One No, Many Yeses by Joshua Stephens

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Reposted from Turning Wheel of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Virtually anywhere I turn, I hear one of two criticisms about the Occupy Wall Street movement: a lack of organization, and a lack of demands. A visit to Zuccotti Park (or any of its offshoots from Nashville to Cape Cod to Beirut) quickly dissolves the first claim. As a member of the Education & Empowerment Working Group for Lower Manhattan’s occupation, I easily burn through 2-3 hours in each of our thrice-weekly meetings. These meetings manage multiple daily workshops, trainings and teach-ins proposed by a vast array of people, by way of multiple Google calendars and Twitter feeds, liaising with no fewer than five other working groups, in accordance with principles laid out by a face to face general assembly that meets twice a day. Few institutions can boast such tedious organizational commitments. Indeed, rather few would want to.

All of this is in addition to the whole physical infrastructure unfolding within Zuccotti Park: The administration of food, sanitation, and first aid; the provision of adequate comfort for those residing there overnight; a gray-water system; a library; conflict resolution; community relations; technological resources; access to bathrooms and showers; the transmission of practices for inclusive and expedient decision-making. And so on. Occupy Wall Street has even scheduled deployments of people cleaning the bathrooms at adjacent businesses, refusing to externalize the additional labor generated by those gathering in the park. In recent days protesters completely scrubbed and reorganized the park (hauling in water in large quantities), had all bedding transported to laundry, and even repaired potted flowers and electrical outlets.

But this really only accounts for what’s most material in the occupation. And this is where the criticism about the movement’s lack of demands misses the mark considerably. In her dispatch from the occupation, So Real It Hurts, Manissa McCleave Maharawal observes:

“The whole thing was quite bizarre: the confused tourists not knowing what was going on; the police officers lining the perimeter; the mixture of young white kids with dreadlocks, anarchist punks, mainstream looking college kids, but also the awesome black women who were organizing the food station; the older man who walked around with his peace sign stopping and talking to everyone; a young black man named Chris from New Jersey who told me he had been there all week and he was tired but that he had come not knowing anyone, had made friends and now didn’t want to leave. And when I left, walking my bike back through the streets of the financial district, fighting the crowds of tourists and men in suits, I felt something pulling me back to that space. It was that it felt like a space of possibility, a space of radical imagination. And it was energizing to feel like such a space existed.”

And yet, what Maharawal sets out to document is not the how the utopian is reflected in the occupation, but rather how the very wrought, messy, grit of human experience is: the flaws and challenges we often bring to the task of our own liberation. And ultimately, she insists upon the necessity of naming our selves—our stories, our impulses, our egos; our racism, our hetero-normative and sexist policing of each other’s roles, our subtle class entitlement; in a word, our delusion—as a site of antiauthoritarian intervention every bit as real as Wall Street itself:

“This is important because I think this is what Occupy Wall Street is right now: less of a movement and more of a space. It is a space in which people who feel a similar frustration with the world as it is and as it has been are coming together and thinking about ways to recreate it. For some people this is the first time they have thought about how the world needs to be recreated. But some of us have been thinking about this for a while now. Does this mean that those of us who have been thinking about it for a while now should discredit this movement? No. It just means that there is a lot of learning going on down there and that there is a lot of teaching to be done.”

Protest is the least radical thing happening in Lower Manhattan at the moment. Subjectivity-formation is happening, in stark contrast with the aspirations of the American establishment and its seeming inertia. More tangibly, something of a village, or perhaps a commune is emerging: a real-time crucible for acquiring and delivering skills in the art of social organization. What the Buddha called bhavana, or cultivation: bringing into being. The former spectator, now radically, and imperfectly, is a participant. In a Gustav Landauer. He insisted that the state is a set of social relationships and that we, on the ground, in fact, are the state—we are the vessels of its logic, its aspirations, its ethics. We construct meaning through its chosen grammar, and we will successfully dismantle it to the extent that we contract other relationships and behave differently. No revolution or cataclysmic upheaval in human history has successfully shaken off the residue or trauma of its antagonist regime, in large part because Landauer’s point has struck us as quaint or romantic. But his point exposes the liberal misunderstanding of Occupy Wall Street. We are Wall Street, if only in that neo-liberal modes of self-formation are virtually all we know. Whatever demands could be lobbed at institutional forms, their grammar would continue to shape our utterances, and gut any earnest movement forward. This is where the meditation cushion—literal or otherwise—meets the street. As Jed Brandt and Michael Levitin write in the most recent edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, “What can those who want democracy demand of the king, except his crown?”

Some may recall that similar popular assemblies and occupations came on the heels of Argentina’s financial collapse in 2001, bringing down five presidents in roughly two weeks, and putting abandoned factories back into production under democratic worker-control. At the time, as Marina Sitrin (a participant in Occupy Wall Street), documented in her oral history,Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, there was similarly little initial coherent ideology or vision. Sitrin quotes Martin, a participant in one such neighborhood assembly, saying:

“Creation, that’s what I believe came first. [These] weren’t mobilizations of the masses behind some leader—nobody orchestrated it. At first, it wasn’t a reaction against an idea, it was a sound. [Singing] Oh, que se vayan todos [they all must go] was the only thing said. There was no program or formed political position. It wasn’t planned. It was something innate.”

Today, Argentina looks much as the neo-liberal architects of its modern economy wanted. Simultaneously, postrevolutionary Tunisia appears to be on a similar track; Egypt operates under a dictatorship of the military brass who have owned a staggering chunk of its economy for decades, and Libya is squarely in hock to U.S. handlers, while other democratic Arab uprisings unfold with few encouraging signs. This all misses precisely the point we as practitioners of Buddhist meditation privilege day in and day out, and which we would do well to begin thinking through politically. In just the last week, a conference of Arab bloggers in Tunis declared the defining feature of the Arab Spring to be the irrevocable shift of populations from subjects to citizens. An insufficient, but necessary shift. Profound, even. In postcollapse Buenos Aires, Matrin (in Sitrin’s book), tells us:

“[Previously] everything related to the market and this marginalization expressed itself in social relations, as well… In this way, it has been a revolutionary epoch. It’s changed everyone’s lives. I believe that even if the assemblies disappear, people will continue to act differently. This experience has left a marvelous memory in us.”

We don’t yet have the luxury of hindsight, or the ability to quantify the shift those in the occupations are undergoing. What we perhaps can deduce is that this shift’s fingerprints will be on everything that follows—policy concessions or not. In the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha advises that “[the instructed disciple] turns away from material shape, he turns away from feeling, turns away from perception, turns away from the habitual tendencies. Turning away, he is detached; by his detachment he is freed.” It’s here the Dhamma offers something of a point of departure, or a radical recalibration of expectations with regard to what now amounts to something of an uprising. There are other forms. There are other aspirations. There is a world beyond the stories we tell ourselves, or the story we’ve tacitly adopted to steel ourselves against our daily disappointments. To skillfully encounter what’s unfolding in Occupy Wall Street, we have to let go of our habitual reference points, our cherished truisms, our assumptions about what social transformation looks like, and begin to entertain the possibility that a different game is being played.

Joshua Stephens is a practitioner with Brooklyn Dharma Punx and is active in the occupation efforts in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. He’s been organizing for 16 years in direct action movements around poverty, animal liberation, the IMF/World Bank, Burma & Palestine. He’s a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies and is author of the forthcoming book as part of the Anarchist Interventions book series published in collaboration between the IAS and AK Press “Lights Unto Ourselves: Buddhist Practice, Counter Conduct, and Anarchist Ethics”

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