Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Victory Without Demands

Within the spectrum of thoughts that take #OWS seriously there are two prominent currents creating a discussion I enjoy. The question is over whether or not a movement can be "successful" with a "tactic" of "no demands." One current of thought points to Occupy California, which issued no concrete demands at first (statement) and, at least temporarily, seemed to end in "defeat"; ie, not a lot of institutional gains appear to have been made.

The other opinion on this subject looks at absence of these tactics as a positive, or at least inevitable, aspect of the movement. This is the side towards which I lean. I wasn't a part of Occupy California, and only watched at a distance from here in Minnesota where a similar campaign (opposed to budget cuts, etc.) generated virtually zero publicity (statement from one of the participating groups here). It had clearer demands, such as a moratorium on tuition hikes (if memory serves me correctly). But it didn't go anywhere. Last year around this time, a march around the Loring Park neighborhood with a hip-hop show featuring Guante (an artist I admire and respect a lot) was energetically attended and yet made zero lasting splash.

This dog has done more for "the movement" than that march in Oct 2010 (not pictured).

All across the country for decades, grassroots activists have been building their protests and vocalizing their demands. Even the biggest demonstrations - such as those against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for LGBTQ rights - have been ludicrously slow in gaining attention in the media, much less institutional traction. We have, in fact, seen a decade or more of entrenched corporate politicrats ramrodding their own agendas through the federal government. One reason Obama was able to win by such a large margin in the '08 elections is that he spoke, however abstractly, to the very concrete and diverse hopes of tens of millions of people: an end to war and torture, the beginning of new health and jobs reforms. But he only passed half-measures watered down by Republicans and remained faithful to the cash ambitions of corporations and Wall Street.

We should all know what happens to a dream deferred - and if we didn't already, we see it now - and it is not in fact one dream, which is the agenda of the totalitarian clique - it is many dreams, myriad dreams. A collective and participatory dream.

People who try to "draw valuable lessons from history" often end up dismissing old methods by insisting "they didn't work" at x, y, or z period. There is an almost lazy ignorance of the role of material conditions and changes in society. As Nietzsche put it, "The historian looks backward; eventually he also believes backward." If we're serious about fidelity to realism, in opposition to idealism and denial of the life experience, we can't get hung up on terms like victory and defeat. We need to foster the growth of movements that liberate our human potential. That means understanding very well the causes and conditions under which they operate.

You have to recognize that #OWS doesn't just represent a shared emotion, isn't just another protest, isn't just going to go away. It's a trend in our social arrangements. It's a product of the interaction of complicated factors. Its persistence - it's flourish and contagion in even just a few weeks - is indication of a new watershed. A deep and lasting change in how the global citizen sees the world.

New York City, Capital of the World that was, birthplace of the world to come?

This is the cutting edge of the folks who no longer accept the debate as it has been inherited. For the occupiers it isn't about debt and taxes, safety nets and healthcare and retirement benefits. This is the language of the bourgeoisie, of the middle class, of the bought-off proletariat that fought hard and settled for being included/deluded/diluted in the American Dream. Some of these words can still be found in the signs and rhetoric, but they are dying off like desiccated branches. They begin to taste like ash. The occupation, seated at the edge of a new experience, gropes in the dark for new props, new signs, new words to explain what will be next.

We build the old from the new. Boil, distill, mix ... human is the alembic.

There is no guarantee they will be "successful." Of course not: history takes dictation from no one. That's the fundamental downfall of totalitarian thinking! There is no such thing as "summing up," no such thing as "the final word." (Because life is beautiful.) But every morning that you wake up and you have the option of wandering over to a public space occupation and picking up a book from a book tent and sitting and listening to a drum circle, or reading Vonnegut on a bench, or drinking free coffee from a small business that proactively supports free speech and democracy, or can have a civil conversation with an environmentalist, or an anarchist, or an End the Fed advocate, and feel calm and at ease and thrilled by a deeply social satisfaction - some instinct in us unfed by the privatization of public space - that is the thrill of life. Of living. Of experiencing humanness differently than advertised or advocated or inherited.

If we need to redefine "victory" in order to overcome the limitations of the term, then we can say every day where and when there is an occupation, there is something of the old victory, and something of the new. Who can say how long it will last?

But the real question you should ask is, you detractors and/or critics and/or skeptics, is this: what will make these people go home? Now that they've come together and learned just how widespread and interlinked their net of oppression is - now that they've seen an entirely new arrangement is possible - how could they possibly ever stop?

A sentiment that may be finding its conditions ripe, for once.

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