Much, if not the majority of commentary on the Occupy movement tends to be philosophical in nature – this blog certainly being no exception. Given the widespread “feeling of mass injustice” shared by the multitude, which until Occupy’s arrival had been uncertain as to whether this feeling was shared amongst its peers, there is no shortage of folks eager to exclaim their views on what Occupy is about, what it isn’t about, what its stance should be on various issues, and what its tactical approach should consist of. There comes a time, though, when philosophical paralysis sets in. Intellectuals and dorm room philosophers can debate and evangelize Occupy till they’re blue in the face, but it is of little consequence if that dialogue is not indicative of a genuine real-world effort to affect the sort of change being discussed. The same can be said of physical protests. Mass demonstrations are necessary, but say nothing of the “other world” that is possible. At some point, a movement must coalesce around a specific vision of its own, and more importantly, begin the arduous yet extremely fulfilling work of actually making it a reality. So what, exactly, is the social system advocated by Occupy?
When talking about this matter with friends, most of whom don’t think about these things nearly as much as I do (yet are no less confident in their opinions), I always die a little inside when subjected to their common response after voicing in no uncertain terms my issue with capitalism. “Oh, so you believe in communism,” they say – sometimes a question, sometimes an accusation. This type of knee-jerkiness can be observed from most communism vs. capitalism debates. Communism, its detractors say, doesn’t work because collective governance doesn’t work, and is also immoral, as it imposes a “tyranny of the majority” on the individual, strangling personal liberty. Yet in the next sentence, they go on to list the ruthless dictators spawned by communism and the corrupt central planning imposed by them as further evidence of the system’s wickedness. Capitalism, conversely, respects the rights of the individual, but presumably does so on the basis that it leads to the greatest possible prosperity for the greatest number of people i.e. the collective, otherwise why would the collective support it? Capitalists are less bothered, it seems, by the “tyranny of the minority” that occurs from an entity using its significant wealth to buy influence, control airwaves/thoughts, and write laws which allow it to further consolidate its power. This type of tyranny, such as the personal liberty conceded by the wage slave, is seen as forgivable, as it is only the product of the personal ambition of his/her employer, and was an arrangement which wasn’t technically enforced at gunpoint. Further compounding confusion is the fact that most of those who consider “collectivism” a bad word also celebrate the apparently deeply American act of voting – the most collectivist of actions a society can take.
So rather than subject itself to stale debates like the one above which more often than not only results in more head-scratching, Occupy has taken a different stance. I believe the movement understands that committing to any rigid ideology and infusing it into its identity – whether it be communism, capitalism, or a romanticized infatuation with “American values” – only impedes one’s ability to see truth. The goal then, is not any of these specific social systems, but truth itself, or in other words – an accurate understanding of the way things actually are as well as their true causes, which in turn will illuminate the path forward. Likewise, the enemy of Occupy is also not any specific social system. The true enemy of Occupy is the ignorance and cultural conditioning which discourages one from thinking truly independently – the ignorance that leads one to reflexively assume communism is the only alternative to capitalism, a Democrat is the only alternative to a Republican, or that something can’t work today simply because it didn’t work in the past. It is ignorance itself – not communism, capitalism, or a lack of capitalism – that is the true cause of not only war, poverty and disease, but also of tripping over a rock, arguing with your loved ones, or any other seeming misfortune which might befall you.
For anyone to claim there is a definitive social and economic system that would undoubtedly give rise to a just world, or demand a social movement to articulate one, is missing the point. Just like no one can predict the peaks and valleys of their life or where they will be in 10 years, no one can prescribe a foolproof blueprint for ridding the world of its problems, nor can they describe with any certain detail exactly what that process would look like. Both communism and capitalism are great ideas in theory, but in both cases, humanity has proven unequal to the task of administering either system to the maximum benefit of the world’s population. In the same way that a workout regimen is only as good as the personal drive of the one doing it, whether one believes in communism or capitalism is irrelevant if humanity lacks the collective maturity to carry them out effectively. The job, then, for a movement focused on social change, isn’t to impose its view of the world on everyone else. It is to affect the consciousness of the greater population.
It is only when we raise our consciousness that we are able to see the true nature of our predicament, which we are unable to see while in its midst. It is the raising of consciousness which enables us to form our own ideas, tell our own stories and chart new vistas of thought and debate, rather than resign ourselves to a pre-established parameter or premise. It is the raising of consciousness that allows a citizenry to see a despotic leader for what he was – and then realize with some shame that they all bore responsibility for his exploits. It is the raising of consciousness which empowers a people to evolve from gullible, distracted and complacent, to discerning, aware and assertive.
Of course, the obligation to raise our consciousness is one shared by everyone, including your typical social change activist who might be blinded by feelings of righteous indignation, however justified. As we go about the process of determining how best to proceed and what actions to take in our work of building a better world, the full spectrum of our consciousness must be brought to bear. Hitting the banks is nice, but what glimpse does it offer of the better world? In light of the widely celebrated ideal of “self-interest” as being the rightful engine of our economy, does it make sense to plead with those in positions of power to act in our interest, when their own self-interest and desire for a high perch is what propelled them to and keeps them in those positions? Does it make sense to ask a corporation to be more conscientious or “play fair” in its pursuit of profit, if profit is its only reason for existence? Does it make sense to ask a politician to be honest and transparent, if doing so would hurt his re-election campaign? Or is doing these things akin to asking an opponent in a sports contest to lose on purpose?
More importantly, continuing to petition the overlords, by definition, only reinforces the faulty premise which, supposedly, was the impetus for all these protests to begin with. It cedes our power and creativity to established zeitgeist, abdicates our own responsibility, and reaffirms the sentiment that the 99% is quite OK with being presided over – a tacit acknowledgement that our protests will go only as far as the 1% will allow, after they’ve had enough of our pot banging. The whole point of Occupy or any of the other global protests currently taking place is to shift the balance of power to the broader populace, and this is not achieved in a populace that still accepts the premise of a minority ruling class. The only way to have a social and economic system built around majority interests, is to have majority participation. If this is in fact our objective, the focus of Occupy’s efforts, then, should not be directed at the primary perpetrators and benefactors of the current corruption who have every motivation to keep things as they are, but rather the unsuspecting majority who has unknowingly bought into an economic premise that runs counter to their values and interests.
I like the picture at the top of this post, which I’ve seen on various Occupy-related sites, and think it’s a good touchstone for what the movement’s approach should be. The task is indeed to outgrow the status quo, which is done by simply planting the seeds of the better world, scattering them across as wide an area as possible, and judiciously nurturing them to fruition. Most of the soil in this indoctrinated world isn’t fertile, but it will become more fertile over time, and less fertile for the weeds of selfishness seeking to maintain their grip of the land as we come to realize that the notion of man’s inherent selfishness was a myth all along – sold by the extreme minority among us who really are selfish, for their purpose of crafting a social system in which they could pursue their most cherished ideals unabated. The social system of Occupy, on the other hand, will not be sold, nor will it require any marketing gimmicks or political contortionism to enable its wider adoption. It will simply become self-evident as we take back the reigns of our lives and the synapses of our minds, and craft a system that, unlike today’s, will be built on trust, will respect our intelligence, and will testify to the inherent decency of man. Just as life naturally takes shape, seemingly on its own accord, in a manner which would have been impossible to predict or plan for, the social system of Occupy will naturally take shape as we outgrow the status quo – step by step and with awareness.
And thus concludes this exercise in flagrant hypocrisy. I began this post discussing the need for Occupy to avoid philosophical paralysis and coalesce around specifics, and in true Occupy spirit, became distracted and failed to take my own advice on both accounts. It was my intention here to suggest, if not a specific social system, the specific types of actions I feel Occupy should take and is taking which are consistent with its vision and capable of raising the consciousness of the population. It’s a little late for that in this post, but I will be more forthcoming in the next one, I promise.