Decades ago, on the eve of a period of widespread societal upheaval, Bob Dylan famously intoned that “the order is rapidly fading.” For a time, this appeared to be so: around the world people were in the streets, revolution was in the air, and structures of oppression were being openly contested. The headiness of those days brought many advances and opened up significant space for later movements to operate, yet in the final analysis somehow it all delivered us into even higher degrees of wealth stratification and greater consolidation of power. The order had flickered, but not quite faded, and in the end reasserted itself stronger than before.
Today we stand poised at a not-dissimilar crossroads. While perhaps no one has yet penned a Dylan-esque anthem of the movement -- although stalwarts such as David Rovics and Emma’s Revolution have dropped some poignant opening stanzas -- a mass chorus of voices is drawing lines in the sand literally everywhere: public spaces, workplaces, shipping ports, shopping malls, community centers, corporate banks, schoolrooms, boardrooms, and more. The Occupy Movement has transcended the narrow confines of Zuccotti Park, and in doing so has seemingly asserted itself wherever the forces of elitism and subjugation rear their heads. As Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without demand,” and whatever else transpires in the days ahead it can at least be said that the movement has reminded us all of this basic tenet.
Still, critics continue to ask, “where is your list of demands?” as if such can be reduced to movement letterhead in bullet-point fashion. To be sure, some concrete demands have been advanced, largely in the economic and political spheres and triggered by the exigencies of the Great Recession. But on some level, most everyone understands that this bill of particulars is just the surface of the movement, and that its essence really draws down to the core workings of the system itself. Adjusting debit card rates or mollifying student loan debts may bring some minor relief, but it has the feel of rearranging a couple of deck chairs, whereas many Occupiers are more urgently clamoring en masse for the dismantling of the Titanic itself.
At root, multitudes are demanding no less than a re-visioning of our political and economic relationships, and likewise of our collective human relationship with the larger environment. The time for single-issue tinkering is winding down, as the ecological and social fabric of our lives similarly degrades. After generations of living mainly as cogs in a mechanistic Moloch -- at times being reasonably well-compensated for the sacrifice of our mere freedoms and human dignity -- many people are experiencing new bonds of exchange, camaraderie, and community. There is a growing sense of engaged optimism in this moment of healthy rebellion.
And it is healthy, in contrast with the dead-end dispiritedness of corporate capitalism, in which everything and everyone are little more than raw materials for the robber barons’ assembly lines. This archaic and apocalyptic system of production and reproduction is sick at its very core, revealing a form of mass insanity masking as progress, and leaving illness and misery in its wake just beneath the shiny veneer of development. At the height of colonialism, blankets with smallpox were presented as “gifts” to unwitting natives, and in many ways this has become the central operating premise of the entire enterprise, a living metaphor for environmental despoliation and the ensuing political economy of toxification.
No more. The pox must be cast out, by necessity, if any part of the organism is to survive at this point. What began as a movement to occupy a symbolic place -- the plexus of financial machinations -- quickly became a call to occupy everything, and has further expanded to include the earth itself as a living participant in the calculus. Now, as the teeth of abject repression are bared in Oakland and elsewhere, a critical juncture is being reached in which the politics of practicality are slowly being supplanted by the poetics of possibility. People who have tasted freedom can no longer be kept conveniently in prisons, even if their cages are designed to appear like comfortable condominiums.
The technicians of empire thus stand stripped of their authoritarian mystique, increasingly so as they resort to heavy-handed tactics against peaceful people, including even those who have served in their infantries. A crisis of legitimacy is in the offing, as counter-institutions steadily replace those that run counter to even the pretense of democracy and equity. Hegemony yields to autonomy, corporatism to communitarianism, and warfare to welfare. There will be no placating the people by piecemeal legislation or token redistribution at this juncture; it is the reins of power themselves that are being demanded, and not merely the spoils.
But are the power elite quaking in their jack-boots? Are the walls of Babylon actually crumbling? This time, is the order really fading? Others have tried mightily before and come up short of changing the underlying paradigm, but there is a qualitative difference in evidence today: horizontal integration. Vertical structures, such as capitalism’s pervasive pyramid schemes, are inherently vulnerable to vicissitudes in the base -- whereas horizontal systems, such as those being forged in occupations everywhere, are inherently unbreakable since there is no a prior of power apart from every single piece of the whole. This is, in fact, how healthy organisms function, and further reflects how nature itself is organized at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels.
To a system of death and destruction, we interpose one of life and liberation. Consumption is remediated by creation; plutocracy by democracy; exploitation by participation. This is not merely a movement, but is in practice more akin to a global health care plan -- and this time, we will get universal (or at least earthly) coverage, with the only mandate being the basic imperative that is embedded in the undeniable interconnectedness of our existence. No legislation is needed, only the laws of nature; no medication, just dedication; no co-payments, merely co-creators. We are going to get well, all of us together and the habitat itself, and in the process we will work to wipe aside the sickly stain of the colonizer’s history.
Power may not abdicate, but it does change its garb at times. The Empire’s cloak of imperial majesty is threadbare, and a new wind is chilling its inner workings to the marrow. We neocolonial beneficiaries have infected others, and ourselves as well, with everything from acne and austerity to zoster and zero-sum thinking, and now it has come to pass that the global organism itself is essentially on life support. This is the reality that must eventually be confronted, both in terms of ecology and political economy: the externalities of disease and despair cannot be indefinitely outsourced. The only genuine form of wellbeing is one that injects itself everywhere, coursing through the veins of society at all levels and in every locale within the system.
Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, Pax Americana -- all made claims to establishing a “relative peace” within their ambit. But these forms of peace were imposed at the point of a bayonet or the nosecone of a warhead. They were all poisonous peaces, ultimately self-defeating enterprises of subjugation in which the masters could not escape their own systems of enslavement. Today, we are aiming for something more like Pax Populi, a form of peace made by and for people, not nations or corporations. In order to accomplish this, the ailing empire du jour must be supplanted by a constellation of healthy communities, interlinked by virtue of desire rather than dictate. This is the ambitious horizon of the burgeoning movement in all of its manifestations: Pax Occupata.
Instead of a singular Dylan for the movement, there are poets cropping up everywhere and providing the soundtrack of this era in real time. Indeed, this is as it should be: everyone’s a bard, and all the world’s a stage. The curtain is finally closing on the old order, and a new paradigm of peace is being hewn from the colossus.