Posted on 26 October 2011.
In case you haven’t heard, there have been people protesting in New York since the 17th of September. (Yes, they’ve been there for more than a month now.) Possibly taking some inspiration from the recent Arab Spring, this movement, aptly called Occupy Wall Street (OWS), has now spread to over 1000 cities in over 80 countries.
What exactly are these protesters hoping to achieve with these demonstrations? I wouldn’t blame you if you’re confused, since most of the mainstream media have been terribly inaccurate with how they cover these events. There are a multitude of issues and different localities may have different focuses, but the following are an outline of what I see as the root causes for these grievances.
The problem most talked about is the terrible state of the US economy, which includes glaring income inequality, gross levels of unemployment (which is actually undesirable only in our economic model, but I’ll get to that later), and the visible corruption of government by financial institutions. A lot of these problems can be attributed to the crashing of the real estate bubble in 2008 thanks to a whole package of fraudulent practices by banking and speculation giants such as AIG, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Bear Stearns, to name a few.
These problems can be traced to their roots at different levels and, at each level, a different potential solution emerges. At the shallowest, we can see the problem as corporate greed and lack of integrity. The quick “fix” for this would have been legislation allowing for more government regulation of businesses. Unfortunately, for the American people, their government seems to have been hijacked by the very financial institutions that have broken their economy. With this comes the realization that in the prevailing system, not everyone has an equal say in government, as not everyone can set aside a budget for funding a flurry of lobbyists. To quote P. J. O’Rourke, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.” Because of this loss of faith in government, many participants in the occupations would rather focus on direct action for solutions and do not even bother with forming demands knowing that they would only be trying to remedy a hopelessly broken and dysfunctional institution.
Taking it a level deeper, it can be seen as a failure of capitalism in general and not due to the lack of integrity in government. This can be realized only if we recognize the fact that humans are fallible and susceptible to bribery, and much more so if you immerse them in a system which pits monetary gain against ethics. This makes it a basic duty for everyone to check and double-check the legitimacy of all forms of authority. I must admit that not many have made this shift in political paradigm, I suspect partly because it moves so much responsibility onto the shoulders of the common man. Indeed, it is much easier to delegate the task of governance and overseeing justice to a small group of people, but as we have already seen, this does not work as well as we would hope.
Still, others including myself see this movement as a long time coming due to fundamental flaws in the current economic system, particularly technological unemployment. Technological unemployment happens when new technology has become efficient enough to replace a human in his/her current line of work. Simply put, technology is supposed to improve human lives. In our system, however, the need for profit causes a clash between technological development and human welfare. The irony in this is that as people are replaced by machines, we can produce more but are unable to make use of these products due to reduced purchasing power. In the past, workers simply moved to different industries. However, technology has now come to penetrate almost all aspects of our daily lives such that there really are no new jobs to generate. A backwards solution that some have been using is to create new problems to solve simply because of the need to have an excuse for jobs.
There are many interesting characteristics that make this movement worth supporting or, at the very least, observing.
For one, protesters have been very conscious of their actions with regard to how they reflect on the immediate community. Because of this, there has been a tremendous display of self-restraint on their part when police forces attempt to break up their demonstrations and disrupt their peaceful assemblies. While I would usually argue that they have every right to self-defense and resisting arrest, it is interesting to note how their attitude and commitment to non-physical retaliation has gained them the support of a great number of people. And I am supposing that this might actually be a good strategic maneuver, since a great majority of their potential sympathizers still believe in the right of state enforcers to practice a monopoly of legitimate violence. Whenever police arrests and disruptions are made, people simply do their best to stick together and repeatedly chant short phrases such as “The whole world is watching!” and “Shame!” And with the help of social media and widespread video capture technology, “The whole world is watching” no longer sounds like much of an exaggeration, as the movement seems to have grown with every display of police brutality. In the spirit of a real popular movement, if you take one away, ten will take his/her place. In a sense, the police are also helping the movement with their needless initiation of the use of force by making a good example of how the state cannot handle people who have chosen not to speak their language of violence and blind obedience.
Another point of great interest is how the movement is organized. Most protests have been organized from the top-down by NGOs or political parties with an existing structure in place for mobilizing entire groups of people all at once. OWS, however, has adopted the use of a general assembly to facilitate a more horizontal type of organization. General assemblies are held once or twice a day in Zuccotti Park wherein facilitators and speakers take turns at addressing the assembly for direct participation in making decisions that will affect the entire group. This has brought about interesting social phenomena, such as the use of the people’s mic and fluttering fingers to express general sentiment.
This model has many significant differences from our current form of social organization, the most prominent of which is probably the use of consensus for decision making. An ideal that more and more people are now realizing is how decisions are best made as close as possible to the parties that are most affected. This becomes all too clear once people recognize how representative democracy has shown to be a failure, as elected representatives consistently make incredible promises with one breath and turn their backs at their constituents with the next. The disconnection between the representative and the represented is partly due to a weak sense of social accountability.
Most politicians, once elected, stay in office for years, during which the governed have little to no control over his/her decisions. In a direct democracy, however, positions are voluntary and subject to the approval or compliance of the whole group. This means that a good record of competence is of utmost importance. Also, positions are hardly ever about decision-making per se, since that is already mostly handled by the assembly. Positions and titles are usually there for mere delegation of tasks and responsibilities. Considering the frequency of the general assemblies (once to twice a day), it would be quite easy for the group to raise concerns and replace an incompetent individual in his/her position right then and there.
Another important quality of the general assemblies is that they are non-coercive. If you do not find merit in participating in the general assembly, you are free not to. You are even free to start your own form of social organization elsewhere, whereas governments commonly have harsh sentences for secession. Under a government, you are only allowed to fix the system from inside through reform, which is often painfully slow. If you see fundamental flaws in it, you are not allowed to start from scratch. This policy can be seen as a huge barrier for progress.
One thing that cannot be ignored in all of this is the role of the Internet in serving as a platform by which a multitude of people were able to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate across vast differences of location, age, race, gender, and religion. Without this public space for discussion, they would not have realized that they are not alone in their grievances and that they could actually work together to achieve their common goals. Currently, the Internet still serves as a worldwide hub for these movements, so protecting it from centralized control should be a priority. People would do well to be on guard for any more future attempts to shut down or take control of the Internet. (Yes, this has been attempted before.)
At any rate, I find these events to be greatly exhilarating, as they signify a shifting tide in our collective consciousness. People across many generations are finally finding their voices, rejecting old norms of selfishness, obedience, and coercion, while experiencing firsthand the great power of communities coming together in a spirit of volunteerism and cooperation. We truly do live in exciting times and I feel incredibly fortunate to be witnessing history unfold before me.
For more information, visit the websites for Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together.