On May 1, 2012, we will walk away from our work, our schools, our sense of business as usual!
Like the agricultural festivals of old, when Dionysos called people away from fields and flocks, from conquest and commerce to frolic in the streets and dance in ecstasy on the mountains, we, the children of the Occupy movement will come together in a Day Without the 99%, and it is my hope that we will do so not just to celebrate and rage, to party or protest. It is my hope that we can make use of this May Day not just to stop business as usual, but to start to build something new. We are already going in this direction.
When people first proposed this day of action, it was being called a General Strike. This made some folks in the movement very happy, perhaps admirers of the old days of radical union action, those tireless fights that won workers around the globe an impressive string of concessions from the powers that be. For many, those days are not over, and we salute your continued courage.
Then again, for some, the idea of the General Strike has run its course. The tactic is a good one, they say, but only within the context of putting the brakes on an entire country, or – why not be optimistic? – the entire globe to win certain boons or breaks from those in power. While this goal is certainly worthy, say the critics, Occupy is about much more than one industry, one country, one race, class, or creed, and many among us either question or deny that the powers that be have any right to be where they are today, despite every CEO claiming to have started in the mailroom in the true Horatio Alger fashion. If, as many of us believe, those in power do not deserve that power, and if instead it is the people who have the power, then tactics like the General Strike, while good for achieving stated goals, fail to address the more fundamental questions about power that many of us in the Occupy movement want to ask.
When the idea of a General Strike on May 1 was amended in some circles to be “A Day Without the 99%,” the image struck me and inspired me greatly. The images it conjured in my mind were both moving and amusing. In my head, I saw a wide open plain of cubicles standing so empty that one might expect a tumbleweed to blow through; I pictured great empty factories with golden dust motes dancing amidst the massive, silent machinery; I grinned to think of small stores and restaurants across the nation with signs in their windows that read, “Standing With the 99%,” “Which Side Are You On?” or “Closed for Revolution.”
But though our actions will no doubt shock the Fox News fuddy-duddies and their zombie audiences, we run a terrible risk if we frame the day as one of non-action. I know that many of you out there are planning actions for that day, some of them bold and daring, some of them massive and moving, and to all of you, I wish you success and cannot love you enough for your efforts for the movement. Certainly I don’t mean to suggest that any of the calls for action on May 1st that I have seen say we ought to stay at home and twiddle our thumbs. In point of fact, it sounds like it is going to ROCK! And I plan to thoroughly enjoy my May Day, but I also plan to use it well.
In his excellent 1973 book, “The Cosmic Connection,” no less a rationalist than the late great Carl Sagan defended and encouraged the hippie communes of the day. Sagan had the insight to look past the funky clothing, strange music, and relaxed attitudes toward footwear and explained that what these (mostly) young people were doing, and still are doing, is taking American culture and remixing it to fit their own needs, innovating and appropriating as they see fit to create something more or less unique – an alternative to Mother Culture’s demand for efficiency, growth, and uniformity by any means necessary.
Carl Sagan writes:
“Old economic assumptions, old methods of determining political leaders,old methods of distributing resources. . . all of these may once have been valid or useful or at least somewhat adaptive, but today may no longer have survival value at all. Old oppressive chauvinistic attitudes between the races, between the sexes, and between economic groups are being justifiably challenged. . . What is clearly needed are experimental societies!”
This need, he elaborates, was first met by the founders of communes such as The Hog Farm, Drop City, and The Farm, though he doesn’t mention these by name. On these communes, and in many of the intentional communities of today, the people empower themselves to identify what they like about modern culture and use it, while finding ways of working through or around the parts of our culture that they take issue with, meaning everything from racism, classism & sexism to division of labor, environmental degradation and more besides. Sagan’s main point is that these are all problems that we as a species need to deal with if we are to make the leap into the stars, or even survive what he would later term our ‘technological adolescence.’ The old way of building a culture moves with a snail’s pace, cautiously hazarding a new tradition or technique or design here, laying down what becomes irrelevant only with difficulty, and for quite a long while, our technology was linked deeply with this way of compiling a culture. However, in these days of rapid technological growth and development, writes Sagan, we must begin to actively experiment with culture in order to keep pace with it and use it to its fullest potential while solving the social problems of modern culture.
Sagan even addresses the failure of many of these communes in a scientific way. The conservatives of the day were content to point, laugh, and feel secure that the dissolution of communities like Drop City constituted proof that the Midcentury Middle-Class ‘Merican Model of life on Earth is civilization par excellence, and those dastardly SOB’s who are trying to tinker with it are all headed for disaster. Sagan counters that these cultural experiments can be described as mutations, much like the biological mutations that make evolution possible. As in biology, every mutation of a culture can either help the individuals involved or harm them, but we have the distinct advantage that if a cultural mutation comes along that does not help us, we can just stop, or opt out, or re-negotiate. Most organisms with less-than-helpful mutations are not so lucky. And 99% of the organisms that evolved here are now extinct, the vast majority due to nothing more than natural selection. So, in order to find that next step along the path of continuing cultural evolution, we first need to recognize that we as a society and a species have outgrown many previously-useful adaptations, and we then need to hit the ground running looking for the next breakthrough social mutatuion that will help us reach the stars, or at least make life on earth just, equal, and sustainable.
It is my firm belief, like Sagan’s, that we are at a crossroads, and clinging to harmful cultural baggage like chauvinism of any kind, economic models that defy the realities of limited resources and so on while we try to move forward will only serve to dig us deeper into a pit of nightmares than we already are. Our technology marries to our creativity in a myriad of different ways, enabling the fortunate among us to live vastly different lifestyles while retaining the same basic culture, and already, a few of us are actually taking the culture to task, but those voices are consistently downplayed in favor of the mainstream. Meanwhile, the GOP’s ‘back to basics’ rhetoric threatens to slash social progress back with broader and broader strokes, threatening artists and scientists with censorship and, perhaps more chillingly, forced irrelevance in their proposed regime of superstition and moral panic. There is no better example of this than the recent public slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke by leading conservative media goons, unless of course we mention the anti-intellectual leanings of Republican contender Rick Santorum. Leading the valiant charge against all of this, I see Occupy.
What better forum could there be for discussing alternatives to the present system, putting them into practice, adjusting them, calibrating them, practicing them, and presenting them to a public that is hungry for real change? Such a workshop or laboratory has been the dream of many counterculturalists for decades, and this is the moment when we have the power, the presence, and the people to get the message out there.
I envision May Day as a day to get started on this new front for the movement – organizing urban neighborhoods, suburban cul-de-sacs and rural hamlets into collectives, repurposing neglected land and buildings, giving every member of Occupy, and most especially the displaced and dispossessed, opportunities to plug into participatory models of life. There are legions of ideas waiting for birth or rebirth – gift economies, work-sharing communities, co-housing, free stores, free universities, syndicalism, voluntarism, the list knows only the same boundaries as human creativity and ingenuity, the marriage of mentalities that Walt Disney sought in his ‘Imagineers.’
Carl Sagan commends those who attempt this brave mission in cultural experimentation, saying that he thinks of them as people “of exemplary courage.” He also writes that there should be both popular approval of and government support for such experimentation on a global scale. Since neither popular support nor government assistance for cultural innovators seems to be in the cards at the moment, this could only make my opinion of those who shoulder the task regardless even higher. A popular movement like Occupy, however, has the resources of time, energy, people, and (through crowd-sourcing platforms like kickstarter) money to get the ball rolling toward some fantastic experiments in the field of human culture. And what better time to get people thinking about change at this level than May 1, a day not only a workers’ holiday around the world, but a widely respected Pagan celebration, a day of rebirth and endless possibility?
What if, instead of thinking of May 1 as a day to beg and plead for help or succor from our self-appointed superiors, we think of it as a day we are taking for ourselves and one another and the movement – whether or not the 1% likes it!
What if, instead of merely protesting wrongs, we began to see the rectification of these wrongs as the jumping-off point for massive new experiments in culture, a chance to pioneer entirely new ways to live on the Earth, to empower ourselves with action rather than to grovel at the feet of power, to engage mindfully with technology and culture and weave spectacular attempts, facing down the long odds with clear eyes and hopeful hearts, looking for that one-in-a-million shot at glory, at a viable, repeatable alternative.
We can do this, while simultaneously designing interim fixes for many if not all of the problems that Occupy concerns itself with. A new culture is a great and respectable long-term goal, but we must also remain vigilant, and remember that until such time as we can find a new model and implement it, the starving still starve, the homeless still wander, and the jobless still beg. So when I say there is room for progressives and radicals alike in Occupy, this is what I mean – the progressive urge to tackle immediate problems and the radical urge to address systemic ones can and must co-exist or the movement will perish. And remember: we write our own scripts, not the pundits, not the journalists, not even little me, here at my computer. I’m not here to provide you a script or a program or a regimen! I’m here to give you a wee dollop of inspiration, putting old words in a new frame, and now I’ve passed the ball to you, and to all of us in the movement. Happy May Day – Summer is a’Comin’ In!
Occupy May 1 – http://www.occupymay1st.org/