First of all: Go vote. Please. I don't care whom or what for, I just want you to participate. OK, onward.
A handful of Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York were arrested Saturday for demonstrating on the sidewalk. It was not a huge deal, and I imagine most, are back at Zucotti Park by now. What's been happening in Oakland is upsetting, though, given the OPD's history, not surprising. Last week, we aired our podcast featuring interviews with Occupy Cleveland demonstrators. I've been among those offering a critique of the movement, asking repeatedly, "well, what do you want?"
Call me a flip-flopper. My stance is shifting. My mind is being changed.
I lived in Berkeley, California, for a long time, and I had loads of friends who were involved in all sorts of protests. One friend was kind of famous for actions that involved hanging off the sides of buildings during the big anti-WTO protests of the late 90s. I was arrested once myself for "refusing to disperse" during the protests against Pacifica Radio's proposal to shut down KPFA. (I spent the night in the Berkeley City jail and was released with credit for time served after I plead out to jaywalking. And yes, I really wish I had my mugshot.)
So when the Occupy Wall Street movement began, it reminded me of the omnibus left wing protests I'd had too much of on the West Coast: people demonstrating for everything from an unnuanced anti-globalization critique to freeing Mumia Abu Jamal. Also, I couldn't help but compare these privileged sit-in and teach-ins to things that were happening in the Middle East, demonstrations where people were actually putting their lives on the line and ousting dictators and launching real democracies. And on Wall Street? Some guy defecating on a cop car. Great.
But, as the OWS movement has grown and matured, my opinion is shifting. Last week, I stumbled across this by UT Austin journalism professor Robert Jensen on al-Jazeera English.
The demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognise, so that they can roll out strategies to divert, co-opt, buy off, or - if those tactics fail - squash any challenge to business as usual.
Rather than listing demands, we critics of concentrated wealth and power in the US can dig in and deepen our analysis of the systems that produce that unjust distribution of wealth and power. This is a time for action, but there also is a need for analysis.
Rallying around a common concern about economic injustice is a beginning; understanding the structures and institutions of illegitimate authority is the next step.
We need to recognise that the crises we face are not simply the result of greedy corporate executives or corrupt politicians, but rather of failed systems. The problem is not the specific people who control most of the wealth of the country, or those in government who serve them, but the systems that create those roles.
It's an important point, I think, and reminded me of how many times since helping to start the Civic Commons, I've said that conversation is important, because that's where ideas are shared and change begins. While I was frustrated by OWS for not, say, supporting Obama's jobs bill or offering a tax policy proposal or just jumping into the conversation about how to turn the economy around, OWS demonstrators have been discussing, analyzing and forming a critique of the much broader and deeper system.
The theory behind contemporary capitalism explains that because we are greedy, self-interested animals, a viable economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behaviour.
That's certainly part of human nature, but we are also just as obviously capable of compassion and selflessness. We can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity to act out of solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. In situations where compassion and solidarity are the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and aggression are rewarded, most people tend towards such behaviour.
Why is it that we must accept an economic system that undermines the most decent aspects of our nature and strengthens the cruelest?
That gets to something I've often wondered--if there might be a different kind of capitalism, one which honored and encouraged our better angels, rather than our basest instincts. I have no idea what that might look like, but it's important to remember that our economic system was neither delivered from on high or sprung fully formed from the ground. It's a system that humans have created and other economic systems could be created to replace it.
I don't know what the outcomes will be, but I'm done critiquing OWS for not having a list of demands or not being as courageous as demonstrators in Syria. This is turning into a conversation worth having, and I have no doubt some important action will come of it.
Copyright © 2011 Dan Moulthrop; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.
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