With Peace in Our Hearts and Power in Our Hands
by Randall Amster
In just a few short months we have reached a point of near saturation in which the modifier “Occupy” has been applied to almost every sphere of our beleaguered political economy. Not every such application has been equally useful, but for the most part the intended meaning of the word has come through in the sense of prying open the inner sanctum of the dominant order, contesting its authoritarian workings, and agitating for new processes based on the burgeoning tenets of egalitarianism and sustainability. The incisive cultural gaze spawned by #occupy has been cast toward every sacred shibboleth of modern society, and the ripples are palpable.
Yet in the process there has been more external consternation than internal reflection. The machinations of the 1 percent are what have largely brought us to the brink of social and ecological demise, so the primary thinking goes. The ruling class has consolidated their power, skewed the benefits toward themselves, passed the burdens onto the rest of us, and continually demonstrated the illegitimacy and inherent tyranny of their reign every time force has been used on peaceful demonstrators. They have done this and are still doing it, and we must confront their wanton ways with diligence and imagination.
There are key truths and critical insights to be found in this narrative, and its teachings have served to galvanize interest and mobilize people around the world. Still, there is a piece of the puzzle missing, one that is harder to own up to and that blurs the lines of culpability in a manner that is inconvenient for the impetus to organize against entrenched power. When we begin to peel back the layers, however, it becomes apparent that they did not take power so much as we gave it to them — and it has largely been our complicity with the forces of our own oppression that has led us here.
This in no way absolves those who would pervert that power for personal gain, nor does it excuse the outright blackmail-type pressures that have been brought to bear upon many of us to accede. But we cannot and must not pass the buck altogether, since to do so both flies in the face of reality and further delivers our power back over to those who would manipulate and abuse it. In fact, the realization that we are equally to blame possesses the corollary virtue of suggesting that we can also put things right and fix the mess we have made of our social structures and the habitat itself.
So here we are: we have occupied the symbolic spaces, the tangible ones, and the subtle ones. Now it is time to Occupy Ourselves, to decolonize our minds and restore our capacity to act from a place of autonomy and collective willpower. We can refuse to comply with oppressive forces, forswear allegiance to their mandates, forgo reliance on their wares, unplug our lifelines to their conveyances, reject their medicalizations and distractions, discontinue our support for their adventurist campaigns, fail to contribute to their bailouts and schemes, ignore their technocratic designs on mind control, cease making demands on their apparatchiks, and avert our gaze from their spectacles. Yes, we can.
Instead of protesting against abominable wars, let us also stop paying for them. Rather than complaining about corporations, usurious banks, and the indentured servitude of the student loan system, we can desist from paying into their coffers. Beyond pointing the finger at bought-off politicos, there is the option of refraining from participation in their sham elections. If we do not like business as usual, let us skip the charade of fighting city hall and occupy it as shelter instead. This is the essential core of the embedded symbolism in the protest encampments, and it follows in a long line of nonviolent civil disobedience from Jesus Christ and Henry David Thoreau to Dorothy Day and Mohandas Gandhi. It is an active principle, and the locus of its engagement is everywhere.
The key is not to bear this weight of noncompliance alone, but to do so in concert and in numbers sufficient to undermine the system’s capacity to continue in its present form. We recognize that the boundaries of the law do not map directly to the dictates of morality, and that much of the legal architecture in our midst is specifically designed to protect wealth and preserve inequality. Still, we also see that laws and norms in some instances can reflect the societal wisdom of the ages, and thus we do not transgress them out of self-indulgence but rather as our solemn duty as agents of promoting a just, equitable, and sustainable world.
Indeed, as Gandhi urged, noncooperation is merely a first step. The ensuing (and more challenging) phase of sustained resistance is the cultivation of constructive alternatives with which we can wholeheartedly cooperate and lend support. For too long we have had our survival pitted against our values, being coerced to participate in oppression and degradation as a condition of mere existence. We have been carefully cultivated to embrace the consensus reality plied by plutocrats, at best maintaining a schizophrenic false consciousness and at worst being consumed by the beast’s ravages. Lacking genuine meaning in our lives, we opt for artificial replacements on sale literally everywhere. We have looked into the void, recoiled in horror, and drowned our sorrows in commercial palliatives.
Now is the time to commit ourselves to finding other methods of coping, ones that challenge authority and reclaim autonomy. This does not mean that we become absolutists or Luddites, but instead that we get to choose which accoutrements of modernity are compatible with the good society and which are little more than artifacts of control despite their market-tested packaging. We can trade technologies for tools, fast food for slower sustenance, corporatocracy for consensus. The next paradigm is already here, having been incubated for decades within the shell of the old, carefully obscured by the vicissitudes of popular culture and crass commercialism; notice how when people begin to approach its realization, they are often met with sheer force to push them back into blithe torpor.
But the veil is now lifting — and consciousness once raised has a way of finding daylight. Occupy camps can be destroyed from coast to coast, but the essential illumination of protest and its eternal promise remains. This is the time to come back twice as strong, working harder and smarter, demonstrating our resiliency as a crucial factor of social and ecological survival. We will hang together, so that we do not have to hang alone. In the end, we come to realize that there is only us as we confront the true oppressor that lies within ourselves and our own complicity. In this, we find that all oppressions are interlinked, internalized, interposed, and interdependent. The struggle to surmount them lies just as much within us as it does with the robber barons in their lairs.
We can do this, and we must. I do not believe that the power has ever actually left us, but more so that we have had our attention pulled toward false idols and their machinations as the source of influence and authority. Today, we see the seeds of the better society growing up through the cracks in the hegemonic facade everywhere, sprouting forth with renewed vigor after an imposed dormancy. We will not be the consumers of this world, but its co-creators; we will not be witnesses to its destruction, but participants in its resurrection. Now, with peace in our hearts and power in our hands, the time to reclaim both ourselves and our world is upon us. This is our generational task, our shared responsibility, and our best hope for salvation. Let us meet it willingly, together.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor for New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).