I was at the Bank of Ideas today. For those of you not aware, the Bank of Ideas is a UBS building taken over by squatters and affiliated with the Occupy London movement. I was there to meet up with some Occupiers (though these days none of them are camping out) to talk about – well, I’m not going to say what we were meeting to talk about because I think I have an obligation to keep people anonymous. They don’t know I’m writing this blog post. I hadn’t planned to blog about Occupy today – it’s just happening. Anyway, I had a long chat with one of the people in our group. He’s quite active with the Occupy site at St Paul’s. We talked about some of the chaos going on within the on-site community.
I listened to his frustrations about tensions going on between groups (three types of groups seem to exist – ideas/policymaking groups, engagement-related groups, e.g. media group, and internal site management groups). This guy, let’s call him Rick, was totally frustrated by the arguments, felt under threat by some people, was concerned that some actions were unethical, and couldn’t understand the people who would come to meetings and always challenge the process.
He wondered: “Why are these people here if they don’t like the way we do things, if they don’t actually want to work by consensus?”
He observed: “Eventually we broke into two groups almost completely divided by gender! What’s going on there?”
What’s going on, I observed, is that Occupiers on-site are mirroring the social dynamics they want to challenge. Rick said ‘Yeh, someone else said that. We are becoming them.”
My response: “I wouldn’t put it that way. No. I’d say that we are them – we’ve always been them. There is no them, only us. Whether we like it or not, consciously or unconsciously the 1% exists in part because of the complicity of the 99%. We shouldn’t be surprised that behaviours inhibiting consensus, participatory democracy, and creative collaboration are alive and well at the Occupy site. Trust is breaking down. Some people are paranoid (Is that person a cop? Is that person here simply to undermine us?) Some people are afraid and defensive. In many ways, this reality reinforces the need of the Occupy Movement – which to me, is about Waking People Up. The people who are occupying are themselves occupied – by the norms that we’ve all been living, which have fed greed, dis-trust, consumerism, and our lives (to borrow from T.S. Eliot) as Hollow Men (and Women). What Occupiers are now experiencing is the challenges to culture change and a glimpse into a mirror which is offering the gift of reflection. I think it is great – valuable lessons are to be had that take us out of the realms of talk-talk-talk, theory, theory, theory and into practical experience. We only really learn anything, if you ask me, through experience. The challenges experienced on-site are opportunities to gain deep understandings of the maladies that are plaguing us and our communities – that are the very reason Occupy has sprung into existence.
No us and them. Only us – though we are reluctant to think of that way. And our task at hand is to wake up, become more self-aware. How are we moving through the world and how can we move differently? What is our movement about?
On a related, but different note, I need to say something about toilets (no crude pun on movement intended). Turns out – I learned today – that people are being paid to clean the toilets on the Occupy site (I’m talking St Paul’s – I don’t know what’s up with Finsbury Square). I was shocked to hear this. I assumed that daily upkeep of the site would be co-cordinated through volunteering – which could involve, for example, time banking. To illustrate what an alternative economic and social system might look like, I assumed people were seeking to get as much done as possible without conventional monetary transactions.
Well, I got that wrong.
According to Rick, I also got wrong the sense of service that is alive among Occupiers. He explained that in the beginning it felt like the spirit of service was alive and kicking – he gave the example of how quickly the kitchen tent arose and people were fed. He reckons that for the first two weeks the ethos was there, but now its gone. What’s seems to be happening is that a small group of enthusiastic people have become responsible for a lot. This includes ensuring the toilets are cleaned.
I heard this and said “Ahh, okay, same thing. People are falling into conventional behaviour from the society we live in which often takes the form of, ‘I’m entitled to X and someone is going to take care of it for me.’ Do I sound like a conservative – a Tory or a Republican when I say this? Maybe. But I think what I’m describing cuts across political and class affiliation.
We – people generally (it will vary from individual to individual) have a diminished sense of service. Now this can lead to a “Big Society” debate and what different roles do we have as individuals and what roles do we want to assign to our government institutions. But that’s not a debate I want to enter here. Though I will point out I’ve been particular about how I’m phrasing this issue. It isn’t people versus government – because we are the Government. We are the State. Or, to me, that’s the way it should be. And I believe, that is the way many Occupiers would like it to be. That this is part of what Occupy is about – reclaiming our governments and reclaiming our relationships with each other so they are based on trust, mutuality, and the desire to serve each other well. What I think on-site conflicts are showing us is that we have a lot of reclaiming to do in our individual selves – we all have some soul-searching to do about how our behaviours do or do not align with our ethical values – about how much the systems we want to change are alive and active not just around us, but within us.
This brings me to the final topic that came out strongly for me today while I was at the Bank of Ideas – that difficult question of what is Occupy about. I left with a very strong sense that we need to get the message out more vocally that Occupy is about much more than occupying a physical space. Occupy is about entering into social, political and economic thinking in new ways. Thus, to be part of Occupy, one need not be camping out. And, conversely, I see no reason for the groups camping out to feel obliged to come up with political demands – in fact, I don’t think that is their role – though it is a role which needs to be filled. Rather, physical Occupiers have played a critical role in getting people’s attention in Waking People Up. And they might play a really innovative role in bringing to life a lot of ideas that people have been putting down on paper as theories or recommendations, and experimenting with ways of living that communities around the world have been experimenting with, e.g., timebanking. The campsites could be testbeds for more than just how to govern by consensus. Meanwhile, collectively -beyond the Occupy sites, we still have a long way to go on this journey of waking up. Many of us have been stirred from our slumbers and now we need to really open our eyes and move about in new and exploratory ways. We have a lot to do, and many ways to do it.
When I left the Bank of Ideas, I was wondering if really what we actually are – and I consider myself an occupier even though I’ve never spent a night at a site – is de-occupiers. It feels like for too long, our minds and spirits have been occupied by ideas, values, ways of moving through the world that aren’t who we are by nature. I fundamentally believe that by nature human beings are born to be compassionate, creative and collaborative – there will, of course, be rare exceptions (as a result of congenital conditions). Let’s put those individuals aside and think about the majority. Too many of us have become dis-connected from our true nature. Consequently, we are actually trying to de-occupy our selves.
But such wordplay is messy and confusing and a bit pretentious, I suspect. So I’ll put it this way: Occupy London/Wall Street/Chicago/Oakland etc, for me, are all about unleashing who we are as human beings – about Waking Ourselves Up. What’s really important is that we keep creating more and more spaces in which we can move – let go of who we have been, in order to become who we can be. What’s also important is that we do not limit our selves to the realm of ideas. This movement, I would argue, is also a spiritual one – in the sense that it is about how we understand our relationships with each other (and with nature, but that’s for another post) and how we become more compassionate, creative and collaborative in line with our fundamental ethical values. If you ask me, this requires a bit of soul-searching.
Occupiers. Movers. Whatever the label – we are here and we are staying, but not just in tents (and regardless of whether the tents exist or not). If we are going to succeed, however, we would benefit by doing more to remember that we have as much work to do internally – in our selves – as we do with people around us. We become more effective as Occupiers/Movers if we are fully aware of what our own thoughts, words and actions are illustrating and bringing to life.
And – to come back to the beginning, back to the tensions on-site, a key dimension of this awareness is having clarity on how we manage conflict, how we handle our disagreements, how we work with the fear, the anxiety, the anger, the hurt that is alive in our selves and others. Because it is the fear, the anxiety, the anger, and the hurt that prevent us from growing creative collaboration and sustaining compassionate community.
Ahh, it is a hackneyed saying, I know, but I can’t help but come back to it:
‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world.’ Mahatma Gandhi
It ain’t easy, but it is essential.