We asked a few people from Occupy Boston what they thought about a longstanding debate within the Occupy movement: Should Occupy be a reform movement, attempting to change the system by working within it, or a revolutionary movement, aiming to replace the current system with a new one?
Below are three responses that we received.
There are many ways to pursue a more free and just world. Sharing that goal, along with the belief that we can realize it, is the most important thing. It is what brought us to occupations across the country. It is what drives us to be active and stay informed. And, more broadly, it is what unites us as idealists.
Activists often avoid the discussion of tactics because the topic has real potential to divide and disempower us, who have so little power as it is. Here I want to consider the tactic of the ballot and whether it is useful for bringing about the changes that we want. This is the defining question in how I see myself and how I think the Occupy movement should position itself on the question of ‘reform vs. revolution.’
Revolution, to me, means the reorganization of society down to its core systems, not just nationalism, capitalism, and patriarchy, but all forms of arbitrary authority, oppression and even the way that we see ourselves physically and spiritually in relation to each other and the planet. Here, however, I will treat ‘revolution’ as anything that is not strictly ‘reform.’
If one believes strictly in reform, the ultimate goal of one’s actions is mobilization to vote. There is little doubt that reform strategies have the ability to meaningfully improve the lives of some people. Whether the Labor Movement, the New Deal, or the Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements, gains have come partly through the efforts of activists who work within the system for progressive legislation. The power of the ballot, to replace a leader who fails to represent the voters, certainly plays a role. But there are always other forces at work. In each struggle, the ballot was backed by the ability to shut down the flow of capital, the threat of costly violent outbursts, or by an existential threat to the system as a whole.
The major difference with the power of the ballot (if it exists at all without other forms of power) is that each time it is used, the authority of the state is reinforced. As even a teenage Obama canvasser knows, our state and national political system is a dysfunctional duopoly of pro-corporate parties beholden to the interests of the 1%, those few real beneficiaries of capitalism. It is the economic system, capitalism, that is by design impervious to the ballot. The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
Whether by unleashing riot cops on peaceful protestors talking about economic inequality, by murdering Black Nationalist leaders or civilians abroad by the thousands, or by saving the for-profit health care system and the financial criminal elite, our leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — have made their true colors known again and again.
As Emma Goldman once said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Some say the Occupy Movement’s greatest accomplishment has been changing the conversation on Capitol Hill and main stream media. I say it is the resurgence of direct action, not for the entertainment of cash-stuffed politicians, but for the coming revolution.
By Les Createmore
At Dewey Square, every night was like a first date, and began with breathless and hopeful anticipation. It was the type of thing you read about, finding “the one.” But for me, “the one” was and remains the idea of Occupy, the idea that WE are the 99% and together, WE can accomplish anything. I used to walk across the street with the Federal Reserve building, in all its concrete intimidation, to my left and my home in the fight against the 1% to my right. I was happy and comforted by the fact that we were fighting back. Yes, we were tents and signs compared to their impenetrable fortress. But, there we stood day after day, standing up to them, face to face and unapologetically. It was beautiful. I truly believed we were unstoppable. I still think we are.
In any relationship there are issues. At Occupy Boston, they were issues like second encampments, winterization, finance, and, most disturbing to me, the abuse that occurred at Dewey Square. We never actually dealt with these issues, though we argued about them a lot. I made excuses for our not addressing them and thought we would get around to it. To this day, we haven’t addressed these things as a community.
There is yet another issue that needs to be addressed before answering the question of “reform or revolution.” We never talked about where this relationship is heading. We have no shared vision or intention. We can’t develop that without the voices of those people who are currently unwelcome. Occupy, like every good relationship, needs the ability to reflect and listen. It’s heartbreaking to hear my friends describe leaving Occupy feeling “alienated” and “ignored.”
We need to accept the reality of our depleting support and take responsibility for that. I love Occupy and friends I’ve made here. My life is better because of it. However, if censoring voices is how Occupy succeeds, it becomes a movement of Oppression. Here, we’ve reached that critical point in our relationship where I say “Occupy, I care about you, but this isn’t working out. I hope we can be friends.”
History is repeating itself. We need to move beyond label-based fears and get to know people as individuals. We will find common ground. There is enough to change the world. This revolution starts through conversations with unlikely allies.
We have helped to create this movement, this beautiful moment where we converge to speak as individuals collectively. This profound opportunity has been gifted to us all to change the course of history on a global scale. A new world is possible if we just remember that before all else, we are human beings, capable of amazing things.
By Theresa Earle
The very posing of the question as one of “reform OR revolution” implies that the two are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I believe that you can’t get to revolution without a number of struggles for reform. And the reforms you win won’t last without a revolution. The relationship is dialectical.
We need a revolution because the whole system is the problem. Society is dominated by institutions that are owned or controlled by the 1%, for whom everything is geared to increasing their power and profit. If a corporation decides, say, to stop maximizing profit at the expense of the environment and to start devoting resources to helping people, its profit margins will dip and it will go out of business, only to be replaced by a rival competitor without such scruples. This not a problem of individual CEOs, banks, or countries. It is a systemic problem. Therefore, we need a different system.
Moreover, all the reforms we’ve won, from civil rights to reduced working hours, have been steadily chipped away by the 1%, to the point where there is scarcely anything left of them. For example, Taco Bell has literally been cited for SLAVERY regarding their treatment of tomato pickers in Florida.
Slavery. In the South. We need a revolution.
We need to fight for reforms for many reasons. First of all, they are winnable in the short term. In 1960, student activists were able to desegregate lunch counters throughout the south in a matter of months. This showed that change was possible and that if we fought, we could win. Second, reforms make life better. When the labor movement won the 8-hour day and the weekend, that improved the quality of our lives, even though it wasn’t followed by a revolution. Third, the process of fighting for reforms raises people’s awareness and their confidence to fight for more. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott first started, they did not demand desegregation. Initially they were demanding only that the middle section of buses, between the whites in the front and blacks in the back, would be first-come, first serve, rather than white-come, black-moved. Only after thousands started mobilizing did the people realize their strength, and then raise their aim to complete desegregation.
We must fight for reforms for all these reasons. But reforms are not enough. To give but one example: the struggle to end the Vietnam War succeeded, thanks to the massive resistance of the domestic antiwar movement, the GI rebellion in the army, and the uncompromising militancy of the Vietnamese people. The biggest empire in world history was eventually forced out of a country of peasant farmers. Unfortunately, because the international movement which ended the war left intact the system that produces wars, we now have to fight against more imperialist wars a generation later.
Let us build a movement that not only ends the wars, but that transforms the system that produces them. In other words, we need reforms AND revolution.
By Brian Kwoba