Jonathan Schell: ” . . . falling inward into a potent new space”

Thanks to thenation.org.

Occupy Wall Street: The Beginning is Here

October 19, 2011

by Jonathan Schell

Nothing is more striking about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which in a political instant has swept through not only the United States but the world, than its origin. It seemed to come out of nowhere, like a virgin birth. There were, of course, organizations that played a critical initiating role, which is gradually being acknowledged and rightly honored (see, for example, Nathan Schneider, “From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Everywhere,” October 31). But it would be wrong to assign paternity in any ordinary sense to them, and they indeed disavow such a claim. On the contrary, the core activists in Liberty Plaza founded on the spot a decentralized, nonviolent pattern of “leaderless” self-organization that made every participant, old or new to the process, a “founding father” (or mother). The movement, you could say, was father and mother to itself. To join it was, immediately, to become it.

This feature was underscored when, in response to a police ban on megaphones, the occupiers deployed their now famous human microphone, in which an individual speaker’s words are repeated by all within hearing, inventing a new animal, a speaking crowd, who thus become the voice of their joint action.

This indefinite open-endedness of origins was carried forward in another conspicuous novelty of the movement: its lack of a list of demands. According to some reports, early efforts to frame such lists went nowhere. If so, the failure became a virtue. It was not a new set of policy ideas that was being born—the world was already overloaded with these, unacted upon—but a new spirit: a spirit of action, without which all the demands in the world are a dead letter.

What we might call the demand for demands, so prominent in early media reactions, was based on a fundamental error. It confused demands and content. A movement—like a book or an article—can have content without demands. Demands are a later stage that comes once the content is developed and, above all, once the movement is strong. This movement was born rich in unmistakable content. As everyone who cares to look knows by now, its members are crying out “Enough!” to a corrupt political, economic and media establishment that is hijacking the world’s wealth for itself, immiserating ordinary people, sabotaging the rule of law, waging interminable savage and futile wars, plundering the world’s finite resources, lying about all this to the public and threatening Earth’s life forms into the bargain. As for the development of leaders and demands, Anonymous, one of the precursor groups, offered a prescription in keeping with the spirit of the movement: “If you are looking to contact one of our leaders, go to the nearest mirror and peer deeply into it. It may take some time, but, eventually, one of our leaders will appear with answers to all of your questions.”

An understanding of Occupy Wall Street’s beginnings and continuing structure perhaps offers a clue to an issue that promptly began to roil the movement: what its relationship to established groups, especially the Democratic Party, should be. Almost immediately, top Democrats, including President Obama and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, weighed in with friendly and supportive comments. (Obama said, “The protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.” Pelosi said, “The message of the protesters is a message for the establishment in every place.”) Newspapers of moderate bent eventually jumped on board. TheNew York Times sang the praises of the occupation in an editorial. Older leftish movements like MoveOn threw their support behind it. Even the counterattack was surprisingly feeble and off-balance. No sooner had House majority leader Eric Cantor called the occupation a “mob” than he turned around and admitted the nation knows that “folks at the top end of the income scale…make too much and too many don’t make enough.”

The usual metaphor for a movement is an explosion. But Occupy Wall Street acted more like an implosion. The established actors appeared not so much to yield in the face of pressure exerted by the movement as to fall inward into the potent new space the demonstrators had created. Only a few hundred strong at first, the movement set up a blackboard on which established powers turned out to be unexpectedly eager to write their messages. As it turned out, the powers had demands to spare, as if they had been saving them up.

Yet shortly after these friendly faces appeared, petitioning the petitioners, the worries about co-optation arose in the movement. While welcoming support, a “working group” of the occupation voiced fear of “divide and conquer attempts being made to co-opt the movement,” and warned that some “are trying to label us as the Democrats’ version of the Tea Party”—a development that would undermine “the very essence of this movement with your obsolete divide and conquer groupthink propaganda.” And certainly it is true that a party affiliation would be even more stultifying than a premature list of demands.

But it may be that such worries are unnecessary. The power of the movement does not lie in the mite that it can add to or withdraw from some existing grouping through such traditional means as alliances and endorsements. Rather, its power lies in its direct appeal to the hearts and minds of the population at large—to the 99 percent that the movement so audaciously and promisingly claims to represent. By this process, the mite becomes mighty. It was surely such a felt tremor in the hidden recesses of hearts and minds—in short, in public opinion and, even more, in public will—that alone can explain the established expressions of support as well as the wildfire spread of the protest.

When such sea changes in opinion and will are under way, entrenched institutions start to tremble and shake, and political miracles become possible. If the scale of the national and international response to Occupy Wall Street is any measure, they have begun.

The exceptional creativity in the movement has been evident in countless handwritten signs. For example: I Lost My Job but Found an Occupation. And, Love Is the New Fear. But perhaps the loveliest, appearing in the demonstration’s early days and cited in these pages, was The Beginning Is Near. To this we can now gratefully add, The Beginning Is Here.

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