Napoleon lacked a plan for the occupation of Moscow and found, as Bush did in Iraq, that a successful invasion is to a wedding as the occupation is to a marriage.

A core problem is the mismatch of tactics to realistic goals. An occupation or a hunger strike (in contrast to a self-immolation) is understood to be a process that will go on until demands are met. This means the demands have to be within the capacity of someone or something, but (for example), the demonstrators at Berkeley are targeting the university regents and administration for not reducing tuition, as though they had a significant sum of money with which to cut student fees. There is some small change around the edges, maybe from excessive administration salaries, but not enough to matter: the problem is that UC money from the legislature is being throttled back by Republicans who are down to one idea and one fake fact about the world. Similarly, the time scale of public attention to outdoor camping demonstrations and the real national process of tax law changes, not to mention financial sector regulation, do not match. Serious advocates of big change need to be planning their next move, as the occupations are becoming old news. We know from psychology and the dog-bites-man rule, also from information theory, that the strength of a stimulus is proportional to the logarithm of the change in its level. The change, not the level.

One reason to confront authority in cases like this is to provoke a response (that’s a classic example of a change in stimulus) that demonstrates moral deficiency or viciousness in the authority, so public opinion will change its mind. Cops clearing the campsites, and brutalizing transparently harmless and peacable students and occupiers, may be such a response, and the bad press he’s been getting at Cal has certainly changed the tone of our chancellor’s attempts at leadership lately (and, so far, the behavior of the police). But moving tents back after that PR victory looks to me like a real failure of imagination; even if its successful, it will just add a piece of static scenery to the campus daily theater. Occupy, good symbolism (but better tactics with sharper demands and goals). Get kicked out forcibly, good symbolism. Keep occupying against “concessions” no-one can really grant, not so good.

As to my students, I wish they had asked some of us faculty fossils who made a lot of these mistakes back in the day, and learned from them, for help and advice: this wheel does not need to be reinvented (of course it needs to be adapted and updated). Some tips I’ve picked up chatting with colleagues and organizers, no charge:

(1) Every movement attracts people with more or less relevant agendas to help decorate the Christmas tree that’s actually been stood up. On the one hand, this stimulates the democratic impulse and the yearning for a thousand flowers to bloom, as well as offering useful alliances and a bigger labor pool . On the other, it risks making the whole thing look like a mess to the outsiders whom you want to influence in a specific way. You have to keep the crazies away from the microphone, and protect your movement from good intentions and impractical allies. Leonard Peltier may or may not be the victim of a terrible injustice, but he has nothing to do with Wall Street and his advocates up the flaky/scary index of any demonstration in the estimation of a lot of onlookers. Global warming is actually closely linked to corporate bad behavior and overconsumption by people competing in a positional arms race, but i think putting it out front in this enterprise just confuses people.

(2) You have to be crystal clear about the difference between presentation of self, something everyone has every right to do, and making something happen in the world you are operating in. Ralph Nader’s conscience is pure as the driven snow, and he gave us W. The McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire infuriated hippies and longhairs by making them shave and wear a coat and tie to volunteer, because in that electorate, tying the antiwar movement to certain perfectly reasonable freedoms would condemn a lot more Americans and Vietnamese to death.

(3) I believe the Koch brothers, and the bankers pocketing their absurd bonuses, and ADM and the farm lobby crowd, are in it for themselves, because everything they ask for makes them richer, even if there exists a principled defense of corn subsidies. The risk of being seen as self-serving is important in political action, and our campus demonstrations are much too focused on asking for money for ourselves (faculty raises and lower student fees), especially as the faculty are pretty darn comfortable now compared to Californians generally, and the students are on a track leading them into the most protected tranches of society (the college- and graduate-educated). Our pitch would be much more admired and admirable, for example in the eyes of all the people who aren’t getting into any college or job, and are having their unemployment insurance cut off, if it were more broadly directed to social justice across the board (as Bob Reich tried to steer it last night).

(4) Any campus has professional and semi-professional resources that can be organized to advance the revolution. One of my fondest memories of Harvard ’69 was the silk-screen shop the architecture school set up, where anyone could be taught silk-screening, get professional graphic design help, and make T-shirts and posters. You can thank that shop for the canonical red fist: graphics are important, just like music and rhetoric. We have a drama department and lots of actors: theater, including sidewalk improv, is a revolutionary tool. We have a football team, and other teams, who are (i) celebrities (ii) particularly skilled at organized teamwork and confrontation within rules (iii) beloved of exactly the conservative alums and fans whose views need to be adjusted. Someone needs to make it clear to these folks that they have more important work to do than practicing passes these days. We are not going to beat Stanford Saturday; we might have some success against reaction and injustice. We have a band that should be out playing the Internationale, or This Land is Your Land, or any of a whole library of relevant numbers, in Sproul Plaza; where are they?

Readers with hashmarks from earlier campaigns, and there should be lots, are invited to add tips for youth in comments.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.