The Occupiers are Reminding us about Local Places
Edmund P. Fowler
The authorities are now moving in to evict the Occupy protesters across North America. That is because the encampments themselves express a message that is just too direct and gutsy.
Mainstream politicians and commentators keep asking for a program of demands from the Occupy movement, trying to force them to play by the usual rules. These protesters are not groping for leaders or platforms. They are enraged about social and economic inequality and the slick tactics being used to create it, but, just as crucially, they are drawing our attention to the importance of place.
Attachment to places has been all but erased by the global market economy. We buy clothes made in Malaysia and appliances from Brazil; we eat grapes from South Africa and let ourselves be entertained by stories from Hollywood. And I didn't even mention China.
Our own suburban nests are far from clean, but the minerals and metals for our cars and computers spread deadly toxins into drinking water for villages halfway around the world. It's impossible to be truly aware of those toxins in our own places.
The mortgages at the centre of the 2008 crisis were packaged and sold in a placeless capital market, totally unconnected from the streets and neighbourhoods where real families live in real houses.
Local face-to-face economies are small scale and unlikely to generate the inequalities that anger the protesters so much. In such economies, bankers lend to their neighbours, their kids go to school together. Peoples' lives intersect in numerous ways, which give all their interactions – social, economic, recreational, political – a meaning. That meaning is summarized by the idea of place. Places can bring together what humans need to live and what they need to express themselves, to grow and change.
When production of goods and services go global, systems for meeting those needs are scattered and taken over by multi-billion dollar businesses. The economy becomes over-capitalized and wasteful. Huge sums are accumulated out of sight. That placeless capital is then used to build oversized skyscrapers and subdivisions, knock off tops of mountains to mine coal, and buy up agricultural land for GM soybeans or industrial pig farms. These projects may be profitable but they are uneconomical, in part because they generate still more inequality. Moreover, face-to-face economics is out the window.
Governments are by now totally on board, and in bed, with global capitalism. The Occupy movement has no illusions about what would happen to an eloquent list of specific demands for change, politely presented to our sitting politicians.
This is a DIY movement. When protesters move to occupy a space, they set up an immediate community in that place. Everything needs to be done at once, and it doesn't matter where anyone starts, but it doesn't take long to set up kitchens, a central square, health services, bathrooms, and rudimentary ways of making collective decisions. This is as true in Toronto and Lansing, Michigan as it is on Wall Street.
Here on the ground proposals for change are no longer abstract. They are practical, immediate, and effective.
So the next step should be obvious. The same intelligence used to create working communities to occupy Wall Street can be used to recreate working communities in urban neighbourhoods and rural towns across the continent and across the world. Remembering our affection for our places is actually quite subversive, because it creates a powerful motive to become competent actors at the local level.
The Occupy movement has invited us all to be those kinds of actors, who don't need to win an election or invest a lot of money in order to make a difference. They produce significant change by cooperating with others on their street and sometimes even by breaking the rules.