Saturday, January 7, 2012

Envisioning That Better Future

I had to do a Firefox update this morning, and this video was at the welcome page after I downloaded the update, and I thought, "My goodness, talk about 'Zeitgeist.' Mozilla gets it?!"

It's not a complete vision by any means. Come on, they're talking about the Internet here. Not the whole wide world, but the point is fundamental, scalable and universal.

An alternative path is necessary, one that is based in those values I keep hammering away at and which are more and more serving as the basis for blazing that alternative path.


It's not rocket science. It's basic.

So what are we talking about here?

I think it is more and more widely understood that our political system is not only broken, it may not be salvageable at all. This is true not just in the United States but seemingly throughout the Western World as apparently all Western governments have sold themselves out to the financiers and simply refuse to listen to or accommodate the interests and needs (let alone demands) of the People. It is universal, deliberate and cruel. We've seen how brutal and uncaring its implementation is at home and abroad. Even the apparently successful revolutions in North Africa led to... what looks like even more blind obedience to the financiers.

Under the circumstances, the People not only have no control over their own fate, they have no voice in the process of determining their Fate. The People are irrelevant or impediments in the current Western World political climate and a Ruling Class context which desperately seeks to serve the interests of a handful of predatory financial titans first and foremost.


So. What do you do? When government divorces itself so completely from the People, you have to go outside the government and political process; you literally don't have a choice. You cannot work within system without adhering to the strict protocols of service to finance first and foremost. You must become what you ostensibly oppose, or you will not be allowed to work within the system.

This is a concept that hasn't quite jelled among the masses, though it's getting there. There is still a wan hope that a responsive government is possible if only the "right" people are put in office. I would argue the hope is false; no matter who you put in office under the current system, the result will still be antithetical to the interests and needs of the People.

The Occupy Movement demonstrated an alternative path forward -- on the Principle of Just Do It -- and that was a necessary catalyst for taking control away from the unresponsive system that is in the process of consuming everything.

But my own experience therein showed the limitations of the alternatives as they were put forth.

The principles of Direct Democracy are grand, for example, but I found to my chagrin that the process is far more easily hijacked than it first appeared to be; locally, hijacking became routine, so frequent in fact that the point of having a democracy at all was lost, and those who were inclined to support the Movement and the process were driven away. This was partly due to the fact that the process itself was unfamiliar and scary to those of an authoritarian mindset. Initially, there was no informational or training support of any kind from New York or anywhere else; you had to figure it out on your own, or rely on incomplete or inappropriate documentation of the Puerta del Sol occupation in Madrid for guidance. That was literally all there was for those trying to figure out how to do this thing -- at least for those who were not already socialized to the process through various Anarchist practices that had been going on for years.

That meant that locally, practically no one had any idea at all what to do or how to do it, and those who did -- there were a few -- found themselves in the midst of swirling chaos and rivalry over process rather than things that mattered. Ultimately, what I feared would happen did happen. Those with an organizational facilitation background and mindset took over, with the active encouragement of Legal (way too many lawyers in this town!), and for all intents and purposes, the Movement collapsed. The Anarchists were driven out -- quite literally. "Go to Oakland!" And they did. A handful of diehards remain, primarily those who want to see the Movement become an integral part of the status quo -- in other words, one of the plethora of non-profit interest advocacy groups that already have seats at the all-important table.

There was never an Occupation here. The police crackdown was immediate and consistent, and it involved full-on riot response from the outset, even though there was never -- ever -- a hint of "riot" from the Occupiers. There were 130 arrests over the course of several months, all for failure to disperse, all but a few held in jail overnight for "violating curfew," and all charges were ultimately dismissed. Authority would not budge on the issue of "curfew." Thus there was never an encampment overnight -- at least not in the public square. No, it was an early morning to late at night presence, packing up each night and setting up each morning. The Plaza was never cleaner though! And night after night a few people would volunteer to be arrested for failure to disperse, and night after night the entire riot squad (dozens of police and vehicles) would be sent to the Plaza to arrest whoever had volunteered.

Every week, representatives of the Occupy would appear before the City Council to denounce their tactics and demand they honor the Constitution, and every week the Council would ignore them unless they went over their allotted two minutes -- in which case, on some occasions, officers would be ordered to arrest them.

Theater of the Absurd is putting it mildly.

With no real Occupation and no real Democracy, either, the local effort shuddered and eventually collapsed, though it isn't gone by any means. There are still a dozen or so activists who maintain an involvement and a periodic presence, and there are still some of those who raise a ruckus from time to time by highlighting various injustices that mean something to them. There is no Revolution here, however, and it is unlikely there will be in the short term.

The Revolution is being left to Oakland to figure out. And that's probably a good thing all in all.

Arguably, Oakland is still the center of energy for the Movement-cum-Revolution as a whole. If a way forward for the whole can be found, I think it will be developed there first and more fully than anywhere else.

And in Oakland, many, many options are being tested and refined. Occasional high profile efforts like the General Strike and the Port closures are like punctuation for the intensity of the grassroots efforts throughout the community to define and demonstrate as wide a range of alternatives and alternative systems as possible.

As for New York, it's quite a different situation. As soon as they adopted their Spokes Council model for operations, the Liberty Plaza encampment was brutally evicted (though with not quite as much drama as Oakland's eviction from Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza). That led to a situation of bifurcation -- there is a continuing development and demonstration process throughout the city, while there are continuing hit-and-run protests that get the police riled up and the People to witness.

The demonstration phase of the Occupations was to my mind their most important aspect, not the protests. But the demonstrations were all incomplete. It is only through fulfillment of the demonstration potential that any real change will occur.

Authority will attempt to subvert any successful demonstration.

Direct democracy and horizontal organization is the key, but it is something that cannot be left to chance to self-organize. It doesn't work that way. Most Americans have no familiarity with the process and have been propagandized and conditioned to reject it. They are conditioned to expect and accept an authoritarian hierarchy in all things and cannot easily adjust to something they have never seen or experienced in their lives -- and be expected to make it work.

The lesson from the Occupy experience is that direct democracy and horizontal organization can work, but only on a small scale among people of common interest and like minds who have been instructed in the process and have practiced it for some time. It isn't automatic or innate. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

No more than a few hundred people should be part of any direct democratic process; ideally, to my way of looking at it, when the number reaches a hundred or so, a split should be contemplated. It's not that more people cannot be accommodated -- we've seen functioning General Assemblies involving thousands -- it's that larger groups cannot be sustained in a direct democracy context. This was true in Athens back in the day too. Ultimately the system broke down -- in part because it had been corrupted (ie: hijacked), but also because it was too large, and too unrepresentative. Had the Athenean direct democracy been limited to say neighborhoods, or even smaller subsections of the city, and had all the People been included, it might have survived, and Athens might not have gone on its ultimately tragic Imperial course.

But that's as may be. The point is that Direct Democracy and Horizontal Organization -- both taken directly from Anarchist thought and practice, make no mistake about that -- do have a crucial role to play in envisioning that better future. Participation in a direct democratic process is one aspect (but not the only one) of Dignity.

Social and Economic Justice
are further demonstrations that the Occupy Movement made but which have remained incomplete. Included of course is free and public education; in fact, that's the foundation of Social and Economic Justice, and I don't doubt that's why in many cases (prominently in New York) the educational and outreach programs of the Occupations and especially the libraries and independent media are targeted for destruction and elimination.

They are direct threats to the status quo.

Social Justice includes such things as providing for the least among us, sheltering and feeding the homeless, protecting the weak, elevating the poor. Taking care of one another.

This is something all the camps did, remarkably successfully, too. Whereas civic bodies and governments in general have more and more declined to serve those in need, and in fact in many cases have chosen to drive them out, saying they can't afford to serve those less able to take care of themselves or it's too difficult a problem for them to handle, most Occupations were able to do it with little or no problem at all, and if the Authorities had left them alone (or by god had supported them) these intractable issues might have been on their way to solution.

But no. The social justice demonstrations -- the kitchens, the shelters, the counseling, the emotional support, and so much else -- that are so very, very difficult, nay impossible, for civic bodies and run-of-the-mill non-profits to handle, were threatening to the status quo, and they had to be shut down. Yes we are able to take care of one another, and given the opportunity, we'll do it. But Authority won't have it.

Economic Justice is a more difficult kettle of fish, especially when there is the perception of a lot of money available. There were so many struggles over money -- and in some places a lot of theft -- that I thought the economic issue would ultimately be intractable. But people found ways around it -- in some cases by going without money, or using it to only the most limited extent.

The message being that money was a tool, but it wasn't a necessity if self-sufficiency was possible by other means. Occupations, for example, could operate relatively successfully without money directly. If people volunteered their services and took care of purchases on their own -- and donated goods and services rather than money to pay for goods and services -- Occupations did fine. Trouble was almost inevitable when substantial sums of money were on hand to pay for Occupation expenses. That certainly was the case in New York, but it also affected many other Occupations.

The idea that an urban activist community can be sustained without (much) money is difficult to comprehend, but some did it. And the demonstration that it can be done is threatening to the status quo. For example, locally, we have a plethora of homeless service non-profits, each an independent fiefdom, each with its highly paid staff and its corps of volunteers, each with its building or compound, its specialized services that have to be qualified for, each with its own policies and rules, each with its mission statement, each with its self-preservation priority. Each with a substantial budget, and each duplicating some aspect of every other. Every night, of course, a thousand or more homeless people are sleeping on the streets nevertheless.

In other words, despite the numerous agencies and organizations available to serve the homeless they miss as many as they reach (if not more so) and their primary function is to raise money to survive.

The Occupations took on the problem and said "We will serve the homeless" -- period. And this they did, in some communities offering food and shelter (and sometimes counseling) for nearly everyone who had been excluded for various reasons by the standard homeless service organizations, putting the lie the scarcity argument -- not enough money, not enough organizations, not enough staff, etc, to serve those in need.

There is no scarcity in material terms. If anything, there is an overabundance (despite the ongoing impoverishment of the population). It's the deliberate under-utilization of that abundance that makes economic justice so problematical.

Every Occupation was a temporary intentional community. That was one of the most striking aspects of the Occupations that may well have affected people far more strongly than anything else.

Where Occupations were actually able to establish an ongoing presence, the communities that spontaneously formed took on a serious but very celebratory aspect that was infectious. As is the case with any community, despite being "open" to all, these temporary intentional communities could not necessarily accommodate everyone for various reasons. Not everyone, in other words, "belonged." Sometimes exclusionary matters were handled quite bluntly; other times it was a much more subtle process of winnowing. But ultimately each community solidified -- but let's hope didn't fossilize. And those who may not have fit in with one community were welcome in another, or were encouraged to form their own Occupy community. It wasn't perfect, by any means, and like all the other demonstrations, the community demonstration was incomplete.

But just like every other demonstration Occupations engaged in, the formation of these temporary intentional communities was not that difficult, not nearly as difficult as the status quo/powers that be make it out to be. It not only can be done spontaneously, it was done in hundreds and hundreds of locations, some of which survive, and it can be done again. Now that people have seen that it can be done, and it's not that hard to do, there's no reason -- but for the weight of Authority -- that it won't continue.

That weight of Authority was -- and is -- the impediment to Peace.

The overt cruelty and brutality of Authority in suppressing the Occupy Movement has to have made a psychological and emotional impression on the public that is incalculable at present. People of good will saw things they couldn't believe were happening, from the pepper spraying frenzies, to the assaults and bludgeoning of protestors to the thousands and thousands of largely arbitrary arrests that were simply shocking to the consciences of many. "What is going on here?" Of course there were people of not such good will who saw these applications of force as a good thing, but I suspect there weren't so many of them. After all, the Occupations were petitioning for redress of grievance as guaranteed by the Constitution. To suppress them with such casual cruelty and brutality sends a very strong message: your petition will not be heard. Go away.

By and large, the arbitrary and frequently brutal imposition of Authority was the only interruption to the Peace of the encampments. The People left to their own devices were able for the most part to maintain a very high level of civil peace -- until they were attacked from without, generally by police forces intent on destruction.

What we saw during the initial phases of the Occupation Movement was a start on envisioning a better future for all of us. But it is a future that doesn't look much at all like the recent past or the present, and during the coming year, I hope to get into more detail of what it could look like.

The Future we might have had has been stolen from us; we aren't going to get it back. We will have to come up with something else, something better.

No comments:

Post a Comment