First came the eviction of the Occupy movement from public places. Next came its banishment from mainstream media. Left behind were the many unanswered questions about the movement’s purpose, usefulness, and efficacy. As a lawyer and a part-time professor in a college legal program, I have repeatedly heard those questions and criticisms from my students and others, both the youthful and the experienced.
“What exactly is the specific point of the Occupy movement? We’ve got the best system there is. We don’t need to revolutionize it.” Or, “If people want to make a change, why don’t they work hard and become social workers, vote or run for office?”
There are good answers to all of these questions. I’d like to share mine with you.
Why not change our democracy from within? Why do we need a whole new system of economic and social relations and policies? Indeed, why not dedicate oneself to a single cause, as so many noble persons have done in the past? The answer is that working on one cause, such as sufficient care for seniors or more affordable housing, does not change the foundations of a system that leads to injustice, in the first place, and that perpetuates systemic inequities.
If you want to change one aspect of the current system, then small steps, such as a career in social services or voting and lobbying, may be effective. But exercising the right to vote hasn’t stopped the relative powerlessness of struggling families who can’t negotiate with a bank. Hard-working people still have to choose between essential medical care and food for their families.
In fact, when we get completely engrossed in a single project we become so consumed with advancing that one cause that we have no time to address the roots of the problem, to prevent the creation of more victims. To focus on any one isolated issue leaves us no time to address the structural problems of our system.
Our system is better than previous or other forms of government, but it still unfairly and unjustly benefits certain groups at a heavy cost to others, much like its predecessors.
At one time, we accepted that kings have the right to exercise control over their subjects, their subjects’ chattel, and their subjects’ livelihood. In North America, at least, we no longer have monarchs.
But we have made kings of our bankers and big businesses.
Our banks invest our money at great profit for the banks, but with little return to most people. Saving money no longer makes people rich, but it does make them poor. And people are evicted from their homes because it’s more profitable for banks to resell those homes than to re-negotiate a different contract. The enforcement of the bank’s immediate financial “rights” under the contract is deemed more valuable than dignity, shelter, and collaboration.
Big businesses determine the terms of contracts, so that a contract is not an agreement negotiated between two or more relatively equal parties, but simply a dictation of terms that one can accept absolutely or not. In accepting such a contract, one surrenders all power to negotiate and collaborate. Refusing standard terms leaves you in the dust, because it means that you can’t do business with Walmart, you can’t download an application, you can’t rent a car, and you can’t do business on-line.
We justify the relative power of banks and mega-business over others, their continued amassing of wealth, and their authority to negotiate contracts on their terms. We contend that anyone else who is worthy is free to conduct the same business. Therefore, the system is just, natural, ethical and fair. But our system is not all of those things. It is a human invention, subject to the shortcomings and injustices of all human constructions that came before it and will follow it.
The Occupy movement recognizes these shortcomings and seeks a grander, more fundamental change.
And THAT is the point of the movement: to change the assumptions of our system, to change our discourse, and to change the means by which we seek to promote justice and fairness, by ensuring that justice and fairness for all can actually be realized. And precisely because the message of the Occupy movement is that the whole system needs to be changed, it doesn’t have a single, isolated, neatly defined goal.
In other words, just because our system is better than others past and present doesn’t mean that we should pacify ourselves into quiet surrender.
Instead, why not permit our progress as human beings to inspire us to advance and to seek grand change?
If the only constant is change, why not direct it to a more equitable path? [i]
We can direct both the course and the means of that transformation. To be effective, such a change has to be made on a larger scale, and not only one small amendment at a time.
No grand-scale positive changes have ever resulted from accepting the status quo and working within its confines only. The end of feudalism, the overturn of any monarchies, the beginnings of democracy, the end of Communism—none of these indisputably great social changes resulted from the peoples’ simple submission to the systems that existed, and their surrender and acquiescence to make changes within the system only.
But we need not fear a bloody revolution that will lead us to totalitarianism or North-Korean style Communism. While the Occupy movement aims to revolutionize our system, its path entwines with its goal: to reach a peaceful, just society through collaboration and peaceful means. The occupations have begun a conversation to lead us on a new course.
And while detractors may criticize the lack of clear objectives and of a roadmap in the Occupy movement, it is comforting that the precise boundaries and terms of this new system are undefined by the Occupy movement. To do otherwise would be hypocritical. What the movement does have are working principles that are true to its goal: the principles of collaboration, equity and sustainability. These principles will also determine the means by which we effect change.[ii]
The direction and the extent of such changes are only restrained by the limits of our hope and imagination and our willingness to cooperate.
The Occupy movement is the expression of this hope. It is both its muse and its fuel. Moving it and shoving it around may delay it, may modify its speed, but it will not stop its momentum.[iii]
[i] To review David Suzuki’s comments on the constancy of human change and the aims of the Occupy movement, see http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-reflects-increasing-frustration/?gclid=CImkhfa7mK0CFYHAKgodAGdymA
[ii] To review some of the goals of the Occupy movement, go to http://occupywallst.org/forum/the-global-occupy-movements-intended-goals-reforma/
[iii] To watch an eloquent and moving explanation of the Occupy movement, view Charles Eisenstein’s explanation here: Charles Eisenstein is the author of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition. And Leonard Cohen’s poetic and touching tribute to Occupy can be seen here: (with thanks to Bob K. for bringing this video to my attention. )