There has been a lot of talk about demands, lately. Most of this conversation comes out of the Occupy protests occurring in a variety of cities across the United States. A number of commentators have found the phenomenon confusing, claiming not to understand the goals of the movement or its methods. To tell the truth, a lot of these folks, most notably the mainstream news industry, are engaged in deliberate obfuscation. But some of these comments are coming from people who are committed to counter-systemic movements, such as Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean who have made some comments worth taking a look at. My views on the question are a little more ambiguous, primarily because of some of the misunderstandings about the role of demands on the part of those who oppose them, and because of some of the exaggeration of what demands can accomplish in regards to organizational clarity on the part of those who support them.
To open up the conversation, I want to make it clear that I support the idea of making demands. You can call those things any number of things, goals, policies, etc. Any serious social movement needs to develop a sense of what its goals are, what it's trying to accomplish, in the short term, the mid term, and the long term. Obviously, these projects aren't going to stay the same over time, but they provide a type of critical, cognitive mapping of where a movement is, and where it wants to be. You might notice that I haven't made any statements about 'speaking truth to power' here, or even 'speaking to power.' That's because demands are a way of organizing, of constructing 'constituent power' to use the language of Antonio Negri. Rather than talking to members of congress or the bourgeoisie, demands allow for movements to communicate with potential participants, as well a allowing for a healthy internal debate over the direction of the movement. They create the drive for projects, and allow for the success of those projects to be measured. Our militancy and collectivity create space for reform amongst constituted power, while our communications are designed to foster those forms of militancy and collectivity. Demands also can separate a movement from very problematic elements who want to appropriate it. Exclusion may sound bad until you realize that the people being excluded are racists, conspiracy theorists, and libertarians, folks who are going to derail any social justice movement.
The demands made surrounding the spring sit in in 2009 is a good example of how demands can be used. (see here for a listing of the demands.) The demands created by the group to link the demand for a public university to a variety of struggles on the university, making both immediate and long term demands. They effectively challenged the economist interpretation of the movement by the local paper, by linking the struggle to fights against racism, militarism, and workers' struggles occurring on the campus. More significantly, the demands created a lot of buzz on campus, and the various demands were discussed extensively by students and faculty. We can effectively see a moment where demands allowed for a shift in political conversations, and took a small action (albeit a very militant and energetic one) and made it the talk of the campus. It also managed to express the goals of the movement in a much more accessible and simple language than the often overwrought occupation manifestos of northern California, creating a non-sectarian and intersectional political project for the movement. Finally, it set out a wide variety of demands, some which were very realizable such as the demand for unisex bathrooms, but also demands for larger structural changes that are not immediate available for appropriation. In effect, it created demands that could create immediate victories, but without the illusion that those immediate victories were sufficient for the movement to succeed.
At the same time, I think that there are some mistakes made by those who put their faith in demands. Most significantly, this is a new movement, and the political goals of that movement have to be created through the struggles of that movement. They can't be the creation of a few folks in a small room, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg. I also think that it's a mistake to think that any genuinely political movement can be made immediately coherent with a few slogans or a couple manifestos. As Adorno and others would point out, there's nothing radical about common sense, and therefore, any radical movement is going to seem strange and unfamiliar to the common-sense of our society, which largely operates on hegemonic norms. To give a practical example, many of the demands for the action discussed above, often confused and alienated the students, particularly demands for non-economic concerns. Additionally, while we want to make our political projects accessible to potential members, we don't necessarily want to make our actions immediately accessible to dominant institutional structures. Confusion frequently allows for us to accomplish better actions, ones that create larger effects, that attract more attention, that challenge the expectations of everyday life. In effect, movements need to make themselves coherent to build themselves, but actions frequently benefit from forms of innovation and confusion. Moreover, most real social movements constitute and represent themselves in struggle. 'Demandless' events can contribute to that process.