Victoria, like cities across Canada, North America and the globe, has become a site of contestation, where young and old people have drawn a line in the sand against a system they believe is built upon inequality and exploitation. These visionaries offer the brightest beacon in a generation of the possibility for a better world.
The people camped in Victoria’s Centennial Square belong to a global movement, inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” protest that emerged in mid-September as a spear in the heart of the global financial system. They also look beyond North America to millions of people in North Africa and the Middle East who collectively made the “Arab Spring.”
My sympathies are with the visionaries occupying the world’s squares and the 99% they believe are on the losing end of our so-called “free” market economy. They point to more than a billion people across the globe who lack safe supplies of food, water, shelter, and access to medical care. They point to the fantastic concentration of wealth at the top of our global economy — the billionaires and their lieutenants who live off surplus value and inherited wealth as the 99% work, suffer and — suddenly — struggle for system change.
The “Occupy Together” movement offers grounds for optimism for everyone seeking a path out of the neo-liberal era of privatization, environmental despoliation, and “dog-eat-dog” attacks on the working class, the poor and the fabric of our civil society.
But to succeed in their goal of eradicating inequality and exploitation through systemic change of the world’s financial and economic structures, the visionaries in the world’s squares (and Victoria’s Centennial Square) need to be cognizant of history. Many social movements have emerged rapidly, only to fade away (or be suppressed) without meeting their goals.
As a student of the history of social movements in Canada and globally, I’m volunteering some advice:
1. Move with the 99%
To win a better world, the movement needs to move with the majority of people in Victoria, the country and the globe. This is no small task, but it is the only way to avoid becoming marginalized and isolated by the opponents of social change. Language, vision, strategies, and tactics need to be developed with constant attention to the day-to-day realities and needs of the majority (“where the masses are right now, rather than where radicals think their ought to be”).
2. Organization is key
At the same time visionaries move with the 99%, they need to lead, to provide an “arrow-head” capable of piercing the cultural and political armour of a resilient economic elite. Organization is key. “Consensus”, “autonomy” and “self-organization” (watchwords of many social movements) are admirable qualities to bring to a potluck or a church picnic. But they are insufficient on their own to challenge the economic power of billionaires. To succeed, the visionaries need to create disciplined political parties that enlist the 99% and democratically develop strategies, tactics and a “road map” for the future.
3. Draft a road map
“What is the alternative?” skeptics inevitably ask. And it is a good question. If millions of people are mobilizing to change the system, what do they propose to build in its place? Social movements have skirted this kind of hard theorizing and planning for several decades. If they are now talking about “system change” in a serious way, visionaries in every community of the globe need to start drafting a road map today. What does the transition look like? How will different groups and individuals become involved? How will a fairer, more sustainable economy be structured? How will resources be allocated? How will political decisions be made? How will civil liberties and human rights be safeguarded? How will disputes between individuals, groups and states be resolved?
Before the visionaries answer these questions, it would appear premature to ask the 99% to join them in discarding the status quo.
4. Keep to the high ground
Advocacy for system change inevitably involves conflict — between proponents of change and the elite that benefits for the status quo. In many countries, advocacy for system change has degenerated from a political struggle into horrific civil wars. Both revolutionaries and elites have resorted at various times to violence (and sometimes totalitarianism) to protect and advance their interests. To win over the 99% in our 21st-century world, the visionaries would be wise to pursue their objectives in accordance with principles of non-violence. This does not mean rolling over and surrendering as the elite turns to trickery and thuggery to retain its privileges; non-violence can include civil disobedience and many tactics that disrupt attempts to suppress the movement. But a basic humanitarian ideal — respect for human life and human dignity — must inform every act and word.
5. Become the state
The movement originated in the public squares of Cairo, New York and now Victoria. But its tactics must extend beyond the idea of tent cities and occupying public space to engage in the struggle on every front. At its root, the movement must confront the issue of state power — which presently leaves armies and many police at the command of the elite, rather than the 99%. The movement will never have an arsenal capable of matching the technological firepower of NATO and its client states. So the slogan “Become the State” is essential for a non-violent transition to a new system.
To become the state, the visionaries need to form alliances with existing community organizations and political parties to field candidates for election to every public office. Fill the councils, legislatures and parliaments of the country with representatives of the 99%, rather than representatives of the elite. Then, as the movement moves, the elite will lack the political tools to resist the transition to a democratically organized economy.