By Derek Ghan
I visited the Occupy Wall Street camp the same day I saw my brother off to Egypt where he’ll spend three years teaching and doing some non-profit work. By that point, we both had talked about how exciting it would be for him to witness the transitions in Egypt after the successful uprising. He’ll have a firsthand account of key political moments and witness new historic events that will shape the future of a country.
Visiting the camp in Zuccotti Park, I couldn’t help but compare the two situations. I fully expected to arrive to drum circles, competing chants, human microphones, and other vestiges of past political protests plagued by the fractured-message syndrome. How wrong I was. While I walked through the camp I saw and heard discourse; honest and open political discourse. Tourists like me would wade into the fray of the camp, cameras ready, and make it perhaps ten steps before a flyer was in our face, the bearer asking if she could explain to us what it is she was doing there. I overheard conversations between protestors and onlookers, respectfully exchanging ideas and personal philosophies. Listening to these conversations, I started thinking about the fuel behind the movement.
The early criticism of the Occupy movement that continues in the larger media outlets is the absence of a unified message. Those that purport to report the news have become overly reliant on the political system, expecting a scripted message with pretty bullet points and twitter-able summations. But this isn’t a movement of party sycophants. This isn’t even a protest in the truest sense. In my view, this is the resurgence of collectivism. I’ll clarify with an anecdote.
I saw a man sitting on one of the polished granite walls of the park holding up a sign that read “Hunger Strike! Morgan Stanley should give me compensation for firing me because of my beliefs!” At first glance, I didn’t understand the connection. I thought perhaps because it was Morgan Stanley, he believed it would be apropos to protest with others adamantly against the financial industry. But this wasn’t political or economic disempowerment; it was a simple case of wrongful termination. As I continued to think about his lonely protest, an idea started to fester. You could replace “Morgan Stanley” with any other business and he still would have belonged there. The financial industry isn’t the problem – at least not the sole problem; the problem is something more. It’s employment practices that allows a firm to terminate its employees at will and without cause. It’s our individual weakness that institutional strength can take advantage of on a daily basis. We’ve come to this by way of our obsession with personal autonomy. We’ve somehow been duped into believing that true personal liberty and freedom can only be found in some Rand-ian brand of individualism that rejects collectivism.
In giving the idea some more thought, I stumbled across the musing of Dr. Darcia Narvaez, a psychology professor and the director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education at University of Notre Dame. On her blog “Moral Landscapes” on Psychology Today’s website, she posted a two part topic asking the question “Are individualism and collectivism compatible?” While I generally shy away from lofty anthropological ideas that threaten to expose my overall ignorance on the subject, Dr. Narvaez’s explanation of the consequences of our Western infatuation with individualism is something even I could grasp. She uses the propensities of “Band Life” (think hunter-gatherer tribes) to examine individualism within a collective.
If I’ve lost you already, consider a couple quotes she pulled from a 1999 study on the subject. Here’s how the study describes our notion of individualism: “The Western individual is a self-contained, rational subject, locked within the privacy of a body, standing against the rest of society consisting of a an [sic] aggregate of other such individuals, and competing with them in the public arena for the rewards of success.” And here’s how it explains individualism in the context of band life: “For hunter gatherers, by contrast, the dichotomy between private and public domains, respectively of self and society, has no meaning. Every individual comes into being as a center of agency and awareness within an unbounded social environment which provides sustenance, care, company, and support . . . . A person acts with others, not against them; the intentionality driving that action both originates from, and seeks fulfillment through, the community of nurture to which they all belong.” If you wade through the anthropological geek-speak, you’ll see a theme start to surface. Our idea of individualism is defined by our ability – our need, really – to compete with one another for resources and success. At what point, do you suppose, is it that competition morphed from the centerpiece of our economic system into the centerpiece of our social structure? Consider why it is that the protesters are massing and occupying spaces in groups. It seems more likely that we’re witnessing an emergence of an underlying yearning to return to the band life understanding of individualism, where an individual acts in concert with others to improve everyday life collectively rather than competing to individually improve everyday life for ourselves.
Despite this, irrational fear of losing personal autonomy and independence continues to occupy the occupiers. If you ask about a unified message, the typical response you would likely get from most involved with the movement is that she is there representing her own ideas in a place where marginalized voices can be heard. Many are quick to point out that they are there as autonomous individuals representing only themselves. And yet consensus-building is a central part of the gatherings across the country. General assemblies or caucuses are springing up in various occupations with detailed rules of debate and procedure designed to facilitate them. The unfortunate consequence of years of indoctrination is that many believe that collective action comes at the cost of personal autonomy and individual freedom. But how well off are we actually believing that? The price of our infatuation with individualism in the Western sense is greatest threat to individual freedom. When we compete we effectively create a “race to the bottom” approach to consumption, employment, services, and all other aspects of our economic and political every-day-lives. Competing individually with each other against corporate and institutional collectives surrenders the rule-making power to amoral entities guided by majority rule or profit-based goals.
This is what I saw when I visited Zuccotti park. I saw a group of diverse people searching for a new understanding of individualism that is compatible with collectivism. Whether or not this is truly reflective of the motives behind the movement is irrelevant. Consider this: I spent only a couple hours at the park, but I’ve been thinking about it non-stop since. Maybe that’s what the movement is, a re-examination of social norms that we’ve just taken for granted all this time. Maybe it’s a rebellion against capitalism. Maybe it’s a resurgence of anarchism. It doesn’t matter. No one can deny that people are opening up new avenues of dialogue and reaching out to educate themselves and each other on issues that are important to them. The true value of the movement is that it is an exchange of ideas and political discourse free from the pathetic artificiality of election politics. If you toss away the pedestrian understanding of “protest” that critics can’t seem let go of, you’ll be well on your way to understanding the movement. To me, it’s a center for collective learning and action. What is it to you?