Occupying with Noam Chomsky
This is a revised intro to Noam Chomsky’s new book, Occupy.
It is published in the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series by Zuccotti Park Press, a project of the Brooklyn-based non-profit, Adelante Alliance, and immigrant advocacy group.
“People seem to know about May Day everywhere, except where it began, here in the United States of America,” says Chomsky in a new piece he’s written for Zuccotti Park Press. “That’s because those in power have done everything they can to erase its real meaning. …Today, there is a renewed awareness, energized by the Occupy movement’s organizing, around May Day, and its relevance for reform and perhaps eventual revolution.”
“Occupy,” says Noam Chomsky in his new book, “is the first major public response to thirty years of class war,” a people-powered movement that began in New York City on September 17, 2011, and rapidly spread to thousands of locations worldwide. Although most of the original sites have been raided by police, the movement continues to organize, continues to carry out direct actions as it transitions from occupying tent camps to occupying the conscience of the nation.
In Occupy, Chomsky points out that one of the movement’s greatest successes has been simply to put the inequalities of everyday life on the national agenda, influencing reporting, public perception and language itself. Referencing a January 2012 Pew Research Center report on public perceptions of class conflict within the United States, Chomsky notes that inequalities in the country “have risen to historically unprecedented heights.” The Pew study finds that about two-thirds of the U.S. population now believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.
Occupy has changed the national conversation, and it is important to acknowledge all the people who camped out, marched or went to jail to help make it happen. As of today, April 27, 2012, at least 6,925 people in 113 U.S. cities have been arrested while engaging in movement-related activity. It is now commonplace to see not only increased coverage of the problems of income disparity, but also to regularly see newspaper articles with headlines that reflect the language of the movement. For example, on February 15, 2012, the New York Times published an article with the title, “Why Obama Will Embrace the 99 Percent.” Making headlines is not the movement’s goal, but the word choice indicates that the narrative can be changed—and altering the narrative is a necessary victory toward transforming everything else.
The plight of those without resources, those without a voice, those without access to power, those traditionally ignored, has now become the focus of greater national attention and widespread indignation. Their stories are being told, and anyone who can read and understand cannot help but deplore the cruelties endured by millions of people in an economy that for decades has been shaped, coded, and enforced by the rich. Another recent example: The New York Times recently published a front-page story about an elderly couple in Dixfield, Maine, who had fallen behind on paying their heating bills. When, during the dead of winter, their back debt hit around $700, the oil company cut them off, knowing that doing so might literally kill two people. The oil man said he “agonized over his decision,” and when he got off the phone with the couple he thought to himself, “Are these people going to be found frozen?”
In the same issue, just a few pages later, appeared a column discussing multimillionaire Mitt Romney’s statement that he was “not concerned about the very poor” because there is a “safety net” for them. The writer responds to Romney’s assurance with these words: “Where to begin? First, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last month pointed out that Romney’s budget proposals would take a chainsaw to that safety net.”
How did we in the United States get to this point? “It’s not Third World misery,” says Chomsky, “but it’s not what it ought to be in a rich society, the richest in the world, in fact, with plenty of wealth around, which people can see, just not in their pockets.” And Chomsky credits Occupy for helping to bring these issues to the fore. “You can say that it’s now almost a standard framework of discussion. Even the terminology is accepted. That’s a big shift.”
Driving the shift are Occupy’s relentless and increasingly creative actions in hundreds of cities, including occupying foreclosed homes and disrupting auctions where people’s stolen homes are sold off to the highest bidder. These actions not only expose the heartlessness and inhumanity of the system; they offer meaningful solidarity to those being crushed by it. “As preexisting anti-foreclosure organizations and Occupy merge,” writes Laura Gottesdeiner last month, “the campaign is spreading to nearly every major city, with front-lawn occupations, eviction defense teams or auction blockades currently underway in Boston, Tampa, Maui, Detroit, Nashville, Birmingham, New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Delaware and cities across California.
Chomsky speaks to the many options and opportunities that exist to change the system, and he points to examples in which the movement’s vision has already impacted city council proposals, debates and resolutions, such as the case of New York City Council Resolution 1172, which formally opposes corporate personhood and calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to permanently ban it. The resolution creates clear dividing lines between the rights of corporations and the rights of citizens, and it adds to the momentum produced by a growing list of cities—including Los Angeles, Oakland, Albany and Boulder— that have passed similar resolutions.
Underlying Occupy’s success has been its focus on the daily details of organizing. Major protests, civil disobedience and arrests are key parts of movement strategy, but the day-to-day activities of discussion, working groups and general assemblies are the deep structure, the ongoing forces adding mass and momentum to Occupy’s wave. The locales number in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. In New York City there’s Occupy Wall Street, but there’s also Occupy Brooklyn, Occupy Sunset Park, Occupy the Bronx, Occupy Long Island, Occupy the Hood and campus organizing like Occupy Columbia University. It’s truly gone global, even reaching places like New Guinea. And online technology, like that used to create InterOccupy.org, is connecting Occupy forces around the country and helping to facilitate regional gatherings, strategies and actions.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that despite the “inevitable repression,” as Chomsky calls it—the pushback of police brutality, mass arrests, trumped-up charges, restrictive city ordinances, surveillance, infiltration and raids—the movement continues to organize, occupying new fronts from inner-city neighborhoods and local courtrooms to the halls of Congress and the Justice Department. Simply continuing in the face of repression can be considered an achievement. With a presence in hundreds of cities, mounting numbers of arrests—6,982 as of today—and big plans for more actions up to the presidential elections and beyond, the movement is also very much occupying the court system and challenging the political nature of government repression.
Occupy’s tenacity and spread as a movement demonstrate the degree to which huge numbers of people no longer believe the system listens or responds to ordinary people. The economic recession is linked to a recession of democracy. The latter is a recession so profound that many politicians no longer hide the fact that they do not listen. During a Republican presidential debate moderated by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, for example, one of the candidates was asked an immigration-related question. When he ignored the question and rambled on about something else, Cooper pushed him to answer. Dismissing Cooper, the politician snarled, “You get to ask the questions, I get to answer like I want to,” drawing loud boos from the live audience.
But booing isn’t enough. Politicians’ open abandonment of the public interest, accountability and commitment to real democracy is precisely what drives people from all walks of life to take direct action, to organize, to commit civil disobedience, and face tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades, handcuffs and jail time. People are waking up and coming out. We are blocking bridges, shutting down ports, disrupting foreclosures. We are marching in the streets, forming affinity groups, creating our own media, making connections to other struggles. Protest and civil disobedience are now just the ever-changing surface of something deeper and more powerful: an evolving public insurgency with openness, democracy and non-violent direct action as its primary weapons. That’s what’s been happening since September 2011, and that’s what is happening right now. May Day will be a flash point, a rupture, and there will be more.
“If you’re a serious revolutionary,” writes Chomsky in his comments for May Day, “then you are not looking for an autocratic revolution, but a popular one which will move towards freedom and democracy. That can take place only if a mass of the population are implementing it, carrying it out, and solving problems. They’re not going to undertake that commitment, understandably, unless they have discovered for themselves that there are limits to reform.”
Moving toward freedom and democracy through community organizing is at the heart of the movement, and as the organizing advances it opens new spaces for those who have been structurally excluded: the immigrant, the indigenous, those without resources, communities of color, those who live in the ‘hood.
Instead of “letting the market solve things” the way it solves things for the elderly couple in Maine, Occupy calls new sorts of solutions, and demanding of themselves the diligence and creativity to invent them. The emerging shift in consciousness is profound, but it’s only a step toward further, fuller transformation. People are waking up to the fact that we won’t get the necessary change from someone else, from somewhere else, from corporate-financed politicians or simply by voting. The Obama presidency may have been better than that of Bush, but it has not delivered what millions of voting Americans, myself included, wanted and continue to want—a liberating “change we can believe in.”
Perhaps the movement’s most radical message is its incitement to change ourselves, individually, in the workplace and socially. In his new book Occupy, Chomsky discusses this through examples of worker takeovers, and through discussion of the importance of redefining ideas like growth. If we continue to pursue the dominant model, he says, we’ll be like “lemmings walking over a cliff.” Instead, he encourages the movement to continue spreading ideas about “a different way of living” that is based not on maximizing how much we can buy, but on “maximizing values that are important for life.” Expecting elected officials to turn things around on their own is to go the way of the lemming. No one is going to do it for us. As the black feminist poet June Jordan said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Occupy advocates democracy as the best way to work things out, and conducts its advocacy by example. In the words of the New York Occupy, “Through consensual, non-hierarchical, and participatory self-governance, we are literally laying the framework for a new world by building it here and now—and it works.” In practice it’s hard work, and debates rage as to what forms of democracy, participation, and representation are least prone to corruption and corporate influence.
Challenging corporate manipulation of the economy reveals connected forms of cultural domination and social control, and the process leads to deeper questioning. “How can we find ways to work together to overcome barriers and tensions and become part of a dedicated, ongoing, sustained movement which is going to last a long time?” asks Chomsky. How can we get it together?
In the spirit of asking and exploring answers to those questions—in general assemblies, in protests, in civil disobedience, in print, over the airwaves, in the streets, across borders, in many languages, in jail, in courts and in the freedom of occupied spaces—the Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, founded in 1991 to give voice to democracy movements, is partnering with the Brooklyn-based immigrant advocacy group Adelante Alliance to launch Zuccotti Park Press and the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series. Occupy by Noam Chomsky is pamphlet #1. Other pamphlets are in the works or already out by Mumia Abu-Jamal, Stuart Leonard, Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini, Laura Gottesdeiner, Ralph Nader, and the Zapatistas.
Going forward, our intent is for the pamphlets we create to act as seeds of the insurgent imagination, encouraging us to dream and act for a better world. As Zinn wrote, “Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today. Some people might say, ‘Well, what do you expect?’
“And the answer is that we expect a lot.
“People say, ‘What, are you a dreamer?’
“And the answer is yes, we’re dreamers.
“We want it all.”
It is in that beautiful spirit that we publish Noam Chomsky’s Occupy and launch this new project in time for May Day.
May 10 million flowers bloom.