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OWS: To Change the Country, We Just Might Have to Change Ourselves

The emergence of what we know as Occupy Wall Street, or the 99 Percent Movement, has taken nearly everyone by surprise, producing a transformation of public consciousness. There is little doubt that something striking has taken place, far from our normal range of expectations. As a result, many thousands of progressives, excited that the logjam in American politics has been psychologically broken up, are still wondering exactly what has happened and why. Suddenly the style and conventional wisdom of traditional progressive models for social change have been pushed aside in favor of “horizontalism,” general assemblies, culture jamming, and many other unconventional ways of doing politics. The Antecedents of OWS

The emergence of what we know as Occupy Wall Street, or the 99 Percent Movement, has taken nearly everyone by surprise, producing a transformation of public consciousness. There is little doubt that something striking has taken place, far from our normal range of expectations. As a result, many thousands of progressives, excited that the logjam in American politics has been psychologically broken up, are still wondering exactly what has happened and why. Suddenly the style and conventional wisdom of traditional progressive models for social change have been pushed aside in favor of “horizontalism,” general assemblies, culture jamming, and many other unconventional ways of doing politics.

The Antecedents of OWS

The DNA strands of some of these alternative approaches can be traced to Europe's Situationist International movement of the '50s and '60s, which combined radical politics with avant-garde art, and helped lead to a general strike in France in 1968. There are echoes, too, of American progressive movements that rose in response to the inequality, corporate excesses and corruption of the Gilded Age and the Roaring '20s. There are also reverberations from early in the labor movement of the large-scale industrial strikes of the 1930s, and also of the civil rights movement, and the women's movement's model of consciousness raising. Powerful acknowledgement must be given to the Arab Spring, for igniting the world's imagination. In Egypt, power that seemed incontestable was contested; protesters didn't have the answers beyond the end of Mubarak — still they came and stayed.

Strong antecedents can also be found in the student-led antiwar movement of the late 1960s, which was also a fight against the dehumanizing effects of corporate power. Then, many young men faced being drafted to fight in a destructive and despised war. These young people and their families pushed back, saying, “Hell no, we won't go!” Many of today's millennials are also fighting back against circumstances that affect them directly. Student debt is more than $1 trillion, while unemployment for young people is at Depression-era levels. Declaring bankruptcy does not erase student loans; those crushing debts will follow them forever. Many of these young adults see their futures at stake. Not surprisingly, they want a solution — either the jobs that would enable them to pay off their loans, or forgiveness of debt incurred under false pretenses.

Nevertheless, the movement that has burst out of a small park in Lower Manhattan feels like a new manifestation of the will for ordinary people to challenge dangerous and daunting forces that have come to dominate their lives. With its global reach and advanced technological and media tools, OWS may well usher in a new political and cultural era. Still, no one can say just where this thing will go and what the future will bring. And therein lies much of the power of OWS, and for some, the frustration. Pundits and organizers across the ideological spectrum have tried to understand the phenomenon, and explain it by fitting it into what we already know about how the system works, because not knowing is a source of great anxiety in our society, in the media, in the establishment, and even among progressives.

As Eve Ensler, global activist and author of The Vagina Monologues says, “What is happening cannot be defined. It is happening. It is a spontaneous uprising that has been building for years in our collective unconscious. It is a gorgeous, mischievous moment that has arrived and is spreading. It is a speaking out, coming out, dancing out. It is an experiment and a disruption.”

Of course, nothing concrete has changed, yet. But the possibility of change — really, the necessity of change — is now in the middle of our nation's politics and public discourse. This alone is an incredible achievement because a few short months ago, many millions of us essentially had no hope.

Why Has the Tried-and-True Failed Us, and OWS Succeeded?

We may well ask why so much progressive organizing and billions of dollars of investments in social change over the past 20 to 30 years has failed to slow down the right-wing, corporate-dominated juggernaut or catch the public's imagination. And how is it that, remarkably, what is succeeding in front of our eyes breaks what we thought were the hard and fast rules of political relevance? We had come to believe we needed the development of charismatic leaders operating within vertical organizational models, with heavy emphasis on fundraising and electoral politics. But that is changing. Reality is undergoing an adjustment.

Micah Sifry, writing on the Web site Tech President, wondered, “Did OWS succeed simply because it was non-hierarchical in method, had smart framing in tune with public anger about the economy and Wall Street, and made really effective use of social media?” If so, he asked, “Why didn't a very similar effort, called 'the Other 98 Percent' take off last year? Why didn't the US Uncut movement, a spinoff of an ongoing street protest movement in England, take off here this past winter? Why didn't Van Jones' new Rebuild the Dream movement, which was launched this summer with the backing of MoveOn, labor and the progressive netroots, take off?”

Longtime organizer Andrew Boyd described a few key elements to Sifry. One is the powerful tactic of occupation itself, with the personal commitment and determination of people on the ground to see it through. “Continuous occupation creates a human drama” and a demonstration of dedication that matters. “People await the next episode. Will the cops kick them out? Will they outlast the weather? Will they participate in the elections?” Another reason is the lack of demands. As Boyd says, it puts OWS in the morally potent “right vs wrong box,” instead of in the “political calculation” box.

Still another is the authenticity of OWS. As Sifry notes,

“Occupy Wall Street isn't slick. It isn't focus-grouped. It isn't something professional activists would do…As the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto wrote more than a decade ago, we instinctively know the difference between a human voice and a corporate voice. I know it may sound strange to say this, but could the reason so many progressive social change projects fail to connect with ordinary people and move them to action be because they seem too corporate in style? Think of all those hand-scrawled signs on scraps of cardboard vs. a thousand professionally printed signs from a union shop—which is more authentic?”

But there is something simultaneously much harder to grasp and incredibly easy to digest if one is able to suspend disbelief, to stop thinking in all the ways we have been taught and trained to respond in American politics. And get ready for a wild ride.

A Generational Shift

Even though OWS involves people of a wide range of ages, there has been a fundamental generational shift. Millennials have a different view of how to do things, with values and knowledge gained from leaders across the world. They have absorbed quite naturally the fundamental approach of horizontalism — perhaps better labeled participatory democracy — field-tested in places like Argentina, Spain and Greece.

As Marina Sitrin, a veteran of political organizing in Argentina 10 years ago and an early OWS participant explains:

“2011 has been a year of revolutions — uprisings — and massive social movements — all against an economic crisis and crisis of representation. Most all of these new movements have taken directly democratic forms, and are doing so in public spaces, from Tahrir Square in Egypt, to the plazas and parks of Spain, Greece, and increasingly the United States. The words horizontal, horizontalidad and horizontalism are being used to describe the form the movements are taking. Horizontal, as it sounds, is a level space for decision making, a place where one can look directly at the other person across from you….Horizontalism is more than just being against hierarchy…it is about creating something new together in our relationships. The means are a part of the ends. The forms of organizing manifest what we desire; it is not a question of demands, but rather a manifestation of an alternative way of being and relating.”

On a practical level, what this means is that Gen Xers and Boomers have much to learn from the different approaches to politics OWS represents. Instead of focusing on traditional power structures, the OWS operation seems like the “wisdom of crowds” combined with a fundamental sense that top-down power can't really ever change anything, because it will always, by its nature, reproduce the system it is trying to change.

For decades, we progressive Boomers (I am one) and Gen Xers have continued doing things the way we always have, believing that if we only organized a little better, raised more money, were a little smarter, tweaked the message just so, success would be ours. But we could not discover how to make a dent in the political hegemony of banks and corporations, in the political corruption, in unjust laws that protect the powerful. Life in the social and economic realms has declined over the past decades — for the working class, poor people, people of color, students, and increasingly the middle class. Meanwhile, more and more corporate money is invested to game the system. The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United was the last nail in the coffin, giving yet more influence over our “democracy” to the 1 percent.

OWS represents a challenge to many established orders. It challenges a large professional class of highly educated progressives who learned to work the funding system and to create a broad, comfortable and self-reinforcing progressive establishment. While millions suffer with joblessness, underwater mortgages and student debt, many in the progressive establishment are well-paid and thriving, fighting a battle on many fronts that it seems we are doomed to continue to lose. Why? Perhaps it is because our system and way of doing things mirrors the oppressive system in many ways. There is nothing revolutionary about movement professionals trying to negotiate with the Obama administration to tweak one policy or another. Or spending time convincing Americans to sign another petition or offer financial support — things I personally promote, so I do not write this from a place of any superiority, nor do I have an immediate clear idea of how to change it, except that we must try.

Building on What We Have Done

Our old ways of doing things are going to be challenged and questioned every day. We have to be bold enough to resist running for establishment cover and use this teachable moment to take a hard look at what we have wrought. If we believe in our values, we have to adapt and change. At the same time, and this is crucial, we have to take stock of what we have built, which is significant. There are infrastructures in place that will help the OWS movement go forward. We must be creative and gutsy in imagining how to weave together the new with old, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We Boomers must remember that our early efforts of crossing many dividing lines — of race, gender, class and sexual orientation — provide the historical backbone of what the OWS movement is building on, 40 years later. It just may be that this generation is doing a better job than we did.

Moving forward, we have to distribute resources more broadly. We must bring people into productive roles who have been left out. None of this will be easy. But it could be amazing, and even more importantly, essential. Because if we are going to catch this tidal wave, if we are going to contribute to this huge fight against unbridled global capitalism, we must accept the anxiety and uncertainty of doing things differently. And many of us will. Already, many of us do sense that this is the best chance we will have in our lifetimes to reinvigorate our democracy, create a livable world for ourselves and future generations, and help millions, young and old, pull themselves from the grinding everyday pain of poverty and powerlessness.

We Are the Change

Joining the change will require reassessing both our habits and our organizations. And a fair question is, just what does that mean? I don't pretend to have the answers. But there are places to start. We can examine our privileges, share power, insist that resources be spread much further than they are now. We can think about relating better to all, not just to those in our political and social circles. As a daily practice, we can better value the people on whose work we depend, those who collect our garbage, deliver our food, clean our offices, do our laundry. And for the future of the earth — we can challenge and change some of our greedy habits and remind ourselves of how easy it is to abuse the environment when we are privileged.

Many of us have been toiling for years, struggling for social change, for inspirational and accurate media coverage, for fairness and equality. We have been doing it the way we thought was right, and we should give ourselves credit for persistence, for not giving up. But we do find ourselves at a crossroads. Embracing the new has risks, and feels confusing, perhaps even threatening.

Eve Ensler has a way of artfully articulating the elements of key moments. She writes:

“If we are not afraid, if we open ourselves, we all know everything has to change. We need places to announce and actualize this change. Places are crucial. The ingredients involve stepping out of your comfort zone, giving up more than your share, telling your story and listening to others, not thinking in an obvious linear way, trusting the collective imagination to be more empowered and visionary than your own, refusing to participate in the violent destruction of anything. That includes taking anything that isn't yours, taking more than you need, and believing you have a right to dismiss or ignore or belittle anyone with less power or money or education. Believers…will be beaten with batons and pepper sprayed and dragged off. But no one can evict or silence what is emerging in Zuccotti Park.”

Or what is emerging from the thousands of sister and brother occupations in the U.S. and across the globe.

It's clear. The movement that is OWS can't do it alone. They, and millions of us, need to be willing to step up, and change ourselves and change the world in the process.

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