#OccupyWallSt has grown from a site specific protest to a global movement in just one month, moving from the obscurity of a corporate media blackout, to the limelight of a media circus. Talking heads and corporate media puppets are literally beside themselves with the growing occupation, unable to make heads or tails of what it is, “what protesters want” and wtf it all means.
What is the #OWS movement? In a word, it’s a breakup. The people – that disenfranchised, exploited and thoroughly alienated majority – are finally breaking up with capitalism. This was the objective of the Global Justice Movement, which made its North American debut at the “Battle of Seattle,” 1999′s massive protests against the World Trade Organization. Its ranks were globally networked and its rallying cry was “Another World is Possible.” Like the #OWS movement, it identified a common enemy in capitalism. Its analysis centred on the mutilating influence of money and greed on politics, democracy and the environment, reviving class as a focal point for understanding inequality. The GJM also organized horizontally and nodally, eschewing the leader- and institution-based activism of the Countercultural Revolution. They did, however, retain the consensus-based decision making model that emerged out of the early feminist and environmental movements. Borrowing from anarchist revolutionary practice, the Global Justice Movement incorporated affinity groups and the directly democratic spokescouncils. For the first time, the movements were global, unified by a common oppressor and shared values of justice, equality and liberty for all, not just a lucky few.
#OWS shares many of the traits that made the Global Justice Movement so unique, and so inspiring. It is a movement of movements, globally united by its stand against capitalism, yet locally diverse, independent, and adaptive. What’s different this time? It is a question of scale. The GJM, for all its internationalism, its borderlessness and commonality, did not scale. It was born of seasoned activist groups and individuals fighting against free trade, tracing the human effects of corporate greed. Certainly many young people and trade unionists were radicalized by their experience in Seattle, but they had come there with a political agenda in mind, and some idea of what it meant to be engaged in the political process, even if it was from the outside of that process. But folks outside the activist scene just didn’t seem to get it.
Many participants in the Seattle WTO demonstrations and subsequent summit protests against the World Bank, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Organization of American States and the G8/G20 brought their ideas of radical, direct and participatory democracy with them. The difference with #OWS that it was born not as a coherent and intentional political action, but almost as an act of desperation—more a freakout than a protest. People are at the end of their ropes, literally; they are at their wits end, with little to lose and everything to gain. Rather than apply previously theoretical models of democracy to the emerging movement, #OWS is inspiring participatory democracy. It is being created, almost out of thin air, by people who have not thought much about this sort of stuff before. This democracy stuff. This direct action stuff. This taking responsibility for making our world better stuff. By practicing democracy for the first time (no, voting doesn’t count), by learning through doing, they are in the process of creating democracy, of living it in a way that has been denied citizens of formal western democracies since, well, ever. The GJM never made it out of committed activist circles. It never went mainstream. The #OWS movement is mainstream, and it’s breakup with capitalism is network news.
Some seasoned activists have been frustrated at the slow-moving consensus process, the cacophonous messaging, and the disorganized occupied spaces. While #OccupyNewYork, as the oldest site of #OWS protest, has their process and organizing down to a science, the growing pains are more obvious in younger, smaller occupations, like #OccupyVancouver. What #OccupyVancouver lacks in critical mass and experience, it makes up for in heart and in hope. At times it seems like the blind leading the blind, and this is a bit scary. We’ve seen how social movements that threaten to destablize the status quo get co-opted, and derailed. We’ve seen how liberatory revolutions descend into military dictatorship. But this is what has to happen if the #Occupy movement is to continue to grow: the process has to scale. It has to be taken up by “regular people,” those who are just realizing the connection between their lives and the economic system that has been ruining them.
These “regular people” are smart, savvy, hardworking folk who have played by the rules and been fucked over for their efforts. They now see the connection between the economic system, and the ruling political and corporate elite that underwrites it. They see how it has to change. This is not about “fettering” capitalism. It’s about dumping it altogether.
In breaking up with capitalism, media and political pundits ask: What is your alternative? I don’t think a fully formed answer is required to legitimize the break up. As Dan Savage would say, DTMFA. But if we look to the process unfolding and evolving, we can see the beginnings of an answer (or answers, more like). In making decisions together, in listening and speaking to one another together, in forging a path forward together, we find a nascent alternative to domination under capitalism. In time, if this process deepens and strengthens, it will produce viable, practicable outcomes. In the short term, however, we can take practical, if small, steps to hasten the change.
The trick now is to turn this populist uprising into a sustainable movement that can produce meaningful change, to harness the outrage and emotion fueling this revolt and channel into progressive social transformation. According to one smart analysis, we need to “dismantle the body of law that perpetually subordinates people, community and nature to wealthy corporate minorities” and make a new one that values and protects human beings and the natural environment that sustains us. This entails reclaiming government at the local level, and seizing “lawmaking authority to make government work on behalf of a majority, rather than continuing to serve as a colonized entity to corporations.”
#OWS signals the decline of the politics of demand, where we beg for a few scraps from the captains of industry and their political yay-sayers. It indicates a new vision for structural change rather than tweaks to the existing system of endless exploitation and growing immiseration. But this structural change must be forced: ruling powers do not concede willingly. Rather than negotiating the terms and conditions of our existence under capitalism (a process which necessarily involved concession bargaining) we must rewrite these altogether. #OccupyWallStreet spread to other cities in North America and across the globe; it then grew from a site specific protest to a citywide occupation. If it is to #OccupyEverwhere, and grow from a movement to a revolution, it must build from its base of strength: cities. Each occupation must educate and empower its people to define their rights and needs, and use existing municipal structures to fulfill them.
One of the early action items from #OWS has been the call to divest of the banking system: close our bank accounts and move our money (if we have any) to credit unions. Marc Lee makes the connection between the cooperative movement and credit unions, suggesting they “could ultimately be what resonates most as an alternative economic model.” He goes on:
The link between the radical democracy of the Occupy movement and coops is straightforward. Coops are member-owned and more deeply anchored in the local economy. They are a way of doing business that is not capitalist but democratic (though you probably won’t see any hands twinkling in the air at general meetings)…Based on principles of cooperation and reciprocity, the mandate of coops is to serve members, not maximize profits for distant shareholders.
Credit unions as “banking cooperatives” are better at the banking basics than banks themselves, including providing mortgages, personal loans and financing for small and medium sized businesses, and offering better service, with smaller fees and a lower loan rejection rate. Because of their risk aversion, steady lending practices and strong regulatory oversight, credit unions “can play exactly the stabilizing influence on the economy that averts the type of crisis we find ourselves in.” The #Occupy movement has set November 5 as Bank Transfer Day. Anonymous is calling it Operation Cash Back.
Marx knew that the revolution would be social, not political, because the heart of the economy is, in fact, people. The root of oppression is social relations—in how we treat one another. Under capitalism, people relate to one another as things, disposable, replaceable, purchasable things; these mutilating, alienating social relations permeate all of social life, not just work. With #OWS we’re seeing the blossoming of a humane form of social relations based on consensus and participatory democracy and a fundamental commitment to justice. There’s revolution in that. Here’s hoping the breakup sticks.