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Occupy History

I just read a great article on the Occupy movement in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine, apparently written before the elimination of tents from New York’s Zucotti Park. It’s long, even with my edits, but I think well worth your time. Here it is (thanks, Jeff Sharlet):

It started with a Tweet – “Dear Americans, this July 4th, dream of insurrection against corporate rule” – and a hashtag: #occupywallstreet. It showed up again as a headline posted online on July 13th by Adbusters, a sleek, satirical Canadian magazine known for its mockery of consumer culture. Beneath it was a date, September 17th, along with a hard-to-say slogan that never took off, “Democracy, not corporatocracy,” and some advice that did: “Bring tent.”

On August 2nd, the New York City General Assembly convened for the first time in Lower Manhattan, by the market’s bronze icon, “Charging Bull.” It wasn’t the usual protest crowd. “The traditional left – the unions, the progressive academics, the community organizations – wanted nothing to do with this in the beginning,” says Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old filmmaker from Columbus, Ohio, who was working on a BBC documentary called “Creating Freedom,” about why people rebel. “I think it’s telling that, of the early participants, so many were artists and media makers.”

Even the instigators and architects present at the creation marvel at how things just happened. “It was a magic moment,” says Kalle Lasn, Adbusters‘ 69-year-old co-founder. “After that, things took on a life of their own, and then it was out of our hands.”

Adbusters‘ call to arms had been timid by the standards of the movement quickly taking form. The magazine had proposed a “worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics,” but these went no further than pressuring Obama to appoint a presidential commission on the role of money in politics. In Lasn’s imagination that would be just the start. “We knew, of course, that Egypt had a hard regime change where a torturous dictator was removed,” he says, “but many of us felt that in America, a soft regime change was possible.”

Possible, but not likely. They were still thinking in inches. “To be perfectly honest, we thought it might be a steppingstone, not the establishment of a whole thing,” says David Graeber, a 50-year-old anthropologist and anarchist whose teaching gig at Yale was not renewed, some suspect, because he took part in radical actions. It was Graeber who gave the movement its theme: “We are the 99 percent.” He also helped rescue it from the usual sorry fate of the left in America, the schisms and infighting over who’s in charge. Having shown up at the August 2nd meeting, he was surprised to find a rally dominated by the antiquated ideas of the Cold War left. He recognized a Greek anarchist organizer, Georgia Sagri, and with her help identified kindred spirits. “I didn’t recognize faces – everybody was so young. I went by T-shirts – Zapatistas, Food Not Bombs.” Anarchists in name or inclination. Graeber calls them the “horizontal crowd,” because they loathe hierarchy. “It was really just tapping on shoulders. And a lot of people said, ‘Shit, yeah.'”

They set up a circle in a nearby park, dubbed it the New York City General Assembly and got down to talking about how they’d pull off the occupation. They only numbered about 60 people, they had no money, and they were planning to take over one of the most heavily policed public spaces on the planet. Adbusters had called for 20,000 bodies; only 2,000 showed up on September 17th. Maybe 100 of them slept over that first night in Zuccotti Park, a block-long granite plaza tucked between skyscrapers. The next night, there were a few more, and on Monday morning, they were still there. There was a police raid on Tuesday, and the little press the occupation got was mocking: the New York Times sent an entertainment reporter, who made fun of the protesters. In the days that followed, the few grew in numbers, a demographic that didn’t conform to media clichés: anarchist punks, out-of-work construction workers, and teachers who slept in the park and rose early to go to school. Cooks and nannies and librarians, lots of librarians, and Teamsters and priests and immigrants, legal and otherwise, and culture jammers, eco-warriors, hackers, and men and women in Guy Fawkes masks, an army of stunt doubles from “V for Vendetta,” joined by young veterans of the Arab Spring and the revolts in Greece and Spain.

Now there are more than 1,600 occupations around the country and the world, some big, most small, some no more than one angry soul on the side of the road with a sign that says “We are the 99 percent.” We’re in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and Nashville; in London, Sydney, Cape Town, Tokyo, and Sao Paulo. At the start of this month, Occupy Wall Street was serving more than 3,000 meals a day from its free kitchen, stocked mostly with donated food. At night, a rotating cast of as many as 500 bedded down in the park, many of them using blankets and sleeping bags provided by the occupation. A library held some 4,500 cataloged volumes – everything from the Communist Manifesto to He’s Just Not That Into You, an all-volunteer medical staff provided free health care, and a station was giving out hand-rolled cigarettes.

One of the basic premises of the Occupy movement is the idea that democracy exists for most Americans as little more than an unhappy choice between two sides of the same corporate coin. “We’ve been so alienated from our own sense of agency that being asked to be part of any real decision is exciting,” a woman in her late thirties who calls herself Beatrix told me. She’s one of the old hands, close to the core of nearly every major radical action in New York of the past decade. “Movements usually spend a lot of time on education, telling people why they need to come to the demonstration,” she said. “This is exactly the opposite. The people came. Now we’re all deciding together what happens.”

“Right off the bat I was addicted,” says Jesse LaGreca, sipping a beer at a fireman’s bar near the park. Two hundred and fifty pounds, with wiseguy eyes and a permanent ruddy flush, LaGreca looks like he grew up on a bar stool in a place like this. He has a decade-plus of dead-end jobs behind him. The best was managing a L’Occitane store in the West Village – $15 an hour, no health insurance. Lately, he’s been making his living as a writer, posting deeply researched rants against the Republicans on the liberal blog Daily Kos and asking for donations. “You put up a Pay­Pal link and tell people, ‘Dude, I’m fucked. Can you help me?'” Just before heading down to Occupy Wall Street, he wrote a post called “If I light myself on fire, do you think these bastards will notice?” It was a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who did just that, igniting the Arab Spring.

“I’m not gonna lie,” LaGreca says. “First thing I saw at the park was the topless girls. Can’t help it, dude. But then I saw the food lines” – the Occupy Wall Street kitchen, feeding all comers – “and then I saw the books. I’m a nerd, man. I read and read.” He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, but continued his education on the job as a school janitor in New Jersey. “Read all of Thoreau, Emerson, Shakespeare. Read a lot of Dostoyevsky. I was a shitty janitor.”

There were books, free food, and women, but that wasn’t what kept him there. “People were talking – everybody, and I could talk, too.” He didn’t just have a voice; he had amplification – the human microphone. On the fourth day of the occupation, a former science teacher named Justin Wedes was speaking to the crowd through a megaphone when a policeman threw him to the ground, the first of a series of rough arrests that morning. One man’s face was ground into a flower bed, another was dragged and cuffed ’til his hands bled, another was left gasping, denied his inhaler. The cops moved in, citing a law prohibiting the use of electronic amplification. This turned out to be a lucky break: without conventional means, the occupiers had to figure out a new way to hear one another.

The “people’s mic” begins with a single voice, calling “Mic check!” “Mic check!” the assembly thunders back. It’s absurd, its inherent humor and brevity undercutting the wordy earnestness that usually makes political meetings unbearable. “My concern”/”MY CONCERN”/”is deeper”/”IS DEEPER”/”than sleeping bags!”/”THAN SLEEPING BAGS!”

“The cops made a huge mistake,” says LaGreca. “The people’s mic is such a unifying force. Almost like a choir. Like a modern religious revival. But it’s a civil revival. We’re becoming citizens down here.”

Occupations are about refilling space – parks and plazas, a hollowed-out public sphere. That begins with bodies, accompanied by noise. Which is where the drums come in, bongos and tablas and tambourines and full drum kits with snares. In the beginning, the drummers drummed as long as their arms could flail, sometimes 12 hours a day. The noise was so loud it was like a wall on the western edge of the park. At first the drums were exciting, even if you weren’t really a drum-circle kind of person, which most of the occupiers weren’t. But then they got annoying. Like when you were trying to sleep. Or talk. Or hold a general assembly.

One of the first times the General Assembly asked the drummers to quiet down, they simply moved their drums farther down the park. Another time, the drummers said what they were doing was sacred; they’d quiet down in a little while (they didn’t). “This movement would not be here right now if we didn’t do what we did, by playing all day,” a drummer boasted. One night they grew so rowdy, they began to drown out the General Assembly altogether. So the first order of democracy was to bring the drummers, many of whom did not want to stop drumming long enough to talk, into the assembly. A lot of them weren’t interested. What was to be done?

The drummers did it themselves, imperfectly but “horizontally,” through self-regulation rather than “vertical” rule imposed from above. They pulled themselves into a “working group,” one of the key units of organization in the occupation – there are 82 as of this writing and there will almost certainly be more tomorrow. The drummers called their group Pulse and agreed to lay down their sticks for a while to attend general assemblies.

“John,” a compact man, all taut vein and muscle, with a shock of wiry gray-black hair, spoke for Pulse one night. “We,” he said. “We,” the crowd said. “Want to respect you. But we want respect too!” The drummers, he reminded the General Assembly, had restricted themselves to two-hour sessions, noon to two and four to six. But there was a move afoot to cut them back to only one two-hour drumming period. “We are the movement’s heartbeat!” John shouted. “You’re cutting out your heartbeat!”

To which another speaker, an earnest young woman named Linda, responded, “I have a clarifying question. How is it that one group can claim to be my heartbeat?”

The first night that I stayed at Zuccotti Park, bodies were laid out like tiles, head to toe, in circles and blocked out in squares and the occasional heap. There were street-sleeping pros, homeless and crusty punks, wrapped up in tarps, a few people on air mattresses with fluffy pillows. I didn’t actually sleep. I paced among the tarp-covered bodies, sat on the steps, browsed the library, drank coffee from the food trucks open 24/7. The second night, after beers with LaGreca and a few other occupiers, I followed his friend Austin, a college dropout – a casualty of his student loans – who works with autistic children, to the Comfort Station for some bedding of my own. “We’ll set you up on the margins,” said Austin. “That way you can get out if you need to.”

Twice I woke up. Once when a squat woman with dreads down to her knees shuffled by with a broom, a cleaning detail, and woke another sleeper, who stood up with his sleeping bag wrapped around him, stumbled, and gave up, letting it drop to reveal a sculpted body, naked but for dog tags. And a second time when a deranged man, top-heavy like a bulldog, punched the air above my head, daring anyone to take a shot at him. The occupation’s security, thin-limbed men with walkie-talkies, spread their arms out like birds and surrounded him. “We love you, man,” they said, over and over, containing but never touching. Finally he fled; the scene was too strange for conventional crazy.

If Occupy is “semireligious,” which is how many at the park describe it, and “a spiritual insurrection,” in the words of Adbusters senior editor Micah White, then its rituals might be counted as these: First, occupation itself. Second, the General Assembly. Third, the kitchen and the food line. And finally, sleep, lying among your comrades, everyone vulnerable, everyone absurd, stretched out between the coffee trucks and the police cruisers, under the watchful eye of a mobile NYPD surveillance tower jacked up over a truck.

When I returned a week later, the scene had darkened. “It started with punks and nice academic anarchists and grad students and labor organizers,” said a journalist who’d slipped into the movement. “Then it got really mainstream. But now it’s like a circus.” The human mic wasn’t as loud. The sanitation group threatened to strike. There were more signs that made no sense, suspicions of police infiltration, and accusations of treason. The people who ran the kitchen, confronted by street people in need of more care than a protest camp can provide and sometimes given to violence, revolted, serving only rice. They even proposed a fast. The other organizers would have none of it. “In this camp, the bullshit flows in certain directions sometimes,” said one participant at a daily coordinators’ meeting, but that’s not an excuse for starving anybody. “Everybody eats,” chimed in another coordinator. “Junkie or tourist, donator or worker – everybody eats.”

The tents proved to be one of Occupy Wall Street’s most contentious issues. At the start of the protests, the rapper Lupe Fiasco donated 50 tents, but the police tore them down. In mid-October, members decided to try again, putting up a medical tent. Police moved in to dismantle it, but Jesse Jackson happened to be visiting the camp and put his body in the way. Cops on the scene got the word from on high that it wasn’t worth it to try and arrest him. With the tents came a new kind of territory: turf, even private property. The park’s sobriety, an agreed-upon principle, began to erode. The police reportedly started directing street people to the park, but refused to help when some got out of control. Junkies came and then the people who supply them. Some tents became shooting galleries. Rumors began to circulate – that there’d been a stabbing, that someone was running around with an AIDS-infected needle. A man who worked in the kitchen was arrested for sexual assault.

By late October, there were three levels of internal security. The kitchen closed at eight. The 24/7 library rolled up around midnight. Liberty Park was a city, and it had hours. Anyone can still join though. It’s another old protest slogan metamorphosed. “Whose streets?” would go the call. “Our streets,” came the reply. Now it’s personal. Whose city? Your city, there for the making. All you have to do is show up.

Reporters keep sniffing around for leaders, but while it’s true that the movement has spawned celebrities – like LaGreca, who lambasted a Fox News reporter in a YouTube clip that went viral – its resistance to organized leadership has proved enduring. Kalle Lasn watches in awe from his home in Vancouver. David Graeber left for Austin four days after the occupation started. Marina Sitrin stays active on the legal team dedicated to working with Occupy Wall Street’s arrestees (there have been almost 1,000 arrests in New York and more than 3,000 movement-wide, as of this writing), but she’s far enough removed from the action that LaGreca has never heard of her, just as the thousands who have joined the camp for a night have never heard of him. The evasion of organized leadership that for many began as a tactic – leaders are targets and weak links, subject to prosecution and co-option – has now grown into a principle.

Which leaves the biggest questions – what is Occupy trying to say, and who will be its voice? – with no conventional answers. The press finds this maddening. It “doesn’t really take you to a particular bumper-sticker action,” declared a puzzled Gerald Seib at The Wall Street Journal, unable to imagine any other worthwhile outcome. Even some within the movement have their doubts. “You don’t seriously believe this is a leaderless movement, do you?” Cecily McMillan, a 23-year-old graduate student at the New School, asked me one day. Not possible, she says, that’s an illusion crafted by the OWS secret elite, who she insists are unresponsive to the demand for a concrete agenda by the “actual 99 percent.”

McMillan is Northeast regional organizer for the youth section of the Democratic Socialists of America, which bills itself as the largest socialist organization in the United States. She’s been involved with the Occupy movement since August, despite sharp differences with most of the people in the park. “I believe in a constrained view of revolution,” she says, by which she means putting pressure on mainstream politicians. And for this, she says, she has suffered. “I have been called a terrorist. I have been called CIA, FBI. I have been called a Democrat!” Like Lasn, she wants regime change. Unlike most of the occupiers, she believes it requires the guidance of those, like her, possessed of what she calls “cultural capital.”

She’s a former cheerleader; she used to want to be a politician. She says her studies and her work – she’s also a nanny – prevent her from sleeping in the park. But she’s not afraid to put her body on the line. She was arrested after she charged Wall Street three times, a “direct action” that even some veteran anarchists – militant and masked – considered wildly courageous, if foolish. A cop thought so, too, blasted her with pepper spray, knocked her down, stepped on her head and snarled obscenities at her.

McMillan is a representative of the working group bluntly calling itself Demands that doesn’t have broad support. The question of demands – whether to make them, when to make them, and what to demand – is a peculiar one in that it’s at the heart of the national occupation debate, and yet mostly irrelevant to the occupiers at Wall Street. They simply want a better world, which, as far as they’re concerned, they’ve already started building.

McMillan sees herself as giving “a voice to the voiceless.” To do that, she says, the movement needs concrete demands. The demand at which the group arrived – “Jobs for All,” meaning a public-works program providing 25 million union-wage jobs – was not her first choice, but she was a servant of “the workers.”

While we were talking, a tall woman with olive skin and a black leather coat was giving me the evil eye. She was part of a little squad of four that became a nucleus around which more gathered, until they became about a dozen. That’s when they surrounded me, cutting me off from McMillan. They were, I learned, a “swarm,” and they were performing an “intervention.”

“We heard there’s a Rolling Stone interview about demands,” said a longhaired man in shorts and only wool socks on his feet, a leaf pinned to his sleeve. Talking about demands, he said, could lead to “co-optation of the movement,” since “demands are pretty much speaking for the whole group.”

“All we want is a voice,” McMillan said. Next to her, a woman tilted a shoulder away from McMillan and declared to me and the rest of the swarm, “I want to be clear. We can have a voice without having demands.” Marisa Holmes, the filmmaker who’d been there since the beginning, seemed egoless, yet confident.

From there, the conversation revolved around intricacies of process. What’s consensus? 90 percent? 80 percent? 75 percent? At issue were reports that McMillan had attempted to strong-arm decisions based on a simple majority vote. McMillan seemed frustrated by the accusation, but couldn’t deny it. Two months ago, she was a perfect organizing machine – disciplined, articulate, working-class roots with a grad-school veneer. But she was discovering she didn’t function as well on the new terrain of the occupation, where the traditional methods of the left no longer meant as much as they once had. She had no idea that providing “a voice for the voiceless” was not a service in demand in a movement built on the idea that everyone can speak for themselves. To her, the occupation was a symbol more than a community. When we walked by the camp later that night she seemed surprised: “They have tents now?”

Almost everyone you meet in the park will tell you some variation of one thing. They aren’t doing this for 2012, they don’t want to go to Washington, they don’t care what Congress or the New York Times or Bill Maher or Kanye West thinks of them. They aren’t trying to provide a voice for the voiceless. They’re doing it for themselves, and they speak for no one but themselves. They are the 99 percent; so am I, so are you. Make your own demands if you want to.

Late one night, I met a woman named Elisa Miller at the Occupy Library. A 38-year-old former landscape architect who took a bus up from New Orleans, Miller had been in the park since the beginning. She said she hadn’t really laughed since Katrina: “We’ve been occupying New Orleans for six fucking years.” But something had changed. She had long straight brown hair and the loose rubbery gestures of someone who’s exhausted and yet glad to be awake. “You come here with what you’ve been OCD’ing about,” she said. “First day, you’ve got a sign: ‘Tax the rich!’ And it’s, like, sure, that’s a good idea. But then you’re here for a couple of days, you work in the kitchen or in the library, you speak up when you want to, and you get to thinking, this is exactly what you need. You can march if you want to, but here?” She turned a circle, sweeping it all in, cops included. “This is where we’re rebooting history.”

So it seemed on my last day at Liberty Plaza, the Sunday following last month’s freak snowstorm. “What will happen in the winter?” has been a refrain almost as incessant as the drumming. The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. Nobody has “known” anything that would happen so far. Maybe they will endure; maybe they will retreat; maybe Mayor Bloomberg will, like the mayors of Oakland and Denver, attack with gas and horses. “Subzero sleeping bags” are a topic of constant conversation, three words murmured or proclaimed with defiance and shivers. The morning after the big snow, I expected to find the occupiers blue-lipped and worried. Right before the storm, the city had confiscated their generators, used for emergency heat, among other things, and the bicycle-powered batteries they’d been building for just such a contingency were not yet ready to pedal. The wet snow collapsed tents, and the wind blew away tarps and signs and extra clothing. Copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal whipped up into the night and plastered sidewalks.

But as I made my way to the park the next morning, the camp was sparkling. The snow had melted, and tents were clean, books dry, jeans strung on clotheslines. The kitchen was serving up roast turkey for all comers. And they came from everywhere, occupiers and street people and tourists, drawn, like me, to what they’d thought would be a scene of disaster. Some of the tourists picked up signs. “I guess I am the 99 percent,” said an electrical engineer from New Jersey. An elegantly dressed white-haired woman leapt at a chance to work in the kitchen. Another woman brought a bag of helium-filled yellow balloons. The drummers, led by a dark-skinned man whose face was hidden by a green bandanna, sounded energized, as if the night’s cold had taught them all a new, less angry rhythm. That night, the General Assembly would be dedicated to a battle over demands; but that morning, the first of what might be a long and hard winter at Liberty, was a reprieve, a fantasy, a multitude, an imaginary city raising

The genie is out of the bottle

Yesterday on “Democracy Now” Amy Goodman played a video of Hawaiian singer-songwriter Makana singing “We Are the Many,” a Dylanesque protest song he’d written, to Obama and other world leaders this weekend at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hawaii. Makana, invited to play instrumental music at the gala dinner Saturday night, opened his jacket to reveal a t-shirt which read, “Occupy with Aloha.” Then, instead of performing the background instrumental he was scheduled to play, he sang the protest song he’d released earlier that day, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. When no one said anything, he kept singing, raising his voice more and more. To watch the video, go to and type in “Makana” or “We Are the Many.”

So, even though cops in riot gear are breaking up some of the main Occupy encampments, including the one in Zucotti Park in New York City, the one in Oakland, and the one in Portland, OR, the genie is out of the bottle. The Occupy spirit and ethos have gone viral, and will not be suppressed.

We Are the Many lyrics

We come here, gather ‘round the stage. The time has come for us to voice our rage

Against the ones who trapped us in a cage – to steal from us the value of our wage.

From underneath the vestiture of law, the lobbyists at Washington do gnaw.

At liberty, the bureaucrats guffaw, and until they are purged we won’t withdraw.


We’ll occupy the streets, we’ll occupy the courts, we’ll occupy the offices of you

‘Til you do the bidding of the many, not the few.

Our nation was built upon the right of every person to improve their plight.

The laws of this republic they rewrite, and now the few own everything in sight.

They own it free of liability; they own, but they are not like you and me.

Their influence dictates legality, and until they are stopped we are not free. (Refrain)

You enforce your monopolies with guns while sacrificing our daughters and sons.

Well, certain things belong to everyone. Your thievery has left the people none.

So, take heed of our notice to redress. We have little to lose we must confess.

Your empty words leave us unimpressed. A growing number join us in protest.


You can’t divide us into sides, and, from our gaze you cannot hide.

Denial serves to amplify, and our allegiance you can’t buy.

Our government is not for sale. The banks do not deserve a bail.

We won’t reward those who fail. We’ll not move ‘til we prevail.

Refrain, adding “We are the many, you are the few.”

Comments policy: a response to “All Solutions”

“All Solutions” wants to post a blanket condemnation of the Occupy movement — not happening, buddy. Your message is going in the spam file, where it most likely belongs. If you’re a real person, I apologize for that, and, if your beliefs are sincere, I hope you get more understanding about what’s going on soon. I doubt that you’re a member of the 1% income-wise, but even if you are, wealth and property don’t represent real security. Money in the bank and investments can vanish from the big computers in the sky in a heartbeat, and probably will eventually as the global capitalist system self-destructs. Real property can be stolen, destroyed, or taken away for non-payment of mortgages and/or taxes, or seized by the state for a right-of-way or some other purpose. It can also be seized by a rampaging rabble, as you seem to fear, but what else is that rabble going to do if it has no place to live or grow food, due to the inequities of the current system? You can only keep people that far down so long, especially when they get to the point where they have nothing to lose. Thus far, contrary to what you write, the Occupy movement is nonviolent and has injured no one (though police have injured occupiers) and has done no significant or permanent damage to property. The real criminals and “hooligans” are the perpetrators of the current system — they hurt and kill multiple thousands every day.

This is a website for people who are fed up with this system, people who have been frustrated for years, not knowing how they can replace it with something better. If people who fit this description disagree with something I’ve written after reading it thoroughly and giving it careful consideration (as you have not), I’ll post any thoughtful, sincere comment they care to make. I’ll also post comments or questions from people who honestly think this system is the best we can do, despite its problems. I’m not afraid of heartfelt, respectful dialogue. Hate-filled sloganeers can go elsewhere.

Radicalizing our Occupy “demands”

In this post I’m using and adapting an article by Robert Jensen, professor of journalism at the University of Texas, posted on Al Jazeera 11-3-11. Jensen starts by noting that pundits and politicians keep asking Occupy gatherings around the country what their “demands” are. His suggested response: “We demand that you stop demanding a list of demands. The demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognize, so that they can roll out strategies to divert, co-opt, buy off, or – if those tactics fail” – suppress or crush the challenge to business as usual (bring in the cops and injure Iraq war vets). Rather than listing demands, we critics of concentrated wealth and power in the US can deepen our analysis of the illegitimate systems that produce that unjust distribution of wealth and power. Allowing these systems to remain intact, as mere reform movements do, guarantees more of the same: the new boss will be the same as the old boss.

Let’s start with American empire. It doesn’t bring freedom and democracy – like empires throughout history, it’s used and uses coercion and violence to acquire and maintain a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are just the most recent examples of this. American empire began with the dispossession of Native Americans, and went global around 1900 with a takeover of the Cuban and Filipino fights for independence from Spain (American suppression of Filipino freedom fighters and their families was as brutal as the same action in Vietnam). American empire emerged in full force after World War II, with the United States using the Cold War with the Soviet Union to subordinate the developing world to the US economic system. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, this effort has gone forward with the excuse of fighting drugs and terrorism, the latter “war” admitted to be never-ending.

Whether in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, the central goal of US foreign policy has been to nip every independent course of political or economic development in the bud, using any means necessary. The victims of this policy, the vast majority of them non-white, can be counted in the millions. In the Western Hemisphere, US policy was carried out mostly through proxy armies, such as the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, or support for dictatorships and military regimes that brutally repressed their own people (El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere). The economic blockade of Castro’s Cuba must also be included in this category. The result throughout the region was hundreds of thousands of dead – millions across Latin America over the course of the 20th century – and whole countries ruined.

Direct US military intervention was another tool of US policymakers, with the most grotesque example being the attack on southeast Asia. After supporting the failed French effort to re-colonize Vietnam after World War II, the US invaded South Vietnam, dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than had been used in all of World War II (including bombing dams that caused devastating floods), and intervened in Laos and Cambodia, at a cost of three to four million dead and a region destabilized. Saturation bombing of civilian areas, routine killings of civilians, and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops and ground cover were all part of the US terror war in the region, which, among other things was responsible for the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

The US government used the 9-11 terrorist attacks (which it may have allowed to happen) to justify an expansion of military operations in central Asia and the Middle East – most notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It wanted to take down Saddam Hussein not because he was a horrible dictator – the US has supported and supports dictators around the world that go along with its program – but because he’d started operating independently and challenging US control of mid-East oil.

These imperial policies and practices are immoral and illegal. Because non-Americans and non-whites have a stubborn desire to control their own resources and manage their own affairs, they’re also ineffective in the long run. The American people are beginning to reject the goal of dominance, from which we get few benefits and incur many dangers. We don’t want to run the world – we want to share it, equally and respectfully.

Capitalism, the economic system underlying US empire, is inconsistent with basic human values. That statement may be shocking to many Americans, who’ve been taught that capitalism is the only sane and rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world (the financial crisis that began in 2008 has scared many people, but it hasn’t always led to questioning the nature of the system). But read on.

Capitalism is an economic system in which property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons; most people must rent their labor power for money wages to survive; and the prices of most goods and services are allocated by markets. Industrial capitalism, marked by the development of the factory system and greater labor specialization, was made possible in the 19th and 20th centuries by sweeping technological changes, the concentration of capital (wealth), imperialism (colonies), and the African slave trade. Finance capitalism, the system we have now, represents a shift to a system in which the accumulation of profits in a financial system becomes dominant over production processes (paper as opposed to real wealth).

In the dominant ideology of market fundamentalism (neoliberal economics, “free” trade), it’s assumed that the most extensive use of markets possible, along with privatization of many publicly owned assets and the shrinking of public services, will unleash maximum competition and result in the greatest good – and that all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. If such a system creates a world in which most people live in poverty (as it has), that isn’t taken as evidence of a problem with market fundamentalism, but as evidence that fundamentalist principles haven’t been imposed with sufficient vigor. (Note that fundamentalist principles are never applied to huge banks or stock market manipulators, who are always bailed out with taxpayer money when their schemes fail. Nor is it applied to the military or military contractors, necessary for enforcing the system.)

All of this is based on the view that since humans are basically greedy and self-interested, a viable economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior. Greed and self-interest are certainly part of human nature, but we’re also just as capable of compassion and selflessness, with the capacity to act out of solidarity and cooperation — as seen in the Occupy movement.

The form of capitalism in operation around the globe today is often touted as going hand in hand with, even as necessary for, political democracy, but in fact it’s inherently anti-democratic. In the real world – not in the textbooks or fantasies of economics professors – capitalism has always been, and will always be, a wealth-concentrating system, and if you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary US, everyone understands that for the most part, the wealthy dictate the basic outlines of the public policies put into practice by elected officials. Powerful investors rather than unorganized voters are the dominant force in campaigns and elections, which – as we’ve seen in 2000, 2004, and possibly even 2008 – can be “fixed” or managed. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson describes political parties in the US as “blocs of major investors who advance candidates representing their interests” and says that “political parties dominated by large investors try to assemble the votes they need by making limited appeals to particular segments of the electorate.” There can be competition between these blocs, but “on all issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no party competition” ever takes place. Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same — an oligarchy, or, as Michael Moore puts it, a kleptocracy.

People can and do resist the system’s attempt to sideline them, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist sometimes win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. If we define democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, it’s clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.

As a system dependent on continuing growth (on a finite planet), capitalism is also ecologically unsustainable. Technology can help a little, but it won’t enable us to transcend physical limits. Both the human communities and non-human living world that play host to capitalism will eventually be destroyed by it. Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live – groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and climate change – and the news is bad. Living as we do in a petroleum-based system fast running out of easily accessible oil, we also face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. Because our leaders, who profit from the current system, want to keep that profit going as long as possible, we haven’t faced the fact that our system is incompatible with life, or prepared for any of these problems.

The question now isn’t how to prevent crises, but how to mitigate the worst effects. Most crucially, we need to abandon the dominance/subordination dynamic, if we want to survive and, eventually, thrive in a cooperative, sustainable way. Rather than taking this an invitation to panic, our best course is to take our time and continue with the process the Occupy movement has begun – acting from love rather than fear. Rejecting the election campaign/debt crisis mass media political babble, Occupy gatherings are experimenting with a different kind of public dialogue about our common life, one that rejects the forces of terror deployed by concentrated wealth and power-over. These are ordinary people just learning how to cope, feeling the power-with of beginning by not accepting the legitimacy of the current system, then talking together – taking the time to hear every voice – about how we can do things differently.

A way for everyone to be heard in the Occupy movement

Wanting to do more than just write and talk about the Occupy movement, I’ve been thinking I should go to one of the General Assembly meetings of our local group, (anticipating the frustration I’d probably feel as one of 200 people trying to be heard has kept me away so far). I told my friend J. I thought there should be some system of meeting in smaller groups (like the talking-stick circles I’ve mentioned before on this site) that could then send a representative to a similarly small group at the next level. The next day she sent me a link to a post on our local Occupy website about the Folkmote system, apparently a “cultural universal” until industrial capitalism started taking over more and more of our lives and world.

A few days later, J., C., and I went to a meeting at a downtown park at which Warren Weisman, a local proponent of the system, explained it to about 20 interested people. He said the folkmote system extends the natural trust and cooperation found within tribal groups to voluntary 20-30-person groups of family, friends, and neighbors who see each other on a regular basis and like and trust each other. The groups make decisions by consensus and, when appropriate, send representatives to adjacent or “higher”-level groups. Federated groups are organized in a wheel rather than a hierarchy, with the original groups on the outer circle and intermediate groups on spokes leading to a central hub. The “federated communities are responsible for all public services and manage all aspects of village life.” Folkmote members are “bound together by an unwritten, voluntary mutual aid agreement: ‘When you are in need, I will come to your aid; when I am in need, I trust you to help me; and I agree to meet my own needs to the best of my ability.’ Groups can be territorial, work-related, or based on any other interest or affinity, and, ideally, an individual would be a member of more than one group.

A folkmote system can also be organized quickly in a large group of strangers by asking people to move to a group associated with their favorite color, then to a group associated with their favorite fruit. Folkmote is a “robust system in a catastrophe, government distributed down to the neighborhood level.” We would all benefit by taking more responsibility at the local level for meeting needs, but – barring catastrophe – we can take as much time as we need to do this, just as the nonviolent nature of the Occupy movement allows us to take our time.

The basic meeting discusses who needs what and who has surplus to share. In the Cairo Tahrir Square movement people used this system to defend and care for their own neighborhoods. “Leadership comes up from below, and everybody has a say,” Warren told us. “It’s like you’re constantly plugged into craigslist. It’s community building – building trust up over time.” He gave the following historical examples of folkmote organizations: medieval guilds, the Committees of Safety and Correspondence in the original 13 colonies, the Paris Commune of 1871, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the Zapatistas. He added, “We’re all already in one or more of them. Who do you call on in an emergency?” Interestingly, according to Warren, Occupy Wall Street is switching from the General Assembly format to a spokescouncil, a localized folkmote. (“Folkmote” means “a gathering of ordinary people.”)

Warren mentioned that Marx had anarchist Mikhail Bakunin kicked out of the 1st International because the latter was against strong centralized leadership and believed people could govern themselves best. The folkmote system and mutual aid are inherent in anarchist theory and practice, as is decentralization in all spheres (decentralization militates against takeover by a minority or conquest by an alien force). Anarchist Peter Kropotkin advocated decentralized food production, as have many concerned about “energy descent” and/or economic collapse. Warren reminded us that anarchy doesn’t mean “chaos;” it means “replacing government with self-organization.”

Thinking again of the Occupy movement, someone asked, “How do you keep solidarity?” and Warren answered that there are no guarantees, but that organizations moving in the same direction could form common “fronts.”

J., C., and I plan to talk to our neighbors – maybe by inviting the closest ones to a purely social event – and others interested in sharing or bartering resources. (See also your local freecycle list – ours can be found by Googling “Freecycle Eugene.”)

I thought it was interesting that halfway through Warren’s presentation we had to move to another area of the park, because a noisy group of about 20 tough-looking young adults, mostly male and some passing a marijuana pipe, started congregating near us. People just naturally form into groups.

To summarize, I quote from a letter Warren wrote to the editor of our local weekly paper prior to our meeting. “I hope the Occupy Wall Street movement maintains its beautiful, diversified, vibrant anarchist roots and doesn’t become just another worthless reform movement. Representative democracy is inherently vulnerable to corruption and needs to be replaced with something better. Like the mutual aid societies people have lived in since Paleolithic times…where everyone has a say in government and we can be responsible for our own administration and public services at the neighborhood level, even in the biggest cities. Where there are work-at-home and cottage industry opportunities for people to not have to be wage slaves. A system that can never be hijacked by any self-appointed ‘superior’ minority.” In the same letter, Warren notes that the Occupy movement is ‘propaganda through deed,’ though more nonviolent than earlier American anarchists, shut down by the government, along with anti-war protestors and ‘Wobblies’ (member of the International Workers of the World) during World War I.

Warren said our local Occupy movement didn’t seem that interested in switching to a folkmote system right now, but if others organized that way they could send representatives to the local General Assembly meetings and ask to form committees, if appropriate, with the local movement. I’ve also recently experienced great responsiveness via e-mail from local Occupiers to a site suggestion I made, and have yet to explore all the possibilities of using our local Occupy website.

To be continued…

P.S. Re: ‘propaganda through deed’ and the Occupy movement, a local Occupier told a university official that the movement isn’t “camping;” it’s occupying. (Our local group is currently occupying an area owned by the state university.)