By Seth Jordan
The following article, besides the Afterword, is excerpted from a speech entitled, “The Global Message of Occupy,” given at the Liwanag (Light ) World Festival in the Philippines, on January 3, 2013.
I joined Occupy after seeing an interview with one of the protesters, Gerardo Renique, a professor of history at the City University of New York. He said, “As a historian, I see this current crisis and the events of the last two decades in the long-term perspective. What we’re going through, I think, is the consolidation of a particular economic model, a model that’s grounded in the financial sector in a sort of ‘casino capitalism.’ I think one of the questions that this type of demonstration raises is whether we need to start thinking of a new alternative—to the economic crisis, and I would also say an alternative model of civilization.”
An “alternative model of civilization.” This is what Occupy is about. A new civilization. Not one that does away with everything we’ve created, but instead, takes it further. We need systemic change—not just tinkering with parts, but a fundamental change at all levels. Our societal structures are old. They’re no longer serving us. They haven’t kept pace with our evolving social conscience.
Occupy is a response to this crisis. It’s the social body’s immune system cranking into high gear. And it’s doing so in two ways: protesting what is not working, and getting to work creating the healthy alternatives.
So what is it protesting? In a sense, it is a protest against everything decadent in our civilization, but it starts with Wall Street, with the financial markets run amok, what Gerardo Renique called “casino capitalism.” Finance, of course, does have a purpose. There’s something beautiful in the idea of investment, in the community coming together and empowering an individual to take initiative, to start a business that provides for others. But that’s not really what finance is anymore, and maybe it hasn’t been that for a long time.
Investment is just “money business” now. Money making money. Money chasing money. And there’s nothing beautiful about it, there’s nothing beautiful about a casino. This is where creative people go to die, where they use their gift to cheat someone else and not to create something valuable for another. It’s a spiritual dying ground.
Perhaps you’ve heard that Occupy is the 99 percent. In this picture, the one percent is Wall Street, this world of finance that has spun out of control and is concentrating all the wealth in a few hands. In America, one percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth. Let me repeat that: one percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth. The bottom 80 percent own less than 10 percent. Imagine a body where 40 percent of the food consumed only nourished one percent of the body—maybe just the kidney, or one of the fingers. The rest of the body would obviously be malnourished. It would be a sick body. Unbalanced.
Besides this, many people can’t find work. They’re part of the body but they can’t perform their function. And, of course, every part of the body has a function. Nature doesn’t create without reason. Every human being has a job to do, a reason they came, a reason they’re part of the body. And people know this instinctively. Many people, especially young ones, still remember that they came here for a reason, that there’s more to life than entertainment, video games, and television shows. But we can’t find our work. The body rejects us. So we must return the body to health so we can create our right place in it.
But, it’s not just that the body is sick. It has also lost the capacity to self-correct. When the recession hit, the social body didn’t go through it like a fever and burn through those elements that had caused the sickness. Instead, it got worse. The separation became even more extreme. Corporate profits bounced back, and by 2010, were at an all-time high. Wall Street compensation was at an all-time high. No senior bankers ever faced criminal charges for the abuses of the market.
One of the most recent examples of this inability to self-correct is the bank HSBC. For years they’ve been funneling billions of dollars for drug cartels in Mexico. It wasn’t just an isolated branch of the bank, a few bad eggs. It was done internationally. But HSBC was seen as too big to jail, and so they paid a fine. This was also the case with the BP oil spill. Eleven people died, 17 were injured, a whole ecosystem was destroyed, and BP lied to congress. But no one went to jail. They paid a fine. They broke a law but it wasn’t dealt with in the legal realm, it stayed in the economic. It went into their bookkeeping. (By contrast, as of May 2013, over 7,000 occupiers had been arrested for civil disobedience.)
It’s interesting, isn’t it? At one point these were two separate things—the realm of laws and the realm of profits. But now, profits are subsuming laws. So you can do a cost-benefit analysis of any situation, even if it is illegal, and if you stand to make a profit then it stands to reason that you should break the law.
So we see that where government should be a counter-balance to business, instead it’s being swallowed up. And we hear in response all the dissident voices of Occupy raised up and harmonious in this one urgent call: the separation of corporation and state. At this point, it’s clear to everyone that if a corporation is “donating” to a politician, then they expect something in return. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their heart, they expect politicians to create laws that are favorable to them, or, more accurately, they expect politicians to approve the laws that they themselves have created. They’re buying laws.
We need to correct this. We need clean, publically funded elections. We need to end corporate personhood. And we need to see this problem clearly—see that we’re buying and selling rights and laws, and that these are actually different than commodities.
How do we do all of this? How do we reform the body to alleviate this sickness and also make it able to self-correct?
This brings me to the deeper levels of Occupy: to what it has created. The most important thing I can point to wasn’t actually started at Occupy, but was also used in Spain and Greece and elsewhere. I am referring to the General Assembly. This is how Occupy made decisions. This was its governing body and everyone could participate in decision making and in forming agreements. We’re not used to this. We’re used to just electing someone to represent us and to make decisions for us. And because of this, we never really experience the essence of democracy, we never sit down, listen to the other, find common ground, and make agreements for how we want to live together. This is pretty sad because it’s a powerful activity. When you form agreements you know why you obey them. You can say yes to them. And it even affects your work—you know who you’re working with and for—their needs, vulnerabilities, and ideals. It ties everyone together.
Let me give an example. At one of the first General Assemblies I went to, the legal team asked us not to take legal actions on behalf of Occupy without consulting them. A simple request. But there was a woman who didn’t understand, who thought they were asking that she not take any legal action, even on her own behalf in a personal dispute. She didn’t understand and so she blocked the vote. The request was clear to everyone except her, and we could have gone on without her (we weren’t bound by pure consensus but worked by super majority, so we just needed 90 percent of the group to agree), but everyone stuck with her. We spent 20 or 30 minutes, a big chunk of the meeting, just discussing this one point. And then she got it. And she withdrew her block and we had consensus. A wave of relief swept through the crowd of maybe 1,000 people. We were all together, united. No one left out. And this tied us even more together. It strengthened us. That woman was a nuisance, a problem, she disturbed the process… but ultimately she also strengthened it.
So, the General Assembly has been a powerful tool for Occupy. It showed us what we’re missing by giving away our democracy, by not participating. It gave us a picture of a new civilization, a world we can create, where every person is engaged in governance, and where we’re moving towards greater and greater self-governance. And very practically, it tied us all together and made us far stronger.
Even though Occupy has been an education in self-governance, in real democracy, it isn’t a political movement. It doesn’t want to be a political organization or party. It doeswant to help correct and counter-balance the greed and corruption of government and business. And it wants to establish itself as a permanent feature of society, a voice of conscience outside of business and government, a third branch of society. This isn’t actually new. This third branch has always existed, but it just hasn’t yet borne the fruit it needs to for our time. Yet.
This third branch of society can be seen as civil society or the realm of culture more generally. To have a healthy society we need a healthy, free culture, independent of both government and business. We need independent activists who can speak truth to power. We need independent teachers who can empower the creativity of each student. We need independent journalists who can shine a light in the dark. By “independent,” I simply mean that cultural workers (what professor and author, Tim Jackson, calls the “caring professions” —teachers, artists, reporters, doctors, social workers…) are truly self-directed and that what they produce is accessible to all. How else can we be free thinkers? If the government creates our curricula for us? If advertisers pre-package their PR so we can simply publish it for them?
It will be difficult. It means a different distribution of wealth (not a “redistribution,” the current distribution unfairly favors those who have inherited the “ownership” of property rights). But, in the end, culture is our real wealth. It is our real capital. It is what investment is really all about—empowering others to develop their own ideas and gifts for the sake of everyone. Occupy is an attempt to reclaim and carve out this free cultural space—a space to create, innovate, think new thoughts, reform society, self-correct, create something new. A new civilization.
This is ultimately what Occupy is about. A vision of the human being that empowers each and every person. It is a movement for people power, but it’s also just a movement for person power. It asks us, “Can we bring ourselves completely, can we totally speak our mind and still listen, still work with others?”
So, for me, what Occupy is trying to do is learn to “consciously swarm.” When bees do this, they’re led by a higher intelligence, the intelligence of the whole hive. We need to tune into that, the intelligence of the whole, but not by sacrificing our own consciousness, our own conscience and individuality. Why? Because today, that intelligence, that spark of light, has descended. Today, we are the light. We were once led by those who carried the light for us—emperors, pharaohs, kings. And, since then, presidents and senators. But now we bear the light within us. This is the whole movement of history, and this is what Occupy is trying to help birth— a society of free individuals who have taken responsibility for themselves and for the whole. Who are no longer aggressors, but can let everyone have their own thought, their own thinking. This is the highest ideal of anarchism, which has played a big part in this movement. It’s not about bomb throwing, it’s about growing up and becoming adults and relating to each other in a free way. Not having to be led from above anymore. We’re still a ways off, but we are on our way. We’re taking ourselves in hand and trying to create social forms where we can educate ourselves in this, in self-governance and free thinking and cooperation.
This is the reason to Occupy, not to topple the one percent and create a new one percent, a new structure of violence and domination. But to overcome the one percent in ourselves—that part of us that wants to control, and therefore overshadow, the light in ourselves and others. This is the true occupation, the true fight for independence. This is what Gandhi spoke of when referring to Indian independence. He said, “It is home rule when we learn to rule ourselves.” And it is what the great Filipino hero Rizal spoke of when he said, "Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?"
What I wanted to express in the above speech was the spirit of Occupy, what it carries as a promise for our times. I also wanted to show that this spirit is alive and well, and in a certain way, unstoppable. It is what is welling up in the human being today.
But I also want to say that the body of Occupy is still alive, albeit, in a more distributed (and therefore hard-to-recognize) form. Much of the activity of Occupy is directed against the banks (sit-ins and camp-outs at various banks in the US and Blockupy inEurope,) and the suffering that everyday citizens have experienced at their hands. (Occupy Homes fights foreclosures, and Strike Debt fundraises to buy up and forgive huge amounts of personal debt for pennies on the dollar.) Also, Occupy Monsanto continues the battle against GMOs and Occupy Sandy was an incredible relief effort in the worst-hit neighborhoods of Hurricane Sandy. And much, much more.
At the time of this writing there is currently a huge protest raging in Turkey (Occupy Gezi), and Edward Snowden has just leaked what is perhaps the most important dossier of state secrets ever. But will our political system actually self-correct? Become more transparent, more accountable, more participatory? Not overnight, not without some new ideas for how to design such systems, and not without all of us—you and me—making a big old stink.
Seth Jordan believes the human being is evolving and tries to help in that great work in whatever way he can. At times teacher, organizer, farmer, social form designer (and, hopefully, always student) he lives sometimes in the northeast US, and very often elsewhere. He has worked with Think OutWord, Occupy, and most recently Gifted and Moral Spring.