FROM ITS BEGINNING on October 15th to this day in early January 2012, Occupy Vancouver has prompted many questions about its nature, aims, and practices. I here offer responses to some of the more frequent and wide-ranging of these questions. They are my personal responses, but they also tap the spirit of the movement, and the experiences and thoughts of many fellow occupiers, gleaned over the months of my involvement.
I hope that people may use the comments stream here to add their thoughts, their questions and answers; we will then update and expand this list again in the future. This is only a beginning.
1. Is Occupy Vancouver anti-capitalist?
Occupy Vancouver is a movement for social, political, and economic change—a direct response to current economic and ecological crises. As such its starting point is the realization that the current system is not functioning to the benefit of the majority of people, that the current system is not environmentally or socially sustainable, and that the only real solution is system change. To this extent Occupy Vancouver could be described as “anti-capitalist,” but let’s first be clear what we mean by capitalism. Consider these two basic economic propositions:
1. a) There is nothing inherently bad about making useful products or providing useful services and selling them in the process of “making a living.” b) There is nothing inherently bad about purchasing useful products and services that we need with income we have earned from our own labour.
2. a) There is something socially destructive about investing in the production of products and services with the sole purpose of extracting a profit from investment. b) There is something socially destructive about consuming products and services that fulfill fabricated desires that extend far beyond basic needs.
Between these two points stretches the whole history of capitalism’s evolution—a story filled with exploitation, profit making, and suffering. Capitalism does not exist at point 1, and Occupy Vancouver is not necessarily “against” an economic model in which people work, make money, and purchase products and services they need. Capitalism, however, is in full swing by point 2, and it is this exploitive and unsustainable system that Occupy Vancouver opposes and seeks to change. Add to this picture capitalism’s almost pathological addiction to perpetual growth, its focus on short-term gains over long-term consequences, and the resulting story of environmental destruction this has led to, and it’s not exactly easy to accept such a system as “the only alternative.” Our work is, in part, to find and articulate an alternative.
2. Is Occupy Vancouver run by anarchists?
No—no one runs Occupy Vancouver. Occupy Vancouver is an open and directly democratic movement organized and directed by the consensus of its voluntary participants. Some of these participants would describe themselves as “anarchists,” and indeed, the model just described—open, direct democracy/consensus based decision-making—has its roots in anarchist philosophy (as well as indigenous self-governance). Anarchism is simply democracy without the state—direct democracy, by which communities self-organize by providing mutual aid. Anarchism is an idea. It implies social responsibility, self-reliance, and direct community action. It does not mean chaos, disorder, or violence—there is enough of that in the world.
3. How does sitting in a park change anything?
The Occupy movement begins with a claim upon public space—a claim that, as a society, we need to place the public discussion of our social problems at the centre of our definition and experience of “the civic.” Instead, what we now have placed at the centre of our cities is commerce and entertainment, which is to say, the accumulation of private profit. “Democracy” is largely hidden from view. The Occupy movement seeks to make democracy and its processes visible, inclusive, and unavoidable. Occupying public space is a way of saying, “we have had enough; the system must change; there are pressing issues we can no longer ignore—let’s all get to work and fix this together!”
Sitting in a park might just start to change things if we can successfully embody the idea that our problems won’t simply go away—we have to solve them. Sitting in a park might just start to change things if enough of us stop and begin the conversation, publically and openly, about what needs to be done to create a better world.
4. If you want to change the world, why don’t you just vote?
Many of us do vote—but considering our electoral demographics, many more young people need to vote, as the Harper Government was elected by a relatively small segment of eligible voters, the majority of whom were over 40 years old.
But this is only one problem with a representative system. Another is that fact that it is built on the absence of its constituents, who (temporary at least) delegate their authority to someone who re-presents them in political discussion and debate. Unfortunately, our “representatives” are also indebted to various corporate donors, backers, and lobbyists, and we (the people) have little recourse, between elections, if we are not satisfied with the way they are representing us.
It is our frustration with our elected officials’ inaction on crucial issues related to the economy, environment, and social programs, as well as frustration with the unresponsiveness of representative democracy as such, that has alienated many from the electoral system, and which has led Occupy Vancouver into its experiment in direct democracy. The “leaders” have had their chance, and failed. Now, the people must lead. After all, that’s what democracy means.
5. Aren’t these American problems? It’s not as bad here in Canada…you’re just copying OWS, right?
Occupy Vancouver stands in solidarity with, and is inspired by, the uprisings known as the “Arab Spring,” the Indignados of Spain, those demonstrating against austerity measures across Europe, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The reality is that we now live in a global economy, and what happens to the economies of Europe, Asia, or (especially) the United States (75% of Canadian exports are to the US) soon happens to us as well.
Canada’s economy may not be on as steep a decline as some other countries yet, but all the indicators suggest we soon will be. The margin between the richest and the poorest is growing faster in Canada than it is the United States; our personal and public debts are proportionally as alarming; and despite the public perception that there were no bank bailouts in Canada, there were—again, proportionally comparable to those in the United States ($111 billion during the 2008/2009 crisis).
6. We don’t understand what you want–can you give us a specific demand?
We have essentially one “demand” (though we are reluctant to call it a “demand”): system change. Yes, we know it’s a bit presumptuous to ask for everything at once, but the situation is dire and we have to stop “business as usual,” reaffirm life, and find new ways—from the ground up—of providing for our livelihoods.
We are reluctant to speak of “demands” because our one, large assertion—that complete, system-wide change is called for by the current state of the world—eliminates or curtails the point of making smaller specific demands of a system that this movement is calling into question.
Nevertheless, we have to find out how to go from where we are now to where we need to be tomorrow. Along the way, we will formulate “calls,” outline plans of action, and initiate campaigns for specific social, economic, and political changes—all in open consultation with as many people as we are able to reach out to.
7. Is it true that, as Canada’s natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver claims, your environmental concerns are just part of a “radical ideological agenda”?
From the perspective of a government determined to maintain a system that benefits a small, privileged elite, sacrificing the natural environment and the very possibilities of a livable tomorrow in the name of short-term profits today, any change, any challenge to the existing order, is going to seem “radical.” But the reality is, the majority of British Columbians oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.
People who work in offices in Vancouver and enjoy weekends on the water oppose the pipeline, and people who live in Burns Lake and enjoy fly fishing or mountain biking oppose the pipeline—in short, many people who would not even think of themselves as “environmentalists” are opposed to this project, and other plans to expand Tar Sands development and oil shipments out of Alberta.
The issue is not jobs—the jobs created by such projects are temporary, and pale compared to the jobs lost because of the Tar Sands development—and the issue is not profits—the vast billion-dollar “benefits” touted for the entire “Canadian economy,” as we all know, go in large proportion to a few, often foreign-owned, corporations. No, the issue is our future, our children’s future, and our grandchildren’s future. The issue is, what sort of legacy will we leave to tomorrow? Will the world be as livable as today? Will the climate be as tolerable? Will there be jobs—sustainable jobs—tomorrow? These are the “radical” questions we are asking.
8. Is it true that infighting has led many people to leave the movement?
As the saying goes, “this is what democracy looks like.” What some might refer to as “infighting,” others call vigorous debate. It is only to be expected that people will not always agree with each other. Occupy Vancouver members are all learning how to participate in an open, grass-roots movement for social change. Mistakes will be made—they have been made—and the pressures of the early weeks of the encampment led to many confrontations. It should be noted that these confrontations did not involve physical violence, that Occupy Vancouver remains committed to non-violence, and that the movement has been working hard on its governance structures and codes of conduct to create an open, fair, and balanced community where all voices can be heard, disagreements accommodated, and yet progress towards collective goals facilitated. The movement remains strong, and its strength, as always, is directly related to its diversity, mutual respect, and mutual aid. This is what we are trying to live up to.
9. We haven’t noticed much about you guys lately—isn’t Occupy Vancouver over now?
Don’t worry—we haven’t gone far. If 2011 was the “year of revolutions,” 2012 will be the year of our thoughtful and creative evolution. We’re behind the scenes now, organizing, planning, and building the story that will carry all of us forward.
Every social movement needs an initial burst of emotion and indignation to get it going. We had that this past fall. To keep going, we need ideas. We need a story. And we need relationships. This part takes a bit of time.
At Occupy Vancouver, since being evicted on November 21, we have been resting up and assessing what we have accomplished—really, the beginning we have made. We’ve been talking, reading, writing, filming, and planning for the future. We are working hard within our committees, and on our relationships with each other and with other organizations. We are gearing up for the work ahead—the work of social transformation that a time of economic, ecological, and political crisis demands.
10. How are you going to get the 99% on your side if you keep disrupting and inconveniencing them?
We live in a world of “disruptions” and “inconveniences.” This is what mass, social life is like in the 21st century. Change occurs in our world every day, whether we actively seek it out or not; when we do actively engage in the process of social change, there will indeed be things people find disruptive and inconvenient.
One problem we are trying to address in this movement is the fact that an economy built on “conveniences” (oil and gas for our cars, high-tech materials mined all over the world, global trade, etc. etc.) is not a sustainable economy. Some of the changes we need to make will be achieved through replacing older, carbon-heavy industries with new, carbon-neutral industries (especially in the energy sector). But the reality is that we are all going to have to find ways to re-shape our lives that will at first seem disruptive and inconvenient. Anything worth struggling for will cause some amount of pain.
We should be angry. But let’s remember what we should be angry at: a system of chronic inequality and environmental destruction—a system that sacrifices a sustainable tomorrow for a convenient today—this is something we all should be outraged by.
Together, the whole 99% can participate in and ease the burden of a changing world and a new definition of daily life. This is, in fact, the main difference between today’s “conveniences” and tomorrow’s sustainability: truly, we do not equally share the burden of today’s disruptions, but we can and must share the burden of tomorrow’s, and we will find that the shared burden will not weigh as heavily once the load is distributed more equitably.
This question is perhaps the greatest challenge facing Occupy Vancouver and the whole global Occupy movement. We have a story to tell, a new world to outline. But more importantly, we are ready to listen, if you are ready to take that adventurous step into the imagination, and join us in a conversation about what sort of world we all might like to share. There is no one way to organize a society. Let’s see what we can come up with.
Feature image: WillWinter