September 17, 2011 in New York City marked the beginning of a movement that has spread around the world. Inspired by the people and events of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement quickly grew to over 2,500 cities in dozens of countries. With slogans including “We are the 99%,” a principle aim of this movement is to highlight the gross economic inequality and increasing austerity measures being taken by governments worldwide, in a context of unprecedented corporate profit and personal wealth of the richest “1%.”
The primary tactic utilized by this leaderless movement has been the establishment of camps, or the re-occupation of public spaces in a unified display of community power. These spaces are overwhelmingly “governed” by the participants, in general assemblies that are largely directly-democratic. Within many of these “occupied” spaces, systems of food distribution, security, and first-aid have been established. Some have gone as far as creating large lending libraries (as in New York City and Boston) and other community services.
At present, slightly over three months after Occupy Wall Street began, many of these camps have been forcibly and intentionally destroyed by local authorities. As of November 26, 4,784 peaceful participants have been arrested worldwide1, with many reports of police brutality and injuries. This has been due largely to the misuse by officers of “less lethal” weaponry, including aiming tear gas canisters at the heads of protesters2, indiscriminate use of pepper-spray3 toward nonviolent demonstrators, children, and the elderly, as well as physical assaults with batons and other weapons.
These past weeks have seen the destruction of the Occupy Wall St., Boston, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, and most recently Tucson camps, among others. Now the nascent Occupy movement faces one of its strongest tests. In an article for In These Times, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek articulates the central question:
What to do after the Wall Street occupation, after the protests that started far away (Middle East, Greece, Spain, UK) reached the center, and now, reinforced, roll back around the world?
Carnivals come cheap–the test of their worth is what remains the day after, and how they change our normal daily life. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work–they are the beginning, not the end. Their basic message should be: The taboo is broken. We do not live in the best possible world. We are obliged to think about alternatives.
There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions–questions not about what we do not want, but rather about what we DO want. What social organization can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What new institutions, including those of control, should we shape? The 20th century alternatives obviously did not work.
Thus, the question before us is where is the Occupy movement to go next? How can it keep its momentum after the encampments come down (or in most cases, are forcibly dismantled)? The purpose of this short article is to discuss a few points relevant to the Occupy movement and to suggest one possible way of moving forward.
In many ways, this question has already begun to be answered. Calls to “Occupy everything!” have been sounded, and people across the country have begun turning to their communities with projects and groups that retain the directly-democratic principles of Occupy and serve to increase the self-reliance, communality, sustainability, and autonomy of their neighborhoods. Occupy Our Homes works to protect neighbors from eviction and foreclosure, while Occupy the Hood reminds us that the indigenous and peoples of color are at the forefront of the political and economic injustice that affects all poor and the working-class. Very recently, Willie Nelson has also advocated, “Occupy the Food System,” citing the degraded and polluted condition of this system in the United States, and the control of our food by only a handful of giant corporations.
A centrally relevant, though often unarticulated concept for the Occupy movement, is the idea of the commons: the land and resources shared in common by the community at-large, including public spaces. While the primary tactic (encampment) of the movement has been integrally dependent upon the commons, the enclosure and privatization of these resources and spaces by capitalism and the “1%” has been the main bludgeon used to dismantle the movement and stifle its momentum.
Indeed, in New York City, Occupy Wall Street was forced out of Liberty (Zuccotti) Park by police enforcing the private property rights of the owner, Brookfield Properties. The park is in fact considered by the New York City Department of Planning a “privately owned public space.4” Similarly, the Occupy Boston encampment was cleared on the basis of trespassing, and in Chicago, it is unlawful according to municipal code to be in public parks between 11PM and 4AM. Undoubtedly, almost all other Occupy encampments face similar challenges, either from the privatization of public space or the restriction of the use of the commons by municipalities.
This privatization (known as the enclosure of the commons) should come as no surprise to the Occupy movement, as it is a feature that lies at the heart of the unjust economic and political systems to which the movement is calling attention. More than just the resources and spaces vital to healthy and productive communities, the commons can be more holistically defined as the “collective and organic relationships” upon which society rests.
Further, the commons lies at the strategic intersection of community and environment, vividly highlighting the relationship between the degradation and commodification of the natural world (the dumping of toxins into the air, water, and earth; the privatization of water and other resources; the privatization of public spaces) and the ensuing impoverishment of our neighborhoods and communities.
The values central to the prevailing global economic system–commodification, privatization, and the maximization of profit and growth–are therefore inimical to the existence of the commons. It is no wonder then, that the destruction of our communities is concomitant with the increasing hegemony of this economic system. Author and theorist Joel Kovel observes:
The history of capital may be viewed as a never-ending battle to take over collective and organic relationships and replace these with commodity relationships, which is to say, to create private property by destroying the Commons, and to embed this in the accumulation of capital.
In taking up the questions Zizek raises above, it becomes clear that the egalitarian and economically just world to which the Occupy movement aspires is at once also an ecological and sustainable world. This unified, social ecological vision rests in large part on the health of the commons: in the existence of public spaces, non-commodified natural resources, and the collective and organic relationships needed to administer them.
Building on Strengths
The importance of the commons to the world the Occupy movement wishes to create, and the lack thereof being perhaps the largest threat to the momentum and future of the movement, allows us to begin identifying substantive ways of moving forward.
Many strengths can be identified. The subconscious focus on the commons can easily become conscious and guided. The commitment to direct democracy and shunning of “representative,” republican forms of decision-making (so often susceptible to corruption and corporate influence) can be further strengthened as the foundation of the egalitarian, ecological society. The creativity with which demonstrators have met their needs for food, shelter, sanitation, first-aid, security, and entertainment at their encampments can be radiated out into their neighborhoods and communities at-large. The wide spectrum of views and approaches that have converged in the Occupy movement have invigorated the much needed public debate over the future of our shared economy and ecology, and have begun the process of revitalizing concepts of community, solidarity, and public education that are essential to the creation of a new and better world. This is an expression of the social ecological concept of “unity-in-diversity.” Lastly, though by no means a comprehensive list, the challenges faced by all Occupy camps demonstrate at once a remarkable universal solidarity, and the creativity and uniqueness that stems from the particularity of place.
The Occupy movement has heretofore accomplished the major task of negating the apathy surrounding the status quo, creating as Zizek observes, “a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology.” Aware of the strategic nature of the commons and expanding on the strengths of the movement so far, the opportunity arises to begin filling this vacuum with positive, qualitative content. Here a two-fold strategy is suggested: on the one hand, defense of the commons through the defense and extension of the general assembly, as well as an extremely local, grassroots, horizontal, directly democratic alternative political movement known as libertarian municipalism; on the other, expansion of the commons through the transformation of neighborhood spaces and creation of elements of the egalitarian and ecological community known as prefiguration.
The directly democratic General Assemblies that have arisen from the Occupy movement has given the public an education in substantive political engagement and decision making. This massive victory, which has inspired a political consciousness that allows for those affected by political decisions direct input in those decisions, should be built upon.
One way to go about this is to preserve and protect the General Assembly originated with the Occupy encampments, by expanding their scope to become a forum for popular, directly democratic decision making on all matters affecting the local community. General Assemblies should be created throughout our communities, allowing residents a space to guide the direction of their neighborhoods. Simultaneously, this movement should work to demand the City Council recognize these assemblies as having some degree of legal authority. In this way, the Occupy movement would become a movement for the empowerment of individuals and communities in ways that overcome the corruption and corporate influence so prevalent in our existing representative electoral system.
This strategy is known generally as libertarian municipalism. As author and activist Murray Bookchin once stated in an interview:
A libertarian municipalist movement today has to do two things. The first thing is, it has to try and preserve [civic] liberties. And second, it has to try and expand them, to use them as a springboard for claiming greater civic liberties and creating new [ones], which foster the participation of the population as a whole, particularly by the oppressed sectors of the population.5
Such a movement eschews political parties and politicians in favor of extremely local and directly democratic structures for decision-making and administration of our neighborhoods and communities. See “Further Reading” for resources and more information.
Prefiguration is a process of “imaginative envisioning” wherein members of a given community work toward creating alternatives to the given political and economic structure at the local, neighborhood level. This process implies the recreation of community in a substantive sense, through face-to-face decision-making, as well as the meeting of needs communally, from within the currently existing resources of the neighborhood. Cumulatively, this process is intended to inspire and empower more people to participate in such projects, with the ultimate aim of transforming our neighborhoods into ecological, self-reliant, and qualitatively fulfilling places to live.
What then, are these alternatives that can begin to expand the commons and prefigure a world of social, ecological, and economic justice? Simply put, they are projects set up under the system of capitalism but independent of it; projects that when fulfilling certain orienting objectives empower our neighborhoods and rebuild our communities. To support these goals, projects should aim to fulfill four basic characteristics:
Communality: Neighbors coming together internally and communities coming together externally in solidarity and mutual aid, to meet needs collectively, particularly through the use of common or public space and resources. Is the project communal? Does it encourage widespread neighborhood participation or foster interaction between neighbors or communities?
Sustainability: Processes and methods used to meet needs do not negatively impact the surrounding environment, allowing needs to be met indefinitely.
Self-reliance: Meeting most basic needs within the neighborhoods themselves.
Autonomy: Separation from and non-reliance on state or capitalist institutions; independent of external governance.
Communality should be seen as giving the neighborhood and its projects a decentralized, directly democratic, egalitarian character. The concept of communal projects should not be interpreted as the individual being subservient to the community or collective, but rather free individuals coming together in free association to meet needs collectively.
Sustainability is a prerequisite for self-reliance and preserves the freedom of neighboring communities to enjoy a pristine environment and carry out their activities unmolested. Sustainability also preserves the freedom of members of one’s own neighborhood by allowing needs to be met indefinitely, in turn allowing for the neighborhood to be autonomous indefinitely.
Self-reliance is complimentary to autonomy. Whereas autonomy can be viewed in negative terms, as a lack of dependence, self-reliance is the positive counterpart. In place of being dependent upon the state and capitalist institutions, neighborhoods must come together to meet their own needs. This is the logical extension to declaring independence from systems that prevent us from maximizing our freedom.
Autonomy here is used not as a synonym of “freedom,” though this is very important, but to denote the independence of a community.
Lastly, lest their be any confusion, these projects are not intended to make neighborhoods cut off from each other. To the contrary, the General Assemblies and neighborhood projects create avenues for solidarity and mutual aid between communities in ways that are horizontal, directly democratic, and anti-authoritarian.
Specific projects are up to the imagination of the neighbors themselves and can begin with the fulfillment of basic needs–for food, shelter, and clothing, among others–and expand to independent financial systems, community-based healthcare, childcare, education and other projects. The possibilities are limitless.
A Strategy Within the Occupy Movement and Occupy Tucson
A simple beginning to this process is suggested through the creation of a formal or informal working group. The purpose of this group is to further explore the ideas of libertarian municipalism, prefiguration, and neighborhood empowerment as outlined above. Further, the group would advocate these ideas within the Occupy General Assembly. This is a model that can be used everywhere, and the local Tucson group would attempt to share this model with other Occupy cities around the world. Such a working group would be a point of networking in Tucson for those wishing to create General Assemblies and other projects within their own neighborhoods, and a space of solidarity and support for those engaged in such activities.
Examples to Inspire
A brief mention of other projects globally can help inspire our work. These are diverse movements from around the globe, with differing approaches and strategies. This does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of all their actions, but is used to highlight the possibility of a directly democratic movement to take root and change communities for the better.
Abahlali baseMjondolo is “the largest shack-dwellers’ movement in South Africa, and campaigns to improve the living conditions of poor people and to democratize society from below. The movement refuses party politics [and] boycotts elections… Its key demand is that the social value of urban land should take priority over commercial value… The key organizing strategy is to try ‘to recreate Commons’ from below by trying to create a series of linked communes.6”
Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement “is a community-based, participatory, ecologically-conscious development movement that has involved millions of people in its programs, has engaged participants in close to half of [Sri Lanka’s] villages, has created more than 5,000 pre-schools, [and] has established several thousand community banks and savings societies with plans for thousands more…”7
The Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico “aligns itself with the wider alter-globalization, anti-neoliberal social movement, seeking indigenous control over their local resources, especially land….” with a “key element of the Zapatista ideology” being “their aspiration to do politics in a new, participatory way, from the ‘bottom-up’ instead of ‘top-down’” and “reinforce the idea of participatory democracy…”8
Together we can transcend the mere petitioning of government (important as this is) and empower ourselves, through the expansion of the commons and fulfillment of needs, to begin creating the world we wish to see.
Charles Imboden is a social ecologist and student of ecology at Prescott College. His studies include the development of a social ecology of the Sonoran Desert bioregion. He resides in Tucson, AZ. Contact him at cimboden[at]prescott.edu.
Biehl, Janet. The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism. 1998. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? 2Nd Edition. 2007. Zed Books: London, England.
1) OccupyArrests Project
2) Wikipedia: Occupy Oakland #Scott Olsen Head Injury
3) Democracy Now!, November 29, 2011
4) Privately Owned Public Space: NYC Deptartment of City Planning
5) “Interview with Murray Bookchin,” in The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism. 1997. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Quebec.
6) Wikipedia: Abahlali baseMjondolo
7) John P. Clark: “The Gift of Hope: Sarvodaya Shramadana’s Good Work” in Capitalism Nature Socialism #62 (2005): 1-9
8) Wikipedia: Zapatista Army of National Liberation