If the dynamic of a diverse safe space in which people dismantle oppressions through conflict resolution is at the root of Occupy’s transformative potential, then perhaps there’s not a distinct formula that can be reproduced, but simply spread – a culture – that people can choose to adopt.
Occupy Sandy has been lauded as more American than FEMA. Strike Debt, an Occupy offshoot, is pioneering the “Rolling Jubilee” of debt forgiveness to the adoration of publications like Business Insider. While popular in some circles, these initiatives have also led to bitter divisions that ultimately surround the narrative of the Occupy movement.
Some say Occupy died long ago and that these imitations are attempting to export an unperfected product. Some argue further that these Occupy offshoots are destructive, misusing terms like “mutual aid” (masking the actual lack of community) and providing recovery efforts of the status quo (simply replacing government support with charity), distancing Occupy further from its true nature of rupture. Others counter that Occupy has transformed, or perhaps self-immolated, disposing of its clunky general body to make use of its network, carrying out revolutionary work in more agile campaigns. They argue that these campaigns are in the spirit of the movement by promoting neighborliness, self-reliance and community infrastructure over mass institutions.
This is not just a question of credit or labeling; the debate calls for an etymological investigation of the definition of Occupy Wall Street in pursuit of its revolutionary potential. After well over a year, can we make useful statements about what Occupy really was – or is?
I think we can. Occupy is a movement that has brought about revolutionary personal growth for thousands through a dialectical process. It crammed the contradictions of our modern hierarchical society – a diverse group of people – into small parks, creating a horizontal “safe space,” in which under-represented folks could share their perspective of these hierarchies. It enacted systems of communal facilitation to use the emergent conflict as fuel for the decolonization of each individual’s internalized oppressions. Through this process, it produced people who are committed to inter-relating horizontally (and therefore anti-oppressively) – a cultural idea so counter to the logic of capital as to be revolutionary.
Displacing the State Through Autonomous Conflict Resolution
No doubt, Occupy did more than create horizontal anti-oppressive spaces, and many would claim that reclaiming public space, reviving participatory democracy and redirecting the public narrative around inequality are more central aspects of the movement. However, as Occupy was forced to change contexts, Occupy’s anti-oppression and conflict resolution processes seemed to be the most essential characteristics of the movement in terms of what made it transformative for so many people. If activists occupied public space without enacting radically horizontal anti-oppressive relations in the space, it could not be Occupy. But if a movement enacts anti-oppressive spaces in other places besides public parks, it can still be “Occupy,” in that it contains the same kernel of revolutionary potential.
Occupy bears many fundamental similarities to the underappreciated alter-globalization movement in the 80s and 90s, and anarchist communities long before that; and it exemplified the anarchist principle of “unity in diversity” perhaps even stronger than its antecedents. Jason Ahmadi, a facilitator trained in non-violent communication and a well-known direct action trainer from Occupy Wall Street, explained to me that, “The fabulous thing about the Occupy movement is that its diversity is both massive and concentrated.” According to Ahmadi, diversity often leads to conflict, and conflict can lead to revolutionary growth. “Conflict is natural and beautiful,” he said. “What’s important is conflict resolution.”
Occupy’s conflict resolution processes varied from place to place, but most encampments employed some version of consensus decision-making, a painstaking process that ensures that all participants in a general assembly get everything off their chest before anything is settled. This framework was often buttressed by two processes that prioritize traditionally under-represented voices in meetings. “Step up, step back,” is an informal agreement that all participants check how their privilege affects their use of the space such that it may be dominating or precluding others from participating, and step back so that everyone can participate. “Progressive stack,” is the formal ordering of speakers such that traditionally under-represented peoples, and folks who have spoken less at that particular meeting, speak first.
These are components of a broad intentionality to create “safe spaces,” in which each Occupier monitors the ways in which her or his life experiences shape her or his language, bodily gestures and general presentation, such that she or he may be oppressing others – along hierarchies of race, class, gender, political affiliation, ableism, citizenship, and other axes of identity. The aim is to enact a horizontal power structure, in which individuals socialized for dominance relinquish that role and listen, while those who are typically marginalized are able to share their often-unheard concerns.
In modern America, individuals experiencing conflict can numb it with drugs, flee or rely on an external “objective” arbiter rather than building a long-term capacity for dealing with direct confrontations to their perspective.
Although the mainstream narrative wrote off Occupy’s conflicts as dysfunction, by refusing the state’s persistent attempts to clean up the messy collisions (remember the calls for “sanitation” and “safety”), Occupiers were performing a profound form of direct action. Occupiers were displacing the state by embodying its functions of arbitration and enforcement through community-facilitated conflict resolution.
The Revolutionary Potential of Concentrated Difference
Humans under Western capitalism are categorized, separated and ranked along various axes of identities, like class, race and gender. This affects the way in which people relate to institutions of the state, like the police, and the way they relate to the categories of identity themselves – “social constructs,” or “ideological state apparatuses”- like gender, which are integral to the governing structure.
When police challenged Occupiers, the activists often divided, at least initially. Some trusted the police as protectors (often white, middle class folks), while others reacted to cops with anger from a history of abuse and daily harassment (often people of color), and others bristled at the mere presence of police because they’ve endured surveillance and entrapment (often radical anarchists). Normally, these groups of Americans would not be on the same side, and would have their perceptions of the police simply confirmed by others in their community. Occupy disrupted these great American divisions, redefining community based on a shared value system, in which each party listened and committed to one another’s perspective rather than “otherizing” them. This caused a direct contradiction – the police could not be both a force of justice and be repressing people of color daily. The antagonism produced from the conflicting narratives set in motion a synthesis of the narratives.
Of course, the initial result was conflict, as Occupiers of privilege or ignorance were forced to let go of long-held beliefs, and oppressed individuals were forced to understand the perspective of their privileged comrades and accept their reluctant resignations of power.
Many male Occupiers had to learn to “decolonize” (a term used to describe the process of purging one’s internalized oppressor) patriarchy. First, they had to notice how often they spoke, whom they looked at when speaking, how they used their bodies and whether their ideas were gendered, among other expressions of patriarchy. Then they had to modify these behaviors and ultimately qualitatively transform their self-conception and mode of inter-relation in order to break down the hierarchies that operate between differently gendered individuals.
Suzahn Ebrahimian, writing in Tidal, the magazine published by Occupy Theory, described the process this way: “Liberation is facilitated by a fundamental shift in priorities on all levels, towards a collective support and dismantling control and oppression over each other.”
In her famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” the influential black queer feminist Audre Lorde articulates why concentrated difference is crucial in dismantling hierarchy in the project of collective liberation:
Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.
Hegel conceived the concept of the dialectic – that contradiction, or concentrated difference, internal to a system is fuel for change¬ – to explain historical trends. Marx brought the dialectic to the scale of political economy, and Marcuse focused the dialectic on culture. Lorde, whose writings have been particularly influential in the consideration of “safe spaces,” brings dialectical thinking to the level of micro-politics, of our social spaces and our identities.
By gravitating toward our differences, Occupy reversed the power of segregation and repulsion fundamental to modern society. By concentrating hierarchies and demanding horizontalism, the conflicting narratives held by Occupiers – of the police, the state, race and other constructs that rely on the logic of hierarchy – either bitterly divided Occupiers or forced a transformation to a new synthesized narrative. It is through the proliferation of these anti-oppressive spaces that Occupy spread its liberatory potential. So the mantra coming out of Occupy’s one year anniversary, “Occupy everywhere,” may be understood as a means to an end, to “Occupy everyone.”
While the transformative process described above did happen in Occupy, conflict resolution processes were typically messy and didn’t always work. Occupations had limited diversity and sometimes even splintered into micro-communities. If anything, “year one” suggested that the state polarized the diverse groups when it could, and that Occupiers could only resolve their conflicts when they had a meaningful material basis to unify around – like feeding hungry people.
Personal Transformation, a Story From the Encampments
In her article “How to Radicalize a Moderate: The Story of a Former OP Liaison,” Julia Alford-Fowler recounts how her good faith in Philadelphia’s government officials turned to righteous anger when the city willfully lied and even injured its citizens to maintain control. Julia Alford-Fowler, a part-time composer with a slight build, short hair and a voice that carries, was a well-known face at Occupy Philly, as was her story of radicalization.
A self-described “fed-up liberal Democrat” at the start of Occupy, Alford-Fowler stepped in to be the “police liaison” for the fledgling community. However, her self-appointment, general unaccountability, and her perceived conciliatory disposition towards city officials irked the radicals in Occupy Philly, who advocated for disbanding the police liaison position. The responsibility to talk to police was entrusted to the legal collective, which Alford-Fowler joined. However, the swirl of suspicion around her led to vicious rumors (she reports some still think she’s a cop) and even an accusation at a general assembly that she was a narc.
In an interview, she told me that it took several months for her to let go of her trust in government and see the world through the eyes of her politically oppressed comrades. “I would say now that the [radical] mindset is definitely right. But, I think that the process that went down was pretty shitty.”
This was an important lesson of the encampments – the conflict was often too intense, sometimes leading to a breakdown of the conflict resolution process. At one point in Philadelphia, the general assembly decided to officially disassociate with a sub-group of “militant liberals” (as one Occupier called them) because the conflicts they provoked were ripping the camp apart. Partially because cathartic sharing could become hostile, many people found Occupy alienating, rather than eye-opening.
Although Alford-Fowler stuck it out, she understood why others felt pushed out and aired her own exasperation, laughing, “I’m getting my fucking doctorate and I have to build street cred with 19-year old anarchists!”
Alford-Fowler felt the experiment was bound for some eruption because it combined long-time radicals “with people who are pissed off but don’t have any frame of reference for that type of anarchism” in a “small, high stress community. Oh and by the way, there’s probably cops among us.”
The police and city promoted specific leadership, played into narratives that marginalized specific groups, and helped foster an atmosphere of fear at the camp. “In a way we were at war,” said Alford-Fowler, who recounted that Occupy Philly had to spend a third of each general assembly just dealing with objections brought up by the city. “There was no way for all of us to come together and say, we’re radicals because of this, we’re not radicals because of this and we have to find a way to work together. Instead it became this territorial battle where nobody trusted each other and we didn’t have time to build that trust.”
Many Occupy encampments, like Philadelphia’s, produced some extraordinary personal revolutions, but were shrouded in a general defensiveness (compounded by state intervention) that hampered conflict resolution processes. These flimsy resolution structures all but collapsed when mayors swept Occupiers off their front porches in cities around the country in November – forcing Occupiers to scramble to rebuild in the “Occupy Spring.”
In Search of Unity Around a “Material Basis”
The “Occupy Spring” was a mish-mash of different gatherings and events, so it’s difficult to speak of it as a shared happening, but many Occupiers came to a set of similar conclusions from the spring’s general failings. In mid-June, Sean West “Wispy,” a member of Occupy Philly’s legal collective, explained it to me this way: Occupy in Philadelphia had “died” because no movement could exist without a “material basis” – political or physical – to unify around, like feeding hungry folks.
One poignant moment for me that illustrated this lesson was at the “Occupy National Gathering” on July 4th, at a meeting on “radical tactics” called by radicals who had felt marginalized by the gathering’s organizers.
Fed up after only 20 minutes of the meeting, Amalia Montoya, a stocky veteran Native American activist from “Un-Occupy” Albuquerque, howled, “We can’t call a circle together and ask women of color to step up and speak, because we don’t know it’s safe.” She asserted that the assembly had failed to demonstrate its safety “because if you look at the people who have already spoken, they have light-skinned privilege.”
“You couldn’t wait! You couldn’t wait!” Montoya cried, explaining that Native Americans have had their voices silenced for 500 years, “so if we have to sit for five minutes in silence and think about what we want to bring forward then you should sit with us in solidarity!” For the rest of the meeting, Occupiers shared oppressions they felt were often ignored in Occupy, from transphobia, to attention deficit disorder, to homelessness.
At the end of the meeting, Aaron, a young man with an imposing build and a booming voice said, “I’m an angry white male that’s incredibly privileged. A lot of white males feel marginalized and upset that they don’t get to have the conversation here. Welcome to what people of color and women feel like every fucking day!” He reflected on his own “blindness,” saying, “These people have had generations of this, and maybe I can help solve this right now, by sitting down, shutting the fuck up, and listening.”
Amalia and Aaron were committed enough to share and listen despite the distress it caused both parties and Occupy’s revolutionizing potential glimmered. But Occupiers recognized that much had gone awry with these decision-making and conflict resolution processes in the fall and the assembly became a platform for critique.
Tamara Shapiro, an organizer with InterOccupy (a national communication network for Occupy) and the gathering, complained that many radicals had jumped ship when anti-oppressive politics at the national gathering were not up to par. “I have a lot of major critiques of the racial analysis of this movement, but I haven’t run away because I feel like if I’m not here and I’m not challenging people and having those conversations, then nobody is going to grow.”
The criticism resonated. Nancy, an organizer with the Anarchist Alliance of Washington, DC, explained that radicals also craved dialogue. “We want you to know that we exist … and if you want to find out more about us, talk to us!” Amanda, who had facilitated the assembly, closed it with the simple insight, “Talking to people you don’t know is what builds movements.”
When diverse peoples dialogue – honestly sharing pain and willfully listening – they can repurpose conflict for growth. But they need to be committed enough to endure the affronts to their perspective, and to allow folks working through “decolonization” of internalized oppression to practice performing their relationships differently, horizontally. It’s a form of praxis – the application of theory through reconstituting power relations differently and then using the lessons from that practice to re-inform theory, and back and forth ad infinitum. It requires committed partners who will aid in the scrutinizing investigation into how each person wields power and remain patient as each person screws it up and tries again.
During most gatherings in the Occupy Spring, activists did not feel attached enough to the ad-hoc communities to make praxis-based growth possible. By the time of “Occupy the Democratic National Convention,” petty infighting and a small turnout was the norm. Recognizing that fleeting events didn’t let Occupy be Occupy, many activists turned to concrete campaigns that attempted to unify folks around substantive pragmatic goals.
“What Has Occupy Become?”
Nick Pinto, wrote in the Village Voice in the lead-up to the anniversary on September 17, 2012:
The factionalism that for so long seemed to threaten to tear the movement apart seems increasingly manageable. After a year of precisely these sorts of arguments, anarchists, liberals, and union stalwarts all know the contours of their disagreements, but they’re also better than they’ve ever been at pushing through them.
Occupiers had found reasons to stick it out through the tedious meetings and with that commitment, they carried out the revolutionary task of resolving conflicts when they arose. The material bases they unified around were both physical, based in communities like Occupy Vacant Lots and Occupy the Hood, and political, like Strike Debt and F* the Banks. These campaigns have resulted in concrete achievements like a “millionaire’s tax” in New York, and moving the money of 650,000 people from big banks to credit unions.
A Look at Occupy Our Homes
One of the most touted projects of “Occupy 2.0” is Occupy Our Homes (OOH), which provides defense against home evictions to force contract renegotiations with banks, and has saved hundreds of homeowners from losing their homes. OOH kicked off in November of 2011, held a “National Day of Action” in December, and has since elicited wide praise from the likes of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who compared the campaign to the “Eviction Defense” movement in the Great Depression.
OOH in Minnesota has been a national leader, hosting the Occupy Homes National Network Convening in Minneapolis with about 40 participants from around the country.
The Minnesota OOH now has active campaigns with four homes, is providing lower level support to a number of others, and has racked up six victories (renegotiated contracts). It is currently transitioning to a community empowerment approach by facilitating neighborhood assemblies and creating “eviction-free zones” where “anchor” homeowners help defend one another and the entire neighborhood from foreclosure.
While OOH has marked considerable achievements, many Occupiers initially opposed issue-based campaigns because they thought it would narrow the movement, or turn it toward a play-by-the-rules nonprofit strategy that was necessarily not revolutionary.
“Was This Still Occupy?” Diversity and Membership in Occupy Our Homes, Transforming an Existing Community
Becky Dernbach, a member of the communications team for OOH Minnesota, explained the group’s anatomy. Core administrators are elected to the “coordinators table” and general members do tasks like canvassing. All group decisions are voted on in a monthly general member meeting, which has ranged from 15 to 70 attendees. While membership has been informal, OOH Minnesota is transitioning to a model with attendance requirements and a small fee for those who can afford it. Still, Dernbach notes that anyone can get involved; the only real difference is that members can vote on budgets and endorsements. She added, “We don’t police people about it.”
OOH has been held up as an example of Occupy 2.0 partially because it has engaged folks who didn’t come to the encampments, including a former police detective and an ex-marine. Dernbach herself wasn’t that involved in Occupy Minnesota during the encampment because she found it unwelcoming, “I would go there, and I’d wander around … nobody was talking to me.” Her experience with OOH has been quite the opposite. “Once I joined Occupy Our Homes I felt invested in Minneapolis like I never had before. Not just hanging out with people that I went to an elite liberal arts college with,” said Dernbach, who transplanted to Minnesota for school. “I’m hanging out with people from all corners of my community. We have people who are security guards, church leaders, the African-American community in North Minneapolis, former veterans, EMTs, motorcycle club….”
Dernbach testified that the project was connecting people across the pre-existing community, not just uniting young activists with veteran anarchists. “The most beautiful example is the friendship that developed between Frank Clark and Monique White.” According to Dernbach, Clark was a “working class white guy who says not PC stuff” who bonded with White, the African-American youth counselor whose call for help launched OOH Minnesota, when the two ended up in the same union after initially meeting at OOH.
Instead of bonding through a therapeutic praxis-based personal transformation in the creation of a new community, OOH – and other campaigns in “Occupy 2.0” – seem to have created bonds by working to improve pre-existing communities.
Conflict Resolution in Occupy Our Homes
Despite these harmonious moments, OOH Minnesota has suffered discordant times. In August, some Minnesotans objected to the OOH National Convening Committee’s decision to make the convention exclusive to selected delegates from attending cities. The committee heard the concerns, the general membership held a vote, and kept the convening closed. When deciding on the six representatives from Minnesota, a group of women noticed a gender imbalance and proposed a slate of three men and three women. A male activist called them “self-serving,” and their motion was summarily defeated. Afterwards, the tactless man was approached by three different activists, and he eventually conceded to his error.
When I asked if they tried to replicate the processes of the general assemblies at the encampments, Dernbach balked. “I’ve heard terrible things about the general assemblies. We do not like to compare ourselves to that at all.” Instead, they simply “make sure no voices are dominating,” with a set of rules for the space that include “no racist, sexist bullshit,” and a collective agreement to call anyone out who breaks that code. “So far, that hasn’t been an issue,” Dernbach noted.
Furthermore, Occupy Our Homes is currently organizing an anti-oppression workshop and regularly holds support groups for homeowners, where they share their stories of hardship in dealing with banks – just without much Occupy-specific signaling or jargon. “We sometimes use progressive stack, but it’s not something we use consistently,” said Dernbach, who acknowledged that anti-oppressive politics were important to OOH, just never worth alienating a homeowner. “It’s more ‘step up, step back.’ We don’t down-twinkle [a hand signal used in Occupy to indicate negative feelings about what’s being said]. We don’t block. Having your own sign language is confusing. One of our homeowners asked us why we’re doing that. It’s exclusive. You have to be part of the in-club.” Dernbach says these meetings have been powerful, helping homeowners realize that they’re not alone in the struggle. “They see that it’s not their failure. It’s systemic failure.”
It seems that Occupy Our Homes has managed to create close relationships and a diverse, united community by replacing the unifying goal of communal survival with concrete goals that affect working-class people.
Pinto posed the question in the Village Voice:
Organizers find themselves in something like the role of particle physicists studying the readouts of a cyclotron: Something bright and hot happened in Zuccotti Park for a few months last fall. What was it? What was the magical formula…. Can they replicate it?
I’ve argued that the crux of Occupy’s “formula” is (1) concentrated diversity, (2) conflict resolution processes that utilize emergent conflict to fuel personal growth and (3) the requisite unification around a material basis to allow for praxis-based “decolonization.” However, each of Occupy’s forms has only allowed for highly imperfect iterations of this process.
Alford-Fowler reflected on these initial failures in considering future forms, “We weren’t thinking about what was best for our community [at the encampments]. We were thinking about what was best for the revolution … If I were to do this all again, it has to be flipped.”
But is it flipped in Occupy 2.0? Some critics argue that these campaigns are inherently flawed – by focusing first on results, no matter how communally-oriented, the community always falls second, according to the logic of efficiency.
In Dernbach’s eyes, this new form of Occupy represents a tradeoff, but it’s one that people are ready for. “In Occupy Homes Minnesota, we have taken the ideals of the Occupy movement and used them to get things done. A lot of people like that. But a lot of people who were drawn to Occupy originally are really committed to the process of Occupy. I think there’s a conflict between process and results. If you want to run effective campaigns, you cannot have a consensus-based decision-making model.”
But some would question this logic. Are these “effective” meetings forcing women to confront sexism after-the-fact, and pushing OOH into a more exclusive membership model? Does having quantifiable goals necessarily mean that conflict is managed, not resolved, precluding revolutionary growth?
Dernbach argued that “It’s more about mutual support than getting tasks done. We have spaces for both. And I think that’s where people are having really incredible transformations.” She cited Colleen Espinoza, a homeowner who began by saying, “Don’t bring those Occupiers over to my house!” but was radicalized as she realized how connected her struggle was with others. Furthermore, Dernbach said that focusing on results has allowed OOH to be more inclusive, working with “Democrat Democrats and people who are Earth-Firsters.” She continued, “Sometimes it’s advantageous for us to have ties with unions and sometimes with anarchists.”
Dernbach believes that making these concessions to survive in the system – membership fees are necessary for sustainability – does not preclude transformative growth. “These transactional wins can help us build toward more transformational victories if we build a movement in the process, do political education along the way that transforms consciousness and put pressure on the system so that it has to adapt to our demands to survive.”
Well, it’s a bold project – achieving liberation along the way – and Ebrahimian, writing in Tidal, doesn’t think it’s likely:
Growth has been objectified and sought for over the past eight months, as if growth were a containable product rather than a human process. The master’s tools – quantification, progress, development – have been reached for without serious consideration as to their origins or effects…. Eventually we will forfeit liberation for the sake of being able to define exactly what a win looked like.
The allusion to Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” is apt; in it, Lorde claims that these tools “may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” While decommodifying housing may upend capitalist logic, the tactic of petitioning institutions (which causes a costly public relations problem) to renegotiate an unjust debt is at best beating them at their own game.
So if we accept this critique, what are we left with – three forms of revolutionary impotence? Any utopia as tangible as a tent city will be divided by fear and dismantled by force from the state. Any community not grounded in a substantive material basis will fracture into self-affirming silos, lacking the requisite unity for praxis-based transformative change. Any campaign that prioritizes results over relationships will never go deep enough to be fundamentally transformative and may even recapitulate hierarchy.
So how can Occupy grow, or be replicated? Or are those the wrong questions?
A Culture With Conduits to Proliferate Diverse, United, Safer Spaces
Ebrahimian addresses the growth of the movement, writing, “The most beautiful kind of growth is priceless, uncontainable and unquantifiable: It is a growth that does [not] blindly expand nor is it fit for replication.” If the dynamic of a diverse safe space in which people dismantle oppressions through conflict resolution is at the root of Occupy’s transformative potential, then perhaps there’s not a distinct formula that can be reproduced, but simply spread. It’s just a particular form of inter-relation – a culture – that people can choose to adopt.
Occupy’s “self-governance” revealed that the walls separating the political and cultural (and perhaps spiritual) spheres are facades. The communities lived according to principles – share everything, make decisions as democratically as possible and provide anything that someone needs as long as the community can manage it – without any of the formal institutions or actors that define the political sphere, like legislators, a judicial body and executives.
Shawn Carrie, a well-known Occupier, once described politicians as “making suggestions of how humans should inter-relate to each other.” Politics is personal, and we live ours every day. This is why an anti-oppressive “safe space” is not apolitical – the logic is the same, of division and hierarchy. As it was written on a popular pin distributed at Occupy, “Capitalism is racism.”
A culture is an imperfect description, but at least it is not fixed, instead defined its particular context. The campaigns of Occupy 2.0 can be a conduit of Occupy’s culture, but not if they lose this culture in the name of quantifiable change.
Newcomers need to be treated as though they are immersing in a new culture – explicitly taught the roots of the language, customs and norms. “Violence” doesn’t include property destruction like smashing a window, but harm to a human being. Up-twinkles have a purpose – they allow for increased participation without interruption.
For the campaigns to not succumb to the master’s logic, transformative growth cannot be put into an equation of tradeoffs. Revolutionary growth is not mutually exclusive with concrete accomplishment; it just needs to take precedence.
And the culture must be available for everyone. This means validating and building on the cultures of pre-existing communities rather than insisting on implanting a rigid set of rules (that’s just more colonization).
Occupy cannot just be a space for privileged folks to hear an oppressed perspective. It needs to allow everyone to recognize how her or his privileges and oppressions are connected by an overarching logic of hierarchy – and to imagine a new logic.
Reversing the Flow of the River
A culture doesn’t need conduits as tangible as an encampment or campaign – it just needs people who are committed to adopting a particular dynamic.
To an extent then, Occupy can spread instantaneously and ubiquitously, as soon as people decide to relate differently. This was the utopian strategy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Nutopia,” represented by their famous “War is over, if you want it” posters. It’s an interesting thought experiment: What would happen if Congress adopted “step up, step back”? How would corporations function if boardrooms were anti-oppressive spaces? If people decide to inter-relate differently, there’s no need for campaigns, because “political” choices will follow naturally because it goes along with the cultural logic.
Daniel Quinn describes it this way in his novel Story of B:
Vision is the flowing river. Programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede the flow…. Isolation is supported by vision, so it takes care of itself, but community building isn’t, so it has to be supported by programs.
Quinn holds that programs aren’t bad, just provisional and reactionary. Whereas visions propose, not oppose. Of course, enacting an alternative cultural vision seems overwhelmingly difficult. Quinn writes:
The relevant measures are not ease and difficulty. The relevant measures are readiness and unreadiness. If the time isn’t right for a new idea, no power on earth can make it catch on, but if the time is right, it will sweep the world like wildfire.
What makes a time right for a new cultural vision? I would argue that it takes people who are ready to listen, prepared to enact an alternative vision. So it may not be the time to make revolution, but the time to make revolutionaries. Which is exactly what Occupy is braced to do.
Alford-Fowler reflected, “What we’ve built over the last year is a network of activists who know each other and trust each other, who in a number of hours, when the people who have been comfortable lose their TVs and their internet is turned off, will be there and we will be ready.”
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, many commentators have picked up on this idea that Occupy’s enduring impact is its network. Yotam Marom in Waging Nonviolence discussed this specifically in relation to Occupy Sandy, writing that the storm showed how community-based structures can emerge to provide services locally. He concluded, “Networks connect dots, but you still need the dots themselves to be ready.”
Another crisis is likely not far. When it does hit, perhaps enough people will be ready to be “Occupiers,” so that a new cultural vision can be adopted. If Occupiers spread their shared culture, then we may humbly approach qualitative change.