Monday, November 4, 2013

Hey Elites, You Just Don't Get It: A Primer in Occupy Culture

On the eight hour train ride back to Vermont from S17, the 1st anniversary of Occupy Wall St, I had plenty of time to fume about the generally dismissive press coverage of the event, though between us and the police (but mostly the police), we had created a good deal of traffic slowdown in the financial district if not the actual stoppage we had hoped for.
Pundits keep writing that Occupy is dead and why didn't we work to get people elected to Congress who would further our agenda like the Tea Party did. As if it was the same old same old about getting power and then using it to get what your special interest group wants. Did anybody ever stop to think that Occupy isn't doing this because we don't want to? Yes folks, Occupy is not about your hierarchical power trip game of seeing who can get the most influence in Congress. In fact, Occupy is hardly about politics at all. We're just not interested in electing people to public office. Occupy is much broader and more radical than that, nothing short of rethinking our social structure, our value system and the we relate to one another and the planet.
To understand Occupy, you have to understand Occupy culture. It's pretty clear from the way Occupy culture coalesced fairly rapidly amongst a few hundred people camped out in a park that the ideas behind it have been brewing for awhile. Of course, you say, utopian ideas about a freer, more just and loving world are nothing new. Some of them have even managed to get a fair amount of traction before hardening into totalitarianism or contracting into inward looking communities that soon evaporate into the general population. What do we hope to accomplish? Except that something else is happening to human culture right now that might make all the difference in the world. That profound change is the Digital Revolution, the biggest thing to hit human social organization in the last 10,000 years.
To understand why this is so, here's a long complicated story very briefly....Human beings evolved in fairly small social groups and it is in fairly small face to face social groups that we function best and most morally. Recent research by social scientists, especially the relatively new science of behavioral economics, suggests that we are wired to be cooperative, most (but not all) of us are team players and we are blessed with an innate sense of social justice. For a very very long time there weren't very many of us. And then, for reasons outside the scope of this discussion, the applecart was upset by exponential population growth, pressure on resources and the problem of how to get things done in a orderly way in the midst of very large populations. All this set the stage for the development of new social structures, hierarchical, stratified and unequal.
Archeologists have discovered something very interesting about stratified societies, and that is that even very early on, the culture of elites was more alike across political and ethnic boundaries than it was like that of the people they ruled. This is still true and it's because, with more access to resources and control of the flow of resources, the relatively small group of elites was much better able to communicate with one another across space. Those lower on the social totem pole got their information from above, but were mostly unable to share information broadly in a horizontal direction. In hierarchical societies, information and goods flow up and down between elites and masses within political boundaries (wealth mostly flows up), but back and forth between elites across political boundaries.
The problem with this structure is that all the safety checks on the proliferation of pathological behavior by rogue humans developed in small face to face societies. They rely on people knowing what other people are doing and punishing non-team player behavior before it proliferates and destroys group cohesion. “Had a good day hunting, did you? Killed that big buck? You haven't forgotten about your village mates and how much we all depend on each other, have you? Because if you have, we'll be dropping by to remind you.” In large stratified societies, these mechanisms fall apart, largely because communication is fragmented and controlled at key points by individuals in the hierarchy. So maybe you can see how radical changes in communication could allow for radical changes in structure.
Much of Occupy culture is in fact very old culture. It is pre-stratified culture. It still hangs out in our brains because it is “normal” human culture. We have an idea that sharing is good. But we also have an idea that accumulating is good. These two competing cultural values (old and new) exist side by side and somehow find their separate expressions in the way we conduct our lives. Occupy would argue that the newer values are the non-team player values proliferated by an elite who are pathological accumulators. These individuals, having gotten control of the pathways of communication, teach their values to others. Humans, being very teachable (learning and sharing ideas is after all what we do best), have been good students. The doctrine of accumulation now permeates world culture.

If you have been to an Occupy General Assembly and have observed the strange rituals there, you will have an idea of Occupy culture. If you have been to an Occupy action and have observed the place flooded with cell phones, cameras and microphones, you will have an idea of how Occupy culture is evolving in the midst of the Digital Revolution.
Cultural Value 1: There are no leaders. No, really, there are no leaders. Like in a small scale society, there are task specific leaders, people that others defer to because they have the time, energy or good ideas to get things done, but these can change in a flash, as some other talented, committed person steps up to do the job. Occupy's unfailing commitment to equality makes for some tedious discussions and constant nervous questioning as to whether “everybody is OK with this”. And yes, in the midst of situations where rapid action is required, dedication to nobody hogging the decision-making process can lead to a bit of confusion. Or a lot of confusion. Occupy wants everybody to have a voice. Not everybody may like your idea, but at least you'll have a chance to express it. And we will politely listen, twinkling our fingers in the air to show our support. Or we may actually have differences of opinion, in which case it may take a long time or never to get anything done. Not unlike the U. S. Congress.
There are a couple of good things about no leaders. It makes it less likely that anyone will accumulate power, which deters pathological wealth accumulators. Also, in a movement which might expect to be harassed or even persecuted by the powers that be, it prevents co-option through corruption of leaders as well as attempts to destroy the movement by picking off the leadership. Someone compared trying to destroy Occupy by destroying its leaders to broom multiplication in “The Sorcerer's Apprentice”. Or, as someone more colorfully expressed it in a sign at Zuccotti Park, “Screw Us and We Multiply”.

Cultural Value 2: Horizontal Organization. Oddly, in a movement composed largely of technologically savvy younger people, the basis for Occupy organization is small, face to face community groups who meet in real space, not cyberspace. These groups approximate the band organization that feels comfortable to humans. There are hundreds of such Occupy groups across the U.S. and in many other countries. They are autonomous decision-making units and are working on local problems. These groups are linked horizontally through the internet, a huge receptacle of bubbling ideas where nobody calls the shots but where ideas that appeal to people catch on and spread practically instantaneously. It remains to be seen whether wisdom will be found in this decision-making by crowd popularity. It presumes a good deal of capable thinking by individual humans, and that they will, if having followed bad suggestions and suffered bad consequences, learn to make better choices. No such confidence has ever before been placed in the decision-making ability of the general public by our hierarchical systems, where it is usually assumed that “father knows best”.
How does horizontal organization work if you need to get lots of real people together in real space to get something done? Theoretically very easily now that large numbers of people can communicate rapidly with each other via cell phone, texting and Twitter. In practice, it took about an hour to get 150 people together for a not previously planned action during the September 17 anniversary, including a couple of false starts, a period of time which seemed way too long. I have a feeling that this will improve rapidly with rapidly changing technology.
How can resources move, if not up and down the hierarchy? Right now we get resources where we need them mostly by paying resources (money) up the hierarchy, and then having the hierarchy make decisions about allocating them out to where they're needed. There is some entropy involved with this, not to mention outright graft. If oil companies had to appeal directly to the American people for subsidies, how much do you suppose they would get? If you are making billions in profit, could you really make a case for donations? Yet amazingly millions of dollars sent up the hierarchy by Americans end up as subsidies to oil companies.
Direct funding of large projects on a big scale has been made much easier by the internet (for example Kickstarter) but it's still in it's infancy. Undoubtedly there will be a lot of problems still to work out.
I imagine that looking at Occupy's issues, conservatives may assume these are a bunch of liberals and therefore “big government” people. That would be a wrong assumption. Occupiers are not big government people. They are “very little government” people. But before those of you wishing to get away with making totally unregulated fortunes at everybody else's expense start jumping on the Occupy bandwagon, you should know that Occupy has a plan to prevent you from doing that. It's called:

Cultural Value 3: Transparency. At S17, marching along on the sidewalk, listening to the band playing “When the Saints Come Marching In” with confetti in my hair, everybody in a generally festive mood, I spied a couple of policemen wading into the crowd, I moved back a bit, then there was a gasp from the crowd, a thud as a body hit the sidewalk, the crowd surged backwards and then regrouped around the person being handcuffed. Everybody started chanting Shame! Shame! The whole world is watching! And with about a bizillion cameras, cell phones and video cameras aimed at the police, the whole world was watching. It only took a few days for photos and videos of many illegal arrests and unnecessarily harsh police activity to flood the internet.
Occupy is committed to openness in what it does (and whether or not people in the movement are being sufficiently open can be a point of contention) but more generally, it is committed to exposing anybody who tries to scam the system or dominate others. The new model for social control is not that Big Brother is watching you. It's that everybody is watching you. And there is a moral component to this—You should be ashamed of your behavior. This is the social control of the small scale society on a very large scale, possible only now because reality is so easy to capture and communicate rapidly to others. The generation growing up with social media seems comfortable with a degree of social exposure similar to that of a village where your neighbors know what you're up to most of the time. How can we balance this kind of social control with respect for people's privacy?

Cultural Value 4: I'm OK, You're OK. Occupy people are a highly individualistic lot who value creativity. Occupy's creativity is one of it's greatest strengths. Occupy people like drama, they like costumes, they like music and they like art. Chalk is a lot of fun. We're a movement that just keeps coming up with new, inventive and cheap ways to get our message out. Because we value creativity, Occupy tries very hard to respect individual differences. In Occupy, different behavior is creative behavior, and creative behavior is potentially a solution to a problem. Sometimes Occupy tries so hard to respect individual differences that it is almost comical, but we take it seriously because we know it's important. This too is a value of many small scale societies, where people depend on other people and if you are merely different, but not harmful to the group, an effort is made create an acceptable social role for you. People power is too valuable a resource to waste when you don't have very many people. Under these circumstances, where people are more accepting of a wide range of individual differences, there is less need for privacy.

Cultural Value 5: Greed is bad. At the heart of Occupy culture is a rejection of the worship of wealth. When Occupy talks about CEOs making billions of dollars, they aren't talking about the need for a new law that takes away rich people's money and gives it to poor people as some sort of convenient way to move money around and solve the problem of poverty. They are talking about morality, that people who make that much money should be ashamed, that this is a kind of pathological hoarding behavior and that people who have this problem don't need a new law, they need an intervention. Real humans care about other humans, feel empathy and realize we are all in this together. They are team players. Occupy groups, though they themselves have little resources, are involved in a lot of activities at the community level that involve giving things away---free food, free stuff, free services. This isn't because they think that people shouldn't have to work for things, it's an educational and spiritual exercise in letting go of materialism and valuing people over profit. Occupy groups are working hard to educate people that life is just not all about money. In this respect Occupy is stepping in to fill a moral void left by many modern churches who have seemingly contracted their notion of morality to include only regulating other peoples' sex lives. Occupy has received support from courageous faith leaders who are bucking this trend, some of whom were among the first arrested at the S17 action.

Cultural Value 6: Use=Ownership. A long time ago and in small scale societies, people's idea of ownership was tied to the relationship they had to the thing owned. Later people developed an abstract idea of ownership in which a person could own something they didn't use and could extract resources from others for the privilege of using it, a concept that would have seemed nonsensical to people for most of human history.
Occupy is fond of talking about the People's this and that. This doesn't mean that everything should belong to something nebulous called the People, which might devolve into belonging to a few people called the State. It means that this is something lots of (actual) people use, and therefore it is owned by lots of (actual) people. Worker owned businesses make a lot of sense in Occupy culture. Things everybody needs and uses, like water, roads or healthcare, should belong to everybody. This means that everybody should have responsibility for their cost and maintenance, and everybody should be able to use them. One person owning six houses doesn't make sense in Occupy culture, nor does thousands of vacant houses owned by banks who don't maintain them, while people who could maintain them are homeless.

Cultural Value 7: Another World is Possible. So where are all the issues, all the demands? Occupy has a lot of issues and many of them are similar to issues and demands of established “liberal” groups, but Occupy is neither politically liberal nor politically conservative. Occupy encompasses people of widely varying political ideologies, and working things out in the midst of this will tax Occupy's culture of respect for all and giving all a voice to the extreme. The saving grace of Occupy culture will be a reliance on small group dynamics at the community level, where people of different backgrounds and viewpoints have to work together in face to face situations. Just like in the ancient village, in Occupy culture, people are too precious a resource to write off.

As the generally festive Occupy marchers encircled the financial district on S17, this despite brutal police harassment, the guys in suits looking down on us were neither laughing at us, nor with us. They looked worried, as well they should be, because there is no room for elitism in Occupy culture. But should they be worried that something bad will happen to them? No. Occupy is revolutionary, but it's not the kind of revolution you think of when you think about one group wanting to take power away from another group. It's a revolution of the heart and mind.
The police repression Occupy continues to experience is a bad strategy for those in power to pursue. We chanted “We are the 99%, you are the 99%” to the police, because we want to include these hard working Americans in the movement, but it's hard to watch officers who are supposed to be protecting citizens bloody the faces of peaceful unarmed people and not dislike them. Intended to intimidate, brutality just makes people who value justice angrier and more determined.
And Occupy is full of people who value justice.
My advice is to just lay off. Maybe Occupy is only another idealistic movement that will evaporate. Or maybe it really is a harbinger of the shape of human societies post-Digital Revolution, where we will return to structures with which we feel comfortable and within which we can be our most human and most moral. Would that be so bad?

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