Brother, Can You Spare A Paradigm?

The Occupy movement has prided itself on being non-partisan and non-hierarchical in its quest to transition the world into a Post-Consumer Age from the current political, economic, and cultural paradigm that is American capitalism. There is a stubborn fear within Occupy of co-option, whether by the Democratic Party or MoveOn.org or the unions. This fear, while warranted to a certain degree, quite frankly obstructs progress. Vicious infighting occurs over things like citizen journalists getting paid for their work, activists working with the unions, and the appearance of Occupy endorsing political organizations—with which it should be building coalitions anyway.

The internal strife plays out along two divisions: the Anarchists, who generally believe that real change can only occur if the current system is destroyed and who refuse to partner with political groups; and the Reformists, who generally think that coalition-building is an absolute necessity. Further, there is division between activists and citizen journalists, whom the former often suspect of profiting off the Occupy brand through donations or sponsorships they receive, at least in Los Angeles anyway. I fall into the latter camps, and I certainly have not profited monetarily from this movement. Equipment and travel expenses to attend protests are costly—not to mention the personal gifts of time and energy. The vast majority of those receiving compensation for their work are not even breaking even.

The people, typically anarchists, who bitch about citizen journalists getting funding for their work, usually do so in the context that they themselves are economic martyrs for the cause; that Occupy is really anti-capitalist; and that the goal of the movement is to transition to an open-source direct democracy. Basically, “If you’re getting paid, I should be paid, too… What’s yours is mine… Media is common property.” Anyone who can obtain funding should. Occupy is powered by the hard work of both activists and citizen journalists, who devote their time, energy, and money to creating actions and the media to promote them, mostly for free. Both parties have bills to pay in the meantime before they can frolic around in some communal utopia—which, by the way, not everyone is advocating.

The movement was built on a foundation of anti-crony-capitalism, to see justice done in the financial sector to the actors who caused the economic meltdown, and to address growing wealth disparity and pervasive corporate influence in politics. The demonization of media and reform-minded activists must stop in the name of solidarity. I have witnessed the defection of many sorely needed media members because a few bad apples wanted to rant and rave on e-mail threads. Hell, I’ve defected to other Occupies myself because of it. No one wants to put up with abuse no matter how passionate they are about the cause.

We, as individuals and as a movement, must take advantage of every resource that will allow us to perpetuate the cause. Much ado was made in Occupy Los Angeles (OLA) about using an SEIU union hall for media meetings. Should OLA be taking advantage of that offer? Absolutely. We can only change the system through unity. Using resources provided by unions does not mean we endorse unions themselves. Occupiers must start to be able to identify strategic partners, and to differentiate between short- and long-term goals. Accepting help allows for dollars to be allocated elsewhere, with less money coming out of the pockets of already cash-strapped activists. This fight will not be won in months, but in years, and I dare say decades. Care must certainly be taken in order to avoid co-option, but the greater threat at this point is losing motivated participants, and thereby losing relevance.

Thus, Occupy must build coalitions with other organizations of the progressive left. This statement alone has provoked much ire from people who don’t believe that Occupy is a progressive movement—“We are non-partisan! We’re not progressive! We are the 99%!” Okay, well, to those not in the movement, Occupy is progressive. Its major issues are social justice issues, i.e. progressivism. So deny the label, but it will still be applied by outsiders. I may want to be called ‘Caucasian-American,’ but people will call me ‘white’ regardless.

The militantly anti-partisan/anti-voting stance of many within the movement is corrosive to gaining the traction necessary to effect major change. If we don’t mobilize the movement into a voting bloc and offer a focused progressive vision, we don’t represent a real threat to politicians. To a politician, that translates to voting, not camping. Right now the Tea Party poses a bigger danger to President Obama than we do. Armed with registered voters and ultra-conservative values, the Tea Party has become a major force in electoral politics, and it has Congress by the balls as a result. Just witness the sharp right turn of Mitt Romney’s campaign during the primary to prove his record as “a severe conservative,” or the defeat of old-guard Republican Senator Dick Lugar by Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock. Hence, politicians do not take us seriously, nor do the mainstream media and the average people we seek to persuade. The common refrain is, “What does Occupy want? What are your demands, objectives, etc.?” When you see Occupiers themselves unable to answer those simple questions on camera, who can blame them?

I’ve heard some say that Occupy doesn’t need to have the solutions, that it is enough that the movement is a show of resistance to the current power structure. But that line of thinking is dangerously naïve. The rigid idealogues calling for radical systemic change, bypassing the electoral process, risk any progress that can be made in the short term. For example, getting corporate money out of politics, ending corporate personhood, and instituting public campaign financing have widespread support, and they have to be done first for any other reform to be remotely successful. The movement must coalesce around these specific policy initiatives en masse. Introducing legislation and running candidates committed to those goals should be the top priority. Barack Obama campaigned for presidency seeking change. For progressives, we envisioned and expected him to usher in, not just change, but a new paradigm. Now we must force him to deliver it.