Loving and Supporting Occupy

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street protesters gather in New York City. Creative Commons/David Shankbone.

Some of my most exhilarating moments this past year have been spent with the Occupy movement. Topping the list was the daylong “general strike” in Oakland on November 2, when tens of thousands of us spent a day at the plaza in front of Oakland City Hall and then marched to shut down the Port of Oakland, through which many of the large exploitative corporations do their business. People of all ages, from infants in strollers to octogenarians with canes, gathered in protest and celebration. And then on November 15, when somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people assembled at Occupy Cal (the encampment at the University of California, Berkeley), I watched the faces of the students. Many had never been part of a large movement of protest and suddenly seemed to get (at least for that moment) the most important lesson that social movements can teach: that history can be made by us little folk, that we need not merely be spectators watching the powerful shape our world, and correspondingly that we have an obligation to build the world we want to live in.

It was forty-seven years ago that I climbed down a rope from the second floor of UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall, where we in the Free Speech Movement were holding a sit-in to protest the university’s attempt to prohibit us from recruiting on campus for civil disobedience against racism in Oakland. I addressed the crowd of 10,000 students outside and reported on the police violence happening at that very moment inside, and I advocated for a student strike that eventually shut the university down and forced the Regents of the University of California to accept our demands. How exciting for me to watch a new generation beginning to open their minds to the possibility that they might take the reins and become tikkunistas—healers and transformers of our world.

We at Tikkun have rejoiced at the emergence of the Occupy movement, and members of our interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives have actively participated in the movement’s demonstrations, sit-ins, and tent cities all across the United States. Once again, the “realists” have been proven wrong in their prediction that Americans would be too stuck in the dominant discourse of the society to demand change. Even as politicians and the media continue to call for austerity measures to reassure Wall Street and other global stock and bond markets, Occupy protesters have introduced a new set of questions about wealth disparities. Margaret Thatcher’s exhortation that “there is no alternative” to the globalized capitalist system—a claim made famous in the United States by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—is now seen for the ideological claptrap it has always been.

While the Republicans continue to tout an austerity agenda as the best way to achieve their real goal of dismantling government—thereby freeing their corporate bosses from constraints imposed for environmental, ethical, and social reasons—Occupy has managed to push many Democrats into finally sticking up for their working-class and minority constituents, whom they have largely betrayed for much of the past thirty years. Even President Obama, whose 2011 State of the Union speech did not mention poverty and whose economic policies favored the rich for his first three years in office, caught the wind of change generated in part by Occupy. He has decided to identify with the populist motif that the Occupy movement has helped surface in America.

In popularizing the notion that the 99 percent need to stand up to the 1 percent (the tiny group of super-rich elites who have been pursuing a class war against the American majority), the Occupy movement has made a major contribution to overcoming the divisions within the Left that have emerged due to identity politics’ emphasis on race, gender, and sexual orientation—divisions that the Right has happily exploited.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} While Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have championed those struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia, we’ve often despaired at the difficulty of bringing progressives together around a common theme, given the identity-based fractures within the Left. Occupy has momentarily (perhaps longer, we hope) made it possible for people to think across difference to themes of unity.

Occupy DC banner in march

Credit: Rick Reinhard.

The deepest truth of humanity is unity within diversity—the unity of being created in the image of God. In secular language, we can describe this as the unity of humans’ collective aspiration to be free, conscious, ethical, loving, creative, joyous, mutually supportive, generous, caring, connected to and cherishing the earth, and filled with awe and wonder at the goodness, complexity, and mystery of the universe. These core aspirations play out differently in different cultural, historical, racial, religious, and gendered configurations. They sometimes seem hard to recognize when factors like scarcity of food and material necessities or deprivation of love and mutual recognition in childhood get in the way. These shared aspirations are also sometimes obscured when schools, religions, and the media indoctrinate people into worldviews encouraging harshness, brutality, and denial of the humanity of “the other,” and when these cruel worldviews become the organizing principles of daily economic and political life. Yet these aspirations never totally disappear; they are always struggling to resurface in the consciousness of even the most oppressed and the most self-satisfied.

We should all rejoice in the consciousness-changing accomplishments of Occupy. It’s also important to note, however, that there are struggles in this young movement whose outcome will determine its long-term significance. We urge readers who sympathize with this movement to become involved in the ongoing daily ideological struggles that take place within it.

Our most pressing concern is the tendency among some in the Occupy movement to define the major problem facing people as simply economic inequality and, by implication, the class-stratified nature of American society and the triumph of economic oligarchs whose power must be reduced. These are central issues, but they must be contextualized within a larger framework of the spiritual deprivation—the deprivation of love and meaning in life and work—that is fostered by the capitalist marketplace. This leads people to treat one another and the earth as instruments for their own needs rather than as beings with intrinsic worth who deserve to be cherished and cared for.

The capitalist marketplace generates an ethos of materialism and selfishness in its “common sense” of “looking out for number one.” This ethos has created a way of being in the world in which almost everyone has learned to see things through the framework of the question, “Can this be of use to me in advancing my own interests and needs?” Work is no longer oriented toward creating goods or services that have social value; rather, it is oriented primarily toward generating more money or power for ourselves or for our supervisors and bosses. As a result, many people come home from work feeling empty, recognizing that there is no meaning to their work aside from its provision of the money needed to survive.

This same ethos shapes our relationship to nature and to one another. Our society teaches us to see the natural world as a resource for human use and consumption, often at the expense of our ability to respond to nature and the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement. Instead of building a cooperative relationship with animals and the natural world, our practice increasingly has become one of using (often savagely abusing) and then discarding the amazing beauty that surrounds us in our environment.

Similarly, we human beings increasingly look upon others in terms of how much they can satisfy our own needs. When they can no longer meet our needs, they are discarded just as we discard a rotting fruit or vegetable. Even in family life and intimate relationships, this “use orientation” leads us to ask ourselves frequently if our partner, parents, or children are satisfying our needs, or if we might replace them with some other source of nurturance or support. Just talk to most people in their eighties and nineties, and you will hear horrific stories of how many people feel that they are seen only as burdens because they are no longer able to contribute to society through paid work and domestic labor like they did for so many years.

This creates a huge spiritual crisis for people in our society—because most people have a fundamental need to be seen and valued for their humanity, rather than for their ability to “deliver” in response to someone else’s desires. Most people need to feel that their work lives have some value beyond how much money they are making; they want their time on earth to be connected to some value higher than profit or power. In fact, most people desire a world in which love and caring predominate over money and power. It is the deprivation of these spiritual needs that is the central contradiction of capitalist society. Capitalist society cannot fulfill these spiritual needs or this hunger for meaning; it cannot produce a society where love, caring for each other, and environmental consciousness replace the old bottom line of money and power.

So although we have called for a “New New Deal” to provide full employment for anyone able to work, a living wage for everyone who works, single-payer health care, a Global Marshall Plan to end domestic and international poverty, an end to mortgage foreclosures on homes, and a national bank to fund socially useful projects, the kinds of changes in the economy that are needed are not only on the level of better compensation for work and the creation of more jobs and benefits, but also on the level of a more fundamental restructuring of our economic life in ways that encourage a new orientation toward nature, animals, and our fellow human beings. This new orientation must reflect a cooperative and conscious effort to increase our capacities as beings who are loving, conscious, creative, and capable of caring for others. This message needs to be fought for in the councils and general assemblies of the Occupy movement, in the labor movement, and in all the other manifestations of socially transformative consciousness that are emerging in 2012—and then brought to our city councils and state legislatures, and to national politics.

Eliminating poverty and overcoming the huge inequities in the class structure would be a tremendous accomplishment and enough for one generation. But to succeed in doing this or in building a movement that represents a large enough majority of the 99 percent to effectively counter the massive economic, political, military/police, and media forces of the 1 percent, we must simultaneously and with great psychological sophistication address the spiritual crisis that capitalism generates. People with incomes of $80,000 to $350,000 a year, most of whom are still in the 99 percent, may have material needs that are unmet, but the level of that economic deprivation is not always so oppressive as to define their consciousness. For many of these people in the middle and upper-middle classes of society (not yet the 1 percent), it is the spiritual crisis that is precisely what unites their fate with that of many poorer people who suffer both economically and from the spiritual hollowness and love deprivation inherent in the capitalist order.

As Tikkun author Harriet Fraad put it to me, the occupiers, at least in New York City, show a profound spiritual care for people in their insistence on democracy and respect for all who come. That insistence is not merely economic; it is ultimately respectful of the joint humanity of all. At Occupy Wall Street in New York, violence was resoundingly rejected, even though it was routinely provoked by police. Anyone who said or did anything hateful or violent was surrounded and slowly pushed to the margins and spoken to about the rules of that inclusive yet nonviolent space. The task for those interested in engaging in tikkun (healing and transformation) is to make explicit the underlying values reflected in the actions of Occupy Wall Street, to insist upon them in all the groups that call themselves Occupy, and to apply those values in every aspect of our economic and political lives together.

Occupy Boston

Credit: Robert Kendall.

This is the key to changing the United States and any other advanced industrial society: speaking to the tremendous yearning people have to live in a society in which they can find work that has transcendent meaning and higher purpose; manifest their loving capacities; experience love and care from those around them; and feel deeply respected and treasured for who they are as human beings, as embodiments of the sacred. In such a society, the earth, animals, and all aspects of the miraculous planet on which we live are treasured and experienced in their fullest dimensions of being. A transformative movement without this central element will eventually fail, even in its more limited goal to eliminate poverty and create economic justice for all.

Recognizing the sacred in the other also requires an important amendment to the consciousness of the 99 percent: the ability to see the humanity of the 1 percent, as well. True enough, many one percenters have done little to support the needs of the majority. Imagine how it would be if the one percenters used their power to help move the society in a more just direction. So much could be possible if they stopped focusing so much on maintaining their economic and political advantages. But even though the one percenters have the same yearnings as the rest of us for a world of love and generosity, they are even more deeply sunk into cynicism about the possibility of achieving such a world. They are buffeted in their cynicism by the many advantages they gain by having huge resources and power at their disposal and living in a society that honors and cherishes them for having that money and power. We at Tikkun can never feel fully comfortable with a movement that does not insist on the humanity of those who are engaged at this time in oppressive institutions and practices, even while struggling with all our loving energies against those institutions and practices and powerfully criticizing the actions and ideas of those who support the status quo.

Cynicism brings us to the heart of the problem of class-based society. We live in a world where there would be enough for all if global resources were fairly redistributed, but class hierarchies prevent that from happening. These hierarchies are maintained through a pervasive fear of the other—a certainty that the other would take advantage of us if we were to trust and share. The fear of the other, and the certainty that others’ narrow view of their own self-interest will triumph over their own need for a life oriented toward meaning and love, lead many of us to embrace the various materialistic compensations that are offered by capitalist society. These compensations, in turn, can momentarily distract us from the deeper spiritual depression we feel as that cynicism begins to shape our view of life and human nature. As Tikkun Editor-at-Large Peter Gabel has pointed out, it is this understanding that could form the foundation for a new post-Marxist spiritual Left. Such a movement would be based on addressing our collective yearning for mutual recognition and love, for generosity and mutual caring, and for a sense of transcendent meaning and purpose. It would help people see that their frustrations and isolation are not a product of some fixed human nature but of a capitalist system that induces them to disbelieve in the capacity of others to act from a generous and loving consciousness. If the Occupy movement could embrace this insight and make it central to its public discourse, it would become the vanguard of a revolutionary transformation in the consciousness of American society.

After participating in Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland, Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives urge the larger Occupy movement to adopt the following guidelines for any group that wishes to identify as “Occupy”:

  1. Make nonviolence mandatory. No group should be part of this movement and allow what Occupy Oakland calls “a diversity of tactics,” which permits a small group of self-described anarchists (probably some of whom are actually police, FBI, or agents provocateurs paid by the Department of Homeland Security) to attach themselves to Occupy demonstrations and then proceed to smash windows of stores, burn the U.S. flag as happened in Oakland in January 2012, or seek to provoke police violence. Such a turn of events inevitably results in the fear and injury of people who thought they were coming to a nonviolent demonstration for social justice. No matter how much people agree with the goals of Occupy, widespread support for the movement will dramatically decrease unless Occupy disassociates from groups that engage in property destruction and street battles with the police.
  2. Create a more democratic process so that the vast majority of the 99 percent, who cannot attend daily decision-making “general assemblies” because they work all day (and sometimes two shifts) and have families, can still be involved in shaping the direction of the movement. Electronic town-hall meetings and computer voting should make this possible. And put more energy into activities in which the 99 percent can participate, like shifting their checking and savings accounts to credit unions, installing solar panels on their homes and workplaces, boycotting (and getting their religious, civic, educational, and state government institutions to boycott) businesses and credit card companies that are socially and environmentally irresponsible, and making and backing candidates who will fight for policies that are pro–99 percent.

Bringing these ideas into Occupy and other emerging social change movements is the specific goal of activists in the Network of Spiritual Progressives. One person can’t do this alone—we need a group of people who share this perspective with which to plan strategies and coordinate efforts to shape contemporary movements for social transformation. Whether it’s in Occupy, the environmental movement, immigration rights, the peace movement, the human rights movement, the LGBTQ movement, the women’s movement, or the struggle for workers’ rights, you can play an important role in healing and transforming our world if you bring the Tikkun worldview to these movements. That’s why we urge you to join our Network of Spiritual Progressives and help us form a group of like-minded individuals in your area or in your workplace or profession. Or if you don’t want to join anything, please make a generous tax-deductible donation to help us keep doing this work. Donation or NSP membership gives you access to online versions of the articles from our quarterly magazine, which are only available to NSP members and subscribers. To join or donate, please visit tikkun.org/donate or call our office at 510-644-1200.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from Amazon.com and in hard copy from tikkun.org/eip. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.

Source Citation

Lerner, Michael. 2012. "Loving and Supporting Occupy." Tikkun. 27(2): 18.

tags: Activism, Editorial, Global Capitalism   
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