Trivializing the movement
Last week, the New York Post provided front page space for a rant about how these ne’er do wells were getting fed by a former cordon bleu chef of the Sheraton midtown hotel, as if their true purpose was to freeload off the kindness of strangers.
The UK press has chosen to both trivialize and demonize the movement by focusing on the fact that as the nights grow cold and draw in, most of the protesters are actually abandoning their tents at night and sleeping in of the comfort of their own beds – evidence, the papers claim, that they must not be truly serious.
Many columnists accuse the protesters of ‘forcing’ the temporary closure of the City of London’s landmark, St Paul’s cathedral, around which they are camped, even though the church itself made the decision to shut its doors and lose vital church income.
And now, in Oakland, California the spotlight has moved from the protesters to the police, after they attempted to disband marching protesters with tear gas, and Scott Olson, two-time Iraqi war veteran and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, landed in Highland Hospital with a fractured skull after a jittery Oakland policeman shot him in the head at close range with a police projectile.
To my mind, the most interesting aspect of this movement is twofold. The first is that the purpose of it is not declared – not even yet formed - but expected to be emergent as time goes on. Many of the protesters themselves are having difficulty articulating anything more than an inchoate rage against the machine and a sense that something fundamentally human is now missing from their lives.
#Occupy Wall Street offers up some general goals in its self-proclaimed ‘modest’ Call to Action; it would like to see the money taken out of politics, freedom to be universal, the election process to undergo a complete overhaul and the corporation to separated from the state.
At this point, the specific call to action largely focuses on feeding the revolt itself – among workers, the unemployed and anyone else – as well as the formation of ‘general assemblies’ wedded to true consensus decision-making and a new way of communicating, based on dialogue, rather than debate.
The goal of #Occupy, as Daniel Zetah, a 35-year-old builder and environmental educator from Minnesota, sees it, is ‘to create a new system of governance that allows for true democracy where corporation voices are not seen as people and we have direct control over our government.
‘We want corporations and the government to completely split. We want to cleave this relationship that is so toxic. That is probably the largest goal we have today.’
Nevertheless, the way this is all to come to pass has yet to be mapped out – a topic to be explored in the new participatory way.
The second fascinating aspect is that as far as is possible in this extraordinarily polarized time, this is a movement that appears to transcend politics, judging from its enormous and growing support – a kind of global Arab Spring. In an October Time magazine poll, 45 per cent of Americans claimed to agree and support the #Occupy movement, a percentage that is climbing every day.
Several members of #Occupy Wall Street have even been identified as originating from the Tea Party. Although commonly believed to be #Occupy’s polar opposite in many regards, the Tea Party agrees broadly with the Occupiers in their massive distrust of government and their desire for back-to-basics liberty.
This movement is not about economic revolution as we presently understand it, in the sense of any alternative system to capitalism we now have, such as socialism or communism. It is not even about the haves against the have nots.
The fledging manifestos of the movement do not focus on economic redistribution or anything overtly Marxist. They emphasize the fact that we are all united in our desire to work and use ‘the sweat of our brow.’ They ask for fairness, equality, fundamental freedoms, equal representation and community consensus – all basic American values, indeed, all basic platforms upon which my country was founded.
Collapse of trust
Something more fundamental to the human experience is going on here than the sense of unfairness about bankers and their bonuses or the current recession, the lobbying system or paralysis of government, in the US or the rest of the world.
This movement is all about the utter collapse of that most basic of qualities in any society – that its citizens have faith and trust in an entity designed for the public good - both by those in Zucotti Park and those who pass them on the way to their high-rise offices on Wall Street.
I thought of this when examining a recent study by Eileen Bjornstrom, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science. Bjornstrom came up with an ingenious piece of research: to examine the ‘relative position’ of people in a community – that is, where one fits into the income distribution in their neighborhood - and how this affects both your ability to trust your neighbors and also your health.
After applying this to the 2001 Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey, Bjornstrom’s results utterly confounded everything she thought that she would find.
The wealthiest in the community were worse off than the poorer ones in many regards. Those with a higher income, compared to the rest of their community, were more likely to be distrustful of their neighbors and consequently more isolated. They also reported poorer health than people who declared that their neighbors could be trusted.
In other words, those who’d achieved the American Dream most acutely felt the current American nightmare of isolation, distrust and consequent poor health. Our current measure of ‘success’ had led them to a physical and emotional cul-de-sac.
Bjornstrom did not find a direct link between low relative position on the economic scale and good or poor health. In fact, money per se was not the decisive factor.
The only key to a healthy life had to do with whether or not you trusted those around you. And those who had money felt the need to develop a fortress mentality, which made them miserable and eventually ill.
Bjornstrom’s prescription for the more affluent individuals was to get to know and trust their neighbors through ‘shared community resources that promote interactions, such as sidewalks and parks’ and other ways to increase community cohesion.
This study offers a number of ideas that can be valuable to #Occupy. It shows that the extreme individualism of the West doesn’t work on any level. In their own way, the rich are also miserable. Separation and unfairness, even when in your favor, not only is contrary to your makeup, which always seeks fairness, but could even kill you.
The study also underscores the necessity of trust in any society. As Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland discovered that the more unequal any society, the more distrustful its citizens.
The most powerful aspect of the #Occupy movement is its desire to raze the hash we’ve made of our political and economic structures, with their emphasis on competition above all else, and to start over from America’s basic ideals.
As I wrote once in The Field, “We have to imagine another way to live, an entirely new way to ‘be.’ We have to blow up all of our societal creations and begin again, building over scorched ground.”
The #Occupy Movement initiators have intuitively understood that the most important place to start is to re-establish trust and to work on building community, from the bottom up.