A trade-mark phrase all across the Occupy Stuff universe is “Mic Check!”.
Shouting “Mic check” means “everybody in earshot listen up and repeat after me…”
Many items of an OWS/99% reform agenda have been hammered out in countless hours of consensus-based “General Assembly” meetings around the US and around the world. “Mic Check” is about as good a phrase as any to represent the entire, evolving OWS consensus process or practice.
This consensus process as a whole, including all its rules and variations, represents the idealistic side of OWS. It has produced many fine ideas for social, political, and economic reforms. But to balance this “mic check” consensus idealism, OWS needs a complementary, pragmatic process that we might call a “Reality Check”.
What should an OWS “reality check” process consist of?
The academic side of my nature would say that a “reality check” is about using a modern systems science approach: empirical evidence, quantitative measurement, quality control, continuous self-correction, etc. From that perspective the “reality check” process is about how OWS studies and corrects itself– how the movement observes, measures, interprets, documents, and improves itself inch by inch, day by day.
On the other hand, a more intuitive or poetic side of my nature would say that a “reality check” is all about ones instincts or “gut feelings”.
But gut feelings and scientific methods might seem at first glance to have little in common. How could both represent a coherent interpretation of “reality”?
They represent two different ways of empirically checking or verifying a particular interpretation of data. The “gut feelings” approach (gut feelings about “truth” are sometimes referred to as a “bullshit meter”) is instinctive and fast, whereas the “scientific” approach is generally more formal, standardized, and tedious.
Although a gut feeling and a scientific measurement are both empirical, the former is more subjective and less rational, while the latter is both more objective and rational. We are equally “conscious” of gut feelings and rational proofs, but we tend to feel more conscious of how we arrive at our scientific measurements and rational proofs–whereas we are often far less conscious of how we arrive at our gut feelings. Our gut feelings just arrive on the threshold of our awareness spontaneously. They are generated by various specialized parts of our brain that have evolved to rapidly respond to danger or opportunity. They do not depend on language or even on our conscious rules of logic or rational thought.
Each in its own way, both rational thought and gut feeling are subject to complex combinations of biases.
Because rational thought is represented in language, problems of language spill over into problems of thought. A given set of facts can often be woven into very different, sometimes diametrically opposed, narratives. Said another way, a given set of dots can often be connected in multiple ways that suggest different interpretations.
The biases involved in gut feelings are programmed into our nervous systems by eons of evolution and are not generally open to our casual self-examination. Science (as in evolutionary psychology) is gradually teasing out some of the common biases in our gut feelings, but what little is yet known is not yet known very widely.
Ultimately, rational analysis and gut feelings must serve as mutual cross-checks (reality checks) on one other.
But how does a reality check process relate to OWS specifically?
For example, there are numerous historical and cultural variations of the consensus process. The appropriate reality check has to do with making sure that the OWS version of consensus process actually works out well in practice. It means measuring actual facts or results (typically before and after activities, projects, or actions) and adjusting actual practices over time and across local conditions. It means continuous observation, adjustment and improvement– that is, continuously revising theory, ideology, and methods to fit the facts on the ground, not the other way around. (Note: That does not in any way mean “the ends justify the means”. )
Reality Check: what does the latest phase of the “Arab Spring”, the “Arab Autumn”, especially the Egyptian “Second Revolution” against their military establishment, mean for the OWS movement?
Gut feeling: don’t go home (leave the streets) before the revolution is really over. As soon as occupiers leave the streets the old rats start sneaking back into the halls and the seats of power.
Rational analysis: Moderate, mainstream, middle-class-leaning people are not really comfortable in the street for long. They aren’t all that comfortable with open social (class) conflict, much less civil disobedience. So the tendency may be for Occupy coalitions to weaken and unravel around effects of prolonged physical occupation and the status-quo backlash which may include police or military violence and other reprisals. The evidence seems to show that it is easier to mobilize an oppositional coalition against a corrupt and unjust status quo than to maintain a proactive coalition in support of a specific set of reforms or prescriptions.
Therefore, to maintain the broadest coalition for the longest time, OWS should limit the specific reform proposals to the lowest common denominators across 99% coalition communities. Adopt narrower ideological agenda items only if and when those opposed to them have already left the coalition, not before.
I think we should reconsider and perhaps pare down the OWS reform agenda in this light.
In my opinion, the lowest possible common denominator for OWS is opposition to political corruption. No other specific reform of social or economic injustice is possible until the general level of corruption is drastically reduced. But getting money out of politics is fairly complicated and controversial in its own right, and that may already be a bigger reform bite than a 99% coalition can chew.
GOP, Tea Party (TP), and Libertarian Party (LP) objections to campaign financing reforms, election reforms, lobbying reforms, and ethics reforms center on conflating money and speech and on an excessive and indiscriminate objection to “regulations” of any kind on any thing. That extreme ideology is unrealistic and incompatible with a 99% coalition.
Its time to concentrate on populist narratives that justify regulating political corruption as a lesser evil to rampant, unfettered corruption in and out of government. Every single law ever established, including each of the Ten Commandments, is a regulation. The GOP/TP/LP ideal of a tiny government and an unregulated free market economy is based on a premise that all market failures are caused by government regulation or interference. The reality is that unregulated markets also fail for a variety of reasons including information asymmetry (as in the principal-agent problem), game theory dilemmas, externalities, economic irrationality and behavioral idiosyncrasies; and they produce excessive concentrations of wealth and power in weak or failed states as well as in strongly regulated ones. The fact is that corruption, concentration, and abuse of power are problems that cross all public/private sector lines and all ideological lines. Limiting the corruption, concentration, and abuse of power to tolerable levels cannot be implemented simply by reducing the size of government. It requires a fair, balanced, and organic body of law, an impartial judiciary, and a strong but restrained arm of enforcement.
Furthermore, the issue of systemic political and judicial corruption is one that fully justifies the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience.
The question is not whether we should have laws/regulations or not (that was generally settled several thousand years ago despite the persistence of a cranky minority), but what those laws should be.
Ultimately I agree with FDR: economic security is just as much a basic a requirement for liberty as is the security of our property and our persons.
But for the present, it will be a miracle if we can all just agree that: