The genius of the Occupy movement is the proclamation, from the outset, that it represents 99% of the population.
That stands as a far cry from the huge youth movement in the late 1960s/early 1970s. We made a fundamental mistake in those days: we were not only content but we were thrilled to be a minority. We loved being different and outsiders. True, this gave us energy and a collective identity against a culture we despised and mistrusted. But we effectively abandoned the mainstream to the right.
This was more than a shame. It paved the way for thirty years of increasing social disparities and cuts to social services. At that time, the majority of people were what we’d now think of as liberal; many identified with ideas that now seem on the left. Even most conservatives of the day would have shuddered to hear the rhetoric of the Tea Party and their slightly less-lunatic cousins in governments from the United States to Canada, England and beyond. It should have been a golden time for progressive forces to permanently shift the social and economic landscape. True, we helped stop the war in Vietnam and true, we launched powerful movements (feminism, gay rights, environmental) and supported others (civil rights) that live on and have indeed reshaped mainstream thought. But in many ways, we failed.
The Occupy movement, now just at its beginning, has the potential to go beyond the New Left. After all, not since the US right wing proclaimed itself the “Moral Majority” in the mid-1970s has anyone had the temerity to do two things: First, at a time when they were a minority, the right wing boldly declared itself the majority. Second, while the actual majority was questioning the morality of war, discrimination and inequality, the right wing claimed and captured moral momentum and the moral high ground.
The Occupy movement is boldly going beyond a statement that we are the majority by proclaiming we are the 99%.
And here, then, is the biggest challenge: It’s one thing to say we’re the 99%, it’s quite another to be the 99%.
Eight Keys to Being the 99%
1. To be the 99% means, by definition, we are claiming the mainstream. We should not fear to be mainstream. Rather, if we believe that our ideas are good and just, then we should want those ideas to be accepted by the mainstream. If we know that our ideal of a low-carbon, sustainable economy is both necessary and practical, then we should want this ideal to be part of the status quo. If we know that a much more egalitarian society is a more humane, less violent, and more productive one, then we know these are ideals for everyone.
2. Claiming the mainstream does not mean, however, we have to fit into what the mainstream currently defines as “realistic.” Social, economic and political realism is what we collectively create. The current mainstream does not see it as realistic to spend billions to prevent the worst effects of climate change or to provide safe drinking water to the people of the world, but thinks it is “realistic” to spend trillions on wars or to bail out private banks. Our job is to help redefine what is realistic.
3. Creating bridges to the mainstream. This is the biggest challenge to becoming the 99%. It literally requires reaching that 99% with our message. It requires facilitating a process for others to identify with our ideals – to truly be the 99%. In the months and years ahead, we need to find ways to create those bridges. We have to see ourselves as the bridge-builders: since we’re coming from the outside with a new social and economic vision, we can’t expect, in advance, that our sisters and brothers of the 99% will automatically see things our way. It is our job to reach out to them. This has many practical implications: It means going to where people are to engage in a respectful discussion to win them to our views: to places of worship and classrooms, shopping centers and workplaces, unions and service clubs, seniors homes and community groups, and the media. We will be confronted with many who disagree, even demonize us. Our job is to model respect, refuse to demonize others, and to present our ideas in language that each group can most easily identify with and see as their own. Why? So they will best discover ways to articulate our common vision to those around them.
4. Creating bridges also means forming common cause with people and organizations we may not agree with about many things but with whom we can find principled areas for a united voice. This can be uncomfortable and difficult for us to accept! But, for example, a trade union might support an environmentally disastrous industry, but we can find common cause to speak with one voice about social and economic inequalities. Similarly, a church group may oppose abortion rights, but we can find ways to speak together for measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or for public healthcare. A student association may support military spending, but we can work with them to insist that education should be available to all. Those things we disagree about are indeed critical issues and for those who’ve been active so far in the Occupy movement, we know these issues are all linked to our concerns. But if we truly want to be the 99%, we have to see that the 99% includes many people we disagree with about fundamental matters. The question is how to engage in a healthy discussion with them? How do we work together to advance our common objectives? Working together, we can agree to disagree on things dear to both our hearts, but also strive to have an ongoing and respectful conversation about those differences. Again, if we truly believe our ideas should and will be the ideas of the majority, we need to have some faith in our long-term capacity to have an impact on others. Nothing greater will threaten the 1% than forms of unity, in spite of many differences, among the 99%!
5. Don’t worry about the naysayers who criticize us for not having “clear demands.” The most powerful thing about the Occupy movement is that it is unleashing a society-wide conversation about social inequality and, to a lesser extent, a range of other human rights, social, political, and economic issues. That in itself is a huge victory in only a month. A big part of our work is to nurture that conversation.
6. At the same time, it is important that we continue to encourage streams of conversations about economic, social and political alternatives. There’s nothing wrong with having answers! What are some practical measures to greatly reduce social and economic disparities? What does a more democratic society look like? How can we deepen political democracy and extend democracy to control of the economy? What parts of the economy should be public services and not in private hands? How can we develop effective global income taxes and global responses to climate change and economic disparities? How can public policies encourage the growth of diverse economic models including more cooperatives, more public ownership, more small business, and more non-profits with the type of power and impact that large corporations now monopolize? What do we need to do to ensure sustainable economies? And much, much more.
7. Be suspicious of those who want to polarize and of those who preach violence or the destruction of property (no matter how venal are the owners of that property.) Such actions are the dead ends of social movements. They are the hallmarks of powerlessness. They will isolate us. They will stop us from becoming the 99%.
8. Trust our capacity to live the changes we believe in. Trust our capacity to win over the great majority to our beliefs. Trust that we can model respect and compassion. Trust that we have the capacity to build bridges and patiently change minds. Trust that we will be part of finding new answers. Trust that we can truly be the 99%.
Follow Michael at michaelkaufman.com, michaelkaufman.com/facebook and on Twitter at @GenderEQ. This blog is also being published at rabble.ca