Where Next for Occupy?


 

This week we take a break from the serialization of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition to present an article inspired by the protests across the country connected to #occupywallstreet. We will resume with Chapter 22 of Sacred Economics next Thursday. The print edition of Sacred Economics is now available for sale online or at your local independent bookstore.

 

Occupy has awakened a potent energy that had been lying dormant. It has made activists of people of a new generation, and brought renewed hope to veterans of past movements. Unlike earlier protest movements, it has not objected to any specific policy, such as segregation or the Vietnam War. It is a protest against a condition of society, highlighted by the maldistribution of wealth and debt whose symbol is Wall Street, that goes deeper than anything the Occupiers can easily name. As we say, no demand is big enough.

Having been awakened though, this energy needs to find appropriate avenues of expression. So far, the movement has eschewed involvement in electoral politics, nor has it adopted any specific social cause. An outside observer might think that its purpose were to fight for the right to camp in urban centers. While the right of free assembly and the reclamation of public space are important issues, the vast groundswell of public indignation that OWS has tapped into is not primarily about those. If the movement turns inward and becomes about the encampments themselves, it will alienate the majority of the public and become an historical footnote.

The occupations have served an important purpose, but the time has come to direct the energy they have awakened toward tangible goals. I say this with all due respect for the wariness that has held the movement back from political involvement so far. Whatever these tangible goals are, they must not be too narrow. No one in the movement is going to get very excited about any proposal on the mainstream political radar: the payroll tax cut, for instance, or Obama's health care plan. For too long, the left has mortgaged its soul to a dispirited, defeated version of the practical. Society and the planet are in such a strait that the old practical isn't enough. We need to think big -- and then be practical.

Let us name, then, the underlying object of the protests' discontent. It is a society that fundamentally isn't working, a system that coerces us into ruining the planet and exploiting its people, denying us life and liberty if we refuse to comply, and sometimes withholding them even if we do comply. It is a society where life is a little bleaker, gaudier, uglier, less authentic, and less hopeful with each passing year. It is a system of winners and losers, in which even the winners are less happy than a typical Ladakhi peasant or Amazonian hunter-gatherer. It is a society of pretense, image, and illusion. It is a society where more human energy goes to war than to art. Most tellingly, it is a society where it is normal to hate Monday. The discontent behind the protests comes from the conviction, "We can do better than this!"

Despite the rhetoric of the 99% and the 1%, I find in talking to influential people in the movement a deep understanding that no one is merely a victim of the system I have described. We are also its perpetuators and its enforcers; it is woven into our habits, our psychology, our very being. That is why the movement has striven to embody a different way of relating and being through consensus-based decision-making, open space technologies, gift-based allocation of resources, non-violent communication, and so forth. We want to change the psychic and interpersonal substructure of the system we live in. That is why this movement has united the long-sundered currents of spiritual practice and political activism. And that is also why we say: The revolution is love.

While such a statement might trigger the inner cynic who associates love with a mere emotional state, akin to the spiritual escapism of the last three decades, I think it actually offers an organizing principle around which meaningful social and political action can coalesce. Let me offer some examples of Occupy-themed actions that might flow from a vision of a revolution of love.

1. Occupy the civic realm. All over the country, budget-strapped municipalities are eliminating city services, closing libraries, laying off police, and so on. As they retreat from these important civic and social functions, they leave a vacuum that we can occupy. Occupiers could, for instance, "occupy the library" -- not as a symbolic protest that inconveniences librarians and patrons, but to take over a library that is being closed, turning it into a "people's library" akin to those on the encampments. It wouldn't be a protest at all, it would be a public service. In unsafe neighborhoods where police services have been cut back (or where residents don't trust the police to begin with), activists could "occupy the night" by providing escorts and a friendly, protective neighborhood presence of big dudes with vests and walkie-talkies, perhaps military veterans, former police, and ex-gang members, trained in mediation, who do some of the work that we would like police to do. Where city parks are closing or falling into dereliction, a new kind of "occupy the park" could take over their maintenance.

Remember that, after all, the motivating spirit of the protests was never to jostle for a place in the world-wrecking machine. The protesters want more than "jobs" -- they want to be useful people and do meaningful work. There is no shortage of meaningful work to be done, so let us do it! Maybe we have relied for too long on an inefficient state apparatus to serve functions that we can take over from the grass roots. Here also is an opportunity, through direct donations and also by working with existing foundations and non-profits, to create an alternative system of funding civic work.

2. Occupy the economy. While economists define "the economy" as all things exchanged for money, a broader definition might include all the ways that human beings share the products of nature and human labor. Today, there are vast areas of economic potential that languish unrealized: we have, on the one hand, enormous needs to be met, and on the other vast amounts of surplus labor. There is, in other words, a gap across which gift and needs cannot come together. There are many ways we can "occupy" this gap. For example, our food system produces vast quantities of unsellable but perfectly edible food -- dented cans, expired packages, and the waste that ends up in supermarket dumpsters (or, increasingly, trash compactors). It is unsellable through normal channels, but it could be distributed in non-monetary ways: free supermarkets in needy neighborhoods, soup kitchens, food trucks. Where supermarkets are reluctant to give it away and undermine their own markets, or where bureaucrats offer resistance, the tactics of occupation can sweep away these obstacles.

Another way to mediate the gap between gifts and needs is through complementary currency systems. Occupy, with its nationwide network of activists, is uniquely positioned to create one. I think a time-based system (like Ithica Hours) would be ideal. That way, the people carrying out all of the functions I've described could be "paid" in hours-based credits, which they could exchange for many of the needs that otherwise are met with dollars. Reclaimed food, for example, as described above, could be sold according to how much time it took to procure it. While such a currency wouldn't completely free people from the dollar, it would provide some independence and an alternate means to support people doing socially useful work.

3. Occupy abandoned buildings. It is ironic that politicians celebrate every rise in new housing starts when there are millions of abandoned buildings around the country. These could be reclaimed, renovated, and occupied. The obstacle to doing so is certainly not a lack of willing labor, but rather a maze of property rights, tax liabilities, and building codes. Here again, the tactics of Occupation can create the necessary changes. I am not talking about squatting (nor am I excluding it); after a building has been made usable, it can be deeded over to someone in need of a home, who can repay the hours spent renovating it in kind. It could also become a halfway house, community center, homeless shelter, free warehouse, or business, depending on what kind of building it is.

Political radicals have traditionally disparaged charitable causes on a number of grounds, for example that they mitigate the most obvious effects of the capitalist system and, therefore, enable its perpetuation, or that they give us the illusion that we are doing something about problems that actually grow from much deeper roots. However, I think the kind of work I've been describing is also good strategy. It is easy for a mayor to justify police force to clear away protestors who are only proclaiming a message. It is much harder, from a PR standpoint, to justify removing people who are using illegal tactics to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and house the homeless.

These acts of love inspire popular support and defuse the charges of hypocrisy and laziness so often leveled at the Occupiers. Furthermore, they provide a vehicle for the acceptance of proposals on the macroeconomic and political level by making it clear that we are not in it for ourselves; that these proposals are in the same spirit of service as our actions are. Moreover, social service activism also demonstrates that a different kind of economy is possible by providing a living example of human beings working hard for motivations of service rather than economic necessity, greed, or self-interest. What would you trust: a political proposal announced by Mother Theresa, or the same proposal articulated by Donald Trump? Ok, that's a fanciful scenario, but the fact remains that any message is more powerful when the messenger walks the walk.

While American politics has earned criticism for being too focused on personalities over issues, in an age of PR, spin, and hype, we are well-advised to base judgments on actions rather than words. A sustained political movement needs strong ties to non-political social institutions. In Egypt, for instance, it was the Muslim Brotherhood, with decades of social welfare work in the cities, that came out on top in the recent elections.

4. Occupy politics. Of course, thousands of organizations exist already that are devoted to social justice and political reform. What makes Occupy different from many of them is its emphasis, encoded in the very name, on physical action. "Raising consciousness" and "educating the public" are valid goals, but they are only a first step, not an end. Walking around with a new opinion doesn't change the world by itself. The social and economic actions I have described all involve hands, not only minds; actions, not only words. The same can happen in the political arena, despite the fact that it is mostly a realm of symbol: laws, votes, policies, regulations, budgets are made of words and numbers. The citizen is mostly an abstraction for the politician, whose face time is mostly with lobbyists, staffers, and other members of the political culture. It is time to bring politicians back to reality. The Tea Party developed one tactic, showing up in droves to heckle conservative politicians who didn't uphold its views. Occupiers can do the same with progressive-leaning politicians. It can also invite them to speak at events, solicit political promises, and then hold them to those promises through the threat of occupying their offices, campaign headquarters, and so on. Many politicians are eager to tap into anti-Wall Street fervor while striving to do as little as possible, assured that as long as they are the lesser of two evils, the votes of liberal Americans are secure. They should be made to speak unambiguously and to follow through on what they say.

I hope it is clear that I am not saying that Occupy should become a political movement in the narrow sense of electoral politics. I am saying, rather, that it should inspire a political movement that shares its ideals and draws upon its tactics. The goals and basic motivating spirit of OWS are bigger than the conventional political discourse can contain. To turn toward politics as we know it would be to make the movement less. It should be first and foremost a social and a spiritual movement, with a political wing.

5. Occupy the environment. Imagine what would happen if the same energy and dedication that went into occupying Zucotti Park were devoted to occupying fracking sites, mountaintop removal operations, gas pipeline projects, and other venues of environmental pillage. The 99% that has been left out includes the vast majority of life on earth, human and otherwise. Julia Butterfly Hill saved a stand of redwoods by occupying a single tree. What could her example achieve, multiplied by ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million?

I'm sure readers in the movement who like acting in the material realm, not just the realm of words, can think of many other Occupations to reclaim, to protect, and to serve humanity and the planet. Already, the movement has awakened in hundreds of thousands of people a willingness to act, sustained by the solidarity of others who can affirm that no, none of us are crazy for bearing witness to the reigning insanity. The next step is not to demand a more beautiful world - it is to create one.

 

Image by cloud2013, courtesy of Creative Commons license.