"What do they want?" my vicar asked, looking over at me on the deacon's bench, knowing my involvement with Occupy. My response – during the Prayers of the People – was "We pray for a society that is fair and just and loving." In the faith setting of a church service such an answer, I felt, was not only appropriate, but profoundly simple and manifestly clear – we seek a society that more closely resembles the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community we all profess to strive for, just as we seek forgiveness for the unfair, unjust, and mean-spirited society we have created.
But that may have been an inappropriate and/or inadequate answer to a wrong question.
First, its pronoun is wrong. The proper question is "What do we want?" Are we not the 99%? Do we not want to convince even the 1% to join a new, more humane consensus? Do we not have eyes and ears and hearts to see and hear and feel what Stephane Hessel calls the "unbearable things all around us" – the myriad injustices and indignities heaped upon us by out-of-control capitalism and a democracy corrupted by money. Must we rely on the courageous campers who have opened our eyes to those unbearable things to also fill our minds, grown flaccid, with ready-made answers? Have we not minds of our own? Can we not engage? Can we not exert ourselves, and, through such exertion, tone up our capacity to think for ourselves and, together, shape our answers…the answers we need, we seek, and, yes, want. As Hessel writes in Time for Outrage, "The worst attitude is indifference."
And we have been indifferent for a long time – for more than forty years – as our political and economic system, our liberal, enlightened civilization, our sense of self have been warped beyond recognition. Against this background, that "What do they want?" is a wrong question in that it is premature. It attempts to leapfrog the necessary prefatory question: "How did we get here?" The answer to that question is perforce long and complex. It must, however, be tackled, if we are to find our way forward. For starters, consider this long excerpt from The Coming Insurrection, an already-four-year-old analysis by France's "Invisible Committee" (Why must they always be French?). It is a little book being read by our American youth.
The West is a civilization that has survived all the prophecies of
its collapse with a singular stratagem. Just as the bourgeoisie had
to deny itself as a class in order to permit the boureoisification of
society as a whole, from the worker to the baron; just as capital
had to sacrifice itself as a wage relation in order to impose itself
as a social relation – becoming cultural capital and health capital
in addition to finance capital; just as Christianity had to sacrifice
itself as a religion in order to survive as an affective structure – as
a vague injunction to humility, compassion, and weakness; so the
West has sacrificed itself as a particular civilization in order to
impose itself as a universal culture. The operation can be
summarized like this: an entity in its death throes sacrifices itself
as a content in order to survive as a form.
The fragmented individual survives as a form thanks to the
"spiritual" technologies of counseling. Patriarchy survives by
attributing to women all the worst attributes of men: willfulness,
self-control, insensitivity. A disintegrated society survives by
propagating an epidemic of sociability and entertainment. So it
goes with all the great, outmoded fictions of the West maintaining
themselves through artifices that contradict these fictions point by
There is no "clash of civilizations." There is a clinically dead
Civilization kept alive by all sorts of life-support machines that
spread a peculiar plague into the planet's atmosphere. At this
point it can no longer believe in a single one of its own "values,"
and any affirmation of them is considered an impudent act, a
We have thus arrived at a dark place – not Orwell's 1984 with its ubiquitous overt oppression by force, but rather Huxley's Brave New World where we sleep walk through life, numbed by drugs and distracted by the bread-and-circus of infotainment. As the Invisible Committee says "The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization. It is within that reality that we must choose sides."
The campers of Zucotti Park, Frank Ogawa Plaza, Justin Herman Plaza, Berkeley and Davis have chosen sides. They have chosen the "impudent act," the provocation, the shouted "Wake up!" And now it's time for the rest of us to choose – to wake up or continue sleep walking.
Finally, my vicar's question and my attempt at a prayerful response are also both wrong in that they talk past each other. The question seeks not the campers' statement of the problem, its genesis, or the proffered vision. It seeks rather – in typically pragmatic American fashion – a program, a statement of concrete steps forward. As such, it is a question that is a source of hope…that, at last, we are waking up…that, having been provoked, we have begun the search for answers. It is a search that can bear fruit if we engage in it together – not just the campers, not just the 99%, but all of us; if we base it on a solid understanding on where we've been and how we got here; and, if we keep our eyes on the prize – a fairer, more humane society, a democracy in which all voices are equal, capitalism with a human face…that Beloved Community, if you will.
We must also realize that we are but at the very beginning of a long process that can still go wrong… if we lose heart or interest. We are at a pivotal moment in a movement that is barely two months old. First they ignored us, then they laughed at us ("Get a job…after you take a bath."), now they're fighting us – the drumbeat on Fox, the police violence on campuses, the orchestrated raids on the camps. As I write this, Occupy San Francisco stands in precarious isolation. But this is not about camps, it is about ideas. It is not about tents, it is about people. The tents are being torn down, but the people are still standing. We are not scattering. We are coming together around the ideas, seeking to put the flesh of action on the bones that are their animating spirit.
I have taken part in several such seminars in San Francisco…in the middle of Market Street, in general assemblies on Justin Herman Plaza, in a Catholic church, in a Friends meeting house. Others have elsewhere. A week ago, Michael Moore attended one such meeting with more than forty Occupy Wall Street activists. They produced a consensus vision statement and Moore proposed a list of "10 Things We Want," ranging from single-payer health care and the rescinding of the Bush tax cuts for the rich to constitutional amendments removing money from the electoral process and stripping corporations of their "personhood" (http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/where-does-occupy-wall-street-go-here). The OWS General Assembly will consider these proposals and others may find in them a worthy nucleus for further discussion.
Seek out such discussions. Take part. Engage. As the Invisible Committee said four years ago, "To go on waiting is madness." And, as Michael Moore said last week, "Don't sit this one out." Next time someone asks you "What do they want?" be prepared to respond with what we want. Who knows, there may yet be an American Spring.