Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thoughts on the Occupy movement

When Occupy Wall Street started, I knew it would be ignored by the media, and I was sure it would fizzle immediately. It would be like the Shut Down the Pentagon action that the War Resisters League did when I was in college a decade ago. About a hundred people tried to encircle the Pentagon and prevent people entering it. The media did a "look at how deluded these people are" story, and that was the end of it.

At the start, I thought I was right. Occupy Wall Street was largely ignored by the media – the same media who were all too happy to scream coverage of every single tiny corporate-sponsored Tea Party rally that ever happened. It was a small group of people camping in a park in New York City for some reason, and nobody could quite figure out what to make of it.

Then something different happened. I don't want to go through the whole history, because while I am one of the 99%, I'm mostly an outsider to the movement, watching it happen. I haven't done any occupying myself, but I've watched and read and followed the movement's development from a comfortable, safe place on the sidelines. My skepticism about what the movement can actually accomplish remains, but I'm buoyed by the notion of people actually fighting the correct target.

So who are the 99%, and what do they want?

The Marxian analysis is simple: the 99% is the working class, and this is a new front in the ongoing class war that is a fixed and inevitable component of global capitalism. Slap that sticker on the movement and be done with it, right?

Yet, while that simplistic statement is correct, it doesn't get at the heart of what's actually happening. Never before has the working class had this much access to the tools of communication Рthe ability to self-organize outside of traditional power centers Рto speak their minds without fear of reprisal from the bosses. It seems almost clich̩ to point to the Internet as being the "great democratizer," the thing that finally gives power to the powerless. Yet it's absolutely true that the 99% movement, along with everything that happened during the "Arab Spring" Рwere made possible because of instantaneous social media and the viral spread of information.

So what do the 99% want? That's a common complaint among the media class, many of whom seem incapable of covering any news story that can't be reduced to a quick headline or an easily deconstructed ideology. The Occupy movement is messy, it's unfocused, it's dangerous, it's scary, it's full of anarchists in black masks throwing gasoline cans at cops, it's hippies with bongoes, it's communists, it's…it's…

It's frustration. It's millions of people around the world who are sick and tired of feeling isolated. It's a direct reaction to the extremist individualism and austerity and "me first" ideology that has been so dominant in our discourse of late – the "if you don't have a job it's your fault" that seems to be on the lips of every Tea Partier and Republican presidential candidate – the notion of "I'm rich, so you should be able to get rich, and if you can't, well I shouldn't pay for it." People who have been unemployed for 2 years even though they thought they were doing everything right, following the rules, being good citizens – they're sick of that kind of rhetoric. People losing their houses because they were scammed into an unsustainable mortgage by predatory lenders don't want to hear that they shouldn't have signed that contract, and they should bail themselves out.

People also don't want to hear that kind of rhetoric because the people spouting it only point the judgment finger one way. A single mother struggling to pay bills and hold down two jobs who gets laid off and ends up living on the street with her kids shouldn't rely on the State to help her back on her feet. Yet a bank that bets on shady mortgages and ends up on the brink of collapse – that bank is deserving of billions of dollars in tax money. The notion of "shared sacrifice" always seems to be spouted by rich people who don't want to pay higher taxes on their foie gras and corporate jets, but think cutting Medicaid spending is just fine.

And that single mother, and the man who has been unemployed for two years, and spends every waking hour sending out thousands of resumes, and who works his tail off trying to get a job – they don't want to hear about shared sacrifice. The college graduate drowning in student loans who can't find a job – she doesn't want to hear about shared sacrifice. The veteran living on the street doesn't want to hear about shared sacrifice. Especially not now, at a time when corporate profits are at their highest level – and wages at their lowest – in decades. And when Congress is at its lowest approval rating ever because the majority party in the House would prefer to let the economy tank in order to defeat a President in an election a year from now than do anything about jobs, and the other party is the picture of impotence.

Thus, the grievances are many, but the impulse to organize has commonalities. Neither the government nor the "free market" seems to be capable of fixing anything, and what's more, they seem to be in bed together, with a shared goal of making the rich and powerful more rich and more powerful at the expense of everyone else. The 99% are being screwed on so many levels that it's a wonder it took this long to get everyone out onto the streets.

But now that they're out there, the goal should be simple. Communication. The consensus model of decision-making that has developed from this movement is messy and time-consuming, but it should serve as a model for building a new spirit of community and social consciousness. This is a leaderless movement that spontaneously organized, and its participants are as diverse as their grievances. And yet, they're able to come together, sit down, talk, and make decisions. Because at the heart of this movement is a recognition that the only way to win is to work together, and that any socially conscious, humane, truly democratic society is one in which each person recognizes the humanity in every other person, and recognizes the need for mutual cooperation and respect.

I went down to the Occupy Portland site the other day to see what the protesters had built. What I found was a picture of controlled chaos – a budding movement trying to define itself. It was the same impression I've been getting from following the movement on Facebook and the live video feed of the marches and General Assemblies. A spontaneous tent city had sprouted there, and its residents had begun to build the rudiments of social order. In the middle of the tent city was an area of tarps and tables offering volunteer-coordinated services – information, medicine, learning opportunities, food, Yoga, a children's activity zone. The tent city is dirty and a little unruly, and it's certainly not without its flaws – alcohol and drug use, concerns about people urinating into a sewer that empties directly into the river, lack of sanitation and hygiene, etc – but the community being built there is, in my opinion, quite positive and a little bit beautiful. And the consensus model itself is not without its flaws – my understanding is that General Assembly meetings can take several hours to reach only a few decisions – but it's not really the General Assemblies that matter so much as the idea of consensus and community being created there.

Thus, the lasting legacy of the Occupy movement, even if it doesn't succeed in changing any major laws, may be this notion of communal responsibility - this notion that we have to talk to one another in order to create a functioning society. If we can't depend on the powers that be, then we have to be able to depend on one another. Perhaps, then, the best bit of truth that comes out of the Occupy movement is simply this: that the tired argument over government vs. the "free market" is actually a false choice, and only by working together can the 99% create a new, more humane, more democratic system within the shell of the old. If we can reach that kind of collective realization, then we'll have really made significant progress.