Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

There are many problems facing our world today. Our economic system is no longer functioning. Our environment is being systematically destroyed. Our government is dishonest and dysfunctional. Our world is ravaged by curable diseases, famines and wars. Adults and children are diagnosed with mental illnesses at an ever increasing rate.

Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of all of the statements above is how easily one can get the average person to agree with them. The question then turns---so how can we solve these problems? In order to solve problems, you must accurately and precisely determine their cause. And you must be willing to follow that cause wherever it may lead you--even when it means doubting the systems you hold so dear.

How bad do things have to get before we ask ourselves--why do we have all of these problems? At what point should we be forced to consider it is the larger system which puts these things in motion that is the cause, and all of the current issues are just symptoms? Just as taking off the top leaves of a weed is pointless if you leave the root, attempting to solve individual problems is ultimately useless if we don't address their causes.

I believe it is the systems we have in place that cause these problems. Systems that are rooted in unjustified hierarchies that disempower individuals and create inequalities.

Of course, stating that 'the system' is the issue has its own problems. For one, the systems are so vast it is difficult to pinpoint where one begins and another ends. But I think that is just an issue of definition, and could be accomplished through time. But there is another large problem: it is terrifying. These systems are the foundation for how we understand ourselves and interpret our world. To change them would be to shake every individual to their core.

Because suggesting a change in systems is so difficult and terrifying to people, I do not believe that such a change could or should occur by destroying the systems we have in place. The only thing that makes sense to me is the old IWW idea---to build a new world in the shell of the old.

And thus, the occupy wall street protests.

Almost everything you read about the Occupy Wall Street protests criticizes their lack of organization. Bemoans the fact that they don't have a clear mission. Wishes a more broad based coalition was there.

I feel like everyone is missing the point. I'm very glad that the protests aren't the normal, top down organized events where individuals march in protest with a single demand. After all, when is the last time we saw a protest like this actually accomplish its goals?

The black bloc protests in Seattle in the 90's resulted in the continuation of the WTO. The large scale protests of the RNC in New York did nothing to cease Bush's 8 year reign as president. The hundreds of thousands of people who marched on Washington against the Iraq and Afghani wars did nothing to cease the armies from fighting. And what about Troy Davis? Today he is dead.

People from my generation have not lived to see traditional protests work. That is why Occupy Wall Street is exciting. Its backbone is general assemblies, where individuals are allowed to speak freely and suggest actions to the group. Group actions are not taken until all voices have been heard and a consensus has been reached.

Occupy Wall Street does not have a single demand because it recognizes the futility in that when the overall system is the problem. Further, it recognizes that there is something deeply wrong in dictating to people what the demands should be. To proclaim a single demand without the tiring, endless, tedious work of actually listening to those who are present and coming to consensus of what to do would be a waste of time. It would just perpetuate and reflect the same behaviors that have brought our country and our world to the state it is in today--non-justified authority making decisions for others and thus disempowering their voice. 

So to me, the protests are not really protests. They are, in the purest sense, demonstrations. They demonstrate to the world that you can accomplish goals (Occupying Wall Street) using horizontal organizational principles and through non-hierarchical means. They demonstrate to those that have already been trying to create new systems--of food production and distribution through collective farms and food not bombs, of education through free schools or democratic schools and collective libraries, of health care through radical collectives and free clinics, of production through democratically controlled businesses, of community by creating spaces where individuals feel respected and loved and where each voice has a chance to be heard--that they are not alone.

What is their demand? A process, as was explained in this video. The protest is demanding that a new process be put in place, a new way of organizing ourselves, that denies unjustified hierarchies and seeks equal empowerment and liberation for all.

The protests provide a space for the creation of a new world to occur. They are not attempting to dictate what that world should look like--and that is exactly why you should join them. They are giving every interested individual the chance to say what a new world could look like.

The protests are an invitation. What is holding you back? Do you believe the systems are the problem? Are you will to experiment to find what the new system might be like? Occupy wall street.


  1. Two thoughts. Rather: one thought, expressed in two different ways.
    We often imagine the systems as they exist as something constructed by powerful giants. Rather our markets, our model of governance, grew on the principles of emergence. That's the reason why they feel so oppressive and intimidating to change. They are not the product of consciousness--they're organic. I think for many that's even more disheartening than to imagine our system being created by evil men. The weed metaphor is apt--how do you change something that emerged naturally?

  2. The second thought: protest, too, is organic.

    My generation has an idyllic vision of protest. Crowded streets, general assembly, a brave face against police in riot gear and tear gas. I think many movements seek to emulate the protests of the '60s and '70s because they have a romantic power to them.

    Those protests emerged naturally as a product of their time. The protests today simply do not--that much is evident by the way our generation thinks about them, how we plan for them. I do not think the millennial protest will look at all like it did for our parents. It will not be on the streets with the mounted police. That fight has been fought (and won).

    Rather our protest will be intangible to match a problem that is intangible. It will be organized through the collective purchasing habits and boycotts of a giant assembly of people that can only be witnessed through the computer.

    When collateralized debt was bought and sold on the backs of poor Americans, and when stock was fraudulently inflated to make companies appear richer--when all that happened there was nothing to see of it on the street. Likewise when we protest, our influence will be powerful but it will not show in public.

    And like the 'system' itself, it emerges organically when the time is right.

  3. Good stuff! Everyone may have a different opinion on how to create a new 'system', but we are united in the fact that the current system is unsustainable. Unjust hierarchical systems must be replaced by the idea of Free Association and a emphasis on the local.

    My fear is that Occupy Wall St. protestors will fall into the same Statist Trap that all revolutionaries have in the past: replacing old hierarchical systems with new ones (i.e. some sort of new social contract..) just with fancier new hats.

    "The greatest threat to civilization is from the competition of individuals and groups trying to achieve dominance over other individuals and groups. This results in total conflict and the collapse of social organization, placing collective survival at risk. Thus, the purpose of the "rule of law" is to reduce conflict. We must understand what creates conflict in order to reduce it. The absence of conflict is peace and cooperation. Therefore civilization and the "rule of law" is about the rules by which we live in peace and cooperate with each other by the minimization of conflict." - Bill Ross

  4. Well told.

    Personally, I'm not convinced horizontal organization can work. Perhaps I'm too old and cynical, but I think humans always organize hierarchically with the most assertive (not at all the smartest) accruing power. To counter that, a reliable system of justice is required -- including public shame, which I think is the most effective deterrent to shameful behavior like greed and exploitation.

    That said, I know I know nothing, so I'm willing to watch and listen for a while. Anything is better than the self-destructing plan we have now.

    Good luck & thanks for the good words.

  5. Wish i had read this post before trying to explain how I felt about Occupy Wall Street to skeptical friends via facebook; you put it very nicely in a few different ways. I especially like the distinction between asking for something specific and demonstrating a process. What's unusual about Occupy Wall Street is as you say - unlike most protests, it's got effortless unity, even without specific demands, because of how strikingly ubiquitous and systemic the problems are. The diversity of specific opinions being voiced in unison speaks to the universality of the overarching view that our system is totally nuts. This even links my views to the Tea Party (though the similarities end there) - everyone agrees that our current situation is outrageous and absurd.

    Anyway, I think I'll just link to this as needed in the future :)

  6. THis does a good job of articulating what OWS is. When a child first speaks, often the first word is NO. No defines the child as separate from the world, it is an act in itself of differentiation. It is not yet the positive, but the act of refusal and non-participation is very pregnant and already powerful especially because our society looks to youth as its future and the store of its hopes. Therefore when large bodies of youth are saying NO, this is quite powerful, moreso than specific demands. In fact when specific demands are articulated they sometimes seem narrow, trivial or matters of personal responsibility. But the NO as a whole is much more powerful than its parts.

    That said, I can't really understand quite what Kezia means by "system". She uses an organic metaphor of a weed. Is the system natural then? Clearly she views whatever it is as a product of human will that could be changed by human will. Does it have a history? Which system? Does she mean the business system, the electoral system, democracy in the U.S. as defined by the Constitution?

    There are imposed hierarchies such as medieval systems where people by birth are granted privileges, and there are (at least theoretically) meritocracies where people acquire power or wealth through a combination of their efforts and natural talents and luck. In the natural world there are clearly differences of strength, ability and power. A lion is not an ox and neither is a bacteria. Is it the fault of the "system" if a lion eats an ox or a bacteria kills both lion and ox? If we use an organic metaphor for the system and the system is a weed, weeds have very good DNA and are tough and survive. It's true that everyone has a voice in say a general assembly but does that mean that everyone is equally well-informed, equally sane, or equally sensible? Some people are leaders, some are followers, some are clueless. I don't think changing the system will in itself change that.

  7. Systems--I say that they are intertwined and complicated. But the ones that are problematic, in my mind, are those that are based in unjustified hierarchies and people asserting unjustified power.

    Giving everyone the chance to have their say is not the same thing as the group doing whatever anyone says. What I've found in the assembly is that 9/10 once you give people a chance to speak and synthesize all the ideas you reach something that is infinitely better than one or two 'leaders' could have come up with.

    Some people are leaders, some people are followers. I think that is true in a world where people are either so wrapped up in their own fear and suffering that they either seek power, recognition and control over others or eschew all personal responsibility for their own lives. It's a false dichotomy that is based in pathology.

  8. "The weak overcomes its menace. The strong overcomes itself."
    --Marianne Moore
    Some people are weak and their struggles are always with others who they view as oppressors. They may view the strong as oppressive but if they themselves were in charge they would not know what to do. Strong people are constantly struggling with their own impulses to either conquer them or realize them. If a person is a follower, he should follow unless he knows a better path. If a person is a leader, she should lead as that is her responsibility given her gifts. It is not necessarily true that people who seek power are themselves pathological any more than it is true that people who shun power are themselves virtuous. I think quite a while ago Hillel talked about the balance when he said, "If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I?" In other words, if I don't operate from some sense of autonomy and self-worth, if I only find my value in a group or crowd, then what is my identity? But if I don't care about others, what kind of human being am I? That's the balance.

    However leadership takes many forms, including democracy, consensus building, persuasion. Leadership that involves the consent of all is the best form, whenever it's practicable. A large group of people sharing their views often come to a better point of view than a single leader. Often, but not always. Some situations don't work well that way. Deciding who should take out the garbage is probably a good job for a committee. A poem cannot be written by a committee and neither can a symphony. A huge committee of scientists could never have done what Einstein did alone. The individual spirit demands autonomy and does not follow the herd. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Can they be liberated by others? They can only liberate themselves if they would.

    I don't think the term "system" is really well defined by you in your discourse. Do you mean the corporate capitalist system? It is definitely out of whack right now because Wall Street interests are corrupting both parties. Some people tried to change that, notably through McCain Feingold legislation, but that didn't work. Ron Paul says, get government out of money and then money will get out of government. But that doesn't seem to be happening. I think OWS movement will influence democracy and right now our damaged and ailing system needs that youthful protest energy to give it some oomph. A new generation is rising up and claiming its voice and that's very exciting. But the part about the "system" is a bit under-analyzed in my opinion. It's just a buzz word.

    An interesting model is a family I suppose. Is it oppressive and unjust if the parents make the major decisions based on their experience and knowledge? Is it a good idea if the children run the family as sometimes happens? Probably a lot of the feelings around politics are really reflections and projections of feelings children have about their parents. Some of the most radical people are those who are actually just rebelling against their parents.

    "One law for the ox and the lion is oppression."-- William Blake

    There are natural hierarchies based on talent and ability, and there are unnatural hierarchies based on oppression and violence. The two shouldn't be confused and I think they are easy to confuse if you judge by outcomes.
    That is, if you say that everyone should have an equal say all the time, you are actually crippling the talented and maybe ultimately hurting everyone.

    Descartes says in his autobiography that he had the good fortune of being one who knew how to find his own way but that not everyone has that fortune. Those people should follow the path of others.

  9. There is so much we agree on. I agree that the 'system' is not well defined. I don't think it's been fully fleshed out for many people yet. I just mean it to gesture to the idea that there are a lot of interconnected inconsistencies in the way my city, my state, my country, and my world are functioning right now. When I look around, as someone who wants to make a difference, I immediately become completely overwhelmed. Who should I help first? help the most? That's when I started thinking about it in terms of systems. Because it seemed most logical to try to get as much to the root of the problem, if you really want to solve it. So for example if you seek to help save the wetlands you have to take on corporatism.

    When it comes there just are more or less talented people out there, I guess I just think there is an infinite amount of unrealized possibilities in our world, but our judgment of what 'talented' means or what the good 'abilities' are is so limited. It's tied into the economy, into prestige, economic success, etc, etc. Why can't we expand the scope of talents---creating warm communities, preserving traditions and culture, fostering loving, full and blossoming families? Why can't we try to observe the abilities that are the gift of an individual soul? Uniqueness can not be over valued, and everyone has it, if they wish to find it. Of course a lot of people are completely out of their souls, but that doesn't mean you should have authority over them.