The words ‘Occupy’, and the concept of the 99% and the 1% have become so enmeshed in our daily lives, hardly an American alive can deny their importance. Still, when pundits deign to look back upon the short history of the movement, and recent years’ progressive activism in general, they wonder “what good has it done”, and “where have they gone”, and “why couldn’t they just play by the rules?” The underlying implication is that such protests are somehow outside the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the political landscape, and therefore should be easily forgotten. But their ideas demand the attention of people everywhere, from Gezi Park to Taiwan, from Brazil to Ferguson, and anywhere citizens have been forced to exert their rights by literally occupying their own turf against tyrannical powers.
I continue to get a consistent news feed from both the East and West Coasts, and other items from cities around the world, more than most any other groups whose feeds I subscribe to. They haven’t gone anywhere, and the voices of the oppressed are more important than ever. We know now that the number one censorship topic in China, for example, is news of protest and collective action in other countries. Women protesting topless in Russia are such a threat that they have been tortured by the KGB.
The heart of the Occupy movement still beats in public forums, debates, training sessions, legal help, debt action, and outreach; continuing to encroach on the minds of a susceptible public opinion. While many have gone on to focus intensely on more specific projects, at the same time they are synthesizing their many goals together, recognizing the parallels in our various battles for justice. Inevitably, the seemingly inconsequential elections and political horse races continue to separate traditional progressives from left-wing libertarians and the anarcho-socialists. But we have learned that the COINTELPRO-like activity of a paranoid system still infiltrates, surveills, corrals and scares away activists at every level, including many of those who endeavor to work from inside the system.
In his essay ‘What Do We Need To Build a Movement’, Chris Hedges reiterates the importance of the peaceful demonstrator, and the lessons from the past where such movements reached a tipping point:
“Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan examined 100 years of violent and nonviolent resistance movements in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works.” They concluded that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often as violent uprisings. Violent movements work primarily in civil wars or in ending foreign occupations, they found. Nonviolent movements that succeed appeal to those within the power structure, especially the police and civil servants, who are cognizant of the corruption and decadence of the power elite and are willing to abandon them.”
There are countless methods of valid dissent, but the networks will repeat the same criticisms and disavowals regardless of which method is chosen. It was a brilliant strategy, for example, to not form a political party, (which was discussed and rejected, but could have easily happened). Though leaderless, the movement is principled… and no less able to recognize the platforms to springboard from. Of course, the decision was used by a smug establishment media as proof of the movement’s illegitimacy (and sometimes chagrined by impatient allies), but we must remember all those past movements co-opted by larger interests. Even the Tea Party was initially a reaction to bank bailouts — not immigration or deficits or a black president who was not yet in office.
It is the nature of corrupt, older systems to at first ‘trivialize and sterilize’ revolutionary ideas, with the ultimate goal of incorporating them back into mainstream society to be exploited and commercialized by the archaic forms. In Guy DeBord’s 1958 situationist manifesto, he described the “rigged game” as recuperation, and its counter-technique as détournement.
But truly, there has been a false choice created of working inside the system versus outside the system. It is wrong for each group of organizers to discount the other, just as counter-productive as those who vote against their self-interests. After all, this work is of vital importance in increments as well as by leaps. It becomes a moral war of attrition; a personal decision is made as to which place it would be easiest for the individual to work from.
The “inside” v. “outside” paradigm is not a non-issue, of course. An oft-cited reason given that progressive social reforms didn’t keep (either post-New Deal or after the cultural revolution of the 60’s) was that so many activists incorporated themselves too much into the systems of power — diluting a revolutionary intent with layer after layer of bureaucratic talking points and conflicting directions. It makes sense, considering that organizing on the ground for change has very little in common with winning elections. But the goal posts have been moved over time, even when the actual goals were not fully realized. In this way, entire groups of people were tricked into erroneously thinking that they had won their fights; average uninformed Americans assume that we truly live in a post-racial society, labor rights have been so neglected that bargaining power is at record level atrophy, access to reproductive rights were taken for granted to such an extent that they’re being comfortably rolled back now, while many young men and even some young women decry feminism based on the backwards logic of old misogynists. The right-wing mainstream media attempts to turn ‘progressive’ into a dirty word, just as they had with ‘leftist’ and ‘liberal’; even the laudable term ‘social justice’ is derided across the internet.
Largely, these all unfortunately still fall under the same false dichotomy of a right-left paradigm, which more and more is being rejected by young and old alike, frustrated with institutional dishonesty and dereliction of duty.
The authoritarians have controlled, steered and entirely changed the national dialogue. Many people are well aware now of the concerted effort by the conservative establishment and wealthy elites in this country to poison our system of government and public trust over the slow march of decades, incrementally and by leaps of policy-making (or destroying). In fact, the subtle (and increasingly not-so-subtle) fascio-corporatization and propagandization of the country is ironically a valuable historical lesson in exactly the sort of success to be had when using a system to further unpopular causes. Those corporatist efforts began with some strongly-worded memos between lobbyists, politicians and the Chamber of Commerce, at a time when their image was marginalized and weakened. For while the right-wingers of the 1970’s were by no means a powerless grass-roots movement, they certainly weren’t well-regarded by Americans either. Their numbers were fractured by the same ideological inconsistencies that exist today, and their national party was closely identified with the hawkish stubbornness of failed foreign wars, the crass opportunism of calculating the political value of Southern bigotry, and of course, nasty scandal.
Appealing to the basest levels of the reptile brain; greed, selfishness, prejudice, violence, and fear, a select group of extremists seduced a significant enough portion of the nation into backing their plays. They used half-truths and specious logic to convince constituents of their toxic philosophy… Wealth is equally accessible to all who simply work hard… All those who are wealthy have worked hard to earn what they have… The wealthy are the engines and producers of the economy… All government is corrupt or incompetent… Unions are all corrupt and incompetent… Might makes right… The spoils of the richest will trickle down to you… Regulation is the enemy of a fair and free market… Banks are too big to fail… Corporations are people, my friend. All basic tenets of a worldview that pretends to worship ‘individual accomplishment’ over collective achievement, public good or human progress, (provided that the ‘individual’ in question is wealthy and white, or a corporate fiction).
By the 1980’s the new regime was so entrenched that even battle-scarred Republicans like Barry Goldwater rejected the religious extremism of their social doctrine. They have moved so far to the right since then, that many agree even Ronald Reagan would not be electable in today’s climate. Many of their loyalists over past decades have been left behind in the rapture of out-righting each other, and find themselves de facto ‘center-right’… or worse!
Generations of their most brilliant architects have ginned up fear, stolen votes, sold off of the public works, manufactured the bombs at the people’s expense and for their own profit, and utterly undermined a once flourishing and hopeful democratic system.
Similarly, shortly after the 2012 election, the current administration invited members of the Progressive Democrats of America and their legislative allies in the Progressive Caucus to an ‘inside-outside’ strategy meeting that included activists from labor, peace, civil liberties and environmental movements. Even members from the Democratic Socialists of America were represented. Access for these groups was absolutely important, but it was still restricted to the select few deemed appropriate by the powers-that-be.
It is revealing that even the president and his czars have taken up the populist talking points. Even if this was superficially doled out in order to pander and deceive, it is still significant that the administration is being forced to include them in the conversation, and not the other way around. But do not forget the years of disrespect that this administration has had for the populists, with Rahm Emanuel berating them as “fucking retarded”, and officials telling reporters that “lefties” wanting to hold the president accountable were “crazy” and “ought to be drug tested”. They used words like “naive”, “fringe”, “unserious”, and “Cheeto-eating people in the basement working in their underwear” for daring to question the current record of civil liberties abuses. Meanwhile, even attendees to that January, 2013 conference came away with very real concerns for the unfinished agenda of the broken criminal justice system, and the looming threats of cuts to Social Security and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It was more a stay of execution on these issues than an olive branch.
As Norman Solomon, Co-Founder of RootsAction.org told The Real News in a 2013 interview:
“…Talk doesn’t really translate into policy. And after all, the difference between rhetoric and governance is what actually happens in terms of policy out of the executive branch… When you get to bedrock issues, (taxation, spending, the restraint in cuts on fundamental social services, continuation of war, use of drones and cruise missiles and so forth to strike around the world at will) out of the Oval Office on those issues and more, including civil liberties, we have a president whose rhetoric and reality are quite different from each other.”
It’s not productive nor is it my intention to dwell on the past abuses and negligence of the power elite, as many volumes have already been penned on the subject. Nor do I mean to excuse any one party’s malfeasance over another, or naively propose some hypothetical utopian alternative, or even cynically eulogize a crushed and broken American dream. My point is simply this; Movements take time. Years, decades, generations. What was true for the villains has been true of every social project and activist outpouring, benevolent or otherwise, since the dawn of known Civilization (which itself wasn’t built in a day).
Much of the efforts of activists over the last few decades have been to stop the bleeding and infected wounds inflicted by the neoconservative takeover (and the center-right neoliberals who lead by following them), or allow their destruction to continue unchecked. Conservatives, Masters of Projection, often lambaste liberalism as a ‘disease’, and the staunchly racially-motivated among them go so far as to say that the ‘experiment of diversity has failed’. In truth, progressive ideas were doing just fine in the country economically for decades, and were well-positioned to finally begin helping the segments of the population who had been ignored, had they just been given the a fair chance. Instead, it’s been the corporatist experiments of ‘trickle down’ economics, deregulation, authoritarianism, and mass fear that have proven failures.
Over recent years, our groups needed to band together, improve their working relationships, and learn their rights. More coalition-building is still going on, and sometimes getting hundreds or thousands of different groups to work in tandem feels like herding cats. But Occupiers have already met and networked, found solidarity in various pet issues and common causes, seeing that so many things are connected and equally important. They continue to outreach, organize, and build spaces for overlooked allies.
The Millennial generation that largely drove the Occupy movement is also discounted by the mainstream hacks, but have defied their expectations again and again by being more politically engaged than predicted. This generation, (and those who have joined it in its causes), elected a man based on false promises and false hopes. But they’re also quicker to hold him to his words and criticize him for his legitimate failures than either predictable Party; who either fawned over every miniscule and hollow victory or else demonized the man for perceived or invented offenses.
Millennials refuse to engage with the system in the tired old ways, but want a more participatory democracy for a more interactive era. They won’t buy the conservative lines about ‘weak government’ or ‘big government, because they’re interested in building an effective government for and by the people. They reject any narrow version of ‘freedom’ that only defines the term as applicable to rich landowners and investors. The selfish ‘freedom for me and toil for the rest’ that has dominated all ‘serious’ Beltway logic is the antithesis of the very concept’s core.
Occupiers showed the rest of the 99% of the country that they practiced what they preached, organizing with the Red Cross during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They exemplify the direct action they wish their leaders would take, by working to build a framework to end the rule of money, peacefully protesting, striking against the slavery of debt, supporting local mom-and-pop businesses, solidifying the shared struggle of workers and consumers alike, and leveraging technology for such causes. They were quick to note the hypocrisy of a society that strikes back against Occupy demonstrators with tear gas and batons, but allows Black Friday shoppers to sit-lie for days, though the latter results in far more chaos and violence.
But all the changing demographics and public outcry in the world won’t be able to benefit your cause if you don’t build some infrastructure to organize.
“ …We communicate with each other interpersonally, socially, on the internet, all sorts of media that we bring to bear, institutionally and in terms of habitually, to say, we don’t BS each other; we’re clear, we share information, and we’re direct, and we don’t beat around the bush. The other is that we’ve got to organize. The politics of analysis and denunciation on the one hand are inadequate, but you don’t have an organizing component. And by the same token, if you’re organizing without clear information and analysis, that doesn’t tend to get us very far either.”
After the 2012 election, publications like The American Prospect began to call for long-term strategies of their own to take back democracy. Unlike the cynical and selfish corporatist stratagem of yesteryear, which was “inherently untrustworthy” of a public “that is to be subdued and contained rather than engaged”, these new suggestions focus on empowering the people to invert the broken power structure.
The wish list of ideas and goals includes:
- Divert money allotted for elections to community groups.
- Discipline the explanation of our economic narrative.
- Move the focus out of the foundations and into the streets.
- Unite against the new Jim Crow.
- Don’t cede Americans’ core values to the right — Champion equality and justice, but don’t let the right claim freedom and faith as its own.
- Embrace targeted direct action during periods of leverage.
- Support and connect the thousands of community groups who are directly confronting extraction from the ground up.
- Invest in the power of creative mass action, understanding the old truth that boldness has power in it, especially when we act together.
- Bring the inside and the outside onto one side, encouraging grass roots to work in tandem with our litigators and lobbyists.
- Paint an irresistible picture of the future, celebrating the enormous job-creating potential of new sources of energy and its more efficient use — Create a just transition for current workers in the fossil economy.
- Lift up new champions and support leaders wherever they are: both legislators who are working on Capitol Hill and organizers who are pounding Main Street.
- Fight Voter suppression and related attacks on voting rights.
- Challenge the criminalization of dissent — (as just one example,two activists in the Pacific Northwest are currently incarcerated for refusing to testify before a grand jury about other activists).
- Nominate more progressives in the primaries.
- Make sure people have good educations, that the right doesn’t dominate school boards and curtail science education.
- Defend public radio and television to promote our own ideas.
- Take on Citizen’s United by supporting campaign-finance reform and efforts to get money out of politics.
- Above all, stick together.
To that list I would add: let conservatives dig their own graves without participating in their agenda of hate. Instead, appeal to the higher regions of the human brain. Generosity, open-mindedness, choice, liberty, fair play, and empathy. These are not as easily generated as those lower reptilian functions, we’re all well aware. But the personal rewards are greater, the worldly benefits are apparent, and the moral imperatives are strong. Deep down, we know that these are standards that belong to an America we would like to see. At times in our history, they have been preeminent values to building culture, communities, and spiritual growth. Do not fall victim to the self-defeatism that dwells upon our violent and greedy history. The spark of enlightenment flickers beneath every turbulent and cruel era; its survival and perpetuation is fundamental to activism, to progress, to being American, to being human, to life itself.
There are times in American history where we need loud voices of dissent to remind us of these principles, and spur many of us to action.
In one sense, I wouldn’t worry too much about the rejection of Occupy as old news. They can be discounted, repressed, suppressed, oppressed; but every time there’s an attempt to strike those ideas down, they become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. We may feel impatient, but both time and morality are on our side. We are winning the culture war that we never wanted to wage in the first place, and more practically, public perception and shifting demographics are slowly tilting in the right direction.
At the same time, work your Goddamned asses off every second you can. We are now witnessing the largest (and growing) backlash against money and power in this country since the Gilded Age. We are building very real roots for a world twenty years from now. If we are not diligent, it can get away from what we want.
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