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The Many Futures of Occupy

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In its first year of life, Occupy has transformed the American political landscape by opening a space for radicalism. By radicalism, I mean a questioning of the fundamental ways in which life is lived. It has done so by defining and executing a form of political practice that is a hybrid of grass-roots organizing, direct action and digital-era networking. The new radical opening created by Occupy is now proliferating in four main directions that were represented by the four "zones" of action on September 17: debt, the ecological crisis, education and the 99%. There are, then, many futures for Occupy.

A year ago, the tactic of occupation brilliantly visualized what has become Occupy's signature gesture: to put bodies into public space where they are not supposed to be. In so doing, Occupy called attention to exclusion and inequality in public affairs in a manner that had become unsayable in American life. By making themselves visible, the occupiers made it possible to speak once again about the extraordinarily divided society in which we live. To realize what a difference this has made, look at this New York Times editorial on Mitt Romney, which uses language unthinkable a year ago:

The shame is not that those people don't pay income taxes. The shame is how many poor people there are when the top 1 percent can amass uncountable fortunes fed by tax breaks and can donate tens of millions of dollars to political candidates to keep it that way.

If, as seems likely, this video moment turns the presidential election from a close-run race to a canter for Obama, Occupy can take a slice of the credit.

Occupy now sees itself as a "movement of movements." These were represented in the different clusters that took action around Wall Street. Let's look at these futures.

Debt

In the past two months, a key theme for many activists has become what economists call "household debt," meaning the range of personal debt from credit cards to mortgages, student loans and medical debt. Fully 75 percent of Americans are in debt. The other 25 percent are mostly too poor to qualify them for credit, excluding them from access to everything from airplane tickets to home ownership. 14 percent of Americans are being pursued by debt collectors.

So it's not surprising that The Debt Resistor's Operations Manual published this weekend by the Strike Debt collective has become an instant hit. The Manual gives detailed practical information on how to deal with debt and what to do if you can't. As yet another bailout for the banks was announced last week by the Federal Reserve with its purchase of $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities, there has still been no debt relief for the 99%. Expect to see a debt refusal movement in the U.S., following the precedents of Quebec, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Environment

Nowhere is the gap between the planetary crisis and the current governing solutions more in need of radical rethinking than the environment. As scientists struggle to comprehend the enormity of the acceleration of global warming, which now suggests that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer very soon, all global governments can do is squabble for yet more hydrocarbons in the newly-revealed land. While the Obama administration is mocked by Republicans for wanting to slow the rise in the oceans, they have given great encouragement to Shell's efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic, even after the company failed to complete its safety devices. In the face of this consensus, direct action is the only option remaining, such as that taken by Greenpeace when it occupied an Arctic oil rig, or the successful encircling of the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Carbon-based capitalism is now a threat to life itself and Occupy can make the connection to create a politics of the living.

Education

From all sides, we hear that education is the key to success in the global economy. Unfortunately, someone seems to have changed the lock. In K-12, neo-liberal education seeks to inculcate data for multiple choice tests, rather than educate people to evaluate. The measure of their success is precisely that climate-change denial continues to flourish. Higher education is presented as a customer-driven, goal-oriented service economy. Hard to reconcile this with $1 trillion in student debt, 41 percent of the class of 2008 in default on their loans, and mass unemployment of graduates. The Bar Association is actually recommending students not to go to law school because of the combination of debt and unemployment. In Quebec, students took strike action against tuition hikes and won. In Chicago, teachers have just ended their strike against teacher evaluations based on tests with a deal whose terms are as yet unclear. In Chile, high school and university students continue to revolt against tuition-based secondary and higher education. The goal is now clear: a free public system that educates for life, rather than indoctrinates for work.

The 99%

On September 17, the 99% action centered on the slogan "money out of politics," perhaps Occupy's most impossible demand yet. There are plans to occupy the Presidential debates. If the White House race becomes a done deal, look closely at what happens in Wisconsin, where electoral activism has been the focus of the movement. Activists in Madison have long claimed to have started the Occupy movement with their action at the Capitol building. The occupation resulted in the recall of Gov. Walker but he was able to win re-election, seeming to set the movement back. Now Rep. Tammy Baldwin is in a close race for U.S. Senate against former Governor Tommy Thompson. If the Republicans win, even greater gridlock is the likely outcome of the Obama second term. So what happens in the Dairy State may be a good indication of whether there's a significant role for Occupy in electoral politics.

These are the fundamental issues of our time. Occupy's many futures will continue to make radical solutions visible and sayable and thus newly possible.

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