What is Realistic? Rejecting the system’s limits on the possible

I will remember that night for the rest of my life. After an early morning police raid, supporters of Occupy Oakland converged in the streets and stood up to riot police hurling tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades. Despite how grim that sounds, my experience was one of cathartic elation; of being autonomous in a group of people aware of its own power; of having the lines between what I am for and what I am against rendered so clearly.

People around the world are rejecting the perceived inevitability of capitalist states and electoral democracy, citing their own needs for autonomy and community, which are not being met. Issues of class inequality and state violence have been front page news, and the kinds of conversations that it is possible to have with people in this atmosphere seem greatly expanded. Connections are being made between issues on a large scale and the energy generated is not being neatly channeled into small reforms or manipulated by hierarchical political machines.

Often, we go through life utterly surrounded by invisible systems which limit the actions and conversations that seem possible; which make any sentiment expressed outside of them seem crazy. Moments that create a rupture in this banality by making those systems visible allow us an opportunity to inhabit space and interact with each other in radically different ways; to become aware of tensions that are ever-present but often hidden and act in ways that did not previously seem possible. At their best, the Occupy actions and other demonstrations that have escalated around the world in the last year have created spaces for people to interact with each other and articulate their desires outside of established frameworks.

Useful realism

There are also tensions that arise as part of the occupation itself which are important to explore. Central to these is the tension between the beautiful possibility of this moment and the fact that we are still living within ugly and powerful systems that have trained us to think, speak and act on their terms. Thinking about what it means to be ‘realistic’ or ‘strategic’ is one way to map this particular tension usefully.

Large systems of calcified power like states, banks and corporations are very good at finding ways to make us believe that our best interest is what drives them, or failing that, that our goals can coexist harmoniously with theirs. They do this by shaping the conversations we have about what is necessary, possible and desirable; by encouraging us to abandon desires they cannot assimilate and by offering the promise of comfort, safety, and convenience in return

Appealing to realism is a tactic often used by these systems to convince people that their aspirations are too large. Any good idea or analysis that condemns systems of power or would require a radical shift in the status quo can be discredited easily as unrealistic by those who lack imagination. In this context, it is tempting to reject the concept of realism altogether; to believe that the audacity of demanding everything from our lives and nothing from established power negates any kind of rationality.

In fact, ‘being realistic’ is useful as a way of analyzing tactics and situations in light of a particular set of goals and desires. If we articulate our desires using only the narrow language of the system, “I want to make more money”, then being realistic can only include finding ways to make the system work better for us. If our goals are understood to be more expansive, “I want to be able to meet my physical and emotional needs”, then realistic options include subverting the logic of the system itself.

As the Occupy movement has gained momentum, some have claimed that the only way to be effective is with a centralized organization that can efficiently negotiate with power; they argue that having a specific set of reforms and charismatic leaders is the only realistic strategy for success.

I disagree with this analysis. The danger of making specific political demands is the danger of taking the energy of the moment and bending it to the service of something too small. The reason that the Occupy/Decolonize demonstrations have felt powerful to me is because they are leaderless and because they have not been interested in making specific demands. What is being rejected around the world is not just a tax system but the tenets of global capitalism itself and the particular brand of representative democracy that has helped it to become ascendant; not one incident of police brutality, but the presumption that a militarized police force is necessary in order to have communities that function.

Believing that the vast majority of people in our society are dissatisfied with the world that capitalism and state power has created is realistic to me but thinking that these people will be able to rally behind a single set of demands that is remotely powerful or interesting, does not. I am not particularly interested in finding ways to make small reforms in the systems that oppress us. I would rather use my energy to nurture communities that reject reformism and aren’t easily co-opted by established systems of power. For me, this means being honest about the facts on the ground and choosing tactics that allow me to keep space open where people can act on and articulate desires that are not easily absorbed by conventional political narratives.

Daring to frame the conversation in these terms is far more energizing than borrowing the limited language those in power have given us to express ourselves. In this context creating more spaces where power is decentralized and people are able to act autonomously is a worthwhile political end in itself. If our desires are grand and beautiful, then what is useful is having ways to assess risk and make informed decisions in specific situations without compromising them. This involves being honest about our emotional and intellectual reactions to the world regardless of whether or not they conform to the dominant social order or the opinions of our peers.

What are we doing here?

To think that an entrenched system can be brought to its knees quickly is totally realistic; the historical record is filled with moments of collapse. To assume that people who have been raised in and broken by that system are going to be able to turn on a dime and create better, more interesting alternatives without working through their shit and learning how to set boundaries and understand one another is not. Many people have been unbalanced and made crazy by this system regardless of income bracket.

Insisting that these camps are a demonstration of how we would like the world to function is beautifully poetic, but it does not take into account the fact that we have been cast into systems which are destructive and predatory. A city park in a capitalist police state is not liberated because it is occupied by people who desire liberation. A demonstration that prohibits commerce is not the same as a space outside of capitalism. A day when the police don’t show up is not the same as a world without police. The feeling of creative newness and possibility that has been experienced at various occupations should not be confused with the world we want. Confusing these things only sets folks up to burn out when they realize that utopia is not around the corner and learn how flawed even the communities planned and built with the best of intentions can be.

Being realistic about this situation means having realistic expectations of the work we would need to do to transform ourselves and each other into communities that are beautiful, strong, and allowed to thrive. This particular moment is part of a larger process that we cannot predict, let alone direct. A forest is more than a collection of trees; it is an interconnected ecosystem that will arise when the conditions are right. You cannot plant a field of forest, or design one with a city planner; all you can do is encourage new growth and try to protect it from toxic elements. Life arises abundant but we should not be confused about the nature of these glorious weeds, even as we celebrate their potential.