A festival called "Everything for Everyone," organized by activists associated with Seattle's incarnation of the Occupy Wall Street movement, was being held in Seattle this weekend. I decided to attend, in part because I felt it was only fair to hear these folks out at greater length.
So, I sat through two full panel discussions, one small group session, and parts of several other small group sessions. I chatted with a few folks, visited all of the information tables, and picked up copies of most of the free pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines.
I'll be reading through all of the literature a bit later, but for now the following are my reactions to what I heard in today's panels and small group sessions, in no particular order:
- Even if you're not a conspiracy theory enthusiast, you need a pretty high tolerance for conspiracy theories to hang out with this crowd. One conspiracy theory articulated by a panelist was that the Gates Foundation is seeding land in the developing world with a special substance which somehow destroys most of the minerals in the soil and renders it useless for growing anything, so as to boost profits for American agricultural corporations. Another panelist articulated the theory that our entire food and water supply is hopelessly poisoned with radioactive particles from the Japanese reactor accident, which of course they don't want you to know about (never mind the obvious fact that you don't need to be part of a government to test for something which is supposedly everywhere).
- The desired form of society amongst most of the current participants in this movement seemed to be some form of anarchism, enthusiasm for which seemed (at least to me) to far outstrip enthusiasm for communism.
- Support for armed and violent overthrow of the government runs pretty high. To pick one example, when this question was put to a four person panel, only one of the four disavowed violence: the others all said that community groups seeking societal change should be inclusive of elements supporting violence or vandalism, and (remarkably) one panelist even criticized the first panelist as basically being oppressive for his unwillingness to work with violent groups. In fairness, I should probably say that I didn't get the impression any of these violent groups actually existed, or that this amounted to anything more than one's feelings about violence in the abstract: the common thread throughout the day was that theorizing, rather than doing or even planning, is where these folks are most comfortable, and violent overthrow of the government wasn't something any of these people would do themselves - instead, it's at most something they vaguely hope someone else will do.
- There seemed to be remarkably little interest in what would happen after the overthrow of our government, and when this question was put to a panel nobody on the panel seemed to have a specific plan. One panelist even said (basically) that capitalism is so horrific that it would be just fine to overthrow the government right now without any sort of plan as to what would follow. I wish I'd asked whether any of the panelists were concerned that the flames from all our burning cities might release unacceptable amounts of greenhouse gasses.
- In an odd way, I'm not sure the location its organizers chose was the best setting for this festival. It seems to me that if you want to convince people that (despite the fact that they're almost all in good health and enjoying all the benefits of high technology) their lives are actually so horrible that they should destroy their society without any plan as to what would happen next, then a ruined building or a dark basement might be a better setting than an absolutely gorgeous and huge city park on a beautiful summer day.
- There seemed to be a baseline belief that "capitalism" is some evil outside entity which can be instantly and cleanly shut on or off, when it seems to me that to completely stamp capitalism out would require a level of government intervention into the private lives of individuals which most of the people attending this festival would probably find oppressive. Plus, the existence of that government would then presumably conflict with the anarchism goal.
- There seems to be an almost instinctual aversion to complexity in this community. By way of example, it seems to me that if you actually wanted to improve your society, the first thing you'd want to do is look at what other countries have done and try to figure out whether any of their solutions would be appropriate for yours. In particular, some of the Northern European countries seem to have addressed most of the everyday things these folks claim to be concerned about. But that's exactly the kind of thing which wasn't being discussed.
- There seemed to be an almost complete state of denial as to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans absolutely and genuinely would not want what these folks claim to want. They say they hate oppression, but as far as I can tell the only way they could get what they want would be to oppress essentially everybody else. I now see this as one of their movement's biggest contradictions.
I have to say that if it came right down to it, I don't believe any of the people I met today would really randomly murder a police officer or plant a bomb in a government building: their talk of violent revolution and abolishing capitalism seemed more like a fashion statement than anything else, and I got the distinct impression most were leading reasonably comfortable lives.
But the question I wanted to answer today was whether the Occupy Wall Street movement in Seattle, like that in Oakland, had moved to such an extreme that it no longer had any hope of gaining mainstream support, and it was obvious to me that the answer to that question is "yes."
In light of this, all of the 99% and 1% signs have started to seem a bit ironic to me: the original (and I think reasonable) idea behind Occupy Wall Street was to represent the 99% of the population negatively affected by a financial industry which seemed to enjoy an inappropriate political immunity from effective regulation and oversight, but now this movement is advocating courses of action which only 1% of the population would probably agree with.