Perspective: Occupy Stanford, Occupy The Future, and Why Care?
By Chan Chi Ling, published December, 2011
For some three weeks now, Occupy Stanford has been staging walkouts and rallies as part of the broader Occupy Movement that has swept across United States since mid September. These have been poorly received by a largely lukewarm student population with whom the “We are the 99%” protestations hardly resonates, despite a very committed student-run General Assembly that is still camping 24/7 in Meyer library at the time of writing. Some have called it a hypocritical movement (“We are the 1%, for god’s sake!), others have criticized as being a reactive jumping on to the national bandwagon with no real direction, and many simply don’t really care or know what to make of it – the Stanford bubble does insulate students from the outside world to our detriment sometimes.
It is also not uncommon to overhear conversations about the movements at dining tables, which often end a dismal laugh-off, “Occupy Stanford is a joke!” And it’s in some sense true – there is no real protest in Stanford – Stanford certainly don’t share the enthusiasm of our neighbor UC Berkeley and Davis, whose student-led Occupy movements have gone so far as to ignite violent police crackdowns. But joke or no joke, protest or no protest, I think there are strong reasons for a school-wide conversation on a movement that is a symbolic expression of profound inequality that pervades American society today. Let me begin with a few observations on campus that has set me thinking over the past weeks:
“We are the 1% – why should we care?”
This is, to my mind, the most disturbingly snobbish statement I have heard around campus with reference to the Occupy movements. Sure, Stanford is a “billionaire university” and most graduates do go on to do very well, many even eventually becoming the “1%” in the economic hierarchy. But to say that this gives Stanford students a pass to ignore the problem of inequality, or that they are no in any position to make noise about it betrays a sense of arrogance and myopic indifference. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely because they are seen as the 1% that they should make a statement about the untenability of the status quo: that inequality on this works to society’s great detriment and should not be tolerated, that there are systemic flaws that has allowed corrupt corporate culture to take a strong foothold that needs to be corrected, that American government cannot yield itself to becoming a “Wall-Street government”.
The whole “percentage” metaphor that has captured public imagination has been the key way by which the movement has been framed, and if we look deeper one realizes that it is not mere rhetorical flourish. On some levels, it does capture the essence of the gross inequality that protestors are railing against today – the fact that the top 1% of the American populace possess wealth equivalent to 50% of Americans (that’s a whopping 55%) should trouble anyone with genuine concern about the health of our society and any care for the ideals on which this country was founded.
Yet ultimately, it should not matter which income percentile students come from. As much as this protest has been characterized as a class war in which the have-nots run up against the well to do, it is at its root a protest against broader, systemic failures of a system that has failed to deliver equitable outcomes to the people. Stanford students, whether they like it or not, are part of this system and there are more reasons than one to care about the future of this system.
Seen in this light, Occupy Stanford – despite largely failing to gain traction on campus – is not a mere show of solidarity of the “XX percent” of Americans; it is a movement that vocalizes and acknowledges that the economic inequality is a serious problem that cannot be underestimated. The General Assembly has not attracted a huge array of students, but it is also a reassuring sign that Stanford students are not completely enclosed within a bubble of indifference towards the tempestuous world outside.
“They don’t know what they’re protesting for!”
A common criticism about the Occupy movements – here in Stanford as in elsewhere – is the seeming lack of concrete objectives and focus. Some cities’ Occupy movements have tried to dispel the appearance of vagueness by proposing concrete lists of explicit demands – such as tax reforms for the wealthy, limits on contributions to political campaigns, abolishment of corporate personhood, while others – such as Occupy Wall Street – have no such concrete litanies. Occupy Stanford likewise seems to lack a list of specific reforms or demands.
My sense is that this “vagueness” and lack of clear direction of Occupy movements is to be expected. One reason is this: no one really knows how to fix the system. Embroiled within the protests is a complex panoply of problems, many of which are the same problems that caused the financial crisis in the first place: lax regulation of the financial industry, an amoral corporate culture that is not confined to Wall Street alone, the hijacking of public political discourses by corporate power and lobbyists. All of these are intricately intertwined so that it is almost impossible to proclaim that any litany of solutions can effectively fix such a thoroughly messed up system.
As a result, protests that have proffered specific goals often present “solutions” that create the false impression that the systemic problems plaguing America are easily solved by particular “silver bullets” (say, abolish corporate personhood!), some of which are not well-considered in the first place. The people can hardly be expected to hold the solutions to the myriad of exceedingly complex problems that continue to frustrate policymakers, puzzle academics and confuse politicians.
How, for instance, do you solve the problem of unbridled greed? It is naïve to expect that the solution can be easily summarized in a statement of demand, which I think explains why, unlike past civil rights movements where the people are rallying for clear demands such as universal suffrage and racial equality, the Occupy Movement is at best seen as one that vocalizes dissatisfaction, drawing national attention to a problem instead of a concrete demand. And that is just as important – the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that it exists and merits attention.
“Occupy The Future”: the start of a meaningful and calibrated discourse in Stanford
Occupy Stanford, despite its feeble attempts at rallying the larger student body, has at the very least proven that some Stanford students are concerned about the glaring inequalities that characterize American society. Recently, Stanford saw the emergence of a new coalition of faculty, undergraduates and graduates under the name “Occupy The Future,” which kick-started a series of events with the film-screening of Charles’ Ferguson academy award-winning documentary Inside Job, one of the most incisive analyses of the events that precipitated the 2008 subprime crisis and its aftermath.
With student and faculty essays posted daily on the Boston Review and Stanford Daily, discussions and roundtables, Occupy The Future looks like a promising movement that can hopefully inspire a school-wide conversation on the Occupy movements that have transpired and the underlying issues concerning inequality, corporate power and government. It’s a movement that rings with a sense of pragmatism, one that reminds Stanford students about the common future that has to be shaped not tomorrow, but today.
I end with a quote from Noam Chomsky’s recent article:
“…if you want to change the world you’d better try to understand it. That doesn’t mean listening to a talk or reading a book, though that’s helpful sometimes. You learn from participating. You learn from others. You learn from the people you’re trying to organize. We all have to gain the understanding and the experience to formulate and implement ideas.”
The Occupy Movement is an unprecedented opportunity to overcome America’s current hopelessness, and – even for non-American Stanford students – a great live lesson on how people can change the world for the better. It seems vague because the problem is complex and far from easy to pin down, but give it time and something constructive might just come out of it – if people care enough.
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