Previously published in “Occupied Minds,” July 2012
Alienation is the defining feature of our whole civilization, and it operates on multiple levels- the mind is alienated from the body, both are alienated from the spirit, people are alienated from the natural world, races and classes and subcultures are alienated from each other, neighbors are alienated from neighbors and family members from other family members. Everything and everyone is atomized, split into discrete pieces, objectified and analyzed, exploited and manipulated.
A world like that is a dead world, a world where everything is just an object, a piece of property or a resource or a useful tool. A world like that has no humanity. So it’s no surprise that in a world like that, many people would define freedom in strictly negative terms, the freedom to not be interfered with while you are trying to acquire more property and resources.
When you play “Monopoly,” just one person wins. When you play “Risk,” just one person wins. The problem with seeing the whole world as a competitive game is that almost everyone is going to lose. A tiny elite will end up with almost everything, a larger number will have enough to be comfortable only if they devote their entire lives to maintaining the status quo and defending a system that defines them as losers just because they didn’t succeed in clawing their way to the top. The vast majority of people in the world will be left with little or nothing, struggling for mere survival and viciously blamed for their own poverty.
This imbalance is what we fight against, but it’s just a symptom. The cause of the problem is alienation, the multifaceted alienation that defines our culture. Just try to imagine a society where people weren’t alienated from other people or from the planet they live on or from their own bodies or from their spirits. Wouldn’t it look almost completely different than what we have now?
The word “radical” comes from Latin, and it originally implied getting to the roots of a matter. If the root of what is wrong with our world is alienation, then the most radical thing we can possibly do is to refuse to be alienated, the most revolutionary thing we can do is to challenge the alienation all around us, and the one thing we can do that most deeply and directly challenges the status quo is to stand together in solidarity.
The defining worldview of any culture is invisible to most of the people in that culture; it’s like water to a fish. That’s why Occupy confuses people. They think of us as a protest movement when protest is actually just one part of what we do and not really the defining part. They ask us why we don’t have a leadership structure because they mistake us for an organization and think we’re just a poorly-organized activist group. They ask us why we don’t have a list of demands because they don’t realize that such a thing wouldn’t really be possible- there’s no orthodoxy or uniformity of opinion among us that would allow us to issue such a convenient list.
They miss the central point of what we’re doing, which is right there in the name: we’re Occupying space together, in multiple different ways. Sometimes in an encampment, sometimes in an abandoned building, sometimes in a house threatened by foreclosure, sometimes in a library or a cafe, and sometimes on the street. We’re Occupying space together so that we can hear each other talk, so we can share a meal or exchange ideas or stand together to resist a wrong.
We’re Occupying space together, and it’s changing all of us. Never in my entire life have I spent time with such a wide range of different people as I have in Occupy. People of different classes and races and ages and sexual identities. Most of the people I work with in Occupy are people I would never have had a reason to socialize with outside of it. Their life experiences are different from mine. They don’t read the same books I read or listen to the same music I listen to. They don’t look like I do.
When I spend time with people who do listen to the music I listen to or read the same books I read, it’s a fun experience. When I stand side by side in solidarity with people who don’t have these obvious and superficial things in common with me, it’s a life-changing experience. When I link arms with a person I don’t even know so that we can help another person we don’t know to stay in his or her home, it’s a revolutionary experience, because it’s a shared refusal to be alienated.
We’re not always that good at solidarity; we still have a lot to learn about how to hear each other and how to treat each other respectfully. But let’s not forget what we’re here for and what makes Occupy so promising and so exhilarating. We could make a list of our ten favorite reforms and win them all, but if we failed to address the alienation at the core of our culture then we would not have fixed anything. In the end, we would just end up creating the same mess all over again. Let’s dare to be radical in the original sense of the word, let’s dare to look deep enough to see the roots of the problem.
Let’s refuse alienation.