A venerable voice addresses the Occupy Movement

Staughton Lynd wrote:

My fundamental concern is that the rhetoric of the Occupy Movement includes two propositions in tension with each other. We appear to say, on the one hand, that we must seek consensus, but on the other hand, that once a General Assembly is over individuals and grouplets are free to do their own thing.

Indeed, what purpose might a General Assembly have but to set policy for those present within or represented by the body? One need not have a principled commitment to democratic centralism to recognize that a General Assembly forms in order to make decisions that bind the members to some degree. Lynd addresses the ambiguity present therein:

A careful distinction is required. In general I endorse the idea of individuals or small groups carrying out actions that the group as a whole has not, or has not yet, endorsed. I believe that such actions are like experiments. Everyone involved, those who act and those who closely observe, learns from experiences of this kind. Indeed I have compared what happens in such episodes to the parable of the Sower in the New Testament. We are the seeds. We may be cast onto stony soil, on earth that lends itself only to thistles, or into fertile ground. Whatever our separate experiences, we must lay aside the impulse to defend our prowess as organizers and periodically pool our new knowledge, bad as well as good, so as to learn from each other and better shape a common strategy.

The danger I see is that rather than conceptualizing small group actions as a learning process, in the manner I have tried to describe, we might drift into the premature conclusion that nonviolence and consensus-seeking are for the General Assembly, but once we are out on the street sterner methods are required.

Lynd points here to the gist of one problem that addles the Occupy Movement. The Movement must remain animated by the spirit of an expansively democratic formation of a common will if it is to avoid sectarianism and purposeless violence. It must learn how to collectively learn in order to secure achievements which benefit the 99% which it wants to represent. But it will fail to achieve any goals worth having if it cannot endure as a public entity, one passionately committed to democracy and the common good. These commitments can bear fruit only when they are deeply rooted in the trust movement members have in common. Lynd concludes his essay by noting that:

A principal lesson of the 1960s is that maintenance and nurturing of that kind of trust becomes more difficult as a movement or organization grows larger. Here the Zapatistas have something to teach us. They do have a form of representative government in that delegates from different villages are elected to attend coordinating assemblies. But all governing is done within the cultural context of the ancient Mayan practice of “mandar obediciendo,” that is, governing in obedience to those who are represented. Thus, after the uprising of January 1, 1994 negotiations began with emissaries from the national government. If a question arose as to which the Zapatista delegates were not instructed, they informed their counterparts that they had to go back to the villages for direction

All this lies down the road. For the moment, let’s remind ourselves of the sentiment attributed by Charles Payne to residents working with SNCC in the Mississippi Delta half a century ago: they understood that “maintaining a sense of community was itself an act of resistance.”