From Occupy to Ferguson, whenever a new grassroots movement arises, pundits charge that it lacks clear demands. Why won’t protesters summarize their goals as a coherent program? Why aren’t there representatives who can negotiate with the authorities to advance a concrete agenda through institutional channels? Why can’t these movements express themselves in familiar language, with proper etiquette?
Often, this is simply disingenuous rhetoric from those who prefer for movements to limit themselves to well-behaved appeals. When we pursue an agenda they’d rather not acknowledge, they charge that we are irrational or incoherent. Compare last year’s People’s Climate March, which united 400,000 people behind a simple message while doing so little to protest that it was unnecessary for the authorities to make even a single arrest,with the Baltimore uprising of April 2015. Many praised the Climate March while deriding the rioting in Baltimore as irrational, unconscionable, and ineffective; yet the Climate March had little concrete impact, while the Baltimore riots compelled the chief prosecutor to bring almost unprecedented charges against police officers. You can bet if 400,000 people responded to climate change the way a couple thousand responded to the murder of Freddie Gray, the politicians would change their priorities.
Even those who demand demands out of the best intentions usually misunderstand demandlessness as an omission rather than a strategic choice. Yet today’s demandless movements are not an expression of political immaturity—they are a pragmatic response to the impasse that characterizes the entire political system.
If it were so easy for the authorities to grant protesters’ demands, you’d think we’d see more of it. In fact, from Obama to Syriza, not even the most idealistic politicians have been able to follow through on the promises of reform that got them elected. The fact that charges were pressed against Freddie Gray’s killers after the riots in Baltimore suggests that the only way to make any headway is to break off petitioning entirely.
So the problem is not that today’s movements lack demands; the problem is the politics of demands itself. If we seek structural change, we need to set our agenda outside the discourse of those who hold power, outside the framework of what their institutions can do. We need to stop presenting demands and start setting objectives. Here’s why.
Making demands puts you in a weaker bargaining position.Even if your intention is simply to negotiate, you put yourself in a weaker bargaining position by spelling out from the beginning the least it would take to appease you. No shrewd negotiator begins by making concessions. It’s smarter to appear implacable: So you want to come to terms? Make us an offer. In the meantime, we’ll be here blocking the freeway and setting things on fire.
There is no more powerful bargaining chip than being able to implement the changes we desire ourselves, bypassing the official institutions—the true meaning of direct action. Whenever we are able to do this, the authorities scramble to offer us everything we had previously requested in vain. For example, the Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal occurred only after groups like the Jane Collective set up self-organized networks that provided affordable abortions to tens of thousands of women.
Of course, those who can implement the changes they desire directly don’t need to make demands of anyone—and the sooner they recognize this, the better. Remember how people in Bosnia burned down government buildings in February 2014, then convened plenums to formulate demands to present to the government. A year later, they’d received nothing for their pains but criminal charges, and the government was once again as stable and corrupt as ever.
Show us, don’t tell us.
Limiting a movement to specific demands stifles diversity, setting it up for failure.The conventional wisdom is that movements need demands to cohere around: without demands, they will be diffuse, ephemeral, ineffectual.
But people who have different demands, or no demands at all, can still build collective power together. If we understand movements as spaces of dialogue, coordination, and action, it is easy to imagine how a single movement might advance a variety of agendas. The more horizontally structured it is, the more capable it should be of accommodating diverse goals.
The truth is that practically all movements are wracked by internal conflicts over how to structure themselves and how to prioritize their goals. The demand for demands usually arises as a power play by the factions within a movement that are most invested in the prevailing institutions, as a means of delegitimizing those who want to build up power autonomously rather than simply petitioning the authorities. This misrepresents real political differences as mere disorganization, and real opposition to the structures of governance as political naïveté.
Forcing a diverse movement to reduce its agenda to a few specific demands inevitably consolidates power in the hands of a minority. For who decides which demands to prioritize? Usually, it is the same sort of people who hold disproportionate power elsewhere in our society: wealthy, predominantly white professionals well versed in the workings of institutional power and the corporate media. The marginalized are marginalized again within their own movements, in the name of efficacy.
Yet this rarely serves to make a movement more effective. A movement with space for difference can grow; a movement premised on unanimity contracts. A movement that includes a variety of agendas is flexible, unpredictable; it is difficult to buy it off, difficult to trick the participants into relinquishing their autonomy in return for a few concessions. A movement that prizes reductive uniformity is bound to alienate one demographic after another as it subordinates their needs and concerns.
A movement that incorporates a variety of perspectives and critiques can develop more comprehensive and multifaceted strategies than a single-issue campaign. Forcing everyone to line up behind one set of demands is bad strategy: even when it works, it doesn’t work.
Limiting a movement to specific demands undermines its longevity.Nowadays, as history moves faster and faster, demands are often rendered obsolete before a campaign can even get off the ground. In response to the murder of Michael Brown, reformists demanded that police wear body cameras—but before this campaign could get fully underway, a grand jury announced that the officer who murdered Eric Garner would not be tried, either, even though Garner’s murder hadbeen caught on camera.
Movements premised on specific demands will collapse as soon as those demands are outpaced by events, while the problems that they set out to address persist. Even from a reformist perspective, it makes more sense to build movements around the issues they address, rather than any particular solution.
Limiting a movement to specific demands can give the false impression that there are easy solutions to problems that are actually extremely complex.“OK, you have a lot of complaints—who doesn’t? But tell us, whatsolution do you propose?”
The demand for concrete particulars is understandable. There’s no use in simply letting off steam; the point is to change the world. But meaningful change will take a lot more than whatever minor adjustments the authorities might readily grant. When we speak as though there are simple solutions for the problems we face, hurrying to present ourselves as no less “practical” than government policy experts, we set the stage for failure whether our demands are granted or not. This will give rise to disappointment and apathy long before we have developed the collective capacity to get to the root of things.
Especially for those of us who believe that the fundamental problem is the unequal distribution of power and agency in our society, rather than the need for this or that policy adjustment, it is a mistake to promise easy remedies in a vain attempt to legitimize ourselves. It’s not our job to present ready-made solutions that the masses can applaud from the sidelines; leave that to demagogues. Our challenge, rather, is to create spaces where people can discuss and implement solutions directly, on an ongoing and collective basis. Rather than proposing quick fixes, we should be spreading new practices. We don’t need blueprints, but points of departure.
Making demands presumes that you want things that your adversary can grant.On the contrary, it’s doubtful whether the prevailing institutions could grant most of the things we want even if our rulers had hearts of gold. No corporate initiative is going to halt climate change; no government agency is going to stop spying on the populace; no police force is going to abolish white privilege. Only NGO organizers still cling to the illusion that these things are possible—probably because their jobs depend on it.
A strong enough movement could strike blows against industrial pollution, state surveillance, and institutionalized white supremacy, but only if it didn’t limit itself to mere petitioning. Demand-based politics limits the entire scope of change to reforms that can be made within the logic of the existing order, sidelining us and deferring real change forever beyond the horizon.
There’s no use in asking the authorities for things they can’t grant and wouldn’t grant if they could. Nor should we give them an excuse to acquire even more power than they already have, on the pretext that they need it to be able to fulfill our demands.
Our one demand: don’t mess with us.
Making demands of the authorities legitimizes their power, centralizing agency in their hands.It is a time-honored tradition for nonprofit organizations and leftist coalitions to present demands that they know will never be granted: don’t invade Iraq, stop defunding education, bail out people not banks, make the police stop killing black people. In return for brief audiences with bureaucrats who answer to much shrewder players, they water down their politics and try to get their less complaisant colleagues to behave themselves. This is what they call pragmatism.
Such efforts may not achieve their express purpose, but they do accomplish something: they frame a narrative in which the existing institutions are the only conceivable protagonists of change. This, in turn, paves the way for additional fruitless campaigns, additional electoral spectacles in which new candidates for office hoodwink young idealists, additional years of paralysis in which the average person can only imagine accessing her own power through the mediation of somepolitical party or organization. Rewind the tape and play it again.
Real self-determination is not something that any authority can grant us. We have to develop it by acting on our own strength, centering ourselves in the narrative as the protagonists of history.
Making demands too early can limit the scope of a movement in advance, shutting down the field of possibility.At the beginning of a movement, when the participants have not yet had a chance to get a sense of their collective power, they may not be able to recognize how thoroughgoing the changes they want really are. To frame demands at this point in the trajectory of a movement can stunt it, limiting the ambitions and imagination of the participants. Likewise, setting a precedent at the beginning for narrowing or watering down its goals only increases the likelihood that this will happen again and again.
Imagine if the Occupy movement had agreed on concrete demands at the very beginning—would it still have served as an open space in which so many people could meet, develop their analysis, and become radicalized? Or would it have ended up as a single protest encampment concerned only with corporate personhood, budget cuts, and perhaps the Federal Reserve? It is better for the objectives of a
movement to develop as the movement itself develops, in proportion to its capacity.
***check back next week for part 2***