When revolt makes sense
The Occupy movement has been all over the news lately, especially in the New York Times, which recently deployed reporters to examine friction between protesters and homeless people, and fretted over how long protesters in London would remain encamped at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Meanwhile, Chris Hedges, long exiled from the Times, writes for TruthDig on Oct. 31 about Jonathan Friesen, a 27-year-old “traveler type” with street skills and theoretical grounding who helped establish the encampment at Zuccotti Park long after abandoning a conventional job making eyeglasses in a LensCrafter lab in his native southern California. Hedges amply quotes from Marx and Bakunin, favoring the latter as a prophesier of Occupy Wall Street.
“The discarded intellectuals — unemployed journalists, social workers, teachers, artists, lawyers and students,” Hedges writes, “were for Bakunin a valuable revolutionary force: ‘fervent, energetic youths, totally déclassé, with no career or way out.’ These déclassé intellectuals, like the dispossessed working class, had no stake in the system and no possibility for advancement. The alliance of an estranged class of intellectuals with dispossessed masses creates the tinder, Bakunin argued, for successful revolt.”
Do I sympathize with the Occupy movement? How could I not?
More than 10 years ago, I subscribed to the same anarchist model of participatory action and consensus decision-making that provides the social glue for Occupy. Those modes of being have remained part of the cultural slipstream, put to use in countless household, community and activist efforts, but ignored in the arguments that preoccupy mainstream America.
More than a decade ago, I committed my life to radical social transformation based on a conviction that corporations had subverted democracy by their sheer accumulation of wealth and power, by their ability to impose their will and dictate terms to legislative bodies. At the age of 24 I was so immersed in a hand-to-mouth existence of publishing wild poetry, making weekend excursions to challenge the Klan and scraping together an income swinging a hammer on a homebuilding crew that I somehow missed the memo about the 1990s being a time of unparalleled prosperity.
I car-pooled from Durham to Philadelphia in the summer of 2000, intent on disrupting the Republican National Convention. The exact cause escapes me now. My tribe viewed the Republican and Democratic parties, probably rightly, as being devoted to the same corporate globalization agenda. If Los Angeles had been closer than Philadelphia, I would have been at the Democratic convention instead.
We did our best to tie up traffic to create inconvenience for conventioneers. In a classic game of cat-and-mouse, we ran into the streets, dragging newspaper boxes and small commercial Dumpsters behind us to block the path of the bicycle officers in hot pursuit. I would have been arrested, except that when an officer grabbed the strap of my backpack, it broke and I slipped away.
Like generals fighting the last war, the anti-globalization movement that burst forth with the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle and continued with a series of escalating skirmishes in North American and European capitals over the next two years was stuck in a paradigm that wasn’t nimble enough to effectively engage the aggressive militarism that marked eight years under the presidency of George W. Bush.
With the movement on the wane, those left behind seemed to be mostly sectarian communists courting me for recruitment, and I had no interest. Also, the personal behavior of my social circle seemed immature and undisciplined. I got accepted to grad school to study journalism, allowed myself to be reprogrammed and adopted a different tribe.
The Occupy movement seems more mature and wiser than its predecessor, the anti-globalization movement. Its embrace of nonviolence makes it more durable, I believe. The rich irony, for me, is that the widening income gap, the federal government’s utter inability to address unemployment and economic insecurity, and a recent legal ruling allowing the wealthy to pour unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns more or less confirms my critique of 10 or 15 years previous.
The differences are circumstantial. I am now one of those Jesus held up for scorn when he denounced those “who love to be greeted in the marketplaces.” My family earns well above the median household income in Guilford County. I have developed a rudimentary understanding of the law such that I can compel government officials to produce documents and point out with some confidence when they appear to be in violation of it. I have established contacts among state lawmakers, judges and real estate developers.
In other words, I have developed a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and in not seeing the misery and deep economic insecurity that is a daily fact of life for many Americans. But like many people, when the movement cropped up at Zuccotti Park, I said to myself: It’s about damn time. How could any of us be surprised after seeing people’s movements sweep North Africa and the Middle East and after the riots that consumed England? When pressure builds, it naturally seeks a release.
What happened is that a critical mass of people decided they would rather take to the streets and demand change than allow their existence to be defined by mere survival, that there can be joy and fulfillment in joining in common cause with others.