“Occupy Everywhere”: a public debate about what happens next

It is more than two months since a few hundred people first gathered to camp-out in the streets of Manhattan, and so the question becomes how does the Occupy movement progress from “the outrage phase” to the presentation of a new political and economic programme. Last Friday [Nov 25th], Democracy Now! broadcast excerpts from a recent event that examined this question.

The discussion, under the title “Occupy Everywhere: On the New Politics and Possibilities of the Movement Against Corporate Power”, which was hosted by The Nation magazine and The New School in New York City, featured a panel of speakers including Occupy Wall Street organizer, Patrick Bruner; filmmaker and author, Michael Moore; veteran journalist, William Greider, author of “Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country”; Rinku Sen of the Applied Research Center and publisher of ColorLines; and Naomi Klein, author of the “Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”.

Here’s an overview of what the panel had to say:

MICHAEL MOORE: This is one of the most remarkable movements that I’ve seen in my lifetime, precisely because it really isn’t a movement in the traditional sense. And I think that it has succeeded because it hasn’t followed the old motifs that we’re used to, in terms of organizing. But it has its roots in all the good works that so many people have done for so many years, especially in the last 30 years since Reagan took office and the decline and destruction of the country, and essentially the world, began its modern-day disaster.

And when somebody asked me the other day, “Well, who organized this? Who organized this movement?” I said, “Well, actually, Goldman Sachs organized it. Citibank organized it. BP organized it. They did—they did the organization.”

It’s taken so many forms that—and it can’t be stopped. And it’s so great to watch Fox News and the others try to wrap their heads around it, because they can’t get their brain quite—like it can’t grab onto it, which is great. That’s what’s great. So, I’m a big supporter of it staying leaderless, with a lack of a certain amount of organization, that it remain in its free and open state. And thank God for all the young people who are willing to not take it anymore. And I’ve just been inspired by it, and I’m glad that I got to live to see what I believe, or hope, will be the beginning of the end of a very evil system that is unfair, and it’s unjust, and it’s not democratic.

PATRICK BRUNER: Well, I think there are many reasons why this has worked. You know, obviously, we have a great history behind us. Tahrir Square, the indignados in Spain—these are movements that are very, very similar to our movement, you know, the way that we are organized: direct democracy, egalitarian values. These are things that we think deserve to be central in every movement, and we think that’s a big reason why we have been successful, is that our tactics and our values and our goals, they’re all the same.

The Tea Party comes from the same mindset as we do, although we have many differences. You know, those are people who had legitimate grievances against this system that they had tried to work for their entire lives, and then it ended up screwing them. And, you know, that’s what’s going on with my generation. We have kids who have massive amounts of student debt, and they’re going to carry that for the rest of their lives, possibly— not if we have anything to do with it, but…

We have taken Liberty Square. We have renamed it, and we have rebuilt it into something that we believe is a better model. Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it’s not what we’ll come out of this with. But it’s a way to at least start a discussion, a real discussion, about all of the things that ail us on a daily basis, the things that are never really discussed. Like you said, before this, you know, the biggest discussion in American politics was whether or not to raise the debt ceiling for the 103rd time. Now we don’t talk about things like that. Now we’re starting to talk about wealth inequality. We’re starting to talk about greed. You know, we’ve had fun looking at Google trends and seeing that words like that have gone up in usage a thousand times. So, there’s a real shift in terms of the mentality of people. There’s a psychic break that’s going on that we’re riding, because of—you know, because of what they did to us.

WILLIAM GREIDER: The American pulse for democracy, the thirst for equality, for freedom, is a little like an underground river that has run underneath the surfaces of American history from the beginning. And it rarely is visible, at least to the established powers. It gets misled, deflected, stymied in different ways. But it continues these ideals, the original promise of what this country could be. And I told myself, “OK, I don’t know if anything changes now. It doesn’t seem to be happening. But I’m going to—I’m going to be in that stream with the others, the historic stream, and do what I can and at least keep the candle lit and aloft.” And that’s a good thing to do with your life. Then, sometime, often unpredictably, this underground river gathers force, and it breaks through to the surface, and everything is changed. And you can read American history and find those moments, which changed everything and opened a vista of a different country. I think that’s what we’re experiencing right now. I literally mean that. And I think it’s—we know it’s a high-risk enterprise to try to build an authentic social movement. Many arise and fail, or get crushed. And the ideas are literally pushed back out of the public square. But they go back—they continue somehow and maybe come back a generation or two generations later. So we have to—I think we have to take that sort of long view of what we’re doing.

The paper I worked for many years ago has got a competitor now in Washington called The Occupied Washington Post, and it pleases me greatly to see that. But now—and they had a — The Occupied Washington Post has a poster-type headline: “We Stand with the Majority, For Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed.” That’s a pretty good start on a program, I think. And—but I think the—I think what we’re seeing now, in our construction, is beginning, believe it or not, to convince even the Washington Post.

In previous articles, I have already expressed the view that some kind of programme for economic and political reform is required so that the movement can progress, so I do not entirely share the panels’ enthusiasm for maintaining such wholly free-floating and organic structure, although this certainly has its advantages – one positive consequence being that the movement has so far avoided being co-opted – however, if no demands are agreed and no alternatives offered, then sooner or later there will undoubtedly be atrophy.

In addition to this, the Occupy movement would do well not to turn away potential support from unusual allies. Patrick Bruner, rightly in my view, nods acknowledgment to original The Tea Party (libertarian right) protestors, since there is much that is shared between these disaffected groups.

Both sides have finally recognised the same centralised corruption (Occupy shining their spotlight on Wall Street, whilst libertarians are more intent on exposing the Federal Reserve), and both wish for a restoration of the rule of law as underwritten by the unalienable rights of the Constitution. Unfortunately, however, there is also a major disagreement along economic lines, with The Tea Party having sold its soul to free market neo-liberalism; swallowing the lie that “austerity” measures will save the economy, when in reality, of course, it was the freeing of the markets, in the form of financial deregulation, that caused the underlying banking crisis, and so it is only through re-regulation that long-term economic stability can be ever be restored.

Increasing the debate between these two sides would help to clarify and hopefully resolve these issues. The Occupy movement reminding those of the disaffected right, how the IMF and World Bank have used “austerity measures” on many past occasions to asset-strip nations in the developing world, and that any slashing of government spending in a depression is tantamount to economic suicide. The libertarians in turn questioning some of the dafter and supposedly ‘green’ solutions proposed by the new movement. Here, for instance, is part of what Naomi Klein had to say to the audience:

Now—I just learned this today—the—originally, it was traditional generators that was powering Occupy Wall Street. And then, some people had the idea that they don’t actually want fossil fuels to power—to power the laptops and the other energy needs of Liberty Square, so there was a move to bring in bicycle generators. This was starting, and then it got kind of expedited, because the police came in and seized the generators. So when I arrived at the park just on Monday, I went over to the sustainability table and checked in, and they had one functioning bicycle generator. And I just left today. They have 14 functioning bicycle generators.

Now I am a very strong believer in developing new technologies in order to make our lives safer and easier, since this is really the only good reason for developing technologies at all, but bicycle generators are neither new nor alternative. They are in fact just the kind of a gimmick that is deeply unhelpful.

Firstly, a bicycle generator produces about 100 watts of power, and that’s assuming you’re fit and healthy. So fourteen bicycle generators will provide a maximum of about 1.4 kW, which happens to be almost precisely the power supplied by our sun over each square metre of the Earth’s atmosphere1. In other words all of the pedal-power from these machines supplies the equivalent produced by just a few solar panels. But it’s worse than that, as becomes abundantly clear once you think about where the energy going into the bicycles came from in the first place. Pedal-power isn’t free; it comes from food. Originally then, from plants, which had absorbed and stored the energy of the sun, which were almost certainly cultivated with the help of petrol-driven tractors and artificial fertilisers, and then shipped and processed using additional fossil fuels. So bicycle generators are actually just about the most inefficient method for deriving energy from sunlight that we could possibly devise.

Alternative methods of both generating and supplying energy are urgently required, but finding solutions to our energy needs means being realistic, and thus, thinking bigger and smarter. Covering our hillsides in windmills won’t save us either, and until we discover genuinely viable alternatives, we must necessarily accept the fact that a ‘modern’ world is reliant on oil and coal. That without access to these vital resources our own lives, and the lives of those in poorer regions, will become unbearable or (to use the term preferred by the left) ‘unsustainable’. For instance, the push for bio-fuel production is already stealing food from the mouths of the hungry. In short, if we are ever to wean ourselves off these essentially Victorian power sources (of burning stuff and turning water into steam), then we have to develop twenty-first century, and that means hi-tech, solutions (these may involve solar, geothermal, fusion, or methods as yet undiscovered). But I believe that if we are serious then something like a peacetime “Manhattan Project” should be funded to provide such real alternatives.

In the meantime, some of the loopier ideas of the ‘green movement’ are worse than unscientific, and only present us with a kind of new puritanism, which ironically looks a lot like the kind of “austerity” programme already being foisted from on-high. Perhaps some in the younger generation don’t remember Norman Tebbit’s notorious “get on your bike and look for work” speech, or if they did, they might not be so keen to promote such pointless and retrogressive ‘alternatives’ as pedal-power.

Unlike Klein, I also think that it would be a big mistake for the Occupy movement to nail its colours to the mast regarding ‘climate change’. And if the question of ‘climate change’ (which is a poor shorthand for ‘catastrophic anthropogenic global warming’) is regarded, as it should be, as a scientific issue, then there is absolutely no justification for using such inflammatory terms as ‘denier’, since there is nothing inherently unscientific about remaining skeptical of any theory that isn’t one hundred per cent certain. Science is founded on skepticism, which is the reason it’s so damned effective.

The problem is that the whole ‘climate change’ debate (on both sides) has become highly politicised, which means that using it to spearhead the movement will only further the schism between ‘left’ and ‘right’. In any case, and given the situation we increasingly find ourselves in, it is surely sensible to be distrustful of all prevailing government (or worse, global) intervention. So in this case, the left ought to be saying quite clearly that carbon trading is a scam. Whilst carbon taxing is another scam waiting to happen.

It will be much more effective, I believe, to leave the whole ‘global warming’ debate on hold, whilst we address the more immediately solvable problems that can be agreed upon. Let’s first win the battle to take back our nations, then sort out the problems of securing our energy future when the political climate is more amenable. And so the part of Naomi Klein’s contribution that most needs repeating is really this:

NAOMI KLEIN: Because I think that, you know, this has been one of the great failures of the left, is not understanding that state power can be just as alienating and just as corrupt as corporate power. And we have to have learned those lessons of the past.

The debate ended with Michael Moore rallying the troops. “Occupy used to be a dirty word”, he told the audience, but now that word has been reclaimed:

MICHAEL MOORE: Bill [William Greider] is so right. You know, Bill has been such a warrior for trying to keep the bare threads of our democracy that are still there intact, and there aren’t many left. We are really just hanging on by a few of these threads. And if—one of those threads is one person, one vote, and so they can’t really do anything about that. […]

So, if you’re at home and you’re watching this and you’re in some out-of-the-way place, you already own it. This is already your country. You—you have been occupied by Wall Street. Your homes have been occupied by Wall Street. Your government has been occupied by Wall Street. Your media has been occupied by Wall Street. And it’s OK for you to say, “Not anymore. Those days are over. End of story.”

Click here to read the full transcript.

1 The actual direct solar irradiance at the top of the atmosphere fluctuates by about 6.9% during a year (from 1.412 kW/m² in early January to 1.321 kW/m² in early July) due to the Earth’s varying distance from the Sun, and typically by much less than one part per thousand from day to day.

Taken from wikipedia.

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2 Comments

Filed under analysis & opinion, did you see?, global warming, Uncategorized, USA

2 responses to ““Occupy Everywhere”: a public debate about what happens next

  1. darren

    just to clarify, in the context of how it was mentioned in the debate, Klein was merely showing how they used their own energy that time instead of the other generator…i am sure having a solar panel donated and at the start of winter probably wouldnt have worked well, so they used themselves.

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  2. My intention was really to highlight the deeper complexity of some of these issues, and illustrate how easy it is to be sidetracked by superficial solutions to real problems. Although it also concerns me how some on the left have become increasingly anti-technology, when technology is the only available answer in the long run. The point is to choose our technological solutions carefully, on the basis of science instead of leaving it to the market, and with due regard to both feasibility and relative environmental impact (which must take into account efficiency and pollution at all stages of the process). Bicycle generators are just daft for so many reasons and, as such, are deeply symbolic (since they are really little else) of the backwardness of some elements within the environmentalist movement.

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