A new essay from Dan Chodorkoff, co-founder of the ISE:
Occupy your Neighborhood
by Dan Chodorkoff
Summer fades to Fall and more than one year has passed since Occupy Wall Street entered the public arena. Occupy’s message highlighted capitalism’s inherent injustices, and resonated with a broad cross section of the public. The initial media frenzy has subsided and occupy activists are now struggling to develop new strategies to engage the 99% and to re-energize the movement.
Conceived as primarily a protest movement, Occupy is a testament to both the vision and spirit of its organizers, and the limitations of protest. The repression of the various physical occupations of public space around the country undercut the primary vehicle of the occupiers and their presence on the ground in the face of the 1%, their allies, and hirelings.
Occupy, with its emphasis on prefigurative politics, presented a model for how direct democracy can be applied in a movement setting and served as an inspiration for both participants in and observers of the movement. However, as events unfolded the limitations of this approach were revealed. The open ended nature of the General Assemblies led to time consuming and, for many, frustrating, meetings dealing with formidable logistics of managing the encampments and, increasingly, tactical and strategic discussions were the province of working committees and other small groups. The fetishization of process played a role in the decline of Occupy’s public presence. As important as directly democratic processes are in the movement context, they do not constitute direct democracy, they constitute movement democracy. This conflation of movement democracy with direct democracy both severely limits the movement’s effectiveness and, at the same time suggests an approach that might deepen and broaden Occupy’s presence and impact. We must understand the protest-oriented approach as part of a larger strategy for social change that links together oppositional and alternative movements, and takes them into the realm of politics.
It is time to extend these examples into new arenas and transcend the limitations of protest by applying direct democracy not just in our movements, not just in our encampments and at our protests, but where we live. It is time to occupy our neighborhoods, towns and villages; to take the lessons learned in the streets and in the parks to our own geographical communities. An old adage suggests that all politics are local. Let us recognize that change of the magnitude required to mount an effective challenge to capitalism as a system will require a majoritarian movement, and that it is a project which will require the development of not only new institutions, but a new sensibility as well. If this seems like a daunting task, we can take some comfort from history. Such revolutionary changes in the underlying structures of society have occurred before, and they can occur again. Inspiring and exciting as moments like the occupation of Zuccotti Park and other public spaces are, they constitute a festival of the oppressed, or in the lexicon of post-modern anarchism, a temporary autonomous zone These are important spaces for learning and celebrating the spirit of revolt, they give us a glimpse of the what could be, but they are by their very nature and definition illusory, and momentary.
The question that occupiers should be asking is not how can we create more of these moments, but rather, how can the approaches we celebrate become institutionalized; how can we create permanent autonomous zones and expand them to encompass cities, regions, nations, and, ultimately, the globe? Grandiose and unrealistic goals? I do not think so.
In order to achieve a true democracy we must create democratic forums in our own communities, where we live. Our neighborhoods, villages and towns are the terrain on which direct democracy must be built. Neighborhood Assemblies and Town Meetings provide a locus for the practice of direct democracy around issues that have a direct effect on people’s lives. They are a space that allows people to experience directly democratic processes and to begin to build a counter power to the State and Capital.
Directly Democratic forums like these have a deep and rich history. In the Western tradition we can look back to ancient Greece, the medieval Folk Moat, and the New England Town Meeting , to name but a few examples. In fact, for almost the whole of human history, from the Paleolithic until the advent of civilization, many cultures are understood by anthropologists to be egalitarian, with all participating fully in the self-management of their society. And even today, most communities can identify at least vestigial institutions that embody that sensibility.
Actualizing these ideas will not be easy. It requires a commitment to becoming part of a physical community. It demands a recognition that change really does begin at home, and that the process requires grassroots organizers ready to fight along side their neighbors to bring a revitalized direct democracy to their communities. We must be prepared for a long-term struggle, and must ally ourselves actively with our neighbors. It is worth remembering that the Zapatistas spent more than 10 years organizing in Tzotzil and other indigenous communities before they emerged to challenge the State.
The creation of true, community-based organizing and activism is the only way to create direct, community-based democracy. My personal experience with town meeting democracy in Vermont, and “town meetings” in New York’s Loisaida neighborhood has convinced me that it is possible to create and empower local forums for directly democratic decision making in virtually any setting, and to use them as a means of both educating people in the practice of democracy, and helping them to affect their own lives in meaningful ways. This is the way we can begin to create the new sensibility required for the revolutionary restructuring of contemporary society. The empowerment of these forums serves as the basis for a new politics, and, importantly, a way to challenge the legitimacy of the State and capitalism, and, through a process of confederation, ultimately, contest for power.
The limitations of a purely oppositional movement, essentially what Occupy has been, have become clear. We need to combine protest with the creation of counter-institutions that empower people to make decisions that affect their communities and the larger society as well. Such an approach, termed libertarian municipalism by Murray Bookchin, addresses the issue of power directly, something that a purely protest based movement is unable to do, and attempts to engage with politics by redefining the dynamic of power. It replaces the principle of power over, central to our current political system, and introduces mechanisms to create power with. Rather than demanding redress and reform, this approach offers a revolutionary redefinition and transformation of politics.
Organizing of this type requires developing real relationships with ones neighbors. Participatory action research of the type practiced by SDS in the mid sixties offers a good model for this work. The Economic Research and Action Project brought collectives of young SDS organizers into a number of low income communities where they worked with community members to identify issues they could address together. In addition to building relationships of solidarity in front-line communities, they were able to address the real needs of community members.
The alliances created through these struggles could provide the basis for an effective, inclusive, “Town Meeting” approach.
For this approach to replace our current sham democracy a majority of the population must begin to practice direct democracy, and they must do it where they live, revitalizing and reinventing our definitions of community and citizenship. Is it possible? Yes! Will it happen overnight? No. It will take a concerted effort over an extended period of time, but it provides a clear path out of the conundrum in which we currently find ourselves mired.