I took part in an arts conference on Monday (more about that in my next blog). In a discussion I moderated on art and civic engagement, speakers had a lot to say about pursuing social change by engaging people in community life and democratic discourse via music, media, dance, drama, and other types of art. An audience member rose to ask the speakers what all of this was in aid of. She wanted to know whether we were in pursuit of the same goals: everyone wanted change, to be sure, but precisely what change?
I consider it a sign of sanity that none of us recited a manifesto or tried to get others to pledge allegiance to a 10-point program. I paraphrased my favorite philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, who said, “Freedom is freedom, not equality or fairness or justice or human happiness or a quiet conscience,” pointing out that wherever in history liberty has been reduced to freedom to pursue approved aims, what is at first seen as liberation quickly becomes oppression.
When the questioner persisted, a single word popped into my mind: decolonization.
It came to me then that the Occupy movement is an anti-colonial movement at its core, and that the mounting crackdown is typical of colonizers who fear being ejected from power. As I watched brutal police actions trained against non-violent protesters’ civil disobedience in Oakland, the resemblance to anti-colonial movements in the developing world was inescapable. (The Occupy movement needs to learn something essential from those movements about race and gender, though. Keep reading to find out.)
Colonization is a holographic process: no matter which way you slice the body politic, the same information appears: government is in thrall to multinational corporate agendas; they have cannibalized the economy to feed themselves; social institutions are distorted and the public sector weakened by privatization regardless of social cost; communities and families hear the pervasive message that their sufferings are merely private troubles, not the result of these public issues; and even our own imaginations are stunted by limitations on social and personal possibility these conditions create.
That is why no articulation of specific policy demands can suffice. The Occupy movement is a refusal to submit, the first step toward decolonization. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, but by decolonization, I mean this:
I want my country to throw off colonization by big corporations and their operatives in government, as early American colonists did, and as colonized people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America broke the control of the British, French, and other European empires. I want self-determination to release the grip of forces that are bankrupting the country financially, environmentally, and morally. Markets can be powerful forces for social good; every human community needs private enterprise. But when markets are dominated by commercial superpowers driven only by the short-term bottom line, social good doesn’t come into the equation.
In The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli advised that it is better to have colonies than fortresses:
A prince does not spend much on colonies, for with little or no expense he can send them out and keep them there, and he offends a minority only of the citizens from whom he takes lands and houses to give them to the new inhabitants; and those whom he offends, remaining poor and scattered, are never able to injure him; whilst the rest being uninjured are easily kept quiet, and at the same time are anxious not to err for fear it should happen to them as it has to those who have been despoiled.
If the shoe pinches, step out of it.
I want us to decolonize public space, stemming the commercialization of absolutely everything that has proceeded from the corporate colonization of America. That means revising our understanding of culture, acknowledging its true value as the matrix, the crucible, in which democratic civil society is forged. To balance private interests, we need ample protected public space in the media for noncommercial discourse, analogous to public parks. We need a public sector that pursues the public interest without big corporations’ thumb on the scale, which means taking money completely out of the electoral process: true democratic dialogue without lobbyists and paid advertising. We need a cultural and legal shift that overturns the fiction that corporations are persons with all the attendant rights, instead regulating them with transparency and fairness.
I want each and every one of us to decolonize our own minds, cultivating awareness of the ways we have been persuaded to carry self-harming messages that magnify colonizers’ ability to exert control. What do we believe that makes us smaller and less free than we are? What do we believe that makes the colonial powers trying to dominate our nation larger and more powerful than they are? How are we giving our individual and collective agency away to those who wish to colonize our minds?
There is a rich literature of decolonization that treats precisely these questions. You can find brief introductions to some of them in my book New Creative Community: the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who came to consciousness of his revolutionary ideas while practicing in Algeria during its struggle for independence from France; or the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and Senegalese writer and president Leopold Senghor, who promoted the concept of “negritude,” so influential in African liberation movements and post-colonial culture.
For me, the Brazilian educator Paul Freire’s ideas are extremely powerful. I’ll quote my own explanation of one of his core concepts, conscientization, achieving critical consciousness:
Conscientization means breaking through prevailing mythologies to reach new levels of awareness—in particular, awareness of oppression, having been an “object” of others’ will rather than a self-determining “subject.” The process of conscientization involves identifying contradictions in experience through dialogue, thereby becoming part of the process of changing the world.
It’s no accident that Freire, Fanon, Césaire, and Senghor were people of color, writing from situations of racial, as well as cultural, political, and economic colonization. With few exceptions, colonial history is the story of white colonizers claiming divine right to dominion over those considered less human than themselves. The Tea Party movement is a kind of populism, despite its being significantly underwritten by a few zillionaires with patently self-serving agendas; but it’s also a racist movement, animated by feelings of entitlement to privilege and scapegoating of those who claim equality. What about the Occupy movement? So far, it has failed to call attention to the way race and gender create differential suffering in a society that is unequal as well as inequitable. There is also a deeper discourse of occupation, grounded in the fact that from Wall Street to Oakland, the land demonstrators are now occupying was once held in love and trust by the indigenous people rooted there, driven off by earlier occupiers of another stripe. If this movement is to hold the moral high ground as an anti-colonial movement, that has to change.
The contradictions Freire wrote about couldn’t be much clearer than they are right now. Each of us has the capacity to see them, to foreclose their mortgage on our mental real estate, to evict them from our minds. In the end, that is the power that can save us.
Seen as anticolonialism, the Occupy movement has moral force, a clear focus on the misdeeds of the colonizers, and the heart-opening will to persist. I am excited to imagine this organic movement learning and growing as its members take part in what can be seen as a vast teach-in on what decolonization means in 2011.
From Leonard Cohen’s great live 2009 concert film, “Democracy” goes out to Occupy everywhere.
It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.