Saturday, November 26, 2011

Panta Rhei

Enough people ask me what I think will ultimately come of the Occupy movement that you'd think by now I'd have a nice, clean soundbite answer at the ready. But the truth is I don't and I probably won't until it's already come. The best I can offer is to point to other populist movements in history (while acknowledging that this particular movement is unique from anything we've experienced before), and note that our only role is to push as hard as possibly and allow the outside world to react. They can either read the writing on the wall, and try to diffuse this agitation with a big piece of compromise legislation (as FDR did with the New Deal to squelch the labor movement), or risk a full-blown uprising.

I do, however, know what I hope will come of Occupy: I hope we will grow and spread. I hope we will occupy every facet of society - in our workplace, our government, and our homes. I hope we will fundamentally transform the way we organize as a society and ultimately the way we relate to each other as human beings.

I will kindly wait for you to unroll your eyes.

Of course, the predictable reaction is to dismiss me outright as an arrogant naïf. But in reality, it is the resignation to the status quo, to the permanent, immovable, everlasting present-day system, that is the height of naivety. To think what we have here is the logical conclusion of societal organization is the height of arrogance. Rest assured, you'd be in plentiful company throughout history, undoubtedly the monarchs, feudal lords, and many of their servants felt the same way about their conditions. But change and evolution is all we have ever known and all we will ever know. And revolution is the only societal constant.

Revolt is fluid. And acts of revolution can exist in infinite graduations. On the most modest end we find simply declaring to oneself that they find the current state intolerable and everything spills out naturally from there. There are also infinite graduation in terms of meaning in acts of revolts. On the more modest end of this spectrum we might find something like jaywalking, undeniably an act of revolt, but not a particularly meaningful one.

The difficulty comes in trying to reconcile which acts of revolt spill into the most meaningful influence. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists have all tried to determine the conditions for revolution, but it always struck me as such a fruitless endeavor. There's simply too many variables and it's often logistically impossible to draw a causal chain of reactions.

So here is where the Occupy movement really inspires me, and truly makes me hopeful. It seems apparent to me that we're on the cusp of a new international age of revolt against the failures of representative democracy (or at least these familiar parliamentary forms of representative democracy). At least this is how I'm interpreting the general sentiment of people I've talked with who insist their grievance is more systemic than policy. Even if they can't articulate it exactly, they know they want something more reflective of the masses, the rhetorical 99%. This is wholly unfamiliar territory as to how we to combat such a system and consciously move toward a more directly democratic, more decentralized form approaching self-governance. What Occupy offers, though, is a seemingly unlimited resource for acts of revolt. Every day offers a new tactic (people are starting to occupy foreclosed homes), a new direct action (shutting down the Port of Oakland had a larger tangible immediate impact than the Boston Tea Party), a new economic push back (student debt pledge of refusal), and a constantly evolving horizontal process.

So apologies, but I don't really give a damn about people whose criticism amounts to sniping from the sidelines at us being "unfocused" or "utopian" or "too radical" or "not radical enough." Because at long last someone's actually trying something, anything, in this country. And the more acts of revolt we do and longer we last, the better chance one of these acts of revolt will ripple into something even more meaningful. This is all I hope for, and indeed all I can hope for.


  1. This offers much food for thought.

    My problem with it, though, is that OWS is not really representing itself candidly as an attempt to transform society. It is being interpreted as a confrontation with kleptocracy. So perhaps if people are griping from the sidelines, it comes from that disconnect.

    I know from our other discussions that you are comfortable with the movement as kind of a petri dish of social change. That's fine, but you should also know that there are people who think the social change petri dish has been around for a while and it's time to take some specific actions. People, particularly older folks, generally credit movements and organization with the things they do. So, while you might personally repudiate OWS's participation in Buy Nothing Day, you really can't fault people for seeing OWS participation in it as somehow reflecting the temperament of the group, especially if the media and possibly the OWS media team are focusing on that. How they see those things will affect their decisions to join or not.

    Finally, there is an assumption here that OWS created all the energy swirling around it. A class confrontation has been brewing for a while now. To your great credit, you early adopters channeled that energy into something concrete. But you would be wrong to assume that something else might not have erupted anyway. Also wrong to assume that something else might not fork off of it. Once you have made that move, you can become either a vehicle for real change, or something very much the opposite, a process-heavy monopolist of change. If people feel you are blowing the moment, it's good to listen to them instead of discounting them on moral grounds ('they're not doing anything') simply because they may join or not depending on how you respond.

  2. "So apologies, but I don't really give a damn about people whose criticism amounts to sniping from the sidelines at us being "unfocused" or "utopian" or "too radical""

    I think this is problematic, just from a tactical standpoint. The Egyptian people have been largely successful in standing down state violence (obviously not 100%) because of the huge numbers of people mobilizing. To say you don't care what people think is an announcement that you don't care about those numbers. This is the kind of self-marginalizing that the left has done historically in the United States.

    This is why I found OWS participation in Buy Nothing Day so problematic. It's not the kind of action that builds support. The same goes for heterodoxy. While it may seem that standing for nothing in particular would attract more supporters, historically I believe it has had just the opposite effect. It seems to me that mass support for this movement is contingent on a narrow focus and also a willingness to go for short-term adjustments to state power while the more utopian thrust works in parallel.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, and with a civility that admittedly exceeded my own.

    I think trying to get a grasp on the larger perspective for OWS is going to be difficult for either of us. People tend to project whatever they like on the movement. But I'm not excluding OWS as a confrontation with kleptocracy, only that the means by which we're choosing to confront it are multiple and systemic. Some of these tactics will be misguided failures, to be sure. I do however think you overestimate how any failures or personal distaste for individual actions will turn people off, as long as we're lining up enough successes in the process.

    Obviously I agree with you that this energy was going to erupt into something no matter what and that what we have now can undoubtedly become something completely different further down the road. That's very much the point of this essay. But if someone thinks we're "blowing the moment," then yes I think it very much behooves them to generate or at least point to an alternative. The frustration I was voicing was with people who will never join because it's simply not in their nature.

    I think Occupy's greatest asset is that anyone can show up and announce an alternative and people will either rally around it or not. OWS is more inclined to build support specifically because without traditional hierarchies only the most popular ideas will surface. Even if I have a personal distaste for Buy Nothing Day, obviously enough people think it's something worthwhile. Are you not interested in building a movement with these people in other actions? Whether these actions turn more people off than on is another question, and frankly has an entirely subjective answer.

  4. "Are you not interested in building a movement with these people in other actions? "

    That's a good way of examining the question. My focus had been on the potential alienating effect on the shoppers.

    I would work alongside anyone. That's what I see missing. While there is alleged heterodoxy in OWS, it seems to be of a very specific kind and overall thrust is liberal, which does temper my interest in becoming involved.

    I guess Buy Nothing Day brought my misgivings to a head, just because the moralizing, elitist, hypocritical quality of it seems so very at odds with what this movement is ostensibly about, to say nothing of how stupid I think the underlying politics are. It just seemed really tone deaf.

  5. Great post. What's your "why occupy?" story? Did you really just start this a few weeks ago? I came over here because of your answer on Charles Davis' blog. Thanks. Is there an online resource for running an occupation? There should be.

    I'm going to call you naive, but not for thinking about changing how we relate to one another - if by "we" you mean people engaged with occupation. Rather for the possibility of changing the organization of society, such as representative democracy. Capitalism has and will change to meet the challenges and opportunities that occur. But representative democracy? (assuming

  6. ... you mean toward more direct democracy), not very likely. Besides reducing the power of the federal government and increasing it to the states (ain't gonna happen), I don't know what that could even mean.

    But that doesn't mean that systemic change is not possible. How we elect our representatives could change. The National Popular Vote and Instant Runoff Voting are two small, but possible changes. Over-riding Citizens United and public funding of campaigns are bigger, but more meaningful reforms. This is my pet issue, so I may be over-valuing it.

  7. (Continuing. I'm experiencing a bug on my iPad when I put the cursor back to edit. It won't let me type more after that. )

    Last point is to say you're quite reasonable and self-aware of the bias towards the present moment except for your "new age" line. There, you are projecting onto the movement.

    Mark Erickson

  8. Hey Mark, thanks for stopping by and the well-considered questions.

    First the easy one: I got started with Occupy about a week in (I don't mind saying I was initially skeptical). It was in part a response to the Bologna pepper spray incident but also in great part because of what I read about them organizing horizontally. I'm a big process nerd. More personally, I lost my job editing textbooks after the company essentially went under. (I don't think they're producing new titles, just churning out old ones.) Fairly easy to draw a line from there back to the various austerity measures.

    I'm not aware of any Occupy toolkit, but I think it's pretty simple. Self-organize among about a dozen or so, announce a date and location (Web site, twitter, flyer bomb), and see if you can't drum up interest. If there's traction, it's going to evolve fast, seemingly on it's own.

    Now the harder stuff: By "we," I mean all of us, inside and outside the occupation. People inside will be taking those skills back to their workplaces and communities.

    I would argue it's naive to think that representative democracy is the logical conclusion of societal organization. The general thrust of modern history has been that of decentralization of state power. What reason do you have to believe that thrust will stop here?

    A real simple, concrete example would be the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, if we want to play alternative history. The structure of government would have looked drastically different and something much closer to direct democracy. Among other radical ideas was having 1-year terms for representatives who set all non-emergency agenda for the next year's elected officials. This way every candidate would have to be perfectly clear on how they would vote. This is just one example.

    More ideologically speaking, I want to see this type of Occupy community building translate into more meaningful, permanent intentional communities that can be self-sufficient and allow people to feel less beholden to state power.

    It's interesting that you mention Alternative Voting Systems, as they too are indicative of something at least approaching the consensus model we practice at Occupy. Some have made the argument that Approval Voting is essentially consensus (I'd dispute that point, but for another day). As for reformism in general, I'm all for it as having tangibly positive impacts on people's lives. I'd only add that reform isn't my goal in and of itself and that many of our country's greatest reforms were a response to a more radical threat of revolution.

    And I'm most definitely projecting onto the movement, but in my defense I'm upfront about it. Take care.


  9. I agree that there is no such thing as a logical conclusion of anything (that is more complicated than Tic Tac Toe). Although I would disagree that the general thrust of modern history has been decentralization. That's awful broad and general, so I'll just move on to your example.

    Good point on Penn. Const. That is still a radical document. But I don't think that direct democracy since Athens has had any staying power. This reminds me of a good, but sometimes dense book, which I can't find because it's title was basically just "Democracy". Written by an intellectual type, it was showing how the word "democracy" meaning the direct Athenian kind, was a dirty word throughout history up to and through the American Revolutionary period. But after it was modified by representative, and proved successful by the US, the word seemed to become one of the highest values of human societies.

    When it comes to long-term possibilities for US democracy, I'll be dead. Sort of a joke, but sort of true, too. I'm 40. I hope I would be on the ramparts if I was 20 or just lost my job, but I can't guarantee it. For now my support is mostly vicarious, although OccupySaintPaul (MN) is slowly building something that I've taken part in.

    So good luck, keep writing. I'll put you in my Reader.

  10. Yeah I was certainly being broad, deliberately so to get a bigger evolutionary picture. Obviously throughout history we've had notorious examples of societies in crisis falling to fascism. Anyway, what would you say the shift from centralized totalitarian states towards republics represents?

    And I'm glad you mentioned it, the founding fathers (with the exception of Jefferson) held democracy in open disdain and always felt the masses needed to be checked by an elite, "enlightened" ruling class which is clearly what we have. It'd be funny if it weren't so tragic when all these pundits and politicians talk about restoring the image the founding fathers set forth. Believe me, we are in their image.

    "Successful" is a funny choice of words, by what metric are we a success? Who have we been successful for? In terms of longevity, I guess you could say the country and it's model of government are still here, but we're still a blip in the larger history of societal organization. In fact, if that's what we're going to consider the standard, the most "successful" society in human existence is the African Bushmen, who've organized along anarcho-primitivist principles and a gift economy for over 10,000 years.

    But ultimately I'd have to agree, it's not something we're likely to see in either of our lifetimes. I think we need to push blindly all the same. Good luck to you and Occupy Saint Paul, glad to have you as a reader.