The ideas and vision behind Occupy activism

A new startup may have a promising future as a supplement to the disorganized Occupy movement.

Linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky is on the consultative committee of the International Organisation for a Participatory Society [AP]
Linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky is on the consultative committee of the International Organisation for a Participatory Society [AP]

New York, NY – In the newsrooms, May Day promises to be a hot story, especially if Occupy Wall Street mounts its anticipated militant protests/strike and the police push back aggressively as they always tend to do. 

TV’s “action news” mantra remains: “when it leads, it bleeds”. It was police violence that initially turned a minimised story into a dominant one. Protests that had been ignored – and later ridiculed – were suddenly newsworthy when authorities validated them by cracking down. The press thrives on conflict.

Most American media localises the conflicts and downplays the global nature of this movement as well.

The problem is that these confrontations can be a sideshow, presenting the movement only in terms of protest, and disruption. So far, most of the media has missed the underlying values and vision driving these new movements for change. 

Ironic isn’t it, that the American TV networks that spend so much time and money explaining party politics have such a hard time dealing with political ideas that don’t come with party labels attached to name politicians/personalities?

Their parochialism narrows their reporting.

What’s in a reform?

Occupy’s reluctance to spit out a list of prefabricated demands reflects an understanding that our system is broken, and unable to make even the most modest of reforms. By demanding dysfunctional and unrepresentative bodies to do what they are incapable of doing only provides them with the legitimacy they lack in the public eye.

At the same time, this belief can justify a “nothing, or everything” stance that is invariably short-sighted and all too typical in these movements. It leads to attitudes that aren’t only anti reformist – but literally anti-reforms.

Reforms are helpful but more than that reforms are, in the eyes of many, essential.

Out of public view, the marches and street-fighting pose of the occupiers is not going away. But rather, it is being amplified, if not supplanted, by the efforts of more than a hundred work groups forming a kind of people’s think tank to consider a wide range of issues, ideas, proposals and alternatives. 

These are activists who want to transform the system, not just be co-opted in it. They tend to avoid knee-jerk slogans because their goal is more fundamental institutional change, not superficial reform.

This “revolution” has encouraged a serious discourse on issues as desperate as how to hold more democratic elections, or replace too big to fail banks with more publicly accountable financial institutions, ending the Federal Reserve and totally overhauling the regulators at the SEC. 

These may be reforms, true, but open the door to deeper change of a Wall Street dominated system that has so far defied even mild financial reforms.

 Fault Lines – History of an occupation

In many ways, these groups have supplanted the General Assemblies whose super democratic structures make it easy for almost anyone to “block” decisions in interminably long meetings. Consensus may be considered a great goal but is also harder to achieve than many expect – and can lead to homogeneity, not diversity.

And this ferment is not just taking place inside Occupy, but in many supportive social movements who see a need to get out – in the US at least – of the two party money-driven electoral paradigm that often forces candidates to suck up to big donors and cleave to a centrist conventional wisdom. Most are disgusted with choosing between the lesser of two evils.

Organising for change

One of the most promising initiatives in this intellectual/policy/idea realm is new and not well known yet. It’s called IOPS – the International Organisation for a Participatory Society. The word “participatory” was key in the sixties, used by SDS in the context of renewing democracy. The Occupy movement also used the phrase in its founding documents, and now IOPS is broadening its application as a principle of social transformation in the economy, social relations and politics. 

IOPS is going beyond traditional politics to promote a deeper approach to making change. It was just founded this month and says its aim is “to win a better world through flexibly exploring and advocating long term vision, building the seeds of the future in the present, empowering the lives of its members, organising in an internally classless and self-managing way, and winning improvements, now, in current society even as we constantly seek a new society for the future”.

This network is currently “interim” but already has 1,400 members from 76 countries, building towards a founding convention. One of the earliest participants of the initiative is writer-philosopher-editor Michael Albert, who I first met when he was a fiery student activist at MIT in the late 1960s. It was there he built a close life-long friendship with Noam Chomsky, who has backed Albert’s work as an editor of Z Magazine and host of ZNet. Albert’s books, which focus on going “beyond capitalism” to participatory economics and participatory society, have many readers and advocates.

Z Magazine, produced with partner Lydia Sargant quickly expanded into a vast online global network called ZNet that also runs media training institutes for students who want to sharpen their skills. For example, one of its grads, Chris Spannos, now runs, a burgeoning website monitoring the New York Times, and I am sure many are involved in IOPS.

Each one teach one

If Adbusters in Canada helped inspire Occupy Wall Street, Z Communications seeks to link the movement to a more established body of theory and practice based on the belief that veteran activists should be passing on their knowledge,  as well as learning from a new generation.

 Chomsky: “We were denied entry”

It is significant that the 80+ year-old Noam Chomsky, a Z contributor, has “rock star” status in the movement and on many campuses. Chomsky, along with veteran journalist John Pilger and others, are on the IOPS consultative committee.

I asked Albert about IOPS and he explained that “part of what will occur in IOPS is members enlarging their own awareness of options, developing their insights, etc… and communicating all this to others. But, mainly, the aim is to grow and to develop programmes of activism that are national and international, uniting and helping provide overarching aims for activists in enlarging the numbers of people who are seriously and capably involved in conceiving and seeking a new world – not just verbally, or in thought, but by projects for change as well as construction of programmes and relations among people that embody the seeds of the future in the present”.

I wondered if Albert thought global political elites would pay attention? He replied, “If you mean would existing elites see IOPS as some kind of worthy ally in enacting policies, no – not at all. IOPS will be seen as an enemy by existing elites in societies around the world because IOPS is about eliminating the conditions that make them elites.”

As I read their defining documents at the IOPS site, it was clear that it is about redefining economic, political, and social relations so that all people have control over their own lives, as well as equitable means to live them well and fully.

I wondered about IOPS programmes, and in reply, Albert suggested that “Creating a programme, in general terms, is not really all that complex. The difficulties arise in particular contexts. So, what does one want in the long term? What does one want that can sustain sufficient desire and support to be attainable in the shorter run? How do we demand and seek those short run gains in ways that add to the long run prospects?”

And he elaborated, “for example, in the fight – for peace now, for a shorter work week, for immediate economic redistribution, for different investment policies, for affirmative action, for daycare and medical care more generally, for immigrant rights, for an end to drones, for new energy policies, and on and on – how do we act so as to yield enlarged and enriched consciousness in society broadly and in activists, so that people want still more and understand the parameters of seeking it, and how do we act in ways that yield new organisation, new commitments, and new mechanisms so we do not just celebrate immediate victories and go home?”

When I asked if IOPS was modeled on other past efforts, Albert replied that IOPS arose “from a long line of activism stretching back to the new left movements of the sixties, and further still”.

Since it emerged online, I asked if it is going to only be digital or will morph into a transnational and face-to-face movement. Albert responded that “there is, now, a website – digital – making it easy to learn about IOPS, and, if interested, to join it.”

But. Albert emphasised, that “the aim is that IOPS will have face-to-face chapters in cities, and when it gets big enough, even multiple chapters in cities, which will in turn be federated into city and then national chapters, and then in turn federated into the international organisation”.

You can read more on their website, but agree or not, this is certainly an ambitious building block for what may become a new and far more focused, and, perhaps, better organised, movement that could incorporate, even go beyond Occupy Wall Street. IOPS seeks to answer that big question we have seen so many times in the media: “what do these people want?”

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs daily at His new books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a weekly radio program on Progressive Radio Network ( (Disclosure: ZNET has picked up some of my opeds.) Comments to

Follow him on Twitter: @dissectorevents

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