Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Time to Occupy Ourselves Elsewhere

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It’s taken a few days before I could write about Occupy Toronto. Obviously, once I set Kerfuffle in the G20, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about protests, their genesis, justifications and efficacies. You can't write such a novel without challenging your own politics, so I’ve been very curious about what kinds of parallels and contradictions would develop between the two events. While political pundits far wiser than I have already analyzed that six ways to Sunday, I offer my own writerly rant here. Please remember it comes from a lifelong lefty feminist with a B.A. in Social History, one who put in time on picket lines and demonstrations. Maybe I’m getting old and crusty. Maybe I'm getting older and smarter. Up to you.

First, to all the participants of Occupy Toronto, thank you. If I could stand for more than ten minutes and walk for more than a block, I’d march and stand with you. The twenty-something me absolutely would have done so. I admire the will to act, accept both the urgency and the frustration. I’d never deny the value of sit-ins and occupations as one strategy of the anti-war movement and the struggle for civil rights. So I’d like to be able to call Occupy another new day dawning. But in Canada, I can’t.

Nobody likes a wet blanket, particularly when they’re camping, but I’ll throw mine on the Occupy fire anyway—I’ve seen it all before. The idealism. The hopefulness. The naievity. The waste. To be as blunt as possible: history and personal experience both tell me that Occupy is doomed to failure as long as its only tactic is occupation, as long as its only platform is one of leaderless consensus. To make real change, it will have to step up to the hard-slogging responsibility of activism in daily life.

Let me explain. We have to separate the phenomenon of Arab Spring, mass outpourings of the populace that can, and hopefully will, bring down repressive regimes, from what is realistic here in First World Canada. Let’s play Canadian “what if?” What if 100% of our 99% poured into the street with its plethora of non-prioritized, varied, and often contradictory, “issues” that they refuse to call demands? Would Stephen Harper resign? Is a call for his resignation even one of Occupy’s “issues?” Not yet. There's a very tenuous “consensus” for “a government that represents the majority and addresses the growing gap between rich and poor.” I bet that makes Harper shake in his Gucci boots--with laughter. Were every park in Canada occupied, the Conservative Party is not about to bite the hand of the corporate Canada that feeds them.

And what if Harper is forced to resign? With whom, and with what, would Occupy replace him? More to the point, how long does Occupy expect the 99% to stand around in the rain while we all go back to square one and get a slow education waiting for each protestor to individually figure it out? When I hear Occupiers say, “We will succeed because we are leaderless, because we’re horizontal not hierarchal,” it breaks my heart. It’s just too much déjà vu for me.

I’m sorry, but we've tried this start-from-scratch, holistic consensus-building stuff twice already. Students tried it in the 60's. I tried it in the 80's. It was called the Women’s Movement. We thought we were building the new world order. I personally remember saying that “by eradicating the patriarchal constructs of leadership and hierarchy, we could produce a newly representative democracy.” Let’s be clear, we thought we were the greatest thing since unsliced, organic, whole grain bread. We honestly saw ourselves as the true future bakery; we believed our methods would feed the masses.

What happened instead? In the broadest of generalities, two things. One was a flash in the political pan. Scores of intelligent people spent too much time on what they were against to know what they were for, spread themselves too thin being anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-cause-of-the-month, trying to be all things to all injustices, and for the women's movement, while also being inclusive, accommodating and unfailingly self-critical, that human energy inevitably fizzled. Only those groups that developed political clarity, that developed direction, focus, goals, and a specific project or practice, kept fighting. Then we ran out of time. We grew up. We had to go back to work, back to diapering our newborns and working a double day. It is no surprise that of the some 2500 who marched on Saturday, most went home afterwards. It is equally no surprise that the majority of the some 100 campers are young people.

Please don’t mistake me for a right-wing cynic; I believe change is both necessary and possible but I’m battle hardened. It is precisely because time is running out that we have to be smarter that I was when I was young. The Occupy movement needs to stop reinventing the wheel, to become students of history and ask what has worked in the past. Because there is an answer: Alliances. Organized groups allied with other organized groups. Groups that seek consensus and then act on it. Groups that aren’t grandstanding tourists, but that work to develop leaders from within. Groups that accept the victories of limited gains and go out and make them. Organizations that join hands. I trust that many who protested on Saturday are doing all of the above already and I sincerely thank them for it.

Because anybody who thinks they’re going to defeat global capitalism with a few hundred folks finger-waving in the rain is just plain silly. Anybody who thinks they can defeat the slick, well-organized, well-financed and globally inter-connected machine of corporate Canada by horizontal anarchy is a fool. The pervasive ideology of First World capitalism, to borrow from Ernest Hemmingway, is a moveable feast, one highly adroit at ensuring that just enough of us are fed just enough, just enough of the time. It’s plastic enough to prevent revolution and ensures its own longevity by doing exactly that.

So beyond important symbolic value and media attention, occupying a park accomplishes nothing. And worse — here’s where I get crusty— if that’s all you’re doing, it’s just plain lazy. It passes the buck. It’s passive, anti-intellectual, arrogant, immature and irresponsible. Camping out in a park is petite bourgeois life-stylism at its ultra-left best. Who do you expect to do the hard work of making change while you’re lying about in a tent?

What would I argue for instead? What I’ve always argued. As my WWII veteran uncle who hated poppies often said, “I didn’t risk my life so you could wear a poppy once a year. I fought so you could keep fighting every day of every year.”

As I’m struggling to convey in my novel, when my characters try to decide what part to play in the G20 protests, the truly committed aren’t tourists. They don’t just take a camping vacation from daily life to make a political point. After the protest, they continue to make it in daily life. They work to transform their families, their neighbourhoods, their workplaces, their art, their unions and their places of faith. They join organizations that try to build democracy or if they find none to their liking, they found new ones. As Trotsky said to foreigners who came to Russia in hopes of aiding the revolution, “Go home. Make change in your own country.”

Unless you believe the overthrow of capitalism is imminent, in today’s Canada, that means on-going daily choices to support grass-roots organizations, to join them, to enter politics, to join the NDP or the Green Party and to fight from within to transform it, to build it into what its leaders claim it to be: inclusive, democratic, and representing that 99%. It means fighting to get such a party elected and stay elected and fight within it to ensure it stays true to our Canadian Tommy Douglas roots, to the eloquent intellectual compassion of Stephen Douglas and the hopeful vision of Jack Layton.

So to all the Occupiers, thank you for the kerfuffle. Thank you for connecting Canada to a global protest and for making a most urgent point for all of us. Now please get out of the rain before you catch your death of cold. You’re no good to anybody with pneumonia. And there’s lots of real work to do.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’d like to be wrong. I’d like to believe that Saturday was Day One of the Canadian revolution that will blaze into Fenelon Falls by Remembrance Day and reach Irondale by Christmas. If that happens I’ll eat crow and say thank god, or I would if I believed in her.

1 comment

As a Canadian living abroad at the moment, I have been following the Occupy movement in the US and Canada with great interest and frankly, admiration.

The lack of responses and comments to this searing piece by Dorothy is almost evidence in itself of Dorothy's main contention, that in today's Canada, the Occupy movement is likely to be a "flash in the pan" and fizzle out. There is no mass support. There appears not to be a sufficient depth of public anger and indignation that will spark wider change.

Is the Occupy movement "doomed to failure"? Yes, if it does not evolve. Are the strategies of developing alliances, articulating clear demands, developing effective leadership necessary for success. Absolutely.

Should all the protestors go home before they catch cold? Well, clearly it is up to them to decide what they want to do, but I for one would not be discouraging them.

The Occupy movement, for all its inherent faults and weaknesses, is worthy of support. It has spread to many cities, to different continents. It has raised critical consciousness, essential for any wider movement. It has started to change the debate and focus attention on corporate dominance and influence over "democratic" politics. They are inspiring others, including myself, to be a stronger activist, in my own way. And, they may indeed evolve and develop new strategies and leadership in a highly social networked world.

The protestors may be naive about the strategies for change but they certainly are not naive about the major political issues to be addressed compared to many of us. And while the small numbers of activists may have much to learn, the most effective way to learn is perhaps not only by reviewing the lessons of past movements, but through direct experience in collective action.

Yes, by all means, lets also work with and through existing progressive institutions (such as they are) or create new vehicles for change, but I do not think the Occupy movement is detracting from this. Instead, I see evidence of renewed dynamism and spirit being sparked through what Occupy is doing.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page