Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street in Theory and Practice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

~Yogi Berra

It's been a while since a crew from D Acres went to participate in and check out what was happening in Liberty Square, home base of Occupy Wall Street. It was a pretty inspiring experience and I've been meaning to write about it, but wrapping up the growing season, preparations for winter, and the first snows of the season have gotten in the way. But now that things have taken a dramatic turn, with the protesters having been evicted from Zuccotti Park, it's time to act. After much reflection on what's been going on down there, here's my take on it.

In theory of course, Occupy Wall Street has set itself an impossible task -- bring about a revolution of some unspecified type with unspecified goals by camping out in the symbolic epicenter of global capitalist finance and refusing to leave until everything has changed. This is absurd from a number of angles: the combined brute force of the NYPD with all the backups they need from the National Guard, not to mention the Department of Homeland Security, can easily be used to disperse and/or arrest all of the protesters -- a band of a few hundred disaffected youth with a couple of grannies for peace and old school anarchists along for the ride; besides, Wall Street is itself mostly of symbolic value, since most financial business is carried out online and many traders telecommute, so camping out there will only inconvenience the locals in an increasingly residential area of lower Manhattan; and besides, most of us are implicated in Wall Street's shenanigans through pension funds, the financing schemes of local and municipal governments, the mortgage racket, and more; and besides all of this, there is no visible leadership or set of coherent official demands being made by the occupiers. In theory, this is completely the wrong way to go about affecting any change in the real world and responding to the ongoing worldwide financial crisis. Honestly, when I went down to Wall Street during the third week of the protest, I wasn't expecting much.

Maybe I've spent too much time thinking about theory to realize that these reasons why this protest has to fail might be irrelevant. In theory, theory and practice are equivalent -- theory maps out what real options are available in situations like this and in an age of global commerce and finance a few protesters on the street are irrelevant to the workings of the system. It will grind on according to its own inner logic with all of the weight of the hefty institutions behind it, like the governments of the world's most powerful nations, not to mention large corporations and the organizations that represent their interests such as trade groups, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on. Theoretically, this protest was the same as every other protest that has taken place since the end of the Cold War -- some loud voices expressing opinions about the evils of capitalism, with some also mentioning environmental issues and political corruption, ending with a return to business as usual for those protesting and those inconvenienced by the protests immediately afterwards.

In practice, however, things have turned out a little differently. In practice there are the famous "people's mic" communication system, a kitchen serving free, donated food during most hours of the day and night to whoever stands in line, the people's library in one corner of the park, many teach-ins, seminars, and open discussions about theory and practice, a sanitation crew, a recycling center, a grey water system to handle dish water, a crew of trained medics looking after the health of the occupiers and visitors, a group of programmers and computer savvy people working to upload terabytes of video footage to the web, a security contingent helping to defuse potential conflicts within the group and between the occupiers, the police and the public, a direct action group organizing regular marches around the city. In short, in practice, a leaderless group of strangers got together and built a working small model of an alternative way of organizing society all without leaders and without a preconceived plan. This was what impressed me the most, and it clearly impressed many of the passersby and reporters with whom I talked. And, I think, this is what resonated with those dissatisfied with business as usual everywhere in the world who started occupying everywhere. In practice the contours of a different way of living are becoming visible even as representatives of business as usual in the banks and their governmental supporting institutions futilely attempt to revive the way of life that the protesters reject.

Now what does the practical side of Occupy Wall Street have to teach in terms of theory? Most of all it teaches us that the model of human interaction championed by Wall Street itself -- that we are all basically self-interested individuals who only interact with one another if it furthers our personal goals -- is far too limited. In fact, as anthropologists have been pointing out for years (most compellingly in recent years by David Graeber, whose phenomenal book "Debt: the first 5000 years" I've been reading lately), the mode of interaction that takes place in the market, where we temporarily get together for the sake of each pursuing his or her own self-interest is only one of many modes of interaction that humans engage in all the time. Of course this should be obvious, but it is too often overlooked in a world in which progress and the pursuit of happiness have become synonymous with interactions mediated by money. Instead of taking care of our neighbors kids, we pay for child care; instead of teaching each other we take on massive amounts of debt to pay for education; instead of producing and sharing our own food we pay for meals; instead of talking to each other about our difficulties we pay psychologists to lend us an ear. This is partly responsible for what economic growth there has been in the last 30 years or so -- growth that was paid for with the largest lending and borrowing spree in the history of money and has ended up with most of us tied to jobs we hate but that we keep just to maintain a supply of money. But, as the occupiers clearly demonstrated, a group of people could come together for a common, if still somewhat vague, purpose and help each other out without expecting anything in return nor requiring much money to thrive in one of the world's more expensive cities. Solidarity, a sense that we are all in it together, can be just as much a product of tough times as fighting to keep what you consider yours. While the people of Wall Street continue to award themselves huge bonuses at the expense of whoever has less financial power, the people at Occupy Wall Street support each other and build community.

This compelling protest movement also teaches us that we should be open to and welcoming of new and previously unimaginable alternatives as we confront an uncertain and potentially troubling future. Let's not be blinded by our theories of social organization. Watch carefully how things are really working there and start doing it on your own. Organize, do it yourself, practice consensus decision making, live without cash as much as possible, trade with your neighbors, help each other out.

Long live Occupy Wall Street!

~George Matthews


Erik Thatcher said...

The protesters in Zucotti Park are still beholden to the very corporate entities they desire to change. If they rely on those corporations, then the corporations have no incentive to change. D Acres is the kind of protest that will work, whether that's what it's meant for or not. Living a minimalist life off the land and taking pleasure in relationships, work and the environment rather then material goods is the only way to dethrone these corporate kings. If we go about business as usual, so will they.

Charles Sackrey said...

George: Your assessment is clearly stated and clear-headed, and it continues a compelling style that is one of the treats of your blog. I agree with your analysis that the Occupation is a great breakthrough. To my mind, so far it’s most important element is that it has made it okay to scream out loud, with your voice or your poster, that the great big elephant in the room is a greedy, grasping plutocracy that is nasty at best, and that includes countless big time hoodlums. Legitimating this fact of our lives will open us to new ways of thinking, imagining, and acting. Eventually, it might even become fashionable to see that capitalism always creates such a class, a rich idea, indeed, that will take our theorizing along a new and promising direction. We can be immensely grateful to the Occupiers for helping us to begin this process of developing a better theory within which to talk about and carry out our actions.