The following remarks are excerpted from a teach-in at Northwestern University, 2/15/12. The author is speaking on his own behalf and not as a representative of the University.
The common wisdom, handed down by venerable elders with a bemused smile and a world-weary sigh, is that young people are idealistic; that you (or we, depending on how old you think I am) want to change the world, but that we will one day “grow up,” make the wrenching transition from innocence to experience, and come to the realization that things are as they are, and that the best one can hope for is to play by the rules, tailor one’s expectations to the ugly reality of the world, and surround oneself with what joy and comfort one can muster.
This is a lie.
The world is changing. It changes every day, by pressure from above (which we call the status quo) and by pressure from below (which we call resistance, dissidence, uprising, and insurrection).
Two examples here will suffice. In Greece, the cradle of western democracy, the troika of the EU, the IMF, and the ECB have imposed yet another series of draconian austerity measures designed to protect bank profits by shredding the social protections of workers.
The austerity plans, which have been accompanied by humiliating demands for German and European supervision of Greek finances, met first with protests, and now meet with open riots. Over the weekend, Athens burned, and workers have decided that if they cannot be heard at the ballot box, they will be heard in the streets.
In Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican governors and Republican-dominated legislatures tried to ram through bills gutting the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively about their working conditions. In both cases, workers mobilized by the tens and hundreds of thousands.
In Wisconsin, after months of miltant action in the state capitol, over one million voters signed petitions calling for a recall election of Governor Scott Walker-the largest portion of a state electorate ever to petition for the recall of a governor. In Ohio, workers petitioned for a referendum on the anti-worker legislation, which was then defeated by an overwhelming majority of the state’s voters.
To this list we might add the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring (however contradictory their results), mass protests of Israeli and Palestinian youth in the streets of Tel Aviv, the Bolivarian movement in South America, the experiments with workers’ collective self-management in Argentina…
The world has entered a moment where millions of people are coming to believe that radical change is not only possible, but necessary: a moment like the great labor struggles of the 20s and 30s, which won the New Deal reforms here in the United States; a moment like the fight for civil rights in the 50s and 60s. While it is hard to predict, in any sort of programmatic way, how radical change will happen and what it will entail, I think we can say a couple of things with certainty.
First of all, radical change will come through radical democracy. The common thread running through every mass uprising on the current world stage-from Tahrir Square to Wall Street and Wisconsin-is the demand that the people themselves, all of them, be vested with control over their own political existence. This means not puppet democracy, not regime change at gunpoint or under the boots of an invading army, not corporate oligarchy masquerading as a representative republic, but real, sovereign, popular, participatory democracy.
Second, because of its thorougly democratic nature, radical change will take place on a class basis. The demand for a fair voice in democratic institutions is indissociable from the demand for policies that address the real concerns of the masses of working people: jobs, economic security, dignity in the workplace, and access to education based on the desire to learn rather than ability to pay.
These two demands-for real democracy and for an economy that serves workers-are neatly summed up in the motto of the Occupy movement: “We are the 99 percent.”
Indeed, to my mind, Occupy (whether Wall Street, Chicago, or Northwestern) has no other demands except those expressed in the very form of our organization, the general assembly: we want a public, democratic political culture in which all people can participate meaningfully, and we fight for the social and economic changes such a political culture will make possible.
We fight for our right, the right of the global 99 percent, to build a world that meets our needs.
So why do we Occupy Northwestern? More importantly, why should you? First of all, I would say, because we all Occupy Northwestern already. We are members of the community.
Moreover, for the students in attendance, you have the time, training, and resources for serious political engagement. You are preparing for positions of leadership in law, government, business, and intellectual life. You have the ability to change the world, which carries with it the responsibility to change it for the better.
Whatever issue speaks to you-peace, democracy, economic justice, the struggles against racism, sexism, and homo- and transphobia-get involved. Vote, organize, study, argue, protest, put up flyers and circulate petitions. Make demands. Occupy. Begin building a better, fairer world, rather than simply accepting the one we’ve been given. We are the 99 percent, and we can do amazing things when we stand together.
Photo: Occupy Chicago (PW/Luis Rivas)