Today is the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. To investigate the meaning of Occupy and its goals and demands, I interviewed two of its fervent supporters. In January, I sat down with world-renowned philosopher and professor Noam Chomsky, and then in June, with former top-ranking British diplomat Carne Ross. Both assert that one of the most striking features of this movement has been its paradoxical quality of both unity and incoherence. No single individual has the authority to dictate a cohesive list of demands for the rest to follow; matters are decided collectively though assemblies, discussions and debates.
The very disorganization of the movement provides the grounds for its legitimacy as a truly democratic effort.
“If you investigate the movement and you ask them what are their demands, they are reticent to answer and rightly so, because they are essentially crafting a point of view from many disparate sources,” professor Chomsky said.
Ross expressed a similar feeling.
“There is no single motto of Occupy. That’s one of its great virtues and perhaps one might argue is also one of its weaknesses,” Ross said. “There is a single concern, which is inequality and the state of the economic and the political system today. And Occupy is a movement that is trying to address this in many different ways.”
Chomsky and Ross posit that the corporate capitalistic structure reduced the majority of the people into non-critical agents who have very little power over policy decisions, which are decided by the elite in support of the elite. Chomsky claims Occupy “should be regarded as … the first major public response to about thirty years of a really quite bitter class war … in which the system of democracy has been shredded.”
One question I posed separately to both men concerned how exactly to go about replacing this system. Would a series of reforms be substantial to change the system, or can this be done only through revolution?
Chomsky dismisses the notion that what is happening can be called a revolution.
“First of all, we are nowhere near the limits of what reform can carry out,” Chomsky said. “People can have the idea of a revolution in the back of their minds if they want. But there are very substantive actions that should be taking place.”
Chomsky then qualified this statement by saying that if these substantive reforms lead to the creation of permanent participatory institutions, in the long-term, they would amount to a revolution.
Ross countered, arguing that the substantive reform avenue does not seem to be a tenable choice for activists if they want to affect fundamental change. He asserts that a revolution is the only proper channel for this.
“I don’t think I do agree that substantive reform … will happen given the circumstances we find ourselves in. You’ve got to take a power analysis to this: who has power and who does not.” Ross said. “Power inequality is growing along with wealth inequality. Power means that those with power, with the greatest wealth, have the greatest influence over policy. This is not the way it should work in theory, but in practice what we have is that people with power and influence, say Jamie Dimon who runs J.P. Morgan, he has much more access and influence over policy than you or I or Noam Chomsky ever will.”
Ross clarified that he is also talking about a gradual process, not a turbulent or violent upheaval. But if revolution is gradual, and reform is not possible, how can revolution even come about?
The diplomat contends that the system will be replaced only through concrete radical actions that directly challenge the current political and economic order. An example of such an action, which is distinguishable from reform in Ross’ view, would be setting up participatory banking structures. Ross himself is involved in setting up an “Occupy Bank” and encourages everyone to undertake similar strategies.
Though I see Chomsky’s reasoning that significant changes in policies may be possible and necessary for the overall equation, I also think Ross’ focus on revolution rather than reform adds gravitas to the understanding that this is a fight against the corporate capitalist machine, not a fight to improve it.
I hope the anniversary of this movement can spawn a more aggressive approach that will push for a combination of massive reform and the creation of alternative democratic systems.
Edward Radzivilovskiy is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.
In the previous version of this article, WSN incorrectly reported that J.P. Diamond is the chief executive of J.P. Morgan. In fact, Jamie Dimon is the chief executive of J.P. Morgan. WSN regrets the error.