These are notes towards — what? — a manifesto? list of demands? Not really. Just three key thoughts/impressions about the Occupy movement that have evolved over the weeks I have been watching, participating in, and thinking about it. Call it “Occupy 101.” There’s a lot more nuance to these issues than I go into here — but I’m trying to be schematic, conceptual. I hope it might be useful in the on-going and collective attempt to “explain” the movement—both to those of us involved in it, and those who remain skeptical or even antagonistic to it.
The problems we face in the world today are diverse, wide-ranging, and complex. But here’s a (hopefully useful) short-hand that gets us right into the heart of the matter, and that short-hand is found in the nexus formed by these two words: ECONOMY and ECOLOGY. Both words derive from the Greek oikos, meaning “home.” Simplifying to the extreme, economy is how we make our living and our home; ecology is where we make our living and our home. Obviously, these two concepts need to be in harmony and balance. But today they are not: our economy does constant and often excessive damage to our ecology.
Our global economic system is based on, driven by, and in need of constant growth. Like a shark, if it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. Or better, like cancer, it only knows growth, regardless of the consequences for its “host.” As long as GDPs keep rising, it doesn’t matter how unequally distributed that wealth is, or how badly people suffer, or what happens to the environment. So our ECONOMICS ignores and surpass all limits. But our ECOLOGIES are all about limits — each ecosystem is limited (by climate, geography, resources, etc.), and the ultimate limit is the earth itself, the entire biosphere. Our current economic system has run right past these ecological limits (the excess registering in global warming, the extinction of species, the loss of the world’s forests, huge Texas-sized patches of plastic floating in our oceans, etc. etc.). In Slavoj Zizek’s analogy, we are like Wile E. Coyote, running off the edge of the economical/ecological cliff. When we finally look down, we’ll fall.
The Occupy movement is a response to just this situation. But what is that response? It has confused many people, because it starts from this position: the problem is vast; I don’t presume to know the solution; I don’t think YOU know the solution—NO ONE knows the solution. So let’s sit down together and try to figure it out, because collectively, by really engaging with the problem and listening to each other, we might find some new solutions.
This is a different model of politics than we’re used to. Normally, we have a consumer-driven notion of politics: voting (or deciding to attend or not attend a one-day demonstration, for that matter) is a bit like shopping. Will I have a lager or a pale ale? Will I buy the red one, or the blue one? The Occupy movement represents a non-consumerist form of politics. The normal electoral process is largely left aside, dispensed with (it really only serves, as the mantra goes, the interests of the 1% who dominate and benefit from the current economic system). Consumable outcomes like demands (which might be set before that existing but malfunctioning political system) have largely not been produced. A different form of daily life, of relating to one another, is what has been produced. This is a movement, rather than a protest, because it is extended spatially (in thousands of cities at once) and temporally (the occupations are on-going, announcing no end-point) in ways that most past movements for social change have not been able to achieve.
Another way of looking at this is to say that the Occupy movement is more about FORM rather than CONTENT. We don’t know what the content of a new, better system might be yet, but we’re willing to try a new form for getting there, and take up the time and space it takes to figure this out. This form is the on-going, open, inclusive, everyone-has-a-voice general assembly that lies at the heart of all the occupations. “What do you want,” people (in the media especially) keep asking? The answer is that we want to talk. We want to listen. We want to find new ideas for organizing our world socially, politically, and economically — because what we’ve got right now isn’t sufficient.
If we we’re to imagine a “demand” coming out of the Occupy movement, it would be a general demand for a universal RIGHT TO THE FUTURE. The collision of our unsustainable economic system with the very real ecological limits of this planet is depriving us all of this: our right to the future. A right to the future means a right for each of us to as long, healthy, and fulfilling a life as possible. A right to the future means a right for young people to imagine having children one day, if they so choose, and for those children to have as long, healthy, and fulfilling a life as they can. A right to the future means that each and every species on this planet has a right to live out its normal life-pattern as evolution, not human intervention, dictates. This is what I think the Occupy movement stands for. This is the most basic thing any of us can ask for: tomorrow, and a tomorrow after that tomorrow. This is what is at stake. We have created a world that burns its tomorrows to feed the unsustainable fires of today.
We demand a better world. We demand a more inclusive and peaceful world. We demand a more sustainable world. There. I said it. Now let’s figure it out.
Stephen Collis is Associate Professor of English at Simon Fraser University.
Image Courtesy of Suraky