More than a year ago, Occupy encampments sprung up across the country from Boston to Oakland. Anyone who was there during the opening days remembers the carnival atmosphere, the mutual flowering of ideas and the feeling that anything was possible. But now the encampments have been dispersed, the momentum of Occupy has stalled and fatigue has overcome many activists. In times when the horizon is not easily pointing to victory, how are we to maintain our fidelity to the ideas of Occupy? What we need now is a renewal of the pledges we made a year ago and the organization of those truth into a vehicle capable of a struggling against all the manifestations of injustice that capitalism produces.
When Occupy began, it seemed to confirm what Lenin said about revolutions being “festivals of the oppressed.” There was the lively music, painting and games that were being played in the camps. It was almost like we were all free from exploitation, alienation and the other social bonds characteristic of capitalism. The great truth of Occupy was that we did not have accept the division of the world between the haves and have-notch, but that we could envision a future beyond capitalism. For those who were at Occupy during its opening days, it was a miraculous experience where we made life-long friends and where we made pledges to change the world.
“Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what happens in the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed.” The radical academic Slavoj Zizek said these words last year at Occupy Wall Street. These words ring true following the dispersal of the Occupy camps and as the festive atmosphere has worn off. Those of us who stayed committed discovered the often grueling life of activism with its meetings, demonstrations, and patient explanation of our principles to those not involved. That commitment has often been wrought by activists in the face of state power and violence, a media geared against us, our family and work obligations. For many, the strains of commitment have led to fatigue and burn out.
The engagement to change the world and build a new future is undertaken in the face of evil. In this context, we can give a fairly succinct definition of evil. “Evil is the moment when I lack the strength to be true to the Good that compels me,” says the philosopher Alain Badiou. Evil to the activist is what would take the energies of our struggle for a new world free from exploitation and would divert it back into the decayed and dying institutions of capitalism. This means accepting a reformed capitalism as our only horizon or participating in elections that only elect war mongers and the lapdogs of big business, who promise only crumbs of ‘reform.’ Evil is ultimately to believe that our present social order is permanent and to forget the truth we learned last year: we can imagine and bring to birth a new world where the needs of all come before the profits of a few.
And if that is the truth, then how do we efffectively organize to bring it into being? Occupy has been involved in struggles both during and after the loss of physical encampments whether for social justice, against austerity, or in support of striking workers. The organization of truth will require not just the free flowing democracy characteristic of Occupy, but disciplined cooperation in our struggles.
Our task should not be to succumb to the belief that capitalism is the only future. We need to renew the pledge that we made a year ago to build a new world free from the miseries and inequities of this one. To do that, we will need to expand the fight to challenge all the manifestations of cruelty, violence, exploitation, and oppression that are ingrained with capitalism. Our ideal should be to become tribunes of the people, able to bring forth the linkages between each particular struggle to the overall system and point a way forward to a new horizon.