Why We Don’t Make Demands
CrimethInc., May 5, 2015
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.