OWS: To Change the Country, We Just Might Have to Change Ourselves
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The emergence of what we know as Occupy Wall Street, or the 99 Percent Movement, has taken nearly everyone by surprise, producing a transformation of public consciousness. There is little doubt that something striking has taken place, far from our normal range of expectations. As a result, many thousands of progressives, excited that the logjam in American politics has been psychologically broken up, are still wondering exactly what has happened and why. Suddenly the style and conventional wisdom of traditional progressive models for social change have been pushed aside in favor of "horizontalism," general assemblies, culture jamming, and many other unconventional ways of doing politics.
The Antecedents of OWS
The DNA strands of some of these alternative approaches can be traced to Europe's Situationist International movement of the '50s and '60s, which combined radical politics with avant-garde art, and helped lead to a general strike in France in 1968. There are echoes, too, of American progressive movements that rose in response to the inequality, corporate excesses and corruption of the Gilded Age and the Roaring '20s. There are also reverberations from early in the labor movement of the large-scale industrial strikes of the 1930s, and also of the civil rights movement, and the women's movement's model of consciousness raising. Powerful acknowledgement must be given to the Arab Spring, for igniting the world's imagination. In Egypt, power that seemed incontestable was contested; protesters didn't have the answers beyond the end of Mubarak -- still they came and stayed.
Strong antecedents can also be found in the student-led antiwar movement of the late 1960s, which was also a fight against the dehumanizing effects of corporate power. Then, many young men faced being drafted to fight in a destructive and despised war. These young people and their families pushed back, saying, "Hell no, we won't go!" Many of today's millennials are also fighting back against circumstances that affect them directly. Student debt is more than $1 trillion, while unemployment for young people is at Depression-era levels. Declaring bankruptcy does not erase student loans; those crushing debts will follow them forever. Many of these young adults see their futures at stake. Not surprisingly, they want a solution -- either the jobs that would enable them to pay off their loans, or forgiveness of debt incurred under false pretenses.
Nevertheless, the movement that has burst out of a small park in Lower Manhattan feels like a new manifestation of the will for ordinary people to challenge dangerous and daunting forces that have come to dominate their lives. With its global reach and advanced technological and media tools, OWS may well usher in a new political and cultural era. Still, no one can say just where this thing will go and what the future will bring. And therein lies much of the power of OWS, and for some, the frustration. Pundits and organizers across the ideological spectrum have tried to understand the phenomenon, and explain it by fitting it into what we already know about how the system works, because not knowing is a source of great anxiety in our society, in the media, in the establishment, and even among progressives.
As Eve Ensler, global activist and author of The Vagina Monologues says, "What is happening cannot be defined. It is happening. It is a spontaneous uprising that has been building for years in our collective unconscious. It is a gorgeous, mischievous moment that has arrived and is spreading. It is a speaking out, coming out, dancing out. It is an experiment and a disruption."
Of course, nothing concrete has changed, yet. But the possibility of change -- really, the necessity of change -- is now in the middle of our nation's politics and public discourse. This alone is an incredible achievement because a few short months ago, many millions of us essentially had no hope.