I think I know what the Occupy (Wall Street, Toronto, etc.) movements mean to say and over which they are reproached by ill-wishers and well-wishers alike (e.g., "vast potential... untethered to many real-world goals"). What they're saying is: Change the agenda/change the channel. Saying anything less is inadequate because you could find a small piece mistaken for the whole. But saying that much is tricky precisely because there already is an agenda in place that keeps blocking and obscuring the demand to change it!
What agenda? The one that's dominated for over 30 years. You could call it the primacy of business. You could say its view is that people exist to serve the economy and not the reverse -- though as a result, benefits will trickle down to everyone. It sees government, and any action that disrupts the working of "free market" forces, as the enemy. It considers taxes a bad thing, always to be diminished; and public deficits too, though private or corporate debt is different.
It includes free trade (for which we were the global guinea pig in 1988 via our deal with the U.S.) and economic globalization, which gave all power to ownership, who could range worldwide in search of cheaper labour, and none to their workforce, who had no such mobility and lost any leverage. This isn't just capitalism, which has been around far longer. It's capitalism fundamentally uncontested: all the elites -- academic, media, political etc. -- buy into it.
I don't mean every occupier would put it this way. But the generality of demands ("inchoate" is the media word of the week) suggest a sense that something's rotten in the overall mindset and policy mix.
That's why you must challenge the agenda itself. If you focus on specifics and "present demands," you might win some, but the whole thing will revert to the way it was because of that underlying agenda. Take the protest over Toronto library closings. It succeeded! Mayor Rob Ford backed down, council voted against them, everyone went home happy. Next thing you know, they still plan to shut libraries early and often. The agenda flowed back in like the tide, or filling a vacuum, because it's assumed that deficits take priority, taxes are bad, etc.
This is also why you need an occupation and not a protest: because the underlying issue -- the agenda -- is pervasive and long-term. You can't just protest, win or lose, and go home. The people who like the agenda don't need to do anything; it's in place and, like MacArthur, de Gaulle or Zorro, it will return. I think that's what the occupiers sense, by the form of action they've chosen.
It's also why suggesting they should get out and vote more -- as Chantal Hébert did here -- isn't pertinent: because all parties buy that business agenda. It's parties on the left, like Labour in New Zealand or Tony Blair in the U.K., who were fiercest in cost-cutting and privatizing. Liberals Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin became heroes of the business press by strangling the federal deficit and savaging social programs. In the last Ontario election, the NDP's Andrea Horwath highlighted tax cuts. Voting at the moment won't alter any of that. First you need to change the agenda/change the channel.
The proof of this, I'd say, is the way the far "right," like the Tea Party in the U.S. or Stephen Harper's neo-conservatives, slide so easily into the corridors of power like Congress or Parliament, and then into actual government. No sweat. Their agenda preceded them. They're already part of the establishment mindset and always were. But you can't picture the occupiers getting elected, or running a government, not with things remotely as they are.
More power to them. We can finally identify the real radicals. There hasn't been a challenge like this to the status quo in a long time. Why has this generation been ready to take on this agenda? That's another subject. But they clearly aren't as gripped by The Agenda as earlier ones were.
A new agenda may be forming. Or not. But we know old agendas don't get out of the way on their own. They get too comfy and need to be shuffled along.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.