The Rift Within Occupy: Reformists vs. Revolutionaries

Maui Time | November 22, 2011
Editors and readers expect pundits to weigh in on the brutal eviction of Occupy Wall Street from New York's Zuccotti Park. People will ask: Does this mean the beginning of the end for the Occupy movement?


Now that we've dispensed with that, let's discuss a major rift within the movement: Reformists versus revolutionaries.

Revolutionaries want to overthrow the government. They want to get rid of existing economic, political and social relations and create new ones. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are enemies.

Reformists want radical changes too. For example, Occupiers want to eliminate the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics. Unlike revolutionaries, however, they are OK with the basic structure of the system: the Constitution, Congress, 50 states, capitalism, and so on. They are willing to work with establishment liberals (, Amy Goodman, The Nation, Mother Jones, etc.) and the Democratic Party.

You can see the reform-vs.-revolution split whenever Occupiers discuss actions and demands.

Reformists say: Let's move our accounts from banks to credit unions. Encourage Black Friday shoppers to buy from locally-owned businesses. Demand that Congress pass a constitutional amendment abolishing corporate personhood. Restore the Glass-Steagall Act.

Those tactics leave revolutionaries cold. They don't want to nibble around the edges of a system they despise. If revolutionaries get their way, there won't be a Congress. Members of the House and Senate will go to jail. No one will need to boycott banks or choose which merchants are least malevolent.

Capitalism won't exist.

Revolution frightens the reformists. They worry about chaos, violence and dislocation. They're right to be concerned. Bad as things are now, these might look like the good old days after buildings begin burning.

Revolutionaries point to the history of previous reform movements. Sure, progressives win victories during times of social unrest: concessions to labor during the early 1900s, the New Deal of the 1930s, the civil rights, antiwar and social movements of the 1960s.

But they don't stick.

As soon as the crowds of demonstrators go home—since the 1980s, right-wingers roll back the results of those hard-won battles while liberals stand aside. Democrats like Clinton and Obama even roll back welfare, worker rights, environmental regulations and privacy rights. If you want radical change to last, revolutionaries argue, you have to change everything when you have the chance.

Right now, we have the chance.

2012 is shaping up to be our Year of Revolution.

Reformers see the system as broken and in need of repair. For revolutionaries, whether or not the system can be fixed is beside the point. The system itself is the problem. Revolutionaries don't believe that corporations, unfairness, inequality and violent monstrosities such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq have corrupted an otherwise laudable system. They think the system is inherently unfair, corrupt and violent; that unfairness, corruption and violence are the system.

If you have owned a car, you have considered revolution versus reform.

Motorists whose cars break down from time to time must weigh the same two questions as Occupiers are facing with the political system:

Is it reformable?

Is it redeemable?

For your car the question is: Is it reformable, i.e. worth fixing? Need a new fan belt? Sure. Need a new engine? It might be cheaper (or not cost much more) to buy another car.

The existential question—is it redeemable?—goes to the question of whether it was a crappy car in the first place. In other words, should it be fixed? No matter how much work you put into it, a Hummer is still a gas guzzler. Trade it in. Better yet, set it on fire.

I think the U.S. is both unreformable and irredeemable. Many members of Occupy agree with me. But at least as many seem to believe there are aspects of this dying country worth saving.

Occupation ideology centers around two loci: economic unfairness and corporate influence.

Economic injustice manifests itself in numerous forms. Occupiers focus on income inequality. The richest one percent collect 90 percent of national income, the most on record in the U.S. and one of the highest disparities between rich and poor in the First World.

We think of ourselves as living in a prosperous country—but few Americans get to live the good life. We like to think the U.S. has a vast middle class. If that was true in the past, it isn't now. New Census data "places 100 million people—one in three Americans—either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it," said a shocking report in the November 18th New York Times.

This is the culmination of a 40-year-old trend. The rich have gotten richer at our expense. The tipping point was reached when the federal government did absolutely nothing to help distressed homeowners. Instead, Bush and Obama doled out hundreds of billions of dollars to the same banks that were pushing fraudulent mortgages, illegally refusing to refinance, and forging fake legal documents to foreclose and evict people who lost their jobs because executives wanted to pay themselves huge raises.

As the Occupy chant goes: "Banks got bailed out; we got sold out!"

I can imagine reform coming out of the existing Democratic-Republican duopoly.

It's not going to happen. But I can imagine it. Theoretically.

As happened in the 1930s and 1960s, enough political and business leaders might become scared enough of the increasingly angry and desperate American citizenry to force through some good things. Perhaps they could be persuaded to concede a moratorium on foreclosures, bigger no-time-limit unemployment benefits, a real healthcare plan, maybe a little income redistribution through the tax code.

The odds of meaningful change coming out of this system are so long that only a psycho would bet on it. The traditional rift among the ruling classes between liberals (be nice to the poor or they'll kill us) and conservatives (kill the poor) has skewed too far to the right. Reform is impossible.

Beyond that, I can't see how reform could last. After they won, the Occupiers would go home. With the pressure turned off, corporate media would renew their systematic campaign of pro-business propaganda coupled with vapid entertainment designed to lull us back into a Prozac-induced waking slumber.

Sooner rather than later, the corporate chieftains and their pet Republicans and phony Democrats would get back into power. They'd roll back the reforms.

At a recent OWS rally protesters carried signs that read: "I will never be able to buy a house." "I will never get out of debt." "I will never get a job in this economy." Does anyone seriously think that this system—these Democrats—these Republicans—this media—will fix these problems?

Amending the Constitution won't do the trick. Electing better officials isn't enough.

Yes, the system is broken. But that's not the main point. The system is irredeemable.

Nothing short of revolution will do.

(Ted Rall is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." His website is


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Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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