Occupy the Future

As we turn the page from 2011, the year when the world rose up and said “enough!” and now embark on the journey of  2012, a year arriving with mythic baggage galore, I find myself heartened by big-picture reflections from several writers who often shed fresh light on our society’s struggles and dreams.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen pieces by Alex Steffen, Rebecca Solnit, Starhawk, and Michael Meade that are typically incisive and heartening; each has his or her own deeply resonant perspective on life, society, and engagement, and I recommend them all!

Rebecca Solnit sets the tone with her year-end missive, Compassion is Our New Currency:

Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement.  Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?

Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1% economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.


Storyteller of the soul Michael Meade hits the nail on one of its many heads with his recent piece, Occupy vs. Nihilism: All or Nothing at All:

The Occupy movement may be an instinctive response, not just to the greatest disparity of wealth and power in the history of America, but also to the emptying out of institutions and loss of meaning at all levels of life. An underlying instinct to inhabit life more fully may be arising and taking root in different places for different reasons. The message of Occupy may be “all over the place” because the underlying message is about “place,” about reclaiming and more fully inhabiting public places, about being more present to the critical issues in each place, and about taking one’s own place in life more fully.

When mini-Occupy sites appear at individual houses threatened with foreclosure and neighbors set aside typical disagreements in order to protect each other’s homes, the roots of community are trying to resurface. Genuine grass roots movements can cross typical “party lines” and dissolve class distinctions as the deep-rooted connections between people and the underlying dreams of the country rise up from below. The difference and distance between those who inhabit the land and those who rule the nation become revealed. For, it is not simply that government has gotten too big, but that it has become so empty of meaning and devoid of the values that sustain common humanity.

Alex Steffen, of WorldChanging fame, recently reposted a piece he wrote in early 2010, entitled Putting the Future Back in the Room.  He sets the tone this way:

The future that my parents’ generation warned us about forty years ago looks an awful lot like our present. The ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, the planet is thick with people, most of the world’s primeval forests are gone, the seas are in crisis, and pollution, famine and natural disasters kill millions of people a year. Compared to the world we might have had, had the progress of the early 1970s continued steadily through the following four decades, we live on a half-ruined planet.

That half-ruined planet, though, is our home. People old enough to remember the first Earth Day can well grieve for that other, healthier Earth we might have had if only older generations had made different choices. Kids born today won’t have that luxury. This world is the only one they’ll ever know: they’ll have to make the best of it; life goes on.1970 is the same distance in time away from us now as 2050: that’s how close the future is…In an amount of time about equal to that from the first Earth Day, we have to remake the world.

Starhawk’s most recent missive addresses one of the key human challenges facing those currently engaged in this attempt to remake the world, which involves finding ways to compassionately respond to and provide for the needs of some of our most outcast citizens, the homeless and neglected people who tend to become a major presence at most urban Occupy sites. The inclusiveness and compassion at the heart of the Occupy movement creates social dynamics we’re not used to: the marginalized people are welcomed rather than ostracized, and in most cities have become a significant presence in the social reality of the camps and the General Assembly meetings (rather than being limited to their normal role as a tiny sliver of our daily lives, easily – and unfairly – discounted as merely drunks or freeloaders or lacking in ambition).  In the occupy camps, they are seen in their full complexity, as human beings with their own particular backgrounds and perspectives and wounds.  It’s manifested in the dynamics between the drum circles and those working to accommodate neighbors living near encampments; it’s also common to hear of General Assemblies being disrupted and pulled far off-topic by verbal outbursts from folks who react badly to any structure, planning, or authority.  The challenging dynamics this creates has been the focus of some media features, and crops up in the reflections of most facilitators:

Even more than troubles with the cops and city authorities, the biggest challenges the Occupy movement faces seem to be internal.  How do we make decisions together?  How do we resolve our own conflicts within our groups?  Once we’ve said “We are the 99%”, how do we set standards of behavior and say what is okay and what is not?  Once we’ve renounced force and coercion, how do we enforce those standards when we do set them?

None of these are easy questions to answer, (and) the Occupy movement poses them in a form more stark than I’ve ever encountered before, in four decades of horizontal organizing.  Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together.

After the break: Steffen’s insightful breakdown of the heartfelt worldviews pulling against each other in this time, Starhawk on questions of strategy and the need for linear thinking guidance in horizontal consensus process, Solnit on the depth of the movement’s heart, and Meade’s evocation of the soul of the movement, of America, and of each of our lives. (Thanks to Riyana’s always-compelling Wild Serenity blog for the three color images in the strip above, and to Alex Steffen’s post for the black and white one.)

The Occupy movement also faces crucial questions around its direction and strategy, the answers  to which are key to realizing the possibility – even likelihood – of attracting more people, of more diverse backgrounds, to join in this effort to reshape our society.  In Oakland, the first day of mass, peaceful action at the ports, which was perhaps the high point of the actions there, was undermined by a destructive rampage by a few people that night in downtown; the media focused only what Wild Serenity’s Riyana, Starhawk-trained facilitator, called ‘the gritty glamor of violence and tear gas,” though the night-time outburst was the work of an independent few.  A November open letter from The Alliance for Community Trainers, which has trained many of the Occupy facilitators, asks, “What framework can we organize in that will build on our strengths, allow us to grow, embrace a wide diversity of participants, and make a powerful impact on the world?”  The letter goes on:

‘Diversity of tactics’ becomes an easy way to avoid wrestling with questions of strategy and accountability. It lets us off the hook from doing the hard work of debating our positions and coming to agreements about how we want to act together. It becomes a code for ‘anything goes,’ and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone accountable for their actionsJust as we call for accountability and transparency, we ourselves must be accountable and transparent. Some tactics are incompatible with those goals, even if in other situations they might be useful, honorable or appropriate. We can’t be transparent behind masks. We can’t be accountable for actions we run away from. We can’t maintain the security culture necessary for planning and carrying out attacks on property and also maintain the openness that can continue to invite in a true diversity of new people. We can’t make alliances with groups from impacted communities, such as immigrants, if we can’t make agreements about what tactics we will employ in any given action.

The framework that might best serve the Occupy movement is one of strategic nonviolent direct action. Within that framework, Occupy groups would make clear agreements about which tactics to use for a given action. This frame is strategic—it makes no moral judgments about whether or not violence is ever appropriate, it does not demand we commit ourselves to a lifetime of Gandhian pacifism, but it says, ‘This is how we agree to act together at this time.’ It is active, not passive. It seeks to create a dilemma for the opposition, and to dramatize the difference between our values and theirs.

Moving back to the bigger picture, we turn again to Alex Steffen, who insightfully addresses the social dichotomies in our larger society.  He paints a painfully accurate picture of the tensions in worldview between several key segments of our society: old greens who have joined atmospheric chemist Jim Lovelock, father of the Gaia hypothesis/metaphor, in saying “it’s too late, we blew it;” hard-working middle Americans who can’t quite come to grips with the fact that the society we so proudly built during the past fifty years is the centerpiece of a global destruction machine; and young people who are facing this future we’ve made, as well as those yet to come:

The children of 2050 will look at that future world, with all its problems, and see home: and they’ll look at the choices they have in front of them, and see the future. And since the choices we make in the next forty years will decide what choices our descendants are left with — a thriving society engaged in centuries of restoration and planetary repair, or a gradual desperate retreat towards the poles — giving up now because we don’t like the choice set we face is pathetic cowardice.

The planetary crisis we face may be made up of machinery and market failures and sheer masses of humanity struggling to live, but I’m more and more convinced that it is not at its core really a material crisis at all. Rather, the planetary crisis is a crisis of vision; we see a growing and darkening void where our future ought to be. The average person, presented with accurate information about the state of the world, can see no way forward at all. The path we’re on appears to end in darkness and a swift, cataclysmic drop. Most folks, entirely understandably, choose not to look.

Bucky PicThe irony is, we already have the ability to solve or at least address the planet’s most pressing problems. We don’t have every solution we’ll need, not yet. We do, though, have the technological capabilities, the design genius, the scientific ingenuity, the entrepreneurial zeal, the policy acumen, the community-building skill, and the educational and cultural wisdom. It is not that we are not capable of sustainable prosperity. We have never had more or better ability to build a better world. What we seem to lack is a belief that we can actually use those powers to change anything, and we lack that belief precisely because the future has been ripped out of our cultural debate.

But after addressing the economic and political forces that have encouraged us not to look, he introduces his core theme:

Well, the future’s already here. We’re making it, as we speak, and we make it better when we consider what the effects of our actions might be over a longer range of time.

Human beings make the future every day. Making the future — setting in motion future events — might almost be considered part of the definition of humanity. The problem is that today, when powerful men sit down and make decisions, they generally make those decisions as if the future didn’t exist, as if the consequences of their actions were beyond anticipation, as if they bore no responsibility for foresight. The future’s not welcome in the room.

We need millions of people ready to put the future back in the room. We need millions of people ready to demand that their governments, their companies, their communities and their cultural institutions confront the reality of the futures they make every day. In 2010, any institution which is not looking forty years ahead and at least considering the long-term impacts of its work is probably engaged in actions that wouldn’t bear the full light of day.

It sure seems that, in spring 2010, Steffen was speaking of the very movement that has unfolded since that fateful Tunisian morning just over a year ago. And while that movement continues to unfold in unpredictable and surprising ways (and will undoubtedly sprout some green shoots this spring that we can’t imagine at all in the dark of winter), there are some core organizational challenges facing the change agents in Cairo, Moscow, Damascus, New York, and Oakland. In another post, from early December, Starhawk observes:

The Occupy movement faces some of the greatest challenges I’ve ever encountered around group dynamics and group process—it’s so huge, grew up so fast and so spontaneously and found itself smack in the middle of some of society’s worst unsolved problems.  Former student body presidents are encamped in the midst of raving drunks, trying to come to consensus in large groups.  It’s fascinating, often exasperating, and that’s why I’m spending as much time as I can offering trainings.

She elaborates in her year-end post:

Consensus is a challenging process at best—(and even more challenging) when most people are untrained, and even the facilitators don’t really understand how the process is supposed to work, and when the participants aren’t even in the same consensus reality.  Consensus is also a linear thinking process, designed for synthesizing issues into proposals and then making decisions.  It’s a tool, not a group structure nor a way of life. It requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D.”  When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration.

But of course, all is not grim and frustrating in the movement, we know that!  Solnit stresses this heartening observation:

Money has stolen our vote

The breadth of this movement is one thing, its depth another. It has rejected not just the particulars of our economic system, but the whole set of moral and emotional assumptions on which it’s based. Take the pair shown in a photograph from Occupy Austin in Texas.  The amiable-looking elderly woman is holding a sign whose computer-printed words say, “Money has stolen our vote.” The older man next to her with the baseball cap is holding a sign handwritten on cardboard that states, “We are our brothers’ keeper.”

The photo of the two of them offers just a peek into a single moment in the remarkable period we’re living through and the astonishing movement that’s drawn in… well, if not 99% of us, then a striking enough percentage: everyone from teen pop superstar Miley Cyrus with her Occupy-homage video to Alaska Yup’ik elder Esther Green ice-fishing and holding a sign that says “Yirqa Kuik” in big letters, with the translation — “occupy the river” — in little ones below.

The woman with the stolen-votes sign is referring to them. Her companion is talking about us, all of us, and our fundamental principles. His sign comes straight out of Genesis, a denial of what that competitive entrepreneur Cain said to God after foreclosing on his brother Abel’s life. He was not, he claimed, his brother’s keeper; we are not, he insisted, beholden to each other, but separate, isolated, each of us for ourselves. Think of Cain as the first Social Darwinist and this Occupier in Austin as his opposite, claiming, no, our operating system should be love; we are all connected; we must take care of each other. And this movement, he’s saying, is about what the Argentinian uprising that began a decade ago, on December 19, 2001, called politica afectiva, the politics of affection.

If it’s a movement about love, it’s also about the money they so unjustly took, and continue to take, from us — and about the fact that, right now, money and love are at war with each other. After all, in the American heartland, people are beginning to be imprisoned for debt, while the Occupy movement is arguing for debt forgiveness, renegotiation, and debt jubilees.

Steffen grapples with the enduring resistance among many good-hearted Americans to facing the fact that so many things have begun to go bad in the Land of the Free.  While acknowledging that a very few 1%-ers may actively be pursuing self interest at the expense of the rest, he stresses that many of the men (and they are still mostly men) making today’s bad decisions are good people, “people you’d find decent dinner company, people you’d welcome into your family. Some are among the most principled and conscientious people you’ll find anywhere…”

Many, I believe, are secretly terrified of what they’d see if they looked ahead. The people most deeply traumatized of all in our society may be the older men who’ve devoted their entire lives, in grinding hard work and out of love for the people around them, to building companies and communities and systems they thought represented a pinnacle of human endeavor and free enterprise, but which instead — they would now find, if they could bring themselves to admit the possibility — have become components of what is quite possibly the most destructive way of life ever made by human beings. To have done right and well your whole life and yet find yourself ethically indicted in the end, to have your accomplishments turn to ash, to arrive late expecting security and respect, and find neither: I don’t think those of us who are younger can fully understand what a soul-wrenching experience that must be.

I honestly have no idea how to reach out to these good people. We know, though, that they are the ones often at the table when the future is made, and though we will eventually prevail since time and numbers are on our side, spending another couple decades butting heads with these guys will at best slow our progress. Merely defeating them politically also wastes a huge creative resource: their talent and experience. Many of the people most angrily denying the future are those who understand how the systems we now need to retrofit, redesign, replace and adapt actually work — because they built them — and, if convinced that this new work needs to be done, they have oceans of insight and institutional knowledge to bring to bear on the problem. No one knows how to hack a system better than the person who’s been in charge of protecting it from change…if only we can win them over to the side of change.

Meade provides a fitting finale for these wide-ranging observations on this momentous time in history:

The hidden meaning of Occupy may involve an instinctive response to the threat of nihilism and the rise of emptiness; it may be a collective attempt to find the heart and soul of America again. Not “occupy” as a single-minded political statement, but the soulful sense of occupying life in ways that return meaning and justice, truth and beauty to the lives of individuals and communities, to institutions and practices that are after all intended to serve the people. Occupy may be an instinctive vehicle for making life in its diverse and surprising forms more valuable and meaningful again.

The soul of a movement cannot be simply identified or be easily codified. Yet, soul is what brings people together and shapes new ways of being when the old ways have become mere rote or have hardened into fixed and unmovable attitudes. Soul is what gives any movement depth, what gives any action meaning, what gives each life substance, authenticity, and genuine meaning. The underlying notion of Occupy may be an inspiration to begin to occupy something, anything more fully before the spread of nihilistic attitudes and heartless policies leech all meaning from the land.

More Meade:
Here’s the website of his Mosaic Multicultural Association
and check out this 90-minute reading and talk on the theme of his recent book, Fate and Destiny, which suggests that the central question is not “what is the meaning of life?” but rather, “what is the meaning of my life?”

More Steffen:
His current blog, with medium to long essays, quick reminders, and talks by himself and others at TED and elsewhere on themes of creating the future.

More Starhawk:
Her personal blog, Dirt Worship
Alliance for Community Trainers
Her new book, The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups

More Solnit:
Her column archive at CommonDreams
Her website, featuring articles, interviews and reviews, and books

About Jim

Night sky watcher; a mobile bit of earth's body. One foot lingering in Lower Cañoncito's piñon-juniper foothills at the southern tip of the Rockies, the edge of the Great Plains stretching away from the mouth of our little valley a couple miles downstream. The other foot re-rooting into the Land of the White Pines, home of my blood and bones, amidst the coastal plain and glacial hills and ponds of southern Maine, between the North Atlantic and the bones of the ancient Appalachian Mountains.

Posted on 2011/12/31, in Big Picture, Face the Future, Jimwords. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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