The Occupy Movement - a revolution in our sense of self

The Occupy Movement, far from having no programme, has revolutionized our sense of self. The Citizen of the World adopts a panoramic view of society and takes the interests of others all over the world to be as important as her or his self interest.
A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before.
Jean-Francois Lyotard

Over the last four months, as the Occupy Movement has set up camp in one square, one city, one country, and one continent after another, there has been debate and discussion around ‘if’ this is a revolution; ‘if’ it is a revolution, what is it a revolution for or about? First and foremost, I assert that the Occupy Movement is a revolution in our sense of self as Citizens of the World.

Who Are You?

This question is surprisingly inflammatory. It is often responded to either as an irrelevance, an intrusion or a challenge. Yet we so often throw around assertions about self-interest, selfishness, self aggrandisement and self defence without following up the inquiry with – what ‘self’ is being defended or promoted? So let us interrogate the idea of self.
The primary view of self could be a physical view: your Self, as a framework of bones and connective tissues wandering the world in a biological mission of survival and propogation. Self defence would look like defending yourself from physical attack, and your self interest would accord with your physical needs being met – a limited, but surely rational view of self.
A second view of self is ontological: your Self as the Being in the body. The thoughts, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, loves, hates and considerations of the mind you associate with your body. What would self defence and self interest look like under those conditions? The defence of one’s views and opinions, including the promotion of one’s ideas and perspectives?
Both these views of self can ultimately extend the primary view of self beyond the physical boundaries of ‘you’. Whether through biological imperative or love, ‘you’ may see ‘self’ interest as taking an action which saves something ‘you’ identify as more important than ‘you’. Rather than overriding or superseding the self, this is simply an extension thereof. ‘You’ die and survive at the same time. For example, a mother may throw herself in front of a bullet for her child – dying herself but saving her child – if her greater self interest was in the survival of her child. A civil rights campaigner risks assassination in promoting his ideals for a fair world and is killed. He has died, but his self interest has lived on. The self in this case is extended beyond the single body considered to be ‘you.' In essence, it is, and always has been, possible for the self to be extended to encompass other people, species, and ideas. 

There is no Such Thing as Society

Whatever one’s view of self, it is not only a symptom of a social order but the cause of its persistence. Throughout ages of human civilisation from Aztecs to Incas, Romans to Neanderthals, Babylonians to the Mongols – the sense of self framed the society. A self as servant of omnipotent ‘God’, a self as pure vessel and instrument of omnipotent ‘God’, a slave or property of someone else, an owner of someone else, a happy prole, a worker, an entrepreneur. Moving up to contemporaray history, there was good reason why former British Prime Minister and free trade zealot Margaret Thatcher told Britain ‘there is no such thing as society’. To create the legislative and structural framework for the Britain she believed in, Britain needed a revolution in its sense of self. Britain in 1979, and even 1987 when she made the remark to Women’s Own magazine, was a very different place. There was an ‘entrenched’ view of society, community and duty. The self was not only one’s family, but one’s street and one’s town. Self interest was the success not only of one’s self as an individual, but the prosperity of one's family, street and town.
Individual self interest is the driving force of free market capitalism; the profit of one over another can only be validated in this way. So people not only had to shift their view of self interest to narrowly focus upon themselves, but they went a step further by believing that this, in fact, is the only and natural self interest. Stalin did this, as did Hitler, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems we have been locked since before the Enlightenment in a see-saw debate between ideologies which have individual self interest as the bedrock (libertarianism, capitalism) or the destroyer (20th century communism) of people. 

The Occupied Self as 21st Century Citizen of the World

One of the extraordinary, defining characteristics of the Occupy Movement is its refusal to define itself within the left-right/capitalist-communist narrative. Even people who identify themselves as broadly of those beliefs, do not ascribe them to the Movement itself. I assert that this is because the people moved by the Occupy Movement, moved to take action – are in a revolution of the sense of self which fits neither paradigm and makes elements of each perfectly palatable and equally unconscionable.
In the early 1990s, politics and international relations theorists started to speak of a new emerging phenomenon – the global civil society.  Globalisation in the sense of communication of ideas, pictures and experience transmitted person to person across the globe in seconds, together with globalisation in terms of physical movement and global institutions making the far away relevant and pertinent – was forming a supra state relationship between people, or a globalised civil society. Some held that this was bound up with liberal capitalist democracy. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1993) spoke of the end of history with liberal capitalist democracy as the last great idea. In fairness to Fukuyama, the concept was indeed left pretty well unchallenged for over twenty years following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. But what people like Fukuyama, Kissinger, and others missed, was the impact on the sense of self that would occur when global civil society started talking to each other.
A sense of self has developed which can be described as the self as ‘Citizen of the World.’ This is not to say that before Occupy, no one cared what was happening in other parts of the world, which would be demonstrably false. Instead, I mean that Occupy exists because the pool of people has grown who would identify themselves as citizens of the world, equate the interests of people anywhere in the world with their own, and in fact have the two in their mind as synonymous. The number of these people has not only grown, but has been able to seek, identify and communicate with each other all over the world. The Citizen of the World view of self holds both individual self interest and the rights of the other as one and sees no inherent conflict.

Being Unmessable With...

The capitalist, liberal, free trade thinkers made the GDP and global strategic position of the country synonymous with self interest and used pseudo Darwinian survivalist arguments to support it. In the same way, 20th century communism did so in negative – it made the prosperity of the nation supreme, over and above individual interests.
When individuals identify their country’s GDP and global strategic position or a notion of supreme statehood as synonymous with their self interest, they become a puppet of the powerful of their country. People find themselves justifying all sorts of things entirely inconsistent with their personal morality, in the name of that 'self interest.' For example, suicide bombers bad, drone attacks good; greed wrong, profit good; theft wrong, tax ‘avoidance’ good; benefit cheat bad, bank bailout good; Boston Tea Party good, Occupy movement bad.
When people are Citizens of the World, they cease to be so easily swayed by narrow nationalist, short term, separationist prerogatives.  They don’t see just the new school being built in their road, but the schools being blown to bits in Iraq and Afghanistan for the oil revenues to pay for it. They don’t see just the fragile continuance of the British Banking industry due to government bailout, but the resulting indenture of future generations. They see not only the growing middle class through the 20th century in their own country, but the 3 billion people starving in the world. They assess progress on a different scale – they take in the world, not simply their country or region of the world. They consider the wider view. Progress for an island at the cost of regression all around, it not true progress to the citizen of the world. Their impatience for change comes from their ownership of the world as their responsibility; their patience to stay in it for the long haul from the same place.
In economic terms, if I have five pounds and I share it with someone else, I have less money. If I give someone my love, compassion or consideration, my Self expands to include that person. I am losing nothing. I get to experience that love, compassion and consideration by giving it. Ungiven, it doesn’t exist. You can’t save, hoarde or steal love. It is only shared and experienced through transmission. The crucial aspect to the Citizen of the World view of self is that it has love at its core, not economics.

It’s Time to Get Excited

A society that is global in conscience, built on love, cooperation and equality is no longer an aspiration. It exists in 900 cities across the world. The Free University campaign headed by the Bank of Ideas in Occupy London is working to educate, inform and engage debate on issues of economics, education, work, technology, science, food production, politics and governance and all other matters for a society to function. In short, Occupy is a conversation to create a world built by Citizens of the World. This revolution in sense of self has been a long time coming, but it is here now. An alternative society is being built inside the existing one. History will look upon this as humankind's chrysalis moment – when the Citizens of the World turned a recession into a revolution, and a world based on competition and fear of the other, into one based on cooperation and love for each other as ourselves.

About the author

Kerry-anne Mendoza is a supporter of the Occupy Movement, and camps at Occupy London Finsbury Square.  She studies Politics & International Relations at the LSE and writes the Scriptonite Daily blog.  She is also a freelance management consultant.