In the spirit of non-Academic work, that is, work that is relevant for non-academics, I lay out something of an insider’s view on the Occupy Movement (OM) and a strategy going forward. I happily admit that I already see much of this strategy taking place; the ideas are not entirely my own nor are they novel, then again, few ideas are. The important part here is that these strategies can be useful in the most difficult battle—the battle for hearts and minds of the general public. This essay is directed towards those involved with the OM as a way to understand those uninvolved, the bystanders that matter so much for the outcome. The general audience of bystanders is who we must reach.
Towards an American Spring
The OM’s populist message of real democracy, economic justice, respect for all people, and defense of the common good has seeped into the vein of popular American consciousness; therefore, the OM has real potential for positive change. Yet, importantly, there is a counter narrative, also deeply embedded in American consciousness. One could argue that the opposing side’s viewpoint simply lacks an understanding of what the OM is about. They say occupiers are lazy, dirty hippies who don’t understand the meaning of a hard day’s work. The opposing side argues that the occupiers do not understand how to make change, expressed in the oft-recited “these people don’t even vote” or some variant. However, I argue that the root of the opposing viewpoint is based – not on ignorance or misinformation – but on a steadfast ideological belief in economic individualism that we must attack, outright and explicitly.
The main route the OM has followed, with considerable success, is through the prefigurative nature of the movement, that is, through creating micro-societies that function in the way occupiers would like larger society to function. It has won the hearts of many who have ventured to an occupation site or taken part in occupation activities, such as working group meetings, general assemblies, marches, or rallies. I went to Dewey Square on 30 September when Occupy Boston (OB) first began its encampment; words give little justice to what I found. In short, OB consisted of people who care for one another for no other reason than because people should be cared for. Sure, occupiers at Dewey believe that all people have a basic right to health care, housing, education, and food. But there is more. Occupiers believe that a general sense of belonging to a community is deeply important. Yes local communities, but also an international community, the community of humanity. It’s not uncommon for occupiers to end personal statements in General Assembly or online in listserves with the words, “I love you.” That sentiment, embodied in actions small and large, is powerful, no matter one’s political or ideological convictions.
There was a larger than life statue of the Mahatma Gandhi at OB borrowed from the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, MA. “Meet at Gandhi” was a practical refrain by OB working groups to assemble and then find another, perhaps warmer, site to converse. But Gandhi was much more than a meeting place. The Mahatma Gandhi believed that means and ends are inseparable; therefore, unjust means will never deliver just ends. The occupiers have taken this message to heart and practiced a form of protest rooted in justice and kindness. From day one, occupiers have affirmed, in both word and practice, that ours is a peaceful protest. On the other hand, police have used violent means and been roundly criticized for their conduct. For instance, Kamran Logham, one of the developers of weapons grade pepper spray has come out in response to the pepper spraying of students at UC Davis. Logham said, “I feel it is my civic duty to explain to the public that this is not what pepper spray was developed for” and that “I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents.”
The other main area the OM has succeeded is in moving off occupy sites themselves and into workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, and other places people spend their time. Some of this is because we have been removed from public spaces. Many disagree with judge McIntyre that we at Occupy Boston do not have a first amendment right to assemble indefinitely in Boston’s financial district; perhaps we should reclaim that space. Beyond symbolic value, the camp is excellent for recruitment and organizing. But seeing that the houseless in our community are provided shelter should be an immediate concern. We also must be honest: running camp takes much of our energy—it is not in vain at all, but it does consume much of our time.
It is striking how adeptly the Occupy language and ideas adapt to any particular place and surrounding. Connections with labor have been strong since the beginning, leading G. Dunkel to write in Worker’s World, “Almost every major national labor union — except in the construction trades — and the AFL-CIO have endorsed Occupy Wall Street. But more important is that in major cities they have offered significant organizational, financial and political support to this movement.” Dunkel concludes saying, “The struggle continues, now with new allies as workers fight the bosses.” Indeed, the 12 December action to shut down west coast ports applies OM pressure in a heated battle between the port workers union, the ILWU, and port operator SSA Marine and grain trader EGT. SSA Marine is also majority owned by Goldman Sachs leading protester to dub the ports “Wall Street on the Waterfront.” The occupy your homes campaign takes occupiers to evictions and fights to bring people into vacant homes. Occupy the hood now has chapters in 17 American cities in largely minority neighborhoods, bringing some of the most marginalized of the 99% into the action. Other neighborhood based meetings are taking place regularly, even in more affluent suburbs—‘occupy the burbs.’ Many schools have their own group of OM-inspired protesters, demanding a “university for the 99%” to use the Occupy Harvard slogan.
Before discussing strategy for the OM in the future, I want to discuss the opposition sentiment. As I mentioned, the case against the OM tends to be based on notions of economic liberalism. Morris Berman, in his recently publishedWhy America Failed argues that America has always been a nation of hustlers. Founding father of sociology, Max Weber would not disagree, neither would Ralph Waldo Emerson or modern day sociologists like Juliet Schor. In fact, I would argue that few would disagree. America is an entrepreneurial culture where working hard is something we are proud of; self-reliance is idealized. We care about economic and material conditions and believe that hard work is the way to achieve anything. This is a mindset very much at the heart of the American experience and has been since the beginning.
The earliest colonists viewed Native Americans as uncivilized at best. After all, they lived in a land of enormous plenty, but had very little to show for it (so it appeared to the colonists). The colonists immediately sought to amend the situation. Ideas of property ownership and use, for instance, were completely changed. The eminent historian William Cronon says, “More than anything else, it was the treatment of land and property as commodities traded at Photograph of Chicago Board of Trade on 5 October, 2011 market that distinguished English conceptions of ownership from Indian ones.” It’s incredible really, Americans love to work; we even love loving work sometimes. For instance, in the sociology doctoral program at Boston College there is something of a battle waged about who will work the hardest. Ask any academic how much they work and the answer will surely be, “too much.”
Those against the OM tap into this very real sentiment. The Tea Party, for instance, basically says, “We want to keep our money.” The reason no doubt, is that it was money hard-earned and deserved; besides, the government will mostly waste it. And at this point every occupier should have a siren going off in that occupied head. “The government wastes that money you say? Well I agree, to an extent at least.” I’ll return to that in a moment. The underlying reason of the opposition to the OM is important. It is that very real sentiment of hard work that is embodied by the American Dream where Americans are told they can work, work, work, and all their dreams will come true, but what if the problem is that dream itself? What if there needs to be more to life? Many sociologists would have us believe community affiliation—the “gemeinschaft” of old or the “mutuality” of new—is an important part of happiness and fulfillment. Maybe America’s religiosity will be its saving grace, though one national bestseller Jesus CEO seems to suggest otherwise. In any case, the critical question for the OM is how to overcome, use, or at least make peace with this sentiment. It’s embodied in a song so that you don’t forget it: “The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees, I want my money, that’s what I want!”
There was another song though, written by one of the bands that covered that other song: “Tell me that you want the kinds of things that money just can’t buy. I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love.” So this is one possible solution—free love, flower power etc. But that’s been tried. Another possible solution is to tap into the American Dream itself and say, “common folks who are working hard are not making it anymore.” Van Jones is trying that one on for size. The paper of record described President Obama’s speech on 6 December as follows: “Infusing his speech with the moralistic language that has emerged in the Occupy protests around the nation, Mr. Obama warned that growing income inequality meant that the United States was undermining its middle class and, ‘gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try.’” Larry Summers is less sanguine but the title of his recent article in the Financial Times says it all, “We have to do better on inequality.” This is the message of Elizabeth Warren, government support, e.g. infrastructure, R&D, legal protection, provided for the wealth of the 1% and they owe the 99% our due. It would seem that message, the one about redistributing the American Dream, has already gotten through to the elite. That means this is a message that can be pushed, if that’s the goal we want to push.
I want to be clear; I am for that goal and if Obama is giving a speech about it, then rest assured that broad swaths of the American public are for that goal as well. Here’s the problem, are we for that goal? In case you already know your answer is in the affirmative then ok. That is a valiant goal and it is achievable. But my experience at Occupy Boston suggests we want more. We want a society where the most marginalized voices coming from the most oppressed are heard and responded to. We want a society that meets basic human needs yes, but we also want a society that does not destroy the planet. The complete failure of international climate negotiations at COP 17 in Durban, while not a surprise, calls us to act for those who will never be able to raise their voices—the future generations of humanity that will face a world made practically unbearable by our American Dream for all.
There is also a strategic aspect of demanding more than economic justice. When we push far enough to one side we open up space for reasonable opinion—not standard Republican or Democrat positions—to appear moderate. If there is any lesson to the Obama Administration’s three years in office it is that he wants to appear in the center. It is our task to show that the center is not a couple percentage points increase in the tax rate for the wealthy. The center is not a slowing of college tuition inflation or a reigning in of Wall Street excess. The center is not the position of our congress. If it is, that center pushes us off the cliff of environmental degradation. Our job is to show that the center is a wide-ranging plan that puts hundreds of billions of dollars, every year, into environmental and green initiatives. The center must be affordable education, taxes on the wealthy far upwards of the 50% when Reagan came into office, and a national jobs plan that puts at least 37.5 million Americans to work. The center position must say that funding for such projects comes from the wealthy and from a completely bloated military. Instead of the international police force of the world, the center position must be that the United States becomes the international leader on slowing global climate change. The center must say that if we want a more peaceful world, then demilitarize and use the money to support the poorest of the poor.
The only way these positions come to be at the center of popular opinion is by moving opinion in that direction. The best strategy for doing so is through empowering individuals with the knowledge that labor is the source of all wealth. The self-righteous image of the 1% as the economic engine is dishonest. Workers, including knowledge and service workers, produce wealth. When we understand that then we understand that we have the power to change anything. I believe many in the OM already know this. The West Coast Port Shutdown, building on the success of the shutdown at the Port of Oakland is a strong sign that we understand this. But, we must do more. We must reject, dismantle, or takeover all aspects of our lives that enrich the 1%. In their place we must build new institutions that represent, in word and deed, the 99%. This means universities and corporations must fundamentally change. This means our government must fundamentally change. This means our economic system must fundamentally change. This is a serious mission. I’ve begun working on it with my friends and colleagues. I know many of you are doing the same. As the holiday season for much of this country approaches, let us recruit our families and old friends. My guess is that few could honestly admit that nothing matters to them besides money. If they do, then direct them to the state of our environmental affairs. But if they have some concern for humanity, then recruit them. Tell them what you’ve learned. Help empower them to be the change they want to see. See you at the American Spring.
Schattschneider long ago advised those interested in the outcome of political battles to direct attention to those not (yet) directly involved because “the crowd plays the decisive role.” Schattschneider, E. E. (1960). The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 3
I do think some people view this as reality. While important, I write this paper not on that subject per se because those actually interested in understanding the OM can talk to an occupier, look to the vast OM produced media, head to a camp, or take part in an action.
See more on the Peace Abbey at http://www.peaceabbey.org/
Some of the most prominent examples include peaceful student protesters being pepper sprayed at UC Davis http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AdDLhPwpp4. Peaceful and ‘kettled’ protesters in New York City http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moD2JnGTToA&feature=related. And finally this particularly frightening video of protesters coming to aid someone injured and some kind of flash bomb being thrown as they try to assist the person http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqNOPZLw03Q
First quote from a 29 November, 2011 interview on DemocracyNow! http://www.democracynow.org/2011/11/29/pepper_spray_creator_decries_use_of . Second quote from Seelye, Katharine. 22 November, 2011. “Pepper Spray’s Fallout, From Crowd Control to Mocking Images.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/us/pepper-sprays-fallout-from-crowd-control-to-mocking-images.html?_r=3
20 October, 2011. “Why unions support OWS movement.” http://www.workers.org/2011/us/unions_1027/
To see Boston area schools participating in student General Assembly as well as their own individual action see http://collegesoccupyboston.com/ and their individual Facebook pages, which are updated more frequently. For Boston College students’ action outside of O’Neill Library on 7 December, 2011 see http://bcgavel.com/2011/12/12/occupy-boston-movement-spreads-to-boston-college/
Berman, Morris. 2011. Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.
See Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Emerson’s essay Self Reliance, and Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American.
Cronon, William. 2003 . Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wange. pp.75
Ferdinand Tönnies, in his 19th century Community and Society, differentiated between gemeinshcaft where community relations are paramount to individual concerns and gesellschaft where individual self-interest takes precedence. In Talking Politics Bill Gamson uses “mutuality” as a counter to the dominant theme “self-reliance.”
Sulzberger, Arthur. 6 December, 2011. “Obama Strikes Populist Chord With Speech on G.O.P. Turf.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/us/politics/obama-strikes-populist-chord-with-speech-in-heartland.html?_r=2&hp
20 November, 2011. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/66102f44-11db-11e1-a114-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1gGkIQWgc
While many would not describe Jim Inhofe as moderate, he is still a senator and can say “The message from Washington to the U.N. delegates in South Africa this week could not be any clearer: You are being ignored.” Think Progress ran a piece by Stephen Lacey on the talk where he said, “Here on the ground at the climate talks in Durban, South Africa, I tried to find a single person who had heard about Inhofe’s video speech. I still haven’t found one person who knew or cared — if they even knew who he was at all.” http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/12/07/384136/ignore-jim-inhofe-durban-talks/
37.5 million Americans is the government reported “U-6” unemployment rate, which includes those who have given up working and those who can only fine part-time work but seek full-time employment in addition to those seeking work yet unemployed completely. I took that rate, 15.6% as of November 2011, and multiplied it by the eligible “civilian non-institutional population” of 240,441,000 that excludes those in the military, prison, and some other institutions. For the U-6 rate see http://portalseven.com/employment/unemployment_rate_u6.jsp and for the eligible labor force see http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t01.htm