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Occupy or self-manage?

Z-Net's Michael Albert asks what message is emerging from the global wave of occupations

October 27, 2011
16 min read

I have yet to see my nearest large occupation, Boston, or the precursor of all U.S. occupations, Wall Street. Instead, I have been on the road for the past six weeks in Thesselonika and Athens Greece; Istanbul and Diyarbikar Turkey; Lexington, Kentucky; London, England; Dublin, Ireland; and in Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia Spain.

In all these places, I talked with diverse individuals at many meetings and popular assemblies. I met people involved in occupations, as well as audiences assembled by my hosts to hear about participatory economics. Beyond addressing assigned topics, my own priority was to learn about local movements. I repeatedly asked what folks struggling for many months wished to say to other folks first embarking on similar paths.

Boredom, Disempowerment, and Consensus Obstruct Growth

In Greece and Spain, a single message predominated. It had nothing to do with analyses of capitalism or other analytic focuses. Instead, Greek and Spanish activists reported that they had massive assemblies in widespread cities and their occupations grew, grew, grew, so that assemblies were up to 12,000, 15,000 – and then they shrunk, shrunk, shrunk, so that assemblies are now not meeting, or are meeting in the hundreds, or less.

Yet I heard, time after time, that nothing had diminished regarding the population’s rejection of unfolding injustices. The people remain fed up in huge numbers and still turn out massively for demonstrations, marches, and strikes. So why were most people who were rallying and marching no longer assembling? The reply I heard at every stop was that the decline of the assemblies wasn’t due to repression, or to people being co-opted, or to people being tricked or saddened by media distortion or dismissal. In fact, the assemblies shrinking wasn’t due to anything anyone else did to the assemblies, or said about them, or didn’t do to them, or didn’t say about them, activists repeatedly reported. Instead, they told me, the problem emanated from within.

For example, Greek and Spanish activists said that at assemblies initially people spoke with incredible passion of their plights and desires. Their voices often broke. Their hands shook. Each time someone rose to speak, something real, passionate, and persistent happened. It was enchanting and exciting. People were learning not only new facts and interpretations – and, indeed, that kind of learning was relatively modest – they were also learning new confidence and new modes of engaging with others. But after days and then weeks, the flavor of the talks shifted. From being new folks speaking passionately and recounting their reasons for being present and their hopes for their future by delivering deeply felt and quite unique stories, the speakers shifted toward being more seasoned or habituated folks, who lectured attendees with prepackaged views. The lines of speakers became overwhelmingly male. Their deliveries became overwhelmingly rehearsed. Listening to robotic repetition and frequent predictable and almost text-like ranting got boring and alienating. Sometimes it was even demeaning.

At the same time, new people, who were still far more prevalent, didn’t know what to do while they were occupying. We could assemble, they reported. We could talk and engage with each other. We could listen to others and sometimes debate a bit – the Greek and Spanish Assemblers reported – but, how long could we do that and feel it was worth the time we had to spend away from our families, friends, and jobs, not to mention from rooms with a roof?

As they first formed, the assemblies were invigorating and uplifting. We were creating a new community, I was told. We were making new friends. We were hearing from new people. We were enjoying an environment where dissent was the norm. But as days passed, and then weeks, it got too familiar. And it wasn’t obvious to folks what more they could do. There weren’t tasks to undertake. We weren’t being born anymore, we were dying. It was hard. For many it was impossible to keep learning and keep contributing. There was a will, but there was not a way. Folks didn’t have meaningful things to do that made them feel part of a worthy project. We felt, in time, only part of a mass of people.

After a time, many asked, why should I stay and listen to boring talks? Why should I be hugely uncomfortable and cut off from family and work, if I have nothing to do that is constructive, nothing that is empowering, nothing that furthers worthy aims? And so people started to attend less, and then to leave.

Another factor that was initially exciting but later became tedious, was seeking consensus. At first it was novel. It implied trust, which felt good. It implied shared intentions, which felt inspiring. But after awhile, seeking consensus became tortured, a time waster, and its reason for being the only decision making approach became steadily less compelling.

Why can’t we arrive at decisions which some people do not like and don’t even want to participate in? Why can’t we arrive at decisions, and have a strong minority that dissents, and then respect that minority, and even have it pursue other possibilities to see their worth? Why do we allow some small group to cause discussions to continue without end, turning off many from relating when the small group has no legitimate claim to greater influence than anyone else – save that our mode of decision making gives them a veto?

Folks recounted all these dynamics very graphically and movingly. No one said that people stopped participating in assemblies because of fear or the cops or depression over the newspapers. No one said people left because they had developed doubts about protest or resistance, much less about the condition of society. Instead, everyone I spoke with, and it was a lot of very committed people, told me participants left due to lacking good reasons to stay. The bottom line was that the assemblies got tedious and, ironically, even disempowering. Folks wondered, why must I be here every day and every night? The thought nagged. It led to legions moving on.

 

Making the Very Good Even Better

What is the solution, I asked, in each new city, and we discussed possible answers.

Occupy but better yet, self manage, I was told. The former option is basically passive – the latter is active and yields tasks and opportunities to contribute.

Grow in numbers and awareness, but those who become well learned must stay in touch with new people, and always remember that new people’s involvement matters most. Otherwise old timers are getting more knowledgeable but also more aloof, and new people will not stay.

Why not have classes for learning? Why not have activities for creating? Why not have actions for winning changes? Always speak to the new people. Always speak from experience, from events, not from preconceived lines. Always involve yourself and new people in tangible and worthy activity. Make the options evident and easy to become involved with.

Of course some things can’t be solved at occupations themselves. Sleeping out is a young person’s passion – but not an option for everyone. In Dublin, this was particularly evident. So, while sleeping in an occupied space makes sense for some young or homeless folks, why not proactively take for granted that many other folks, particularly with families, will not and cannot sleep under the stars? Why not have a program of activities that returns people to their home locales for organizing purposes each night, or even for all but the explicit time of assembly meetings, perhaps?

Ideas that resonated in the many discussions, and that activists involved felt needed preponderant support, included: once an occupation has a lot of people, have subgroups initiate other occupations in more places, all federated together and providing one another mutual aid. In the most local, neighborhood occupations, visit every home. Talk with every resident. Involve as many neighbors as possible. Determine real felt needs. If what is most upsetting neighbors is housing concerns, daycare issues, traffic patterns, mutual aid, loneliness, whatever, try to act to address the problems.

Have occupations self manage and create innovations artistically, socially, and politically. Have occupations occupy indoors, not just outside. It is a leap, perhaps, but not much of one. In Barcelona and Madrid – some have tentatively begun occupying abandoned apartments and other buildings, preparatory, I believe, to inviting the homeless to dwell in them, as well as to using them for meetings and the like. In Valencia I was at a very fledgling university occupation, begun, indeed, after a talk. But to occupy buildings, especially institutions like universities or media, isn’t just a matter of call it, or tweet it, and they will come. It is a matter of go get them, inform them, inspire them, enlist them, empower them, and they will come.

In Greece and Spain, and to an extent the other venues I visited too, violence was another focus. All who I talked with agreed it was a suicidal approach on two counts. First, violence is the state’s main strength. Shifting the terms of conflict toward violence shifts it precisely where the state and elites want it – toward their strength. Second, violence distorts the project. It makes it inaccessible for many. It makes bystanders critical. It diminishes outreach, and outreach is the basis of all gains.

I have been to Greece a number of times, and in earlier trips this view was quite weak among young Greeks, who were more typically ready and eager to rumble. But now the non violence stance has growing traction in Greece. In Spain, from the start, it was predominant and Spanish activists have successfully avoided giving the state an excuse for violence, thus causing every act of violence by the state to reverberate to its disadvantage.

Forget about violence and rioting, develop campaigns emanating from occupations, which means, said activists in Spain, developing demands to fight for. Indeed, over and over activists involved asked about demands that could unite constituencies and which could be fought for in creative and participatory ways so that victories were possible which would really matter to people’s lives and enthusiasm and spur further struggle. They felt that while the open ended character of dissent worked fantastically initially, and was warranted while waiting for enough outreach so demands would represent a real constituency’s views, not just those of a few leaders, over time, one needs focus.

Some suggestions for demands that arose were welcome. Others less so. For example, everyone liked demanding big cuts in military spending and reinstatement and enlargement of funds for social programs. But what folks really liked was when that demand was explored and enlarged to include transforming the purposes of military bases that would otherwise be shrunk or closed due to budget cutting to instead stay open and do worthy public works such as building low income housing, first for base residents who would need and appreciate it, and then for the homeless.

And regarding the homeless, a demand that hit home was freezing foreclosures, returning homes, distributing vacant homes, housing the homeless – including the idea of enacting occupations to undertake these results directly, a process that has begun in Barcelona and Madrid which also have robust movements to block foreclosures.

Another approach that seemed to gather considerable support was to demand full employment. But that wasn’t all. Recognizing the lack of current demand for produced goods people realized a sensible full employment demand would require also reducing the work week by 10 – 25 percent, depending on the country’s unemployment rate. Of course if most people saw their incomes decline by a corresponding amount, they would face catastrophe, and thus the reduced hours demand has to be combined with a demand that most people would incur no loss of income. (Living wage policies and redistributionist progressive taxation would also be part of the mix.) Full employment additionally strengthens working people because when they all have jobs, the threat of being fired declines to near irrelevance. Winning this demand also means workers enjoy more leisure and higher hourly wages for those in need. Additional costs would have to be born by owners, and if they don’t agree, that’s fine – workers might want to occupy those factories, and then move to self manage them.

Another popular notion was going after media. One option that resonated as a possible campaign goal, even while obviously falling short of total transformation, (though certainly on the way toward it), was demanding one or more new sections of mainstream newspapers, or shows, or whatever which would be devoted to, for example, labor dissent, or feminism, or peace, or ecology, and so on. Crucially, these would not be managed in the usual corporate fashion, but, instead, via self management of their participants under the umbrella of major labor, women’s, peace, or ecology organizations, for example.

In these exchanges, activists were imagining a worldwide campaign against mainstream media, against military spending, for low income quality housing, and for full employment including accompanying income redistribution and increased leisure. They envisioned these campaigns unifying protest into resistance and then unifying resistance into creative self management, even as each occupation also related to its own local concerns.

 

Self Managements!

Occupations – or what might come to be known, in time, as self managements – would occur in local neighborhoods and federate up to cities and beyond, but also at the entrances to, and perhaps even inside, mainstream media, and at military recruiting stations and bases, at government ministries and branches, and finally, one can envision, even at factories and other workplaces. And in such endeavors not everyone would have to sleep outdoors but everyone would have to give some of their time, resources, insight, and energy to aid one or another campaign of the overall project.

The revolution, so to speak, is not immediately at hand. In my youth we bellowed – “We want the world and we want it now!” It was fine as a rousing chant. But we need to also understand that it takes time, it takes sustained effort, traversing not weeks or months, but years.

Indeed, even with the incredible speed and ingenuity of current outbreaks of activism, there are undeniably pessimistic scenarios in which occupations wind down and then demos happen for a time but manage to win only minor if any gains until movement morbidity sets in. This is what the Greeks and Spaniards are trying to avoid. It is why they are beginning new kinds of occupations aimed at media, housing, universities, and at the transformation of budgets, and soon, perhaps at hiring and firing. Projects that are designed to enhance and widen participation in ways leading to massive involvement of masses of people – all knowing what they want and how they can contribute to attaining it.

There are, however, also optimistic scenarios in which occupations diversify and morph into self managing projects radiating out campaigns for change while also welcoming into sustained participation countless actors of all ages and orientations. In this picture, daily marches to support other campaigns in a city – like in New York currently – with growth in numbers and confidence, leads to empty buildings becoming residences and meeting places, to mainstream media businesses becoming targets for occupation, and likewise for universities, and other workplaces of all kinds. Simultaneously, local neighborhoods generate their own assemblies, again, like in New York, initiated by the residents who had been schooled in the earlier, larger, city-wide endeavors, and then local participants patiently and empathetically enter every house, every kitchen and living room, and elicit desires, and, in time, participation.

 

Paths Forward

Envisioning all this and much more, once people’s ambition is unleashed from the shackles of daily pessimism, was not hard for folks I talked with. The optimistic path is a scenario involving planting the seeds of the future in the present. It is a scenario that marshals energy and insights to building alternatives, but also winning gains now all fought for and implemented in ways that build desires and organization aimed at winning still more gains in the future.

We need a sense of proportion and pacing. The occupations now underway still involve only a small fraction, indeed a tiny fraction, of the people in pain and angry about it. To grow, the occupations need to very explicitly conceive themselves in ways that address immediate needs, are aimed at viable and worthy long term goals, and develop modes of participation that cause normal folks, enduring normal harsh conditions, to feel that giving their time makes good sense because it can eventually lead to a new social system with vastly better outcomes than those presently endured. Occupations that began in response to economic insanity need, as well, to broaden and adopt a more encompassing focus taking into account not only the economy, but also, and equally, matters of race, gender, age, ability, ecology, and war and peace. This is what makes a movement a threatening project able to induce capitulation from authorities afraid to make it grow even larger. It is what makes a movement worthy of winning, as well.

We need not only patience in the face of a long struggle, but also a sense of optimism and desire. The occupations are a start, a veritable firestorm of initiation, and they already have vastly wider support than their direct participation evidences. There is a possibility lurking in these events that is awesome in its potential implications. We should all be patient and keep our heads, yet we should all also realize that this may be a very special time, especially for young people, during which it is possible to make an indelible, enduring, and incredibly desirable mark on history.

This piece was originally published on Z-Net.

 

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