Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Patrick Sullivan of Transition Missouri writes about the Occupy Movement

This was such a great article/blog post I had to share it.

One of my colleagues here at Transition Missouri left a very interesting post on our Facebook page the other day related to Occupy Wall Street (I'm not sure exactly who it was since administration of the Facebook page can be done by any one of four of us but the edits all show up under the quasi-anonymous "Transition Missouri" heading). In that post the author talks about his or her conviciton that the answers to the challenges of peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis must come on the local level, since any movement on the larger-than-local scale eventually becomes co-opted into supporting the status quo.
Then, "[a]long comes the Occupy Everything movement," says the author, "which is global and national and local, all at the same time, and which brings with it real hope that the economic catastrophes which have affected so many of us is resulting in a political sea change. It sets the stage for the blossoming of Transition communities, recognized and supported by whole nations, where before I feared nothing but resistence."
The post concludes with a link to a special on called Occupy Everywhere, which includes the following panel discussion about the nature of the Occupy movement (it's an hour long, so don't feel like you have to watch the whole thing right this minute):
{video has since been removed by owner}

If I'm reading the post correctly, then I am of a very similar mind toward the Occupy phenomenon.  I believe that the changes that we are seeking, and that in the end we will probably have no choice but to make, will come primarily at the local level.  In the end, that's really the only place they can come from.  But that doesn't mean we should ignore or down-play what is happening in public spaces all over America and the world.
I am encouraged by the existence of these various and mostly peaceful "Occupations" both here and abroad.  Say what you will about this movement's supposed lack of a coherent message.  Point to the questionable behavior of some of its participants if you want, and make all the jokes you care to about drum circles and patchouli-funk and white college kids in dreadlocks; if nothing else, this movement shows that there are a lot of people out there who aren't inclined to quitely accept a system that seems to offer them only joyless consumption, gaping inequality, ruinous public and private debt and bitter alienation in the place of meaningful opportunities for social mobility, healthy communities, and lifestyles that don't depend on sacrificing the well-being of future generations.  To me it is an understanding of this reality and a genuine desire to change things for the better that fuels this movement.
Beyond that, I'm still not really sure what to think of Occupy--or perhaps I should say I'm not really sure how much hope I should invest in it.  One thing we can say without a doubt is that even if this movement were to utterly vanished into thin air tomorrow, they will already have acheived a very real and major victory: they have finally forced a conversation about the fact that a tiny percentage of the richest and most powerful elements of our society have for decades been enjoying a stratospheric expansion in income, wealth and influence while the vast majority of Americans fall further and further behind or, if they're lucky, manage to break even.  Though this fact has been self-evident for many years, it was not until the coming of the Occupy Movement that it started to receive more than minimal attention in the national media.
But in the end merely making people more aware of the problem isn't the same as getting to a solution; people may finally be talking about inequality of opportunity, but that doesn't mean we don't still have a government that has been carefully molded so as to be essentially incapable of doing anything that might actually benefit anyone but the investor class, or reign-in the corruption and avarice of those who have turned our society into a mechanism for centralizing wealth and power in the hands of a tiny corporate and economic elite.
I see Occupy Wall Street and its many regional variations as more a sort of public primal scream than an organized political movement.  I don't really mean this as a criticism. Wanting to scream is kind of a natural reaction when you have finally had enough of a political system that seems incapable of representing your interests and a culture in which even social movements that dress themselves as anti-authoritarians iconoclasts--like the Tea Party--actually demand more deregulation and lower taxes, i.e. a fresh showering of rewards upon those who steered us into this mess in the first place. The passion and fervor of the Occupy Movement in response to this situation is perfectly understandable. The question, however, is where we go from here.
Progressives have had a tough sell in America in the last few decades, and I don't believe that the Occupy Movement will be an exception to this rule. One lesson that the wealthy power structure in this country--and the army of political personalities, media outlets and think tanks it supports--learned and learned well a long time ago is that Narrative matters in the minds of most people a whole lot more than facts.
I believe it's safe to say that most Americans--myself included--are just fine with the notion that through hard work, intelligence, determination, and luck, some people will experience more financial rewards than others. Even if we are talking someone earning many times what the average worker earns, I really think that very, very few people in this country would have a problem with that so long as there is true equality of opportunity. We are by nature an optimitic, can-do culture that believes rewards should come to those who deserve them.  What I think most of us are not okay with is the notion that a person's economic and social standing should be so heavily influenced by the mere accident of his or her birth so as to tend to eclipse every other factor.  That would be like living in some decaying feudal society governed by an Old European-style aristocracy.  Only the fact is, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is actually easier in tax-crazy socialist hell-holes like Sweden or Denmark than it is here in the U.S, where your wealth and power have a much stronger correlation to who your father is than they do in the "Old" world.
This fact doesn't gel with the Narrative to which a lot of Americans--maybe even the majority--still cling, i.e. the Narrative in which the vast majority of people who work hard will eventually enjoy at least a certain amount of success and security, and anyone who isn't enjoying success or security probably only has themselves to blame. This is an easy narrative for a lot of people to believe in, because many of them actually have had to work very hard to achieve what modest success they have enjoyed.  Understandably, a 55-year-old guy who still gets up at 5 a.m. every day to run an HVAC business doesn't feel like he's been handed anything. He probably has a modest background of his own, so in his mind anyone who doesn't have what he has probably just isn't willing to make the sacrifices that he has made. When he starts to get that creeping feeling that despite all his efforts things are ultimately not working out the way he thought they would, either for himself or for the majority of those around him, it's probably easier to buy into the notion that "they"--the poor, immigrants, bleeding-heart liberals, the usual suspects--have been working to take away what he has legitimately worked hard to earn than it would be to question his deepest beliefs about the system under which he has labored and the dogma he has cherished his entire life.  If you try to explain to him that despite his limited success he too is a part of the 99%, his gut-level reaction will be 'maybe so but I continue to work hard and sooner or later I will be in the 1%.'  Trying to explain to him the statistical unlikelihood of this scenario coming to fruition will be like trying to explain the actual odds of winning to someone who has bought a lottery ticket every week of his life.
This mindset is why Progressives have a tough sell in America, a place where historically (though not lately) social and economic status has been more fluid than in the rigid, class-oriented societies of the old world. And this is why the Occupy Movement--much like the Transition Movement--has its work cut out for it. It seeks to tell people a very uncomfortable set of truths: the system in which they have put their hope and faith, and to which they have given blood and sweat and years of their life, is now in actuality heavily weighted against the financial success and well-being of all but the top tier.  Far too many people hear these truths as nothing more than defeatist nonsense, complaints from a lazy bunch of losers who can't make it in the real world and are jealous of those who can.  This attitude is so deeply ingrained in many quarters of our society that I believe it makes the sort of wholesale, nationwide changes sought by the Occupy Movement all but impossible.  That's why I spend my time and efforts focusing on what I can do right here and right now in my own community, taking more of a "be the change" attitude rather than trying to change the whole world.
But that doesn't mean that I'm not watching what's going on with great interest, nor that I would be unwilling to lend a hand if it were needed in some positive way.  I wish the Occupiers well in their efforts, and for all our sakes I hope they find success.

1 comment:

  1. Having spent a little time downtown at the OWS site during Zuccotti and after Zuccotti, I have to say I was deeply moved by these young, brilliant and passionate people. They created a space, as you said, where the conversations (there are many kinds!) can take place. These working groups of at least a dozen people gathered to discuss issues from ecological education in our public schools, to how to include the issue of racism in a sensitive way in the community discussions (there was topic on one daily schedule titled The black 99%ers). One night I went down with a couple of my gal pals after the eviction. We wondered what we'd find. The groups were still there, sans the tents and tarps. It was reminiscent of Ancient Greece in the Agora where the students would gather and discuss philosophy and politics and science with an air of anticipatory excitement, as if something amazing were about to happen simply because they were discussing. There were several regulars and many newcomers and always the ever present dour NYPD now guarding the make believe "entrances" to the park, those aluminum barricades that have come to symbolize the deep divisions between the 99% and the 1%. Also missing were the sustainability groups whose grey water example, bartering table and food exchange sign ups were tossed into garbage dumpsters along with thousands of books... One of things many people don't know is that many of these young occupiers are the children of 1%ers or close. This is why they achieved a level of education that afforded them the ability to question the system and then to have the resources to make that question last this long.
    They KNOW that 75% of the public thinks they will be rich someday and votes against their own best interests. They KNOW that only 1% of the public will ever have to worry about the estate tax.... And that is why they are down there and that is why Main Stream Media continues to say they have no message, no leader, no point, no validity... When the truth is, and MSM KNOWS it, that isn't the point of OWS. They are there to enlighten those who would listen. Apparently millions are listening, judging from the tweet world.
    Thanks for your words!