Judaism exists in a dynamic tension between the cyclical and the linear, the circle and the line. On the one hand, its agrarian nature celebrates the cycles of the seasons and the earth; just last week, Jews danced in circles at the completion of the harvest festival. On the other, Jewish monotheism arguably bequeathed to the Western world the notion that history has a direction, and that the passage of linear time has a trajectory.
In Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical and esoteric tradition, this dichotomy came to be understood as one of the fundamental push-pulls of the human condition. Sometimes a situation might need more circle, more consensus; other times, more hierarchy, more planning and projects, more concrete, linear change.
Ours is primarily a linear society which rewards building, doing, improving, and growing. It’s no surprise, then, that countercultural movements have tended to emphasize circles: consensus rather than hierarchy, egalitarianism, nuanced notions of ‘progress.’
Does this sound familiar? It should—it’s behind a lot of what observers have noticed about the Occupy movement: that there are no clear goals, no policy prescriptions, no realistic (i.e., incremental) demands. For critics, this shows why the movement is absurd; for fans, why it is revolutionary. As any Kabbalist would expect, everyone is partially wrong.
Between the Lines
First, let’s notice that the financial crisis and “Wall Street” itself are also in self-delusion. Generally, Wall Street apologists insist that boom and bust cycles are inevitable—all circle. In fact, however, the latest bust was made far, far worse by the unreasonable amounts of risk which banks and other financial institutions were allowed to take on, because of deregulation. That deregulation was the result of concerted effort—line. Wall Street says it’s just the way things are, but actually “the way things are” is a construct for which Wall Street itself is largely responsible.
In fact, Wall Street conceals its lines all the time. The “free market” is a circle myth. Markets are always shaped as much by regulation (i.e. the parameters placed upon the market by stakeholders) as by ‘natural’ forces like supply and demand. Subsidize corn, and McDonald’s (which uses tons of it) is “naturally” cheaper than health food. Subsidize kale, and it won’t be. Conservative economics is a line pretending it’s a circle.
The Occupy movement, of course, doesn’t buy it. If anything, it accuses Wall Street too much of being a line, as if it’s a huge conspiracy in charge of everything, which it isn’t. But in opposition to all things hierarchical, masculine, and mean, #occupy has gone all the way to the other extreme.
First, it has protested against any linear, hierarchical apportionment of power. At the extreme end, this leads to socialism or communism, which in theory are radical circles in which everyone should be equal. More moderately, the movement embraces local economies over global ones, taxing the rich to spread the wealth around, and a bevy of changes to our society that would make it a bit less stratified—a bit more circular.
Second, the movement has practiced what it preaches by being leaderless and consent-based. As I wrote in a previous article, I had hoped that by now, consent would’ve been reached on a few more key principles that could actually be addressed—demands that could be met. By now, however, it’s become clear that the radical amorphism is a point of pride for Occupy participants—or at least, by sufficient numbers of them to scotch anything that might look like an agenda. I doubt this will change.
A Deeper Form of Protest
Which leads me to the third and final #Occupy circular-ism, which can best be defined as spiritual. There’s an intuitive, cultural, emotive sense that another checklist of items would just perpetuate the wrong way of thinking, the wrong way of being. We don’t need another line, the protests seem to be saying. The kind of change we want is deeper. So, sorry, incrementalists like Jay Michaelson, we’re not going to get practical or endorse a political program. We’re going to do this deeper form of protest, because it’s a deeper kind of problem we’re up against.
Sometimes this last point is overt, sometimes less so. But it’s always in the air: a sense that the real change we need is deeper than reforming our linear system, and goes to the heart of that linear orientation itself.
I first want to make the somewhat obvious critique of this view, then conclude by translating it into linear terms that might make some sense.
First, the objection: this never happens. Find me one example of when a short-term protest movement led to a long-term paradigm shift. Such shifts happen gradually, over time. “Occupy” movements are for short-term change. My prediction is that Occupy Wall Street will peter out once the snow starts falling in earnest. Bloomberg et al. just have to wait. No one’s going to camp out in Zuccotti Park when it’s ten below, and very few people will march in a blizzard. These kinds of protests are effective for short-term gains, but not long-term shifts.
In this regard, comparisons to the Arab Spring are mistaken; the Arab Spring had clear demands (step down!) and focused on the key issues which united diverse constituencies (constituencies which, as in Egypt, are now busy fighting one another). Here, in contrast, there are no clear demands. And while there are some threads that unite everybody, there are also lots of split ends, digressions into issues which divide us. Working Americans are not going to cozy up to critiques of American imperialism. While the Arab Spring was focused enough (line) to galvanize huge swaths of the mainstream, the Occupy movement is too diffuse (circle) to do so.
Having lodged that objection, I now want to answer it myself. Because there is a linear argument that can be teased from the all-circular Occupy strategy, and I will state this case in the best linear terms I can find.
Let’s start with some epistemological humility. It may well be that the Occupy movement will plant some seeds of alternative ways of thinking, and those seeds may germinate into real-world consequences. I don’t mean practical, linear consequences—I mean the very sorts of deeper, spiritual changes the #Occupy community seems to be endorsing. Of course, those changes will also have “practical” results, but the results may vary. Some may vote for Obama, others for a Green party candidate. Some may start farming in their backyards, others may work for food policy reform. For a non-linear movement, this diversity in linear consequences is just fine—because the consequences are not the central point. The change in hearts and minds is.
If this is true, we may not be able to measure the effectiveness of #Occupy for years, and causal proof (i.e. linear proof) will be hard to come by.
As I’ve disclosed in my previous writings on Occupy Wall Street, I am personally quite skeptical of such change. I think #Occupy is too anti-linear for its own good, and that it should learn from the Kabbalah that balance between circle and line is important. And I think there are a lot of linear, incremental steps we as a society could take right now to close the wealth gap somewhat and make our economy fairer. I get irritated when more left-wing Occupy-ers suggest there’s no difference between the two major parties, because on these issues, there obviously is. If we still had a Democratic Congress, we’d have a much fairer tax code (plus better health care, plus a thousand other things).
But okay, that’s me. When I look at vast movements in history—fascism, socialism, American capitalism—they arise out of contexts that were, themselves, created by lots of large-scale circular movements which are impossible to trace precisely. Who knows, perhaps the collective weight of Occupy-style consciousness-raising will, one day, create the conditions necessary for the kind of changes they want. For sure, it won’t happen before snow falls on Zuccotti Park.
When that snow falls, I am sure pundits will say how the movement has failed. So let me preemptively refute them with the following Kabbalistic prediction, taking a cue from Ecclesiastes. Like water eroding a stone, non-linear change takes time. But it almost always wins.