Article by Occupy the Future guest contributor Seth Wulsin.
(Please take note: some of the time references are slightly out of date due to the fact that it was written in March but is being published in May. We apologize for the lapse, but assure you that Seth’s insights are no less timely because of it. – ed.)
The nature of Occupy Wall Street is difficult to pinpoint. This is one primary reason that many of the accounts of the movement have failed to understand what it actually is, because there is no object at its center, no main character to the story, no pigeonholed political ideology to anchor it, despite the attempts by various ideological or political groups to claim it as fundamentally theirs. Its true actuality is diversity and change.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a number of people who have asked me about Occupy Wall Street in the past tense, assuming that since its visibility in the media has diminished, and since the NY city government managed to clear out the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park back in November, the movement itself had effectively ceased to exist.
So what is Occupy Wall Street? Initially, it was a phrase coined by the Canadian culture-jamming magazine, Adbusters, in a call they sent out in June of last year encouraging their readers to formulate one demand, and then gather together to occupy Wall Street on September 17th to make sure that demand would be heard.
In the months prior to September, a group of people formed what they called the NYC General Assembly, which met, and adopted a set of facilitation guidelines for conducting meetings that would be inclusive and consensus-based. This general assembly model became the basis for collective decision-making that people used when they descended on Wall St. and established the occupation in Zuccotti Park on September 17, almost exactly ten years after the fall of the twin towers.
The encampment and the atmosphere created by activists (using the encampment both as tactic, and as a base of operations) became known as Occupy Wall Street, and pretty soon occupations began to spread to hundreds of cities and towns across the country.
I’ve been trying to understand Occupy Wall Street ever since my first encounter with it in late September. It’s not a thing, or a group of people or an organization. It is an idea, insofar as we can define, both geographically and symbolically, what Wall Street is. It is also a dynamic, open source process, living in time, a work carried forth by the word “occupy,” which can’t be fully understood based on generalizations or anecdotal accounts.
Occupy’s first application was tactical, but it has quickly exceeded our ability to encapsulate, resisting whatever conceptual framework we try to apply to it, much to the frustration of those in the press who want to explain it away, or those in the political establishment who wish to harness its energy, or those within the movement who want to guide its course. This is a good sign, because it means that whatever it is, it’s alive and goes beyond the limited goals, desires, or imaginations of any one of us, even as it depends on all of us to manifest. Which points to the true nature of occupy: whatever it does or doesn’t become will be determined by the participation, or lack thereof, of everyone.
The word occupy has been one of the busiest words in the English language over the past six months, with its meaning shifting and expanding constantly, depending on what is taking place on any given ground, in any given mind, at any given time.
Maybe the simplest way to say it is that Occupy Wall Street is a search for and application of methods for synchronizing ourselves before it’s too late.
Music and dance are human synchronizations, as is conversation. When we sing together, our individual times weave together, and resonate, rather than just colliding or overlapping.
It’s easy to forget that politics is also a form of human synchronization.
OWS’s fundamental accomplishment thus far has been to establish a space and a process through which to synchronize our conversations and actions, direct and in person. The relative success of the action has largely been a result of recognizing that the scale of society has outgrown and thus undermined our traditional means for synchronization, leaving us vulnerable to misguided solutions spun by people whose magnitude of power disconnects them from the effects of their decisions and actions.
Public education has largely become a tool for programming young people rather than fostering their freedom, while mass media is often used to manipulate, rather than inform, the public. While much credit has been given to social media platforms as enabling the kind of spontaneous information-sharing that has been a fundamental feature of uprisings and occupations sweeping the world over the past years, the most important interactions take place, almost invariably in person. And the real rediscovery has been the power of people to gather together the mass and presence of their physical bodies to assert their freedom and upset the occupiers of traditional power.
But physical bodies can be moved, and Government and private security forces have been relatively successful — after the first few months of confused responses to the occupations — at dispersing the high concentrations of people who were actively conspiring to hold the Private-Public power partnership accountable. The question now is, will we be capable of generating a concentration of ideas even more powerful than the concentration of bodies? Will we succeed in cultivating those ideas deeply and effectively enough (despite resistance from mainstream media) for people to sense the necessity, sincerity and integrity of the effort to achieve true political equality, cultural freedom, and economic solidarity? And will enough people find ways to contribute?
It doesn’t matter if this takes place under the rubric of Occupy. New language will well up when necessary to do justice to the collective imagining so critical for real social transformation. The word occupy, five months in, is already somewhat tired and weighed down with overuse, nostalgia and orthodoxies. But we do seem to be at a turning point, when time itself requires that we, the living generations, act in accordance with our deepest visions of what life on earth can be, that we do our damndest for each other and the generations to come, in honor of those whose bodies have returned to the ground that it’s our basic responsibility to care for. It’s not that much to ask. In fact, it’s pretty standard fare as far as human history goes, punctuated as it is by generations of people who put life before lifestyle, by choice, force or necessity, expanding human consciousness in the face of overly concentrated systems of oppressive power.
Many of us have had the privilege to decide whether we want to dedicate our lives to maintaining the status quo (“Latin for ‘the mess we’re in,’” according to Ronald Reagan), or to tapping into our imaginations, common sense, accumulated knowledge to create new social forms that can do justice to the unprecedented necessities and realizations of our time. Increasingly, the burden of proof is falling on defenders of status quos to justify their positions, as the ground on which they are based shifts, and the dream of maintenance becomes more fanciful than that of a real, slow, life revolution.
Rosa Parks once put it this way, “I believe we are here on this earth to live, grow and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people…” It’s a statement any child can understand, and one that we, as we try to grow up, might do well to remember.