As someone who has witnessed the humiliations daily endured by Palestinians living decade after decade under ‘occupation’, the word occupation was for me an inalterably dirty word. I associated the practice of occupation, especially prolonged occupation of the sort that Israel has imposed on Palestine as synonymous with ‘abuse’ and ‘oppression.’ Having just completed two days of intense discussions between leading Israeli and Palestinian voices for peace at an LSE workshop presided over by Mary Kaldor and Lakhdar Brahimi, a single Archimedean point of consensus was reached: ‘End the Occupation.’ Personally, I was not so content with this outcome as it tended to narrow the Palestinian agenda to a kind of ‘land for peace’ formula, neglecting the plight, the rights, and the prospects of five million or so territorially dispossessed Palestinians living as refugees or exile, often enduring intolerable situations of vulnerability and deprivation that has continued for generations, whose persistence is incompatible with a sustainable peace or a tolerable future.
And then yesterday I visited ‘OCCUPY LONDON’ at the monumentally beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral (#OccupyLSX) in the company of some of the extraordinary young people who are making it happen, and quite possibly inventing a better future that actually seemed a present reality being enacted before my eyes. Ten days earlier I had a similar experience of exhilaration and hope after visiting Zucotti Park (#OccupyWallSt) in New York City, witnessing a seemingly chaotic array of innovative synergies finding their common ground in nonviolently opposing what seems wrong in our society, economy, and state and envisioning and insisting upon what might be better, indeed much better. And what I took away is different from what I came with: I left these convivial spaces with an experience of joyful occupation. Of course, the joyful does not cancel out the dismal with respect to occupations, but it shows us that language is alive, grows with experience, and that parallel meanings can coexist even if the realities evoke contradictory ethical and political responses.
But also I had the further awakening through a conversation in one of the hospitality tents just outside St. Paul’s with a radiant young Indian woman. She was excited by what was happening around her, but she was worried that the goals of emancipation could not be achieved without new words clearly expressive of the vision of those gathered at these occupation sites. She was particularly concerned about the use of ‘democracy,’ which she felt had been spoiled by the shallowness and unrepresentative nature of her lived experience in democratic societies, and her disillusionment with political parties, campaigns, and elections, which remain the pillars of ‘democratic’ legitimacy. Even though the activists in the tents and on the steps of the cathedral tried to make clear their commitment to revolutionary change by speaking of ‘real democracy’ as gauged by accountability, transparency, participation, equality, justice, and human security in public arenas of decisions. As we spoke I wondered to myself, ‘was she asking too much?’ And then I thought, ‘without asking for the impossible there is no prospect of achieving the possible.’
In the conversation I tried my best to be responsive, although the assignment she gave me far exceeded my capabilities. To keep the conversation I asked timidly ‘would you be more comfortable with livable politics?’ She smiled softly, obviously unconvinced, and so I tried again, ‘what about convivial politics?’ She liked this suggestion a bit better, or so it seemed, maybe appreciating my effort, but these words still did not capture for her the meaning of what she was experiencing and desiring. Even though I disappointed her, I felt that we parted as friends for life. Such is the convivial atmosphere of magnetic energy that fills these occupied spaces with a contagious immediacy of hope.
My friend, Shimri, a core participant of the London movement, a vibrant personality of proven commitment, have spent two years in Israeli jails because he refused to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, is totally preoccupied with what he labels as ‘global democracy,’ and was both my guide at London Occupy site, but also one of three lead organizers of the LSE workshops. He hopes to democratize the United Nations, while helping to light bonfires of expectation in all 900 tent cities around the world, and with his infectious energy he imparts a sense of plausibility to even the most distant horizons of desire. Shimri explains to me the process at work at St. Paul’s as total democracy: daily assembly meetings, no leaders, everyone present can veto any decision, volunteer for any task that is to done, all are entitled to speak, and a Wikipedia spirit of taking a variety of steps without any central guidance that give those participants food to eat, books to read (there is a donated lending library in one of the tents), lectures to attend. There is no hierarchy, no ego, no blueprint. It is a radical atmosphere that suggests what the inner reality of the Paris Commune might have been like, or differently, the optimism of the early counterculture in America during the 1960s. But things are different in 2011: above all, these occupations owe their very existence to the heroics of Tahrir Square, and more generally to the Arab Spring, and there is more sense of challenge associated with the failures of existing crisis managers (it happened that the disastrous G-20 meeting in Cannes was happening over this very weekend). This debt to Egypt is acknowledged in different ways in London. For instance, Shimri has a big sign in front of his tent with the words ‘Global Mubarak,’ and across from the cathedral is a London street sign that looks like the real thing, with the words ‘Tahrir Square.’ And in its way, it was the real thing. This was Tahrir Square! At least for now!
I came away with many reflections, but above all the fervent conviction that I and the rest of us would be far better off if these young people filling the squares around the world were put in charge of the future. For sure, there would be an end to war and militarism, the human footprint on the planet would be lightened, poverty would be overcome, voting would be done without taking national boundaries too seriously, accountability would be determined by a rule of law that treated equals equally. I also realized that this brave confrontation with the established order could be crushed if our current angels of entropy turned loose their legions of state troopers, recalling the bloody end of the Paris Commune or the fate of the idealistic Soviets that ironically were among the first victims of the Russian Revolution. But this look back at some crushed hopes in the past was my momentary daytime nightmare that vanished from consciousness as soon as reopened my eyes and looked around me at the bright eyes of those who were standing close by.
I will save some other commentary for a later time, and only note now that part of what was happening in these civic zones of engagement was the reinvention of the utopian imagination. If we are to find ‘solutions’ we all need quickly to liberate our imaginations from the tyranny of ‘the feasible.’ The ‘realists’ presently holding the reins of power are unknowingly inhabiting realms of fantasy while the train of history approaches a station named DOOM. The young people are awakening to this grim realization, and for this the rest of us can be thankful, and even allow ourselves to enjoy the momentary privilege of hope.