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“The process is the message”

Why the Occupy movement keeps stumping the pundit class

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Early in the occupation of Wall Street, David Graeber characterized it as a re-awakening of the radical imagination. One way to conceptualize the imaginative dimension of the Occupy Together movement is to think of it as analogous to an art project undertaken in Dionne Brand’s 2005 novel, What We All Long For. Tuyen, one of the main characters in the book, goes around asking Torontonians what they “long for” and these are then transcribed in various languages onto a piece of cloth that becomes part of an installation. Occupations of financial districts from Madrid to New York to Tokyo to Toronto can be understood as an attempt to translate the creative, heterogeneous spirit of an art project like Tuyen’s into a political process.

On the other hand, mainstream analysis of the Occupy Together movement has been marked by a dramatic albeit predictable failure of the imagination. Mainstream media has criticized the movement’s decision-making processes for being “disorganized,” or identified its absence of hierarchical leadership as a weakness, when its openness and comparative inclusivity are among the major reasons for the brisk rise of its popularity. In an important article on the movement’s relation to race and the occupation of Indigenous land, Harsha Walia argues that, as opposed to characterizing Occupy Wall Street and its antecedents as a leaderless movement, “it might be more honest to suggest that We Are All Leaders.” This idea, that the power to make choices about how people live can and should be more widely distributed than it is at present, is beyond the comprehension of the pundit class.

Witness the commonplace argument, put forth for example by the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hébert, that the Canadian flank of Occupy Together had its chance to effect political change during the multiple elections that have taken place in the last year and therefore ought not to exist.

Among the more glaring weaknesses in Hébert’s article is her assertion that those in the movement opted not to vote, a claim she supports by noting that many in the movement are young and that many young people do not vote. But she offers no evidence that those participating in the occupations belong to the segment of youth who did not vote nor does she give more than cursory consideration to the many reasons one might abstain from voting. Hébert also posits that the entire movement rejects any and all engagement with current legislative mechanisms, even though this issue is being fiercely debated within Occupy Together. And she makes the highly debatable assumption that one cannot work for short-term improvements within existing structures while simultaneously working outside of them to create their replacement.

What’s most striking, however, is the underlying presumption Hébert gives away in her comment on the NDP’s upcoming leadership vote: “For anyone who cares to do so, having a say in the selection of the next federal leader of the official Opposition is only a membership card away. Little could more change the internal dynamics of a party and its policy choices than a massive injection of new members.” According to the intellectual rules governing Hébert’s analysis, it is inconceivable that a political movement might long for more than (the perhaps impossible goal of) making the current parties more responsive to the broader population, that many may desire to fundamentally alter the way in which decisions are made about how their resources are used, what service they provide to whom and under which conditions, what they produce and how these goods are distributed. Such a politics is one Hébert and others in the pundit-ocracy are either unwilling or unable to imagine.

Consider also the oft-made criticism that Occupy Together has yet to provide a viable alternative to the existing system. Commentators arguing that the movement offers no solutions badly overstate their claim. Those desperate for proposals that can plausibly be realized in the short-run can find them in criticisms of the way today’s world works. When, for example, someone in the movement complains that RBC funds the Alberta Tar Sands, the solution is implicit: stop funding the Tar Sands. A longer view, a more visionary one, being put forth by many in Occupy Together is that “the process is the message.” This is to say that the decentralized, direct approach to decision-making adopted at the movement’s general assemblies could offer a far more equitable approach to determining how we ought to relate to the planet and to each other than the way such questions are currently settled. To the makers of official opinion, however, this is the stuff of fantasy, as their European equivalents centuries ago said about those who thought hereditary monarchy could be improved upon.

It is true, of course, that Occupy Together has not offered a concise, five- or 10-point plan for how to change the world. In part this is because the movement is dynamic and shaped by a plurality of voices and because its participants recognize that resolving multifaceted social problems in a truly participatory manner is necessarily a complicated process—as it happens, sound-bite discourse is among those features of our politics which Occupy Together wishes to discard. So this is another instance of elite opinion misidentifying one of the movement’s strengths as a weakness.

None of this is to predict that Occupy Together will necessarily succeed in making any changes to the existing political-economic system, let alone at building another one. This movement is still in its infancy. To have a chance to succeed, Occupy Together should continue to experiment with a new political language, perhaps even new categories of thinking. For those as yet unsatisfied with the movement’s relative lack of specific proposals, keep in mind that, as Tuyen says about her art, Occupy Together is thus far a “gathering of voices and longings that summed themselves up into a kind of language, yet indescribable.”

Greg Shupak is a writer, an activist and a PhD student.

This article originally appeared here on October 27th, 2011.

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