Autonomy and Solidarity

Posted: June 8, 2013 in Uncategorized
Originally published in “Occupied Minds,” July 2012

According to social scientist Geert Hofstede, culture is the “collective programming” that leads members of a group to see the world in certain ways. Cultural programming determines how people think about issues such as authority, group membership and decision-making processes.

Hofstede describes culture in terms of four dimensions or aspects. Some cultures treat inequality as an accepted fact of life while others have a more fluid view of power distribution. Some cultures try to avoid uncertainty and differences of belief or opinion while others are more comfortable with ambiguity and diversity. Some cultures treat the individual as more important than the group while other cultures treat the group as more important than the individual. Some cultures place a higher value on competition and self-assertion, while others put more emphasis on empathy and compassion.

Understanding these differences can help with understanding other people. For example, Hofstede found that people from cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance tended to be much more emotionally expressive and anxious. Understanding this as an aspect of culture rather than a behavior issue or personality trait could be very helpful.

People acquire their most fundamental values from the culture they are born and raised in, and the fact that these fundamental values come from cultural programming is something most people simply don’t realize. To the far majority of human beings around the world, their cultural values are objectively valid and the values of other cultures are just obviously wrong. Very few people can step outside of this cultural bias even if they’re aware of it, and not many are even aware of it.

Why is this relevant to the Occupy movement? For two main reasons. One is that we need to understand the fierce opposition some people feel toward our core principles if we are to have any hope of prevailing. The other is that we need to understand the Occupy movement as a “revolutionary culture.” In other words, the culture of our movement exists as a critique of the mainstream culture as well as an alternative to it.

Occupy is a global movement, so Occupiers all over the world are trying to establish this revolutionary culture in contrast with a wide variety of different regional or national cultures. Here in the United States, the culture to which we are an alternative has certain characteristics that can be defined in the terms described by Hofstede.

The first is that American culture traditionally has what Hofstede calls “low power distance.” This means that Americans are not particularly accepting of power inequalities, even though inequality is still a fact of life. That’s why the slogan “we are the 99%” resonates so strongly with so many people. Americans are well aware that there are class inequalities, but our deepest cultural values tell us that “all men are created equal”. That’s why our opponents don’t even try to claim that the 1% has an inherent right to its disproportionate wealth and power. Instead they present the inequality as having been somehow earned by the 1% through hard work and virtuous living, and they tell us that we can all have the same wealth if we just imitate their good example. They have to phrase it that way, even though it’s an increasingly absurd argument, because otherwise they would have to admit that the game is rigged- and that would violate their own core values. In effect, if they stopped lying to themselves they would have no choice but to become revolutionaries.

The second point is that some segments of American society have a much higher tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty while others have a much lower tolerance. Cultures with a high tolerance for ambiguity tolerate diversity in many areas of life. Cultures with a low tolerance for ambiguity do not, because their cultural programming has effectively brainwashed them to feel intensely anxious in the presence of anything new and different. That’s why so many cultural conservatives see Occupy as being filled with repellant and terrifying “freaks.” Where you or I would just see a room full of different types of people, a cultural conservative sees an existential threat.

The third point is that American culture traditionally places a very high value on competition and self-assertion, and a relatively low value on empathy and compassion. Occupy deliberately privileges the voices of the disempowered and discourages aggressive self-assertion through the “step up, step back” concept. This seems bizarre and upsetting to many Americans whether liberal or conservative. Our decision-making process is a radical critique of traditional American values. That’s why the media obsessively harps on the idea that we need to ditch the consensus process and appoint some strong leaders. If you accept the idea that Occupy is a kind of “revolutionary culture,” it becomes clear that whatever the mainstream culture criticizes most fiercely about us must also be what is most genuinely revolutionary about us. They want us to focus on reducing inequality and not on these other aspects, because our position on inequality is much closer to core American values and is thus a lot less threatening to them. That’s why we’re seeing the creation of “liberal alternatives” to Occupy such as 99% Spring. 99% Spring emphasizes the inequality issue, not the concept of consensus, so it’s a lot less frightening to the mainstream.

The most revolutionary aspect of Occupy culture, in my opinion, is in the area of the individual versus the group. American culture is traditionally highly individualistic. Collectivism is seen as a terrifying, faceless, conformist mediocrity where there is no space for individual talent, expression or genius. That’s why Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is so appealing to the American right wing. It fits our national mythology of the larger-than-life self-reliant individual hero. Collectivist left-wing philosophies are perceived by most Americans as being so deeply un-American that all you have to do to discredit such a philosophy is to tag it with the label of “socialism.”

But Occupy cannot so easily be discredited in that way. Occupy culture places a lot of emphasis on autonomous action. The General Assembly can decide whether or not a particular action receives the blessing of the whole Occupation, but it cannot tell any affinity group or individual that they must or must not do a certain thing. No one gives orders, because no one has such authority.

We come from so many different subsections of American society that there would be no way to draw an honest caricature of the “typical Occupier.” At any given action, you’ll see tattooed Anarchist punks standing side by side with gray-haired veterans of the Sixties anti-war movement, clean-shaven young men wearing ties, moms and dads holding kids, different races and sexual identities and cultural backgrounds.

We live our lives in autonomy, but we stand together in solidarity. We are neither the faceless collectivist automatons our opponents fear, nor the self-serving conqueror-heroes they idolize. We are free, autonomous and individual human beings, who freely choose to stand by each other, to help each other and to refuse to exploit each other.

By marrying the concepts of autonomy and solidarity, the revolutionary culture of Occupy transcends the categories described by Hofstede. In every other area of Occupy culture, our positions and principles can be described by reference to Hofstede’s scales. In the area of the individual versus the group, we don’t fit into his schema.

Autonomy combined with solidarity is something new, a way for individuals to remain truly individual without having to be alone and powerless and without needing to prey on each other in order to survive. Autonomy and solidarity is revolutionary culture.



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