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.
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%.”
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:
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.” 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. Such a movement eschews political parties and politicians in favor of extremely local and directly democratic structures for decision-making and the administration of our neighborhoods and communities.
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.
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.
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.
Biehl, Janet. 1998. The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Herod, James. 2007. Getting Free: Creating an Association of Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods. Lucy Parsons Center: Boston, MA.
Kovel, Joel. 2007. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? 2nd Edition. Zed Books: London, England.
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, and administers the blog, “Better Worlds, Brighter Futures.”
This article originally appeared in a slightly longer version on the "Better Worlds, Brighter Futures" blog.