Occupy: Nucleus of the New Society?

Many Occupy supporters on the Left express concern that it could be coopted by the mainstream institutional Left and harnessed to a political agenda of NPR liberalism. The recent prominence of Van Johnson’s Rebuild the Dream and MoveOn.org seems to provide at least superficial justification for such fears. But those fears are groundless — mainly because there’s no official Occupy “movement” to be coopted.

Sure, liberals are free to use the Occupy label to promote their agenda. That is, after all, what Occupy’s all about: A brand, or platform, ready-made for adoption on a modular basis by anyone who sees fit to use it. The more different groups using the Occupy brand, each with its own anti-corporate agenda, the better. It’s not a zero sum game.

The beauty of Occupy is that its module/platform architecture, and its openness to anyone who wants to create a new node for their own purposes, make it an ideal laboratory for experimentation in revolutionary praxis. Any local node is free to try out new ways of doing things, and to share its experience with others; the new techniques are freely available to any other node in the network that finds them useful. No permission, no administrative coordination to make sure everybody’s on the same page, is needed at any step in the process.

It’s the same kind of stigmergic platform as Wikipedia, a Linux developer group … or Al Qaeda Iraq. Self-selected individuals and local groups make contributions to praxis entirely on their own initiative, the smallest contribution can be leveraged with no transaction cost, and all contributions immediately become the common property of the entire movement.

I’ve hoped for some time that Occupy would cease to be mainly a protest movement and instead become mainly a school of living. That is, that — like the neighborhood assemblies in Argentina ten years ago — it would become a venue for local communities to disseminate the skills and technologies for building counter-institutions and a counter-economy that could flourish outside the decaying neoliberal system.

Some early signs in this direction were teach-ins like those of Juliet Schor (author of Plenitude) and Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives. Another was the “Occupy Our Homes” campaign, which offered some promise of evolving into a nationwide squatter movement to reclaim vacant housing. The term for things like this is “prefigurative politics”: That is, rather than attempting to pressure the power structure of the existing society for reforms, they exemplify the successor society in formation.

This spring, we see renewed occasion for hope. For example Occupy the Farm has occupied the Gill Tract, a vacant five-acre tract of land near the UC Berkeley campus slated for commercial development, and is cultivating it to raise food for the community.

All kinds of other counter-economic projects are available for Occupy to adopt. One of them is the kind of repair cafe that’s being pioneered in Amsterdam, as a way for low-income people to keep their broken appliances in use. The same general idea, neighborhood workshops and repair centers using the members’ shared tools and skills as a base for subsistence outside the cash nexus for the unemployed and underemployed, has been around at least since Colin Ward and Karl Hess.

Another variant of the same idea is the hackerspaces in many communities around the United States. Local digital barter currencies, on the same basic architecture as Tom Greco’s mutual credit clearing systems, are springing up all over the country. Open source machine tools, like those under development by the hardware hackers at the Open Source Ecology project, can produce factory quality goods at a two-order-of-magnitude reduction in cost. Soil-intensive horticultural techniques can feed one person on a tenth of an acre.

The human capital built up by Occupy in local communities has great potential as a clearinghouse for sharing and promoting such projects, and as a seed around which the new society and the new economy can crystallize.

As my friend Rose Anderson stated in a recent discussion:

“The unmitigated greed of the 1% unintentionally forced a paradigm shift while no one was looking…. The jobs aren’t coming back, but as this situation drags on the number of people figuring out they don’t have to wait on the government and corporations will be the most perfect storm of societal change ever inadvertently created … Occupy is just the beginning.”

Exactly. The real potential of Occupy is not to pressure Congress to adopt Obama’s infrastructure program, or the Buffett Rule, or any of the other shiboleths of “Progressive” politics. It is, rather, to serve as the nucleus of the new society in being.

Citations to this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist