The Most Important Thing in the World

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Foley Square, October 5, 2011. Photo: Jen Ross

If there is one thing I know, it’s that the 1% loves a crisis.

When people are panicked and desperate and no one seems to know what to do, that is the ideal time to push through their wish-list of pro-corporate policies: privatizing education and social security, slashing public services, getting rid of the last constraints on corporate power. Amidst the economic crisis, this is happening the world over.

There is only one thing that can block this tactic, and fortunately, it’s a very big thing: the 99%.

And that 99% is taking to the streets from Madison to Madrid to say “No. We will not pay for your crisis.” That slogan began in Italy in 2008.  It ricocheted to Greece and France and Ireland and finally it has made its way to the square mile where the crisis began. “Why are they protesting?” ask the baffled pundits on TV. Meanwhile, the rest of the world asks: “What took you so long?”  “We’ve been wondering when you were going to show up.” And most of all: “Welcome.”

Many people have drawn parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the so-called anti-globalization protests that came to world attention in Seattle in 1999. That was the last time a global, youth-led, decentralized movement took direct aim at corporate power.  And I am proud to have been part of what we called “the movement of movements.” But there are important differences too.  For instance, we chose summits as our targets: the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the G8.

Summits are transient by their nature, they only last a week. That made us transient too. We’d appear, grab world headlines, then disappear.  And in the frenzy of hyper-patriotism and militarism that followed the 9/11 attacks, it was easy to sweep us away completely, at least in North America.

Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, has chosen a fixed target. And you have put no end date on your presence here. This is wise. Only when you stay put can you grow roots. This is crucial. It is a fact of the information age that too many movements spring up like beautiful flowers but quickly die off. It’s because they don’t have roots. And they don’t have long term plans for how they are going to sustain themselves. So when storms come, they get washed away.

Being horizontal and deeply democratic is wonderful. These principles are compatible with the hard work of building structures and institutions that are sturdy enough to weather the storms ahead. I have great faith that this will happen. Something else this movement is doing right: You have committed yourselves to non-violence. You have refused to give the media the images of broken windows and street fights it craves so desperately.

And that tremendous discipline has meant that, again and again, the story has been the disgraceful and unprovoked police brutality. Which we just saw more of Wednesday night. Meanwhile, support for this movement grows and grows. More wisdom. But the biggest difference a decade makes is that in 1999, we were taking on capitalism at the peak of a frenzied economic boom. Unemployment was low, stock portfolios were bulging. The media was drunk on easy money. Back then it was all about start-ups, not shutdowns. We pointed out that the deregulation behind the frenzy came at a price. It was damaging to labor standards. It was damaging to environmental standards. Corporations were becoming more powerful than governments and that was damaging to our democracies. But to be honest with you, while the good times rolled, taking on an economic system based on greed was a tough sell, at least in rich countries.

Ten years later, it seems as if there aren’t any more rich countries. Just a whole lot of rich people. People who got rich looting the public wealth and exhausting natural resources around the world.

The point is, today everyone can see that the system is deeply unjust and careening out of control. Unfettered greed has trashed the global economy. And it is trashing the natural world as well. We are overfishing our oceans, polluting our water with fracking and deepwater drilling, turning to the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet, like the Alberta tar sands. The atmosphere cannot absorb the amount of carbon we are putting into it, creating dangerous warming. The new normal is serial disasters: economic and ecological.

These are the facts on the ground. They are so blatant, so obvious, that it is a lot easier to connect with the public than it was in 1999, and to build the movement quickly. We all know, or at least sense, that the world is upside down: we act as if there is no end to what is actually finite—fossil fuels and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions. And we act as if there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually bountiful—the financial resources to build the kind of society we need.

The task of our time is to turn this around: to challenge this false scarcity. To insist that we can afford to build a decent, inclusive society—while at the same time, respect the real limits to what the earth can take. What climate change means is that we have to do this on a deadline. This time our movement cannot get distracted, divided, burned out or swept away by events. This time we have to succeed. And I’m not talking about regulating the banks and increasing taxes on the rich, though that’s important. I am talking about changing the underlying values that govern our society. That is hard to fit into a single, media-friendly demand, and it’s also hard to figure out how to do it. But it is no less urgent for being difficult. That is what I see happening in this square. In the way you are feeding each other, keeping each other warm, sharing information freely and providing health care, meditation classes and empowerment training. My favorite sign here says “I care about you.” In a culture that trains people to avoid each other’s gaze, to say, “Let them die,” that is a deeply radical statement.

We have picked a fight with the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet. That’s frightening. And as this movement grows from strength to strength, it will get more frightening. Always be aware that there will be a temptation to shift to smaller targets—like, say, the person next to you. Don’t give into the temptation. This time, let’s treat each other as if we plan to work side by side in struggle for many, many years to come. Because the task before will demand nothing less.

Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is. It really is.

This article, text from a speech delivered by the author on October 6 in Liberty Square, was published in our second print issue.

This post is also available in: French, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish

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  • Roberto Grigolli

    I am very proud of what you guys are demonstrating in the US. I lived there for several years and I felt it was the epicenter of the wild capitalistic mentality, with practically no worker’s rights, a diminished sense of community and the so called “freedom fail” which it means to get humanly deprived. That some seem to irrationally defend it.

    I believe what is the core of this movement, is to do away with the need to live a world where people still grow in fear of not having basic physical needs in life. I am not talking about communism, but what is the need of keeping the primitive roots of the basic “hunter and gather” in our society? Are people going to be less, if you take away the fears of being deprived of food, health care and shelter.

    This is the primitive mentality that Humans had from the stone age and for some reason some people like to keep it going. As if people are not naturally want to be their best and competitive if you take away fears of being deprived of some basic things. Yes, people should be allowed to fail, but in their endeavors, not to the point of being humanly deprived. It is time to put away with some animal conditioning. We already got out of the jungle, but not the capitalistic one. And it is wild too.

  • Tarasp

    “No we will not pay for your crisis” Is greed limited to the 1%?

  • notPICNIC

    experimenting with a interface called pearltrees

    which is a blogpost embeddable collaborative curational tool.

    By means of this interface it should be possible to share important info
    in a more structured manner than is possible within twitter or facebook.

    But to make it worth our while we need some paticipants of Occupy Wall Street Groups to start building their one pearls like par example
    òr . We will see an explosion of occupy websites and we will need a tool to access all info containted in a more structured manner. In order to prevent a too closed garden approach i suggest pearltrees. If you have other interface suggestions please contact me via twitter
    @notpicnic so i might incorporate them in



    more info about this beautifull interface via:

  • cjk

    The immoral “old white guys” that have run this country for years had their time and what did they do with? Turn Thomas Paine’s idea into a third-rate power. It’s time they step aside, they had their time and did nothing with it, except to enrich themselves. There time is over!

    Thank you Naomi for this succinct rather wonderfully written piece.

    An admirer

    • Brian

      Thank you for showing how pathetic and classless your side is.

    • Brian

      Well said. As a member of the white race, you display a cunning wit and erudite style. Forgoing proper grammar and punctuation, you forge ahead with your own poetic license. Clearly, you sir are also no nig.

  • leslie

    this is genius. thank you naomi for your motivating words.

  • Jonathan S

    Two bits of mine I’ve been passing around.
    1. “Game Over. Banks and Politicians Win. New Game.”
    2. “#Occupy is Democracy. Go to your local democracy, use your own eyes, use your own mind, then decide.”

  • Adam William Majkowski

    Let us dispose of ALL the leaders and beef up our public services with hard work. There is work out there for everyone. Working to build a peaceful country where everything is free. I would work for 10 years, 8 hours per week, for no pay, if I knew everything I wanted was free, and so would you. If you wouldn’t take that deal, then you are part of the old way of thinking, a slave to the 1%.

  • Anonymous

    OWS doe not just send a message. It implements a new social organization. It is the literal enactment of the slogan, “Be the Change”.

    There is a power here that cannot be tapped by hierarchical organizations. To expect (and respect) leadership and responsibility, creativity and action, from every single participant, has a power that cannot be utilized by the entrenched 1%. They suppress, and deeply fear, the coordinated creative efforts of their minions.

    There is another power here that cannot be easily countered. OWS is open-source, and reproducible everywhere. The movement can grow exponentially, with each local group tapping new sources of energy and creativity. Each group shares with all others their failures and successes.

    I hope to see the movement begin to organize productive work for people, becoming the “change” in our economic system. Right now, donations (capital) are flowing in from well-wishers (investors) everywhere. I would love to see a new economic system emerge that implements the value system of OWS: “I care about you”.

  • Anonymous

    please watch this congressional hearing on the FED and distribute this video around. This is the scariest video I have seen and I worked on Wall Street for over 23 years.

  • Anonymous

    As the great German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, wrote ninety years ago. The world faces a future of socialism or barbarism. We saw what barbarism looked like on the Somme, in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima. We are witnessing it in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Oakland and Athens. We can change the world and we can save the world.

  • Anonymous

    This model was best developed by the Zapatista revolutionaries in Chiapas, Mexico, as they took over 7 cities on January 1, 1994, the first day of NAFTA, which they called “a death sentence for the poor.” They spent weeks to attain consensus on the village level, and later conducted majority votes of 250,000 mostly-Maya inhabitants, and then of 100-million Mexicans. They even had some international “consultas.” It’s important to learn this by doing. It’s also worth looking at the most “shovel-ready” project for direct democracy in the U.S., the National Initiative for Democracy led by famed former Senator Mike Gravel: Pls feel free to contact me: evan (at) Vote (dot) org

    • Jonathan S

      I was sharing NI4D links in September… but then I realized, the GA’s system is a more dynamic and inclusive form of direct democracy than Gravel’s design (which I have utmost respect for). Speaking of which, I need to call his offices again.

      • Anonymous

        We need both. Consensus and personal discussion work great in smaller groups. But for a whole City, State or Country, you have to go with less than 100% consensus, and that means voting, and that means something like ballot initiatives, and the use of internet and other media to have the discussions before the vote. Would you like to be on our occasional ni4d email list? If so, send your email to me: evan (at) Vote (dot) org. Thanks.

  • Jonathan S

    @BombardierWells: Socialism, as it is currently understood, still yields many problems. Increased governmental control, robin hood policies… but it’s still the overconcentration of power and authority that gets us into trouble. People making decisions that affect millions of lives, but not their own. Participism is a different approach. It is an anti-authoritarian model of organization and equitable renumeration. Everyone can work productively for living wages. Everyone has a share of empowering work (decision-making) and disempowering work (like janitorial work). Dangerous jobs are given higher “wages” than safe ones. Political decisions are made through nested councils, so everyone’s input is considered. Non-productive work (such as financial trading) ceases to exist. Check it out, and if you like it, share it with others. Repeatedly. Everyone in #Occupy should hear about it – they need to know it exists.

  • Ruth Tharaldson

    I would like everyone to read this website– Lon / the plumber