Commentary — January 30, 2012, 10:35 am

Planet Occupy

Imagining an Occupied world

Nathan Schneider is a writer living in Brooklyn. His story “Some Assembly Required,” which traces the birth of Occupy Wall Street, appears in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Schneider previously blogged for Harper’s about the General Assembly process at Occupy Wall Street, and whether Occupy encampments should be covered by the First Amendment.

I recently learned about a revolutionist pamphlet published last year in Spain called La Carta de los Comunes. It begins with an intriguing conceit. Set in 2033 in a magical-realist Madrid, it tells of a population whose bodies became physically hunched over in submission to a wealthy few. At last, with their livelihoods nearly eviscerated, the people rise up and take over their city. They resurrect the medieval notion of the commons, creating a domain of shared resources apart from the market and bureaucratic oversight. They learn to stand upright again. The pamphlet then presents a Magna Carta for their new society.

I can’t resist applying a similar futurism to Occupy Wall Street, the phenomenon whose origins I describe in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s. Even the most hopeful young occupiers are starting to realize that their revolutionary dreams might take longer to achieve than a semester’s leave from school—and justly so. As I noticed during the planning process, and have continued to see in the movement thus far, even those most centrally involved are constantly discovering for themselves where it is leading.

The question of what Occupy Wall Street is really about has been notoriously thorny from the outset. The movement’s attempts to craft agreed-upon “demands” have generally fallen flat. Nevertheless, a set of quite interesting but rarely discussed texts have withstood the consensus-building process at local general assemblies. Reading them closely, and with an eye to the praxis in the occupations themselves, I see no quick-and-easy legislative, executive, or judicial patches for the problems the movement means to confront. I came to think, instead, that the movement’s lasting contribution could be something substantially more ambitious: a wholesale rethinking of political life, more akin to the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in revolutionary France than, say, the introduction of a financial-transaction tax or the revocation of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in the United States. (Unlike the Declaration of the Rights of Man, mind you, the Occupy documents rarely refer to property, law, or patriotic sentiment. They don’t even mention borders.)

It isn’t crazy to think the time has come to go back to the drawing board, politically. The constitutions of most Western nation-states were dreamed up during the late Enlightenment, long before anyone could foresee such realities as globalized mega-corporations profiting from chronic personal and national debt, Internet companies possessing more private information than the average diary, and undeclared wars being fought by drone aircraft—which have all contributed to what Occupy Wall Street describes as a “feeling of mass injustice” in its Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, approved on September 29 and now available as an attractive pamphlet. Our familiar, Lockean governments have come to seem inept, powerless to oppose the incorporeal profit machines that can, as the declaration adds, “achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.” The Declaration of the Occupation is addressed not to governments—no hope there—but rather “to the people of the world,” urging communities everywhere to “assert your power.”

“We are creating an exemplar society,” states Occupy Boston’s Declaration of Occupation. That being the case, let’s attempt some Occupy sci-fi: What would the world look like if the Occupy revolution were carried through to completion?

“No one’s human needs go unmet,” continues the Boston declaration. Planet Occupy, like last fall’s occupations, provides food and shelter for everyone, no questions asked. It also ensures health care, mutual education, childcare, legal representation, and a large, meticulously catalogued library. Sounds like a good social democracy—except that, in the words of Occupy Wall Street’s Principles of Solidarity, the basic unit of political life is not the ballot box but “autonomous political beings engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy.” Though they might be wired to the teeth, the political beings of Planet Occupy carry out their democracy face to face, in well-coordinated small groups that operate by consensus. It’s “participatory as opposed to partisan,” adds the Statement of Autonomy, suggesting that the aim on Planet Occupy is for all voices to be heard, rather than for one party to prevail over others. Those with “inherent privilege” defer whenever possible to others. The consolidation of power is discouraged, and resisted when necessary. Policing troublemakers becomes the job not of cops, but of assertive, well-trained listeners.

The movement’s documents contain fewer hints about Planet Occupy’s economy. The Principles of Solidarity calls for “redefining how labor is valued,” which may look something like the worker-owned cooperatives currently being developed at the Freedom Plaza occupation in Washington, D.C. Broadly speaking, human needs prevail over claims on profit. Companies are chartered for the public good, not private gain. Participatory democracy prevails in workplaces, neighborhoods, and other productive groupings. Many aspects of the economy—food, especially—remain local. This is necessary partly in order to preserve and sustain the natural environment. Everyone on Planet Occupy knows, after all, that if they don’t protect the planet, there will be nothing left to occupy.

Even with its inhabitants’ passion for local autonomy, though, Planet Occupy is a globalized place. People and their ideas travel freely, creating new opportunities and partnerships wherever they go. Assemblies share their plans and innovations over Interoccupy. (The movement’s conference-call network will have supplanted the original Internet, which was overrun by corporate advertising.) Following the urge in the Principles for “the broad application of open source,” all ideas are common property, and these collective resources are, according to the Statement of Autonomy, valued more highly than money—if money still exists at all. SOPA-style censorship in the name of ownership is not okay.

Also not okay is using violence to resolve conflicts. Almost every Occupy document makes some statement to this effect. Occupy Boston’s Memorandum of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples envisions “a new era of peace and cooperation that will work for everyone.” When conflict occurs, as is inevitable, people resist injustice through “non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love,” in accordance with the Principles. Every such struggle is both local and global.

Is this anarchist utopia realistic, or even desirable? It’s at least a little out there. Perhaps a lot out there. But the Declaration of the Rights of Man, drafted while Louis XVI still had his head, wasn’t easy to comprehend in its time. The circumstances of our world exceed the politics we’re used to imagining for it, and the politics that are really necessary might therefore seem impossible. “We have come to Wall Street as refugees from this native dreamland, seeking asylum in the actual,” explains “Communiqué 1,” an article in the movement journal Tidal. “We seek to rediscover and reclaim the world.”

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More from Nathan Schneider:

Personal and Otherwise August 22, 2013, 12:56 pm

Occupied by The Newsroom

On inspiring (probably, maybe) a Newsroom plot arc

Commentary April 30, 2012, 12:01 pm

Mapping Out May Day

From the February 2012 issue

Some assembly required

Witnessing the birth of Occupy Wall Street

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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