The growth of the Occupation Movement (OM) that began with, and continues to be led by, Occupy Wall Street, represents both an extremely welcome development and a novel experiment in social change. I'd like to speak here to certain core questions that this movement and those watching it confront. Where this movement goes from here no one really knows but it has already accomplished something tremendous: it has reframed the debate from "Everyone out for themselves" to "99% v. 1%." It has put those who reap the lion's share of the benefits from the existing system on the defensive for the first time in decades, and given an opening to the rest of the people to see what we all have in common with each other, rather than the 1%er's dog eat dog doctrine. This act of solidarity alone will reverberate forward for some time to come.
Now, to those core questions: as everyone knows, the question of leadership and how to move forward and in what ways is a major issue within the OM. I'm going to speak to the matter of leadership in the sense not mainly of "who does the leading?" but of what leadership consists of in terms of attitude and perspective. What is the content of good leadership? How do we cope with and overcome the difficulties and challenges that those who are determined to change society face? These questions are the underlying ones for those who are deciding whether or not to engage in civil disobedience and are also questions for those who are friendly bystanders to those who engage in CD. In response to those questions, I'm posting an excerpt from my new book. It comes from Chapter Seven, pages 341-347:
There have ever been those who counsel that change is not possible in the face of power and popularity. It will always be so. It is simply not possible to be for justice in the face of injustice and not have to battle against the odds to achieve it. The most advanced understanding gains its footing only through struggle. If it were not the most advanced understanding then obtaining it would be easy: just do what the lowest common denominator wants to do.
In the German concentration camps, the Nazis were able to recruit some Jews who, in return for being protected from being gassed themselves, helped the Nazis control and herd their fellow prisoners to the gas chambers. Prisons, likewise, are run through the assistance of trustees, prisoners who act like guards. Every single population has within it individuals who will betray their own people in return for petty or not so petty privileges for themselves. The easy paths have always been the low roads. The best interests of humanity and of the planet have always rested in the hands of those relative few willing to lead others onto the high road.
Some people insist that real change is not possible. “Revolution will never happen,” they say authoritatively, declaring that those who disagree with them are either starry-eyed dreamers or opportunistic manipulators, or even worse, both, wolves in sheep’s clothing. People who make flat assertions as to the impossibility of revolutionary change are wrong on principle to do so. They are not wrong to say this because they are wrong about their declaration, even though they are wrong about that, as any reasonably long view of history tells us: human history is full of changes, including revolutionary changes. No, our no-nonsense, dead certain cynics are wrong to insist that change is impossible because their stance seeks to rationalize not doing things that should be done. What should be done on moral and/or legal grounds must be done, whether or not you can guarantee success for your actions. If it were otherwise and you should only stand up for principle when you know that you are going to win, then expedience would be the only principle governing humanity. If the criterion for doing the right thing were whether or not you could guarantee success beforehand, then the right thing would never have been done. Societies would have remained stuck at the stages in which slaves were the norm, or when women were entirely the property of men, or when being from the wrong tribe or region meant that you could be sacrificed, raped, and enslaved at will. None of history’s rebellions or revolutions would have happened, because those who fought for them to happen would have never done so because there was no guarantee ahead of time that they would succeed. The odds they faced in launching their fights were long and only the brave dared press forward in the face of the dangers ahead.
The courageous souls who first pushed off from familiar shores to embark on long sea voyages to find other lands, with the lengths of those voyages unknown and uncertain, and knowing full well that they might perish in the effort, did not say: “It is impossible to find land. Stay here where it is safe and secure.” The people who made such declarations, of course, stayed home. The ones who made history sailed into the unknown. The latter are the kind of people that humanity has always relied heavily upon: the ones willing to do what other more fearful and/or self-interested individuals regard as too difficult. The actions of such leaders are indispensable for stirring others into action and drawing upon their best selves.
If we look back over history we can see numerous examples of fights that many people thought were impossible to win. When slavery was the prevailing system, the common wisdom, even among many of the slaves, was that ending slavery would never happen. When women first stepped forward to call for the end of the oppression of women, many men expressed puzzlement or opposition, and many women, even those who dearly wished it could come about, thought it could not happen. When Copernicus and later Galileo determined that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, they faced persecution for their views. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, he knew that his conclusions would be extremely controversial and that powerful institutional forces would resist his revolutionary conclusions. When the theory of continental drift was first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1915, the reaction to his theory was “almost uniformly hostile, and often exceptionally harsh and scathing.”[i]
When quantum mechanics first revealed the truly bizarre behavior of subatomic particles that make up the foundation of our universe, none other than Einstein refused to believe it. “God,” he said, “does not play dice with the universe.” Ah, but God might play with an infinite number of universes. The Many World’s theory—that there exist an endless number of universes folded into each other—exerts a powerful influence on theoretical physics today. This unexpected and bizarre—to conventional thinking—theory would account for otherwise absurd, confounding, and unexplainable results in quantum mechanics. What might seem impossible sometimes turns out to be true. Speaking more broadly of social change, a number of things that began by appearing impossible to bring into being have been achieved.
To win a fight such as the one that … means that we have to begin with a deep understanding of what we face. Ordinary tools of perception and analysis will not do. Surface appearances and even personal experiences can be very deceptive. Personal experiences are, by necessity, partial snapshots of reality and therefore incomplete. To understand and change economic, social, and political dynamics presents a complicated challenge, one not to be undertaken superficially, and one not to be pursued without being grounded by a sober, serious, and ongoing reading of history, social science, philosophy, and so on. Much of conventional wisdom, it turns out upon closer examination, is false and/or misleading.
The common belief, for example, that the natures of the systems we live in are due to the individual choices, values, and personalities of the people in those systems is wrong. It is not merely slightly wrong; it is fundamentally wrong. Systems operate according to system logic. That is why we call them systems. In the famous Milgram Experiment, Stanley Milgram created a mini-system of authority and subjects.
The authority figure was the man in the gray coat holding a clipboard—the setting, coat and clipboard all symbols of his authority.[ii] Imagine another person bursting into the Milgram Experiment room. The intruder exclaims to the subject, “You do not need to follow his orders. You are torturing the person in the other room. Resist! Walk out with me.” To make this scenario more realistic the man with the clipboard could call upon guards outside the room to come in and seize the interloper and shut her up, telling the subject at the controls that he or she should ignore the intruder and continue with their duties. At this point the person who has been administering the shocks has to ask him or herself what they should do and what it means that the person from whom he has been following orders has now revealed himself to be something more troubling than just a man in a gray coat.
The person who burst into the room is attempting to create what social psychologists call a new social proof—a new standard for behavior, a new norm. Innovators create new norms and innovators must fight for the new standards.[iii] What shapes the mores of an era are not primarily the actions and values of the mainstream. There is in fact never any truly undifferentiated mass of people. There are leaders at all levels and in all settings. The temper of the times is set by the actions of those who establish the norms from which others take their cues. When greed, material riches, and selfishness are the norm and when the law becomes whatever the leaders say it is, then the whole society suffers. When a society’s system endangers the lives of its people and the viability of the planet, and when that system’s leaders refuse to take the steps that must be taken to avoid disaster, then new leaders, representative of a different system, must step forward and create a new norm. They must set the standard and call on other people to adopt and adhere to that new standard.
It is not a question of having to get everyone to stop being selfish or expecting everyone to become heroes; it is not a question of advising everyone to “do their own thing”; it is a question of what standard is being set by the society’s opinion-makers. It is the standard-setters and the system’s logic that determine what most people will do and which end of the behavioral spectrum is favored. If the standard setters are adhering to an altruistic position, this does not eliminate the presence of greedy or otherwise antisocial and pathological individuals; it just makes them outré for the majority of the society. What we have now is the opposite situation, with most of the leading individuals in the political and economic arena moved by greed and personal advancement and with a system in place that is based upon promoting these antisocial behaviors and attitudes.
Sociology’s central premise is that social structures—that is, social systems—are overall more important and powerful than the individuals who occupy them. As Durkheim correctly put it, society and social facts are sui generis—they exist independent of the people who make them up. Social facts have two characteristics: they exist external to the individual, and they exert a coercive force over the individual. Examples include gender, language, and “race.” The Office of the President of the United States, for example, exists independently of whoever is president at any given time. As the Stanford Prison Experiment famously demonstrated, the roles of prison guard and prisoner exist separately from the particular individuals filling those roles. If the individuals filling those roles are Stanford undergraduates and they are in a Stanford University building’s basement without any real bars, they will nonetheless behave eerily like actual prison guards and prisoners.
This sociological premise grows out of the fact that people behave differently in groups than they do on their own, and that group life requires norms for people to follow, or at least for the mainstream of the group to follow. The role that Durkheim’s description of social facts plays in sociology is equivalent to the role that Darwin’s theory of evolution plays in biology, the role that “show me, don’t tell me” plays in acting, the role that the paint (or lane) and rebounding play in basketball, the role of the net and the lines in tennis, the role that garlic occupies in Chinese and Italian cooking, and the role that E = MC2 and the laws of thermodynamics play in physics. That is to say, it is indispensable.
While we all have autonomy in the sense that we can choose different paths at any given moment, we are fundamentally social beings who survive because we are interdependent; we acknowledge and sustain that interdependence by following norms. Most of these norms are not written down but are virtually universally understood and subscribed to (consciously or unconsciously); only the insane and extremely immature violate these rules on a consistent basis. We exist as a collectivity. We always have and always will.
Even those who were hermits began life and became viable human beings because adults raised them from birth, caring for them lovingly and teaching them what they needed to know in order to survive. The skills that hermits used to live in the wilderness—the ability to hunt, gather, grow food, start and maintain a fire, build and protect a shelter—were all passed on to them through others who in turn learned these indispensable skills through the collective and historical experience of human societies.
Even the most “rad” individuals (such as those who wear outrageously big and spiky Mohawk haircuts) have others who share their look, behavior, and so on; or else they are social outcasts who can only remain alive because they abide by at least some of the necessary social rules, because someone loves them unconditionally and feels obligated to them, or because they possess some highly valued skill so that others tolerate their idiosyncrasies in exchange for what they can offer. Furthermore, all individual human beings are in fact products of, and could not exist without, internal systems within our bodies: the neuromuscular system, the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the skeletal system, and so on. As I argued in Chapter One, individuals and groups are different manifestations of the same fundamental process. Groups need individuals as a means for the group to express and advance itself; and individuals require groups to survive and exist in the first place.
Neoliberalism’s advocates want all of us to believe that there is no such thing as society and that we are all solitary individuals whose only significant social units are the family and the nation. Systems, they would say, are simply the sum total of the actions of all of the individuals; none of us decide what we will do with regard to any visible or invisible system rules because there are no system rules, since systems do not exist in the first place. We all, according to them, seek to maximize our individual material gains without regard to the interests of the group. As I pointed out in Chapter One, if this neoliberal axiom were true, then humanity would never have survived and we would have long ago died away as the dinosaurs did.
[ii] Milgram used gray instead of a white coat so as to lessen his authority.
[iii] These innovators are sometimes unknown individuals. New fashions, for example, can start within groups of young people with the person or persons who started it hard to determine after the fact. But we know that whoever started the new trend was admired by those around them.
Causes Dennis Loo Supports
World Can't Wait, Occupy, War Criminals Watch, Doctors without Borders, Wikileaks, We Are Not Your Soldiers