Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Envisioning That Better Future -- Seven: Liberty and Equality for All

Yes. Well. That's the crux of the struggle, still, isn't it?

What does it mean, this call for liberty and equality that most of us hearing all our lives? What are we talking about here?

I've written before about the contrasting liberationist and communitarian impulses of the rebellions of the 1960's -- both of them asserting liberty and equality as fundamental values, but each having a distinctive vision of what they meant and how they would be applied in the real world.

The Movement Liberationists were not on the whole inclined toward Community. The Movement Communitarians were not, on the whole, inclined toward rampant individualism.

"Liberty" means something different in a Communitarian context than it does in a Liberationist one.

"Equality" means something different to a Liberationist than it does to a Communitarian.

The underlying spark for the rebellions of the 1960's was the Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1950's (which in turn was an outgrowth of earlier civil rights and justice movements). The Civil Rights movement combined Liberationist and Communitarian impulses rather successfully, but in the translation to the mostly urban white campus environment of the 1960s, the two were disentwined and separated into distinct threads.

The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was a strongly Liberationist movement that utilized little or nothing of a Communitarian nature. Individuals did come together of course -- there were thousands of students involved -- and the "community" was the campus itself, already present.

The Free Speech Movement did not seek to create a community, in other words. It grew out of the pre-existing campus community. It sought to liberate individuals in the community from the egregious strictures of the authorities of that community against political speech and activity on campus.

In this it was partially successful -- after a good deal of struggle. There was no attempt to fundamentally transform the campus community. That would come later.

Commmunitarianism did not really arise among the 1960's rebels until the advent of the Hippies, something that was not a campus phenomenon at all. The Hippies, instead, were an intentional community of like-minded strangers brought together in San Francisco in the famous Haight-Ashbury District who chose to live partially communally in an urban setting. Numbers of early communitarians quickly split off into sub-communities who established more or less self-sustaining rural communes, some of which are still in existence (most failed, of course; yes, "of course." It's very difficult to do communes successfully over time in this country).

The liberation the communitarians sought was liberation from social conformity and from interference by outside authority. Equality was a value within the commune.

On the other hand, Liberationists sought the liberation of the individual from the arbitrary imposition of authority, and from that impulse, liberationism developed a "group liberation" vision somewhat akin to the Civil Rights Movement, focused almost entirely on liberating various groups from the strictures of law and authority, but often leaving the individuals to fend for themselves once "liberated."

Most of this liberation was won -- sometimes after intense struggle -- but always at a cost. We don't often discuss the costs involved in "liberation," and it is not my point to discuss it extensively in this post, but we should be aware that "liberation" has in many cases been an unfair trade off.

"Equality" among Liberationists tended to be -- and still is -- a matter of legal status. One is equal before the law, or is supposed to be, or is in theory. That's the extent of it.

If we truly want a successful vision of the future, we're going to have to find some way to fuse to two again, and that's been a big part of the process of the Occupy Movement, perhaps its most important aspect to date.

My own impression has been that the core of the Occupations is always found in the attempt at forming temporary intentional communities. Every one of them to my knowledge -- and I've followed several dozen of the hundreds and hundreds that have been started -- have had the same initial goals: to set up and operate temporary communities of like minded and dedicated people on behalf of "the 99%" -- in other words, on behalf of the community as a whole.

It hasn't been entirely successful, in that most Americans have no experience with and no conception of this kind of intentional community building based on anarchic and democratic principles. It's all new and very unfamiliar to most Americans. And this sort of community-building is what is most threatening to the powers that be. Destroying these spontaneous communities -- and preventing their re-emergence -- has been one of the primary objectives of the anti-Occupy crackdowns by police forces all over the country.

Many Americans cannot grasp and are quite frightened by the prospect of these communities, filled as they are with so many of the discards and rejects of America, a fear that our rulers like to encourage.

And yet I think it is through the continued development of these communities that we'll find our future -- if one is to be found at all.

Is it a future of Liberty and Equality? Honestly? Not in the sense most of us have become accustomed to over the last several generations, no.

That's part of the difficulty so many Occupations have encountered. "Liberty" and "equality" mean something different in the context of an Occupation camp than they do in the context of the every-day legal and social processes of our society.

"Liberty" carries with it the burden of responsibility; one is not simply free to do as one pleases, in other words, and one is not able to do or be what one wants without consideration of the interests of everyone else in the community. This is the essence of the process of community-building from the ground up. It is not easy to do this; for some people, it is not even possible.

I was discussing some of these concepts with a fellow who has been active in intentional community development field for twenty years or more, and his initial statement was, "You people are trying to do something that's almost impossible." Yes, that's so, I acknowledged, now how do we do it?

"You're going to make a lot of mistakes," he said, "but that's the way you're going to learn." And so it has been.

The principles of horizontal organization and democratic authority seem to be more and more solidly established within the Occupy Movement as time goes on; these are the fundamentals of the Movement, and as people become more familiar with them, and more at ease with them, they seem more and more natural. The problem initially was the absence of any easily accessible guidelines to work from. Unfamiliarity with the processes involved and real discomfort with the results of some of the attempts led to lots and lots of mistakes, but that's how you learn.

"Be not afraid" became the motto flashed on the Verizon Building in Manhattan. ("Do not be afraid.")

"We are winning."

That's becoming more and more true every day. At least it seems to me, even though I have stepped back from day-to-day active participation in the Movement.

"Liberty" is tied directly with responsibility; "equality" is tied with interest and ability.

And all of it, in my view, is wrapped within conceptions of Dignity and Justice, Community and Peace that have been percolating for many long years.

It is the zeitgeist of the era.

The current ruling class is shuddering and facing irrelevancy in the midst of an unfamiliar yet oddly compelling global populist (not so much "popular") movement that can neither be suppressed nor absorbed. This is the Future, there's no way around it.

We will see a new era of Liberty and Equality for All. It won't be quite what we had in mind back in the Old Days, but that's probably for the best.


  1. Interesting. I've made a journey in life, starting out believing that "individualism" was paramount. I now see "community" as paramount. Equality and dignity, to me, must be the foundation if there is to be any meaningful "liberty." I don't think you can reverse the order.

    Libertarianism posits liberty first, in the midst of a radically unfair, unequal world. It might stand a chance if the world were egalitarian to begin with. But with massive imbalances in power and wealth, it does nothing but acerbate that.

    I imagine a ship, with thousands of humans on that ship, being told by various tribunes of libertarianism that they are free, that they should jump ship, swim free of the boat, while saying under their breath, "there are only ten life-preservers."

    Some on the ship are in on the secret. They feel confident that they'll get to those life-preservers before anyone else. If others sink, that's none of their concern.

    . . . . .

    I've also been thinking of the similarities between we humans. On a cellular level, genetically, biologically, we're virtually the same. And even if you factor in our differences regarding talent, interests, tastes, personalities and so on, those do not amount to enough to warrant the gap between a pauper and a prince.

    It's not "natural." Yes, we should naturally have different outcomes in life. But no where near, not even a fraction of a fraction as great as that between the rank and file and CEOs, for instance. There has never been a "natural" rationale behind one human being a slave and another a master. I have a feeling most "modern" people get that. But they don't take that insight to the next logical step:

    There is no "natural" rationale for one person living in poverty and another in a mansion.

  2. Community is central to human society; destroying community (of others) is a central objective of the predatory class.

    The United States was once able to maintain a tenuous balance between the People's need for community and the destructive impulses of the predatory class, but that's not possible any more.

    The destructive instincts of the predators have had almost free rein for many years; they're celebrated by rightists and libertarians, no matter the level of wreckage that results. The balance has shifted so far toward the predators that it seems like no place and no one is safe from them any more. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

    So people have to find ways to counter and defend against the predators in place. They can't go somewhere else to escape them.

    (I make the distinction between "individualists" and "predators" in that individualists are often very creative and generous souls whereas predators are almost uniformly and deliberately destructive.)

    Spontaneous community formation is often the result.

    Within a community, some few may live better than others, but generally not so much better that there is no longer a connection between them and everyone else. Some communities may be better off on the whole than others due to access to resources and so on, but again, they're generally not so much better off that there is no longer a connection between them.

    But American society has gone seriously out of whack when a relative handful of predators sit atop the heap and extract rent and tribute from everyone else, even to the point of stealing from one another, and in the process diminishing everyone. When there is no connection between the predatory class and everyone else -- except through their extractions -- then we've reached a social and political nadir that is addressed through what we are seeing: the spontaneous revival of community for mutual protection and the furthering of mutual interest.

    That this is mostly happening outside the political framework is fascinating.