Occupy your Neighborhood, by Dan Chodorkoff

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.


11 Replies to “Occupy your Neighborhood, by Dan Chodorkoff”

  1. There’s a lot that I like about this essay, especially the distinction between movement democracy and direct democracy. That’s an important point.

    However, I tend to learn more from accounts of actual political practice than programmatic declarations, and this makes me curious to hear about how Dan applies these principles where he lives (in Central Vermont). It’s difficult for me to imagine a sense of neighborhood in, say, a place like Marshfield, where people live in enormous, palatial estates and get around almost exclusively by automobile. I would also assume that Dan’s neighbors are overwhelmingly white and wealthy and the thought of urging them to occupy more than they already have makes me uneasy. After all, does someone who lives on a converted, 50 acre farm need to occupy more space? Wouldn’t it make more sense to call upon people to seize those estates?

    I’m not trying to be mean or to nitpick, but sincerely wonder how Dan applies these insights in practice.

  2. Chuck,

    Glad you liked the essay, but you are way off base regarding Marshfield Vt., which is the second poorest town in Washington County. I am not aware of any “palatial estates” in town, rather I know of many mobile homes and run down turn-of-the-century farm houses and Section 8 rental housing. People here work hard to scrape by at an annual household income that averages well under $50,000 a year. Yes, people are forced to rely primarily on automobiles since there is very limited public transportation available, and yes, they are, primarily white. Does this somehow disqualify them from participating in directly democratic decision making? If you are not “being mean or nitpicking”, why are you projecting your fantasy of Vermont on these decent working people, and implying that they are part of the ruling class? This goes way beyond nitpicking, it is a real misrepresentation of how people live here and, in my view, extremely insulting.

    As to how how I apply these insights in practice, I participate in our town meetings (a directly democratic form of town governance)where we make decisions about every facet of our community and consider resolutions on national policies like nuclear disarmament, genetic engineering, nuclear power, global warming, campaign finance reform, and any other issue any citizen of the town cares to raise. I also serve on the town energy committee which has brought bus service to town (more limited than we would like, but a step in the right direction),
    has conducted energy surveys and efficiency updates (Mostly trailers and drafty old farm houses owned by low income people), offered forums on global warming, retrofit town buildings for energy conservation, created a tax district to help finance alternative energy in town, is currently installing solar photovoltaics to power town buildings, and is beginning to organize an energy co-op in town. Nothing revolutionary here, just working with people in directly democratic forums in a cooperative and mutualistic fashion around decisions that affect their lives. It is part of the long process of educating people about particular issues and learning together the actual process of practicing democracy. It is a way to build relationships of trust and mutual respect, a precondition for the kind of movement it will take to truly transform the system.

    Marshfield is not an urban neighborhood, but a town with 1300 residents, and their is a very strong sense of community here.
    I also live in a neighborhood with a strong sense of community where we share tools, co-operate to maintain a neighborhood trail system and gather regularly to celebrate our community. The title of the essay “Occupy your Neighborhood” was intended to highlight the need for a place based politics
    rooted in direct democracy as the critical component largely missing in recent discussions of movement strategy

  3. Hi Dan,

    Thanks very much for your reply. First, please accept my apologies if my comments insulted you. I clearly mischaracterized Marshield’s demographics, but I meant no ill will by doing so (and I’m probably not the only person who has a hard time recognizing rural poverty).

    My goal was to press you to talk more about your concrete political experience, which you did. I’m grateful for this and would love to hear more about how a radical movement can unfold in a primarily rural setting. I’ve lived most of my life in a highly urbanized context, so the notion of a place with trails, for example, is practically beyond my imagination. As I write this, I’m sitting in a highly diverse, “inner city” ghetto, literally steps from a major freeway and the Bart.

    I would also be interested in learning more about your town-based activism. It sounds like you are doing very valuable work and I would love to hear about you maintain a sense of radicalism while pursuing it. The mayor of the city in which I live (Oakland, California) came out of a racial justice protest movement but, as mayor, went to war against Occupy (among other things); the mayor before her, Ron Dellums, was an avowed socialist who accomplished little while in office and it was on his watch that Oscar Grant was murdered; Jerry Brown was mayor before that and he said he wanted to make Oakland into an “ecopolis.” In other words, all of these people made various radical declarations at various times but, in practice, served the status quo. Did they do this because they are bad people? That may be part of the answer, but I suspect that there’s much more to say.

    This is why I’d really like to hear more about your experience. Although I like (and share) the general principles you articulated, I’m most interested in an exploration of the complexities of asserting a radical agenda in the face of multiple, real world contradictions and conflicts.

  4. I won’t belabor these points if there is no interest, but I would pleased to have a discussion about how communitarian initiatives like the type Dan describes interact with real world hierarchies.

    For instance, Dan, you use the “community” or “communities” fourteen times in your article and four times in your reply. I get it—you’re a supporter of “community”—but I wonder if you could say a little about you navigate divisions in Marshfield. Where I live, there are vast and extraordinary divides (class, race, etc) and navigating these is part of simply walking down the street, not to mention building a movement. I guess there are few racial divides in Marshfield, but aren’t there class and other hierarchies? If so, how do you handle these in the course of cultivating a sense of common purpose and identity?

    Second, I wonder how your “community” activism interacts with the market. For example, I live in a hard-core ghetto, in which there is a very active criminal economy and lots of violence (I regularly hear gunfire). In this neighborhood, ANY increase in the quality of life correlates directly to an increase in property values which, in turn, forces people out. So, for instance, my neighbors and I could get together and clean up the dirty needles that the junkies leave all over the place. While this would definitely make my morning and evening dog walks a lot more pleasant, it would also make the area somewhat more attractive to real estate developers and less accessible economically. This paradox is inherent in the operation of the housing market. Don’t these problems also exist in Marshfield and, if so, how do you address them?

    These are some of the issues that come up for me when I thought about building a democratic, neighborhood-based movement. Surely there are others, too.

  5. Chuck,
    I just want to make a few brief points in response to your comments. I emphasize community because I believe that community is the locus for real change from a centralized state to a decentralized directly democratic society, I am referring here to a geographic community, be it an urban neighborhood, village or town. This is where we can achieve the human scale needed for face to face decision making and unmediated relationships of all types. Of course a corollary principle is confederation, to allow for the co-ordination of policy and activity among communities.
    I think there is a qualitative difference between running for Mayor as a major party candidate and participating as a citizen in a directly democratic forum like a town meeting. Are you suggesting they can be equated? If not through direct democracy how else would you suggest people make decisions about their community? Or should we refrain from participating in such forums until after “the revolution”? I see participation as a way we can practice prefigurative politics and gain experience in the practice of democracy, build relationships with our neighbors and demonstrate the efficacy of our ideas. I enter into the process fully recognizing the limitations imposed by a circumscribed realm like local governance, but continually try to expand the purview and power of these forums in both practical and symbolic ways.

    Of course their are divisions in Marshfield, primarily of a class and ideological nature, not so much around race, and I try to overcome them by actively working with people across those lines through forums like the town meeting, energy committee, and school board, (which I served on for three years)trying to find common ground, explore differences and convince others of my point of view. All of this is possible only because we live together in a community. I certainly recognize the difficulties you face in your neighborhood, and do not mean to minimize them. It must be awful to have to “navigate differences to walk down the street”. I too lived much of my life in urban neighborhoods, and I understand the reality you describe.

    My last point concerns the fear of gentrification you expressed.
    Is it really a choice between organizing in your community to make lives better day-to-day and displacement? My experience in New York’s Lower East Side in the 1970s was that it is possible to both create alternatives that markedly improve peoples lives and fight against gentrification at the same time. In Loisaida people were able to cross racial, ethnic and class lines to create low income co-ops in abandoned buildings, build community gardens in vacant lots, and create a myriad of cooperative enterprises, while holding town meetings and contesting for power with official city planning agencies. There, struggle against gentrification was waged when, as you suggested, these positive actions made the neighborhood attractive to gentrifiers. By the 1980s the forces of gentrification had won and the poor were largely replaced by Yuppies. The only projects that remained were those where people managed to take the land off of the real estate market through the use of community land trusts and low income covenants in deeds. You are quite right, market forces are extremely powerful, and difficult to resist. The lesson I took away from my experience in Loisaida was the need to anticipate gentrification and secure control of the physical neighborhood as well as improve it. I reject the argument, however, that people should live in
    horrible circumstances to prevent gentrification. I believe that the type of occupation of neighborhoods I am advocating has the potential to both create alternatives and fight gentrification, but it requires solidarity, trust, time, and a lot of hard work.

    Here in Marshfield gentrification is not a big issue, We face very little development pressure and there is a good supply of low-income housing available. None-the-less we have secured a degree of control over the physical environment of the town through the creation of community land trusts to insure an affordable housing stock that exists outside of the market, land trusts that conserve agricultural and forest land, town ownership of large conservation tracts, and progressive zoning developed by a volunteer board and voted on at town meeting. These are mechanisms available to both urban and rural communities.

    I am not suggesting that these approaches constitute a revolution; obviously they don’t. They are tiny incremental steps that improve peoples lives, just reforms. Do they buy into the system and support its continuation? They can, but not necessarily. They can also constitute a first set of demands that can be continually expanded. If we have a vision of a free, democratic, just, ecological society we must ask ourselves if these approaches take us closer to what we envision or move us farther away. I am not willing to wait for an insurrection before I engage in struggles that improve peoples lives. I am not sure such a moment will come in my lifetime, and I reject the notion, bandied about in the 60’s, that the worse things get
    the more likely people are to revolt. In America, I fear, the worse things get the more likely people are to turn to fascism. I think we need to dig in, educate, organize, and develop relationships and counter institutions that offer an alternative at the same time that we protest and oppose. I think it is possible to achieve reforms, without becoming reformist. We need to keep our goal in mind, educate and take the incremental steps that can lead to real change. Not as romantic as mounting the barricades,but the only way I know to bring about a new sensibility and transform the underlying structures that control our society.

  6. Those are really good points, Dan. I think I share your orientation, broadly speaking. I also want to build a locally based movement against capital and the state and believe in trying to advance reforms without being reformist. I am definitely with you there.

    Having said that, I find myself troubled by what I see as an ambiguous use of the term “community” among left libertarians. Specifically, if we define “community” as the collection of those we presently live around, what happens when your neighbors don’t want land trusts, love gentrification, and, say, hate a particular race or ethnicity? In that case, which is not at all hard to imagine, one would actually need to organize *against* the community. Right?

    But, alternately, things change if we define community as a goal or an end (something to be achieved). In that case, we can try to convince our neighbors of the value of our vision of community, but where does that vision come from? If its primarily an ideal, where do we get it? Do we derive it from Murray’s work? Or somewhere else?

    Do you have thoughts about this? After reading your comments, your take on these matters was somewhat unclear to me.

    I will also add that these aren’t academic issues for me. I really want to reassert the old, left-libertarian perspective, and its essential to find a coherent, stable way to do so, but a lot of tough questions come up. Your essay raises some of these, which I think is great, and of course that’s the first step toward answering them.

  7. Hi Dan, Hi Chuck,

    I am coming late to this discussion but I would like to reconnect it to the Occupy movement, rather than allowing it to drift off into a general one about libertarian municipalism. So, some questions I have for you Dan:

    I would be curious to know how you view the Occupy Our Homes campaign, the country-wide campaigns to block foreclosures and evictions? Or Occupy Sandy, the mutual aid networks established to meet immediate material needs “in the community” and to protest the lack of social safety nets, and their use of community forums? These — and others — are in fact place-based struggles. What do you make of them?

    It seems to me that you argue that struggles must originate in local places, and then expand across them. Yet, the Occupy movement began in the opposite direction, targeting the financial sector and the state, and then spread to communities. First, across the country, at city squares, and then into neighborhoods, with the examples I mentioned above. This is not a surprise to me for a few reasons, and has implications for general considerations of political strategy, and for our particular intervention into the current movement.

    Chuck was interrogating the concept of “community”, and I would also problematize it as well, although differently. Basically, it is clear to me that 3 decades of neoliberalism has deeply fragmented the urban space, destroying the traditional sites for people to gather. Therefore, many encampments were located in “public-private” parks, or on other sites. The establishment of the sites themselves involved contestation to *create* public spaces.

    Also, the commonalities that brought people together were in fact less territorially defined, and mush more dispersed geographically. They were based on the common experience of the crisis and three decades of neoliberalism: The dispossession of people from their homes, the loss of their savings, the attacks on their pensions, the cuts in their wages, the burdens of debt, the lack of a social safety net, etc.

    Yes, these processes all have material locations — and are now being targeted by particular Occupy campaigns, as mentioned above — but they are dispersed, even globally. The financial markets are the most clear example of how globally dispersed the source of the latest crisis is. And therefore, the Occupy movement is situated in struggles in a way that transcends localities; it targets student loan lenders, city governments, mortgage companies, etc. And the incredible geographical mobility and dispersion of so many people in contemporary capitalism means that their struggles are incredibly geographically dispersed. They have beef with the university, which is linked up with foreign investment, with mortgage lenders situated in different countries, with employers of companies that are on the other side of the country. How does a movement for democratic societal transformation cope with this challenge? Well it seems like Occupy is trying to work on multiple scales, and that should be supported.

    3) As Chuck mentioned, you place a strong emphasis on “community.” Yet, Occupy *created* the “community”. It did not already exist. Or, if it did, it was plagued by conservativism, and communitarian (not communalist) values, most recently encouraged by the Tea Party movement. The occupations established a new kind of “community” or at least strove towards it, in a multi-racial, gender-equality, non-national, multi-lingual, cross-class, conception.

    It sometimes seems like you are saying that community already exists, and we simply need to mobilize it. Not only did they have to create it, they could not rely on traditional communitarian concepts of it, defined by race, gender, sexuality, family, nationality, language, etc. They had to challenge the conservative “community” [ie. “imagined community”] constructed over the last years by the Tea Party movement. Hence the debates within the Occupy movement about race, gender, colonialism, etc.

    And then, it was from these collective and centralized spaces, where a fragmented and self-selected population was even able to begin talking with one another, identifying their common experiences, and then fighting back and organizing together. Hence the development of a plethora of locally-based projects. Yet, the movement also appears to be congnizant of the fact that it can not allow itself to be dispersed. That it needs to remain connected and to coalesce in public space beyond single issues and single localities. To recognize its generality. A recent community discussion in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brookyln, New York therefore recently discussed the idea of dumping the loads of trash that has piled up since hurricane Sandy, of walls infested with mold, for example, at City Hall. Just a small example of the need to maintain the connection to broader sources of power, and to broader societal dynamics beyond the locality.

    Also, if the Occupy movement is a delayed response to the economic crisis — and I would make that argument — then, the issues bringing together the movement are much broader than the local. The crisis is extremely broad, and while it is connected to the local — for example through the subprime mortgage crisis — it is also extremely general. This generality is also a strength of the movement, it’s source and target lies beyond the local. And the Occupy Our Homes, Occupy Sandy, and other projects attempt to intervene in concrete struggles that are place-based and also point to the general dynamics of contemporary capitalism and sources of power that defy place.

    It seems to me that a strategy for democratic societal transformation needs both of these targets and bases, and that the Occupy movement is moving on both terrains, despite its limitations.

  8. I think Rob poses a series of very vital, significant questions (hi Rob) and I don’t think it’s possible to answer them within the terms provided by Murray’s work or the more general thing known as “social ecology” linked to the ISE. There really has to be a rethinking of the basics if the critical energies found in Murray’s work and the ISE are to live on in some form. I really wish that a recognition of this fact—the need to revisit and reformulate the premises—could become a premise of ISE programing.

  9. Hi Rob,

    Good to hear from you, and thanks for your thoughtful comments.
    In general, I agree with much of what you have to say, and I don’t think that it really contradicts the points that I made previously. Perhaps I was not clear that I do not see the community based approach I advocate as being the exclusive strategy to bring about the changes we so desperately need,
    but rather as a key component that needs to be developed. I fail to see how we can possibly bring a decentralized, directly democratic society into being without a movement that creates direct democracy in our communities. We also need to continue to protest , both locally and nationally, and in addition to create alternative and counter institutions. A confederal model could help to co-ordinate all of these efforts. The crises we face are so dire, so compelling and so all encompassing that there is need for work on all of these levels. Now, let me try to address your comments.

    First, Occupy our Homes and Occupy Sandy are important developments that begin to move in the direction that I advocated in my article; community service and organizing in local communities a la ERAP, S.D.S’ Economic Research and Action Project. Engagement in struggles that have a direct impact on people’s lives and communities help build relationships of trust and solidarity and reach people who would not become involved in oppositional “protest” politics. These relationships can provide a basis for further organizing, and an entry point for the creation of directly democratic forums at the neighborhood level that can serve to link issues of social inequity and a critique of capitalism and the larger social order directly to peoples lives. Further such forums can be used to undermine the legitimacy of the State and allow people to experience and imagine an alternative.

    I never suggested, and certainly never meant to imply that communities are the only place where struggle can occur. I recognize the catalytic role that highly visible movement encampments played, I see the need for such manifestations, and I argue that they must now be linked directly to peoples everyday lives. I recognize the importance, symbolically, and actually of contestation at the points of power, like the Wall St. encampment, but I also saw that participation in the actual encampment was largely limited to young people who had the ability to devote themselves to the project because they didn’t have jobs, families dependent on them, or the other limiting factors that most people face. And even for them, the experience of the occupation was ephemeral, a “Temporary Autonomous Zone” that was extremely important, but ultimately unable to sustain itself. I would suggest that this is more often that not the case with movements that are purely oppositional, or protest based. As Occupy demonstrated,such movements are necessary, but, in and of themselves, not sufficient to create real lasting change of the type I desire. I maintain that neighborhoods and communities are the most fruitful ( though not the only) places to build democratic counter institutions that can provide a basis for lasting change.

    It would be foolish to believe that neighborhood assemblies and town meetings could supplant the State tomorrow. I would suggest that “Every revolutionary project is and educational project”, clearly many of our existing communities are mired in racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and all of the other ills of our existing society. “Occupy our Neighborhoods” implies using neighborhood forums as a vehicle for education, and action; a place to raise issues and discuss them with our neighbors. My experience has been that, when approached from this perspective even, very conservative neighbors have changed their views on critical issues like climate change, nuclear power,
    health care, and the banking system.

    In short, I believe that the concerns raised by Occupy so effectively on Wall St. need to be brought home to our neighborhoods, and that the most effective way to do so is to establish real, face to face relationships in our communities and to raise these issues with our neighbors in the context of our shared lives.

    Rob, I appreciate your critique of the state of community in today’s America. I do not assume that coherent communities exist everywhere, or that there are not communities rooted in exclusion rather than inclusion. In many cases we need to re-create connections between people, in other cases we need to combat racist, sexist , and reactionary attitudes of all types
    Our role must be to organize and educate. In many communities, however, affective ties between people do exist, and there are many places where there are still vestiges of community life.
    There, our task is to revitalize and re-imagine existing forms.
    A massive educational project indeed, especially where there are reactionary attitudes that need to be overcome. But, if we truly believe in democracy and empowerment, that is the work we need to do. It will not be easy, and most likely, it will not be quick, but with out it I fear that we will continue to fall short of what it takes to transform the underlying structures of hierarchy and domination, and create a free society.

  10. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for the response. I am not surprised that there is a lot we agree on. I was particularly interested though, in how the actually existing projects of the Occupy movement (or of other initiatives for that matter, but since your text is directed towards Occupy, my comments respond precisely to that) might move in a radical democratic, transformative direction. As I mentioned in my previous comment, I think this kind of specificity is lacking, and it would be great to hone in on, in order to make critical interventions.
    It seems to me that the Occupy Sandy project for example has precisely the kind of potential you speak about. It is rooted in neighborhood struggles, is building links with movements and community groups, is confronting the ongoing crisis, and as part of it, the absence of sufficient forms of social protection. In fact, in the Red Hook mobilization, there are even calls for popular power, a focus on decentralization in some sense, combined with calls for a rent strike as a form of leverage to push demands on the state. I would be curious to know more about how this is advancing (or not).
    You write that counter or alternative institutions might be able to “undermine the legitimacy of the State and allow people to experience and imagine an alternative.” I agree, but I think we sometimes focus too strongly on the shift in consciousness emerging from communal and democratic practices of mutual aid, to the detriment of the necessary institutional changes, ie changes in the state. (It’s probably an anarchist residue of ours.) We need to figure out, in the particular case of Occupy Sandy, of how to concretely move from relief to transformation. Re-shaping the state was something Murray began addressing in his later writings, yet is largely rejected amongst anarchists. I think he was thinking about an “inside” and “outside” strategy of transformation that is extremely relevant, and needs to be taken up more seriously in our strategy.
    One last point. I agree with you on the importance of building democratic institutions at the local level. These however in no way replace the necessity of ones that will span or defy geographical space. I think “community”, neighborhood or geographical based ones will and do face the problem of how deeply rooted communitarian identities are in our society. This can and has to be challenged. You said that yourself. I guess, I simply mean to point out that our conception of how societal change will emerge has to take into account the deep fragmentation of the population, and that forms of self-organisation and mobilization will be shaped by this. And that we must be open to other forms of mobilization, and to the weaknesses in our own perspectives. I think for example that, despite the commonalities of broad-scale outrage about the crisis and recession, there are distinctions that we have to be cognizant of. That the symbolic retaking of the commons in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere was and is based on a somewhat (new) feeling of betrayal amongst those who now realize that “the american dream is over.” People who felt that the system was theirs, and now have been thrown out.
    In contrast, many people who gave up “dream”ing long ago, did not experience the same kind of rage. For many, the American nightmare, to be somewhat hyperbolic, is a constant throughout generations. I think this can only partially be addressed by discursive and micro-political changes towards feminist and anti-racist positions and practices within the movement. And I think therefore, that attempts to establish community assemblies that are not connected to concrete struggles will largely fail. I don’t mean to suggest that you do this. I am very aware of your long standing involvement in class and anti-racist struggles in New York for example. But I do think that concrete struggles are sometimes written off by social ecologists because of the struggles’ focus on the particular, rather than thinking about how these particular struggles might be developed into more generalizable ones. It is for this reason that I wanted to link the discussion back to the the particular struggles of Occupy at the moment. It would be great to hear from social ecologists — or people with similar perspectives — who are involved or very informed about the movement… if there are some out there reading this?

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