I had great fun yesterday during the @OccupyMelbourne protest running around in a chicken suit. Being a B-grade serial pest, I’ve been to a few protests and what not over the years but this one felt different. It wasn’t just that we were only one of 951 other occupations around the world. It wasn’t just the family friendly atmosphere with kids running around making signs (incidentally a good friend of mine’s daughter painted 99% Angry on a pink sign). It wasn’t just the food or diversity of different groups and people who showed up. It was that it felt like a beginning. It’s like we met, nervously at first, and decided we’d take a journey together.
Anyone who tells you they know what will happen as a result of these occupations is either a fool or deluded. One thing is certain though, things will be different if and when the Occupations end. And here’s why. Within this broad feeling of a new beginning lies the organising principles and methodology that is driving the Occupy Movement to build a better world.
Do you remember the Iraq War protests? I do. Millions of us around the world turned out on message for peace. We made our point loud and clear. Then we went home and the war started. With the occupation though we decided against going home. And if you’re going to hang around anywhere you need to find a way to make it work. And as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff points out, the occupation itself models an alternative economic system. It might well be the first large scale example of a real world wiki community. The occupation demonstrates “a post-market, collaborative approach to creating and exchanging value”. Appeals for assistance are sent out via Twitter. Participants donate their own time, resources and skills to building the occupation. Professors teach classes, tradespeople ply their craft and artists entertain. All for the good of the organic whole of the occupation that in turn supports the participants.
The building of a distinct alternative to the prevailing system of extreme corporate power based on solidarity is the operating meta-principle but there’s a number of ways in which this plays out across worldwide occupations.
(1) There’s a vanguard but it’s based on participation and not personality
This movement may be leaderless but it does have a vanguard. Think of the way numbers ebb and flow as people turn up during the day on weekends and more go home to sleep at night. It you drew a diagram on a graph mapping out participation and personnel across the occupations you would find a similar dynamic to all social movements and organisations. There’s a smaller percentage of highly active individuals and a long tail of members/supporters. What’s different about the occupations though is that any one person could join this vanguard because it’s open – all you have to do is participate. This gives the occupation additional strength because as some highly active individuals grow weary others can take their place. It also prevents charismatic individuals from capturing the movement and turning it to their own advancement.
(2) Creativity and momentum are built into the method
The General Assemblies are the radical democratic heart at each occupation. What it allows is a method by which everyone who cares enough to turn up to have a say. Thus, there’s an incentive for people to participate and share their ideas. As more ideas from different people from all sorts of perspectives are discussed there’s a greater chance truly innovative actions will emerge. As more ideas are discussed and implemented around the world most will fail. The ones that work though can be easily and rapidly shared to all 950 occupations.
(3) Like Capitalism, the movement can co-opt
There was and is a lot of talk in the mainstream media about how the Occupation movement lacks a clear and distinct message. This perceived weakness though hides one of its greatest strengths. As a revolt against the glaring power and wealth of the 99%, the occupations have the ability to stand in solidarity with every single group, class or interest that is dudded by the richest 1%. The way this looks initially though is a dizzying array of messages around labour rights, environmental issues, refugee rights, patriarchy, consumer rights and well I could keep going on. What this means though is that any time something happens in an occupied city such as a strike or a case of police brutality the movement has an opportunity to highlight the underlying systemic violence of what has occurred and build even more strength.
This stands in marked contrast to the disciplined single issue movements over the last 30 years, which has allowed capitalism to co-opt at least some of their demands but funnel ever greater amounts of power and wealth to an oligarchic few at the top.
(4) The movement poses an impossible question to the system: left to its own devices it will grow, crack down on it and it will grow even faster
I think Keith Olbermann got it pretty right when he tweeted earlier today, “I’d like to again suggest we put up a statue to Mayor Bloomberg for consistently doubling the credibility of
# OWS with each of his mistakes”. You have to wonder if Mayor Bloomberg or leading officers at the NYPD are actually secret revolutionaries. Every large scale crackdown, incident of kettling, police brutality or instigation of mass arrests has pushed the occupations further and farther afield. Without the NYPD’s brilliant revolutionary strategy people like myself might not have had the opportunity to turn up to #OccupyMelbourne yesterday.
(5) The movement is an iceberg – only 10% of it is visible at any one time
This one should be pretty obvious – it’s not only what you see in any one square at any one time but the way each square is linked to each other and the rest of the world.
(6) The occupation draws strength from the system’s weaknesses
Over the last 30 years we’ve seen an ever growing number of homeless, unemployed and underemployed people emerge. These are people like you and I who have been discarded by the system – smart people, funny people and creative people who have been at the wrong places at the wrong times. This is what “rationalist” economists call the “natural rate of unemployment”, i.e. the number of human lives that need to be wasted at anyone point in time so that a tiny few at the top can reap their desired amount of profit. The occupations provide these people an opportunity to find community, a safe place to shelter and an outlet for their abilities/time.
On the flip side, some “lucky” good people have been caught up in a pin strip prison with a relatively decent amount of money but no time and no prospect of doing anything more meaningful in their lives other than serving the interests of <insert name of your corporate overlord here>. The occupations provides them with a positive outlet to funnel their money to build up a meaningful and realistic alternative way of living.
These are just some initial thoughts, to my fellow nerds of social change let the discussion begin.