Occupy Sandy: Social Change through Prefiguring Action

The Occupy movement has been involved in organizing aid for families hard hit by storm Sandy, and many volunteers, both from Occupy groups and not but organized through them, have been in the hardest hit areas, in some of those hardest to reach and to help. How did that come about?

This isn’t the Wall Street that Occupy Wall Street is occupying; it’s a section of Brooklyn that runs from single-family moderate income housing to public housing. And they’re not there proselytizing for Occupy; they’re working with volunteers from other groups, church groups, neighborhood associations, and with FEMA and other government agencies, including the police, as well.

Occupy Sandy’s “anthem” is spritely without politics or moralizing. A New York Times reporter’s account says the only link to other Occupy movements is that the organizers came from earlier ones, including Occupy Wall Street. Time runs an account about a visit of a volunteer from Occupy Sandy to a house-confined elderly woman that ends with the words: “The word occupy was never spoken.”

One headline from an OccupyMutualAidFacebook post, helps explain:

More Evidence that A Better World is Possible: FEMA & #OWS Occupy Sandy breaking bread in Staten Island.

What evidence? It’s that people will show solidarity, will volunteer to help their neighbors or others simply in need, working without compensation (no market relations here), without state compulsion (no hierarchy of power here, externally or internally), no ideological no ideological.

One of the Occupiers says:

“Remember, Occupy Sandy is NOT charity work. We are here because we know another world is necessary, and the way to make it is through practice in our own communities. This is the Mutual in Mutual Aid. ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’” ~ Lilla Watson, on Occupy Wall St. Facebook page

Sometimes, indeed, a sign betrays the link to other Occupy activities, but very muted.

A perceptive comment from an Occupy volunteer clarifies, as reported by the Associated Press:

Is this Occupy Wall Street’s finest hour? In the church basement, Carrie Morris paused from folding blankets into garbage bags and smiled at the idea.

“We always had mutual aid going on,” she said. “It’s a big part of what we do. That’s the idea, to help each other. And we want to serve as a model for the larger society that, you know, everybody should be doing this.”

That’s the logic behind downplaying the link of Occupy Sandy with Occupy Wall Street. It’s also the explanation for a sometimes problematic but core feature of the internal “organization” of the Occupy movements in general: they don’t want to be organizations, but voluntary assemblies of people. They might have facilitators or spokespersons, but not leaders or officers. They operate by consensus rather than majority vote, usually open to anyone to participate, not “members.” General Assemblies in Occupy are not designed for efficiency, but as an expression of how democratic decisions might be made, of what horizontal democracy involves. This overlaps with, but is different from, historical model utopian communities, and indeed from many of the model communes and co-op enterprises of the 1960’s.

There’s a difference between creating a model and prefiguring a particular alternative to existing ways of doing things, exemplifying different forms of human behavior and different relationships between people, and between people and institutions. The difference can be troublesome if not kept in mind. The utopian communities and the communes were largely seen by their members as isolated from the society in which they existed. Their goals were self-government, self-determination, escape from outside determinants of behavior. Perhaps they saw themselves as models, but their efforts were aimed at perfecting their model, not spreading its example round broadly. They reacted to the ills that they saw in the world around them not by dealing directly with them, but by trying to insulate themselves from them. The focus of Occupying on a particular space was shared some of that view of things: Occupiers wanted, in a small way, to create a world of their own. If there also was a hope that their world would be a model for the larger world outside, it was muted, and certainly not widely realized. Thus there were many obituaries for the Occupy movement in the mainstream media when the space in which their model of self-direction was taken from them and the experience apparently ended in a bubble burst, obituaries that incorrectly saw the creation of insulated spaces as the essence of Occupy.

But this utopian “bubble” trend, or the aspiration for an ideal horizontal democracy in the Occupy movement, is not what drives Occupy Sandy. Occupy Sandy is not suggesting that all disasters should be met by voluntary loosely-organized efforts that occur spontaneously and without planning. Rather, it realizes the essential interrelationship between what its adherents are doing and the world outside, even in developing positive relationships not only with FEMA but also with the police and National Guards, most of the time institutions seen as unwelcome intrusions in the model of what Occupy would like to see in the future. Occupy Sandy is simply prefiguring, in its own behavior, how certain social relationships might exist independently of the assumed rigid requirements of the outside world, independently of the market and the state — actually, not independent of the state, but in reliance on it to assemble resources Occupy Sandy itself could not and should not assemble. It is not suggesting that its response to Sandy should be a model of disaster response, as opposed to the response of FEMA and police authorities; it is simply saying such responses should be coupled with an activation of fundamental human instincts of solidarity that are outside of state or market.

Occupy Sandy, then, is linked to the Occupy Wall Street-generated movements not by setting up a model in opposition to the outside world, making itself independent of the outside, but showing how, within that outside world, one can see in action relationships, ways of doing things, that prefigure how they might also be in a changed and better society. And they do it by example, not by signs or confrontations. It is oppositional to the prevailing order too, but in a subtler way than most Occupy actions. It does not replace them for both are necessary, but it is different, and the differences are important. And in what it does it changes people too, both the occupiers and those they come in contact with – a vital part of all Occupy activities.

Two other points about occupy Sandy, one practical, one theoretical. The practical one is that Occupy Sandy has a huge advantage over Occupy Wall Street: it has the support of a large majority of the population, perhaps even of all, certainly a much larger part of the 99% than Occupy Wall Street. There will be trouble in the future, as the differentiation between the effects of storm Sandy on the rich and the poor, the residents of well-built protected homes whose owners carry flood insurance and the lower-income folk who don’t have it, the difference between the residents of public housing and the owners of vacation homes, etc. And controversies will arise when, as for instance in the case of Katrina, evaluations show how some people, some activities, some sections of town (here perhaps lower Manhattan), are favored in governmental actions dealing with the damages from the storm. Then the militancy of Occupy Wall Street may indeed be needed.

The theoretical point is speculative. Herbert Marcuse, in An Essay on Liberation, begins by asking whether there is not a biological foundation for the need for liberation:

“We would …have, this side of all “values,” an instinctual foundation for solidarity among human beings – a solidarity which has been effectively repressed in line with the requirements of class society but which now appears as a precondition for liberation.”

He speaks of a “vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery” as a very real and personal emotional need in individuals, often emphasizing particularly its role for the young, a need that impels them towards action designed to eliminate those undesirable conditions, a need to “so something,” actively, with body as well as mind. The frustration that young people experience in finding ways of acting towards fulfilling that need may result in what he calls The Great Refusal, an opting out from prevailing requirements constraining behavior. This line of thinking was often adopted by the participants in the communes of the 60’s and 70’s, and perhaps underlay some of the much earlier utopian communities of history. But Refusal, in his sense, is inherently frustrating. If the withdrawal that led to the communes and to some extent to the Occupy encampments also, is aborted, the need for other forms of action becomes pressing. Working with Occupy Sandy, perhaps, is an expression of that need and a clearly positive way to try to satisfy it.

It may well be that, in the very near future, the unambiguous positive elements of Occupy Sandy will be less needed and the more controversial and conflictual issues that Occupy Wall Street focused on at its beginnings will again come to the fore. In the meantime, however, Occupy Sandy can be wholeheartedly welcomed as not only enormously helpful to many individuals battered by a disaster today, but also as prefiguring actions and relationships that exist today and could be continued and become dominant in a better world tomorrow. 

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