By Andy Paine
Around the world, the “Occupy” movement has captured people’s imaginations, leading countless people in thousands of cities into city squares to make a statement about their dissatisfaction with the state of our society, especially the distribution of wealth. The pure size has caught everybody by surprise.
Here in Brisbane, I’ve spoken to numerous people who have come to the occupation, either to stay or just to visit. I’ve heard many people say things like “I’ve been waiting for this all my life”, and even more say they have been following the Wall St. occupation since it started on the internet. It’s clear that the movement has resonated with people on a mass scale in a way that other political movements have not been able to do in years. The reasons why could include the current economic state of the world, the rise of new media spreading information that traditional mass media would suppress, and just a hunger for social change from a generation raised in today’s world of hollow wealth and apathy.
The movement has not captured everyone though. The most frequently heard criticism is that the occupy movement is “aimless”, based on the fact that the movement has not nominated a specific end it wishes to accomplish. Corporate media and other critics of the movement have persistently ridden this theme, and the scrambling of the different occupations to formulate a set of “demands” suggests that many people involved hold the same critique, or at least have been significantly affected by its repeated use.
But it’s possible to view this “aimlessness” not as a weakness but as a strength of the movement. The occupy movement, after all, is not about a single issue like say the anti-coal seam gas or climate justice movements are; it is after a complete overhaul of society as a whole. This is a phenomenally complex issue, and to suggest that you can create a set of demands to find a solution is ridiculous.
It’s also easy to see that many of the aims of the movement are not compatible with a “demand” to accomplish them. For instance, one of the defining features and great strengths of the movement worldwide has been the emphasis on consensus based decision making as “true democracy”. The way this has worked out has been amazing, and this could well be one of the main legacies the movement leaves. But can it be articulated in a “demand”?
Even if you believed that a society-wide consensus to use this as our model of democracy could be reached, given so many people benefit from our current system, such a changeover would be logistically impossible. The rise of consensus based decision making in our society can only be a gradual one, led by smaller, grassroots groups using the model.
Similarly, one of the most frequently cited reasons for the Occupy movement’s existence is “corporate greed”. Now greed is an issue of personal responsibility, not of social structure. And as such you can’t legislate against it, nor is there a “demand” that can be made to address this issue. Again, change here will require individuals and smaller groups rejecting greed and instead embracing a lifestyle where the needs of others are considered to be at least of equal importance to your own.
So with this in mind, the lack of a single set of demands doesn’t need to be seen as a fault. But this doesn’t mean that a bunch of people camping in city squares is actually effecting the issues people are protesting. To actively address these issues will require people building grassroots alternatives to the sick society we are reacting against.
This is what I hope will be the outcome of the Occupy movement. Because even if the city square occupations could last forever, it’s hard to see how they could create society-wide change by doing so. In fact, it’s easy to envision the opposite; that it could be in the interests of the state to leave the protests in the city squares, while everywhere else business continues as usual. What I think is needed is when the occupations break up, people using the ideas and empowerment of the movement to begin building grassroots movements that actually engage the society around us, the “99%”.
Now many of these grassroots movements actually already exist. The Occupy movement isn’t something isolated that has appeared out of nowhere, but should be seen within the context of a wider movement. Two of the main driving forces behind the Wall St. occupation, Adbusters and Anonymous, are part of the already established Left media. The techniques and ideas the movement has used are similarly not new, but taken from existing sources. Many of the people attracted by the massive interest in the occupations will hopefully now be able to discover both the history and the present of the existing radical counter-culture.
Other alternatives don’t already exist.They will hopefully begin to materialise because the huge success of Occupy can both revitalise the existing movement and stimulate people’s imaginations to create new ones. It’s definitely possible to see the momentum of Occupy splintering into a wide variety of resistance movements. Some could emerge from the anti-capitalist element and analysis of our economic system. Some could come from the communal living that has happened in the camps. Some could just be against consumerism and greed, some could focus on protecting the Earth. As the blossoming of a small camp in Wall St. to a global movement has shown, imagination really is our only limit.
The feeling of empowerment that everyone involved in the Occupy movement has experienced can be a legacy much greater than any set of demands could ever accomplish. People who had previously been “waiting for this all my life” now feel like they actually can be a part of transforming the world; that they do have control over their own lives; and aren’t alone in thinking there are things that need changing. If everybody involved in the movement, either online or in the occupations, can commit their life to pursuing social change after the camps have ended, the potential is limitless.
But it’s important to recognise what the greatest impediment to this kind of movement will be. It won’t be violent cops, nor the mysterious 1% of corporate elites. What will stop the Occupy movement turning into genuine change from the ground up will be people leaving the occupations and waiting for the next mass movement like it to emerge; scouring social media for developments and pining for the good old days of 2011.
The revolution was going on long before the first tent was pitched at Wall St., and will be long after the last one has been torn down. But for it to grow into the kind of movement that can implement society-wide change of the type being talked about around the world presently, people will need to realise that it takes place not on a Facebook or Twitter page, but in our relationships, in our actions, in our hearts and minds. It’s easy to occupy a city square (at least for a little while). It’s a lot harder to occupy your life.