“But what are their demands!” or, a response to a standard story about #occupy

I am not an expert on the #occupy movement. I’ve spent some time at the occupy toronto site, and I’ve visited and spoke with various people at the encampment in Kingston and in Zuccotti park in New York City. Still, I’d like to say something in response to a consistent complaint made about the movement – that they lack a coherent set of demands, a coherent leadership, and that if they “really want change”, they should simply join the existing democratic political system.

Unfair Burden Expected of Protestors

The first fallacy I see in critiques of occupy is the implied and unjustified burden placed upon the occupiers to have the answers to all the problems they choose to concentrate on. Political progress can not occur when a problem is not even focussed on – first we need to put our attention towards a problem, and then we can come up with solutions. We’re used to politics of politiciens, where problems are only talked about if the politicien has a story about how the problem will be fixed – and really this is usually only brought up to increase the politicians popularity. That’s what’s normal to us, so it’s strange to see a group of activists focussing on problems without a coherent clear solution. But, actually, that’s what a revolt should look like in a democratic country – we’re not going to demand the fall of dictator, because we already have somewhat democratic structures. Instead, we’re going to demand that issues that concern everyone be focussed on, become part of the political conversation.

There is a coherence of demands

As for the list of demands, if you wander around the encampment, you’ll see lots of demands. But, if you can’t see a coherence between them, then there is something wrong with your eyes. The first demand is that society be run for the benefit of the 99%, rather than the 1%. These numbers may be too extreme for Canada – but they certainly work in the US, where the 1% really does own the government through lobbyists. The situation in Canada is not as extreme, but the demand is the same because if income inequality and american-style politics continue to grow in Canada, we’ll begin to look more and more like the failed democracy of the United States.

Every other demand falls within the rubric of the idea that society should not exploit the less well off for the benefit of the wealthier. There are lots of specific demands, but I’ll just concentrate on two – one is to reduce economic inequality, and one to move towards just solutions to the problems that still face first nations people hundreds after hundreds of years of colonization.

Income Inequality Hurts Everyone

As for economic inequality, this should be a mainstream of the political centre. The research is in, and we know to a much greater degree of certainty than we normally know anything in the social sciences that too much inequality results in people being worse off not only at the bottom and middle of society, but at the top as well.  Basically, the wage share has not increased since the 70s, and yet consumer consumption has increased hugely. How? Well, maybe the 25,000$ average consumer debt of Canadians can explain why we own more and more and yet make the same as we did 40 years ago. This is not a sustainable situation – not even for the 1%, who own the consumer debt of Canadians, and who will themselves begin to lose out as that debt becomes less and less serviceable.

Canada’s treatment of its colonized Peoples – Dishonesty and Embarrassment 

The situation of indigenous peoples in Canada is a national embarrassment. Just for an example, the Globe and Mail reported this morning the findings of a controversial national panel on native education:

The decision to open the schools on some native reserves is made on a day-to-day basis according to whether or not the water is running.

The staff turnover rates range between 20 and 40 per cent as teachers leave for better pay in non-aboriginal schools. Libraries, special education and computers are unaffordable luxuries.

The annual hike in federal funding for native schools has been capped at 2 per cent, while provinces have been getting increases of 6 per cent. At the same time, the growth in the number of on-reserve students has dramatically outpaced the number attending provincially funded schools.

While this and a thousand other stories can tell of the experience of Canada’s colonized peoples, I think the cause of their continued plight can be distilled remarkable easily: dishonesty. When the British set out to take control of the resources of a land the size of Europe as a whole, the sovereign native peoples of the land were perceived as a challenge to British/Canadian sovereignty – either they had to go, or we wouldn’t get the resources. Compared to the revisionist zionists dream of a “Greater Israel” which might include Jordan and part of Syria and Egypt, the dream of Greater Canada was much grander – dozens of times more territory. The land was taken by disabling the local populations from presenting serious resistance against the occupying forces – this was sometimes done militarily (sometimes through germ warfare, sometimes open combat), but more often it was done by subsidizing European settler communities who would, to borrow a phrase, make the desert bloom and extracted great bounty from sometimes not terribly rich Canadian farmland. But their presence on the land pushed off the natives, who often used the land in a nomadic way rather than sedentary farming. But once the natives had been pushed off their traditional territory, which made their traditional ways of life unsustainable, they were literally imprisoned in permanent refugee camps that we call “reserves” (which were studied by South Africa for the development of the Bantustan and Apartheid system there). And, if imprisoning natives on “reserves” (as if they were some kind of wild animal) wasn’t bad enough, the next stage involved kidnapping their children, and forcing them to learn the British ways of life – in child prisons, or “residential schools”, where they were punished for speaking their own language or doing anything from their own traditions, like carving for instance. After the residential school system became too gruesome for white Canadian society to accept, it was replaced by an agressive child services department which took more native children away than the residential schools every had – giving birth to the famous “sixties scoop”, which continues today as my lawyering friends try to defend the rights of native families to keep their children at home.

But, we never tell the story this way – we tell a tiny bit of it, and we find some way of blaming the chaos of native communities on themselves, rather than on the colonizer/occupier. At occupy Toronto there is a strong native presence, and a strong contingent of native activists who can tell you about the problems in their communities in relation to Canada’s colonialist and genocidal policies. And if you’re willing to listen, you might learn something. And, I honestly believe, that if we were all just honest with ourselves about the situation of Canada’s colonized peoples, it wouldn’t be so impossible to put the practical programs into place that would improve their situations greatly. If we understood the context in which we took sovereignty away from them, we might think it a bit more reasonable to give it back – to negotiate away Canadian sovereignty over large tracks of stolen land, and over resource and airspace rights. To negotiate away our right to tell the band councils how they are allowed to organize themselves, and to decide which treaties we want to obey, and which ones we can safely ignore. This is of course considered “politically impossible”, but I contend it is only politically impossible due to the standardization of dishonesty about history as concerns first nations people in Canada.

Effective Leadership? (Isn’t that an oxymoron?)

The other thing I want to address is the idea that the occupiers don’t have an effective leadership. This is a more complicated issue – certainly it is sometimes important for revolts or reform groups to have leaders. However, the occupy movement grows out of a new political tendency – group autonomy, and consensus rather than leaders. I first experienced this kind of group interaction at my first Critical Mass bike ride – Halloween in Vancouver about 10 years ago. Certainly there are advantages to a clear leadership – but there are also disadvantages. It’s easy to frame the leaders, put them in jail, and use attacks against them to discredit the movement. Wikileaks is a great example of what can go wrong if you have a public leader. Not having leaders doesn’t mean you can’t organize – the General Assembly has facilitators, and resolutions do get made. So, it is possible without a leadership to develop a list of demands – something Occupy New York is currently working on, with difficulty, and with some resistance against the idea of demands in general. There already is a list of demands from #occupywallstreet called the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”. I’m not sure if there is any list of demands from Toronto, if there is, I haven’t heard about it.

Watch Gord Perks’s CBC interview

Even without demands, Gord Perks put it well on the CBC recently when he said that important things are happening at the park, regardless of whether the protestors have all the answers.


21 thoughts on ““But what are their demands!” or, a response to a standard story about #occupy

  1. What policies would ‘Occupy’ participants recommend to reduce income inequality, assuming that is a good idea? Do they generally agree on how to do it?

    It can be done in ways that have very different effects on the choices of individuals. For instance, a guaranteed income that gets reduced when a person earns wages removes the incentive to take low-paying jobs. Granting larger student loans that must eventually be repaid has different effects, as does altering the degree to which the tax system is progressive.

  2. Also, if there is any group the North Americab political system tends to cater to, it seems to be middle class suburbanites. That is quite a big group – significantly larger than 1%.

    They get a lot of expensive favours from the government, in terms of services provided, externalities ignored, and specific benefits like tax breaks on mortgage interest.

    They also seem to vote in a way that is obsessively focused on the short term – cut my taxes now, pay my medical bills today, and to hell with people in fifty years.

  3. I went to the Occupy Vancouver site on about 15 occasions, watched 4 general assemblies fo about one hour each and was there for a total of about 8 to 10 hours. I found it quite interesting. At first I was struck by the process and then the idealism. As the weeks passed, the effectiveness seemed to run its course. The 50 or so occupants seemed to spend a lot of time just well passing the time. It became more of community for homeless people, and some remaining die hard idealists. One overreach was to claim representation of the 99%. Actually in Canada I expect over 99% of people are not homeless. I think two weeks would have been enough to have made the point and left with some greater sense of accomplishment. The Occupy movement did succeed in raising awareness and discussion. I wonder what its legacy will be.

  4. I don’t think there is a consensus among occupy Toronto about what policies should be implemented to decrease income inequality. But, neither do I think there needs to be. As a popular revolt, its role is more to raise issues than to provide the solutions to solve them. Its job is to change the discussion, rather than contribute the correct answers.

    I can’t comment on #occupyvancouver, but I’m impressed with the number of times you’ve visited, Oleh, it sounds like you’ve made a very commendable effort to understand what’s going on there. When I’m home for xmas, if the camp is still there, I’ll spend some time at it. I’m taking the train again, and I’ll be back on Dec 14th.

    1. Some kind of specific policy proposal seems necessary, if there is to be a serious response to the movement. If it is to have an impact that is more than superficial, the movement needs some way to move from the expression of generally overlapping ideals into the generation of a program for political reform that can plausibly be implemented.

  5. Why do movements need to have serious proposals about policy to be responded to? If a movement demands “end the war”, must they develop policy proposals on exactly how the war is to be ended? No, the policy is the task of the bureaucrats. The mistake modern supporters of democracy in the West have made is mistake ability to participate in policy discussions, which are essentially tactical, for having their interests supported, which is essentially about goals and values.

  6. The notion that politics has anything to do with convincing other people of your ideas, incidentally, is dead set against Ghandi’s theory of non-violent political activism.

  7. To be taken seriously, ideals need to be married to a practical program of implementation. Especially when you are asking people to take action or ethical rather than self-interested reasons, you need to show that it is possible and practical to do what you want.

  8. The job of coming up with the practical program of implementation belongs to those with power, not those engaged in a revolt. The job of those in power is to make concessions which may or may not satisfy the revolt. If they don’t satisfy the revolt, i.e. Egypt today (as we speak there is a battle going on in Tahir square, with high speed tear gas canisters and possibly live fire being used against demonstrators), the revolt continues. It’s not up to the protestors to figure out all the details to the implementation of elections, but it is up to the protestors to continue to revolt if the elections proceed in a way that does not satisfy the demand for democracy.

  9. The general public does not seem to support the ‘Occupy’ movement enough to object to it being violently shut down.

    Nobody with power is out there developing your policies for you. If you do not make practical proposals, the movement will have no effect at all.

    1. “When New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had Zuccotti Park cleared of protesters Monday night, he did so against the wishes of most New Yorkers.

      A poll released Tuesday from the Siena College Research Institute found that while many New York State voters believe the Occupy Wall Street movement lacks a clear message, a majority of them also think the protesters should be allowed to stay in public parks around the clock.

      The survey, conducted only days before police officers evacuated Zuccotti Park on Mayor Bloomberg’s orders early Tuesday morning, is the latest in a series of public opinion polls finding broad tolerance for Occupy Wall Street protesters who began camping out in lower Manhattan two months ago to demonstrate against income inequality, corporate influence in government and other topics.”


      1. OK, so most New Yorkers say that they disapprove – but do they disapprove enough for it to hurt the major politically?

        The idea that there is a massive level of public support for the ‘Occupy’ movement simply seems false. People may support their right to gather and express their view, but they do not necessarily support their agenda.

        I would argue that they cannot support their agenda, because there isn’t a coherent agenda to support or oppose.

  10. ““This idea that [the Occupy protestors] don’t have clear goals, I don’t think anybody buys it,” Martin told The Huffington Post, even as city governments across Canada step up their efforts to end the occupation.

    “These young people have touched a chord that is being discussed in every family across North America and in Europe, as well. I think it’s a very important thing they’ve done.”

    ““The fact is that the free market system works, but unless governments and people are constantly on the watch out for rampant inequality, unless they understand the need for redistribution programs, unless they understand the need to invest in education and better health care and a better environment,” Martin said, “then effectively the free market system will fall on its own accord.”


    1. A general sense that the current system isn’t good isn’t an ‘agenda’ in a meaningful sense of the word.

      The ‘Occupy’ movement seems to be all enthusiasm, with little to show in the way of real capability to produce reform.

    2. “Most importantly, Section 15 of the Charter provides for “equal benefit of the law” to all. However, in the quarter century that the Charter has been in effect, federal and provincial laws have continually been changed to economically benefit the 1 per cent at the expense of the 99 per cent. All studies indicate that economic inequality has gotten much more severe in the time of the Charter than it was previously.”


  11. The occupy movement has two sides. On the one side, it’s a negative revolt – forcing mainstream society to raise issues which are important but ignored. And they’ve had a huge effect at changing the public discourse around income inequality. That’s the reformist agenda, and people like Krugman and Paul Martin seem completely onboard.

    On the other side, in the camps themselves, there is a genuine attempt to build new forms of social life – new ways of living together, deciding together, coping with problems together. Ways of building direct democracies that are genuinely un-oppressive. And, they are not unequivocal successes, but interesting things are happening. The reason why there is no occupy “agenda” is simply that the positive world they are trying to build does not fit into the existing political conversation as a platform, or as a party. It really is revolutionary, in the sense of replacing the existing social-economic relations with a completely different way of doing things. This can’t be proposed as an option alongside the existing way of doing things, partially because political frameworks don’t allow this sort of challenge, and partially because it is in its infancy.

    Think of the occupy movement as an armed insurrection against the state, which seeks to replace the current regime with a different one which has a different power structure. Except, there are no guns, and there is no worked out alternative power structure, yet at least, with which to replace the existing one.

    Or better, don’t listen to me – go down to the park and talk to people there. They are very friendly, and not at all, on average, dogmatic about whether it is a success or what direction it should go in. It’s just normal people who dare to dream a little.

  12. “The ‘Occupy’ movement seems to be all enthusiasm, with little to show in the way of real capability to produce reform.”

    You could easily have said the same of the Bolsheviks in the 1870s.

  13. “If hermeneutics can become the philosophy of our protesters it is not only because it shares a discredited condition, revolutionary goals or ethical resistance, but also because it suggests that human coexistence is possible without imposed truth, that is, a single global financial system. After all, according to Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and other distinguished economists, it is just this belief in a global economy that drove us into financial crisis in the first place. The IMF, WB and ECB are founded on a “pensee unique,” that is, an ideology of perfection, rationality, and self-regulation where flaws, frictions and failures cannot even be taken into consideration. Imposing as truth the specific economic policies of these organisations is to the life embodied by our protesters, a life that shows different and differently vital cultural and economic demands. Hermeneutics, then, is one of the few philosophies that reflects the pluralism of our postmodern societies because, like truly democratic procedures, it includes and allows structural changes to take place every time citizens demand them. Ignoring these demands for change overlooks new, different, and vital interpretations and also ignores the 99 per cent of the population that is now demanding them and the change they can effect.”


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