BY BRYAN PERKINS
Occupy Baton Rouge
“If you want to affect any real change, you have to work inside the system.”
There’s not a self-identified occupier who hasn’t heard these words or something to their effect. I would almost guarantee it.
Being one of those “occupiers”, I don’t agree with this assessment of the situation, not entirely at least. At the same time, I’m not writing this essay to argue against it. Instead, I’m writing to analyze the commonly accepted definition of “the system” and the repercussions of allowing the political establishment to control the terminology we use.
When this refrain is sung, it often falls from the mouth of Democrats who, not unlike concern trolls, claim they support the aims of the movement but are worried about the strategy of working “outside” the system. The problem arises then as to their misconception of what constitutes the system. This refrain is invariably followed by a chorus of vote, vote, vote. A chorus that reveals the depth of the singer’s political analysis.
“The system”, according to those who hum the tune thus described, only allows us to express ourselves once every three or so years–depending on the level and branch of government. The only thing we can do to affect it is to vote for a representative, is to play their game. Everything else is outside.
I think this a limited vision of the system. Our democratic process as it stands was not forged in the voting booths, it was forged by the masses in their workplaces and in the streets, forcing the establishment to pay attention to the very people our government was created to represent.
Women and blacks didn’t win suffrage by playing electoral politics, they won it by taking their bodies and voices directly to the people. Workers didn’t win a shorter workweek by electing a savior to think for them, they won it by shutting down their factories and reminding those in power who really makes this country run. We will not win our government by replacing one politician with another, we will do it by taking control of our own lives.
Throughout history, “the system” has been affected by more than the voting booth. Marches and protests do in fact constitute working within the democratic system. We can now see that the song we started this essay with is misguided, because we are already inside, we don’t have to move to get here.
That’s the very problem. We are too far inside. We were born inside. We grow up in the system’s schools. We are taught history according to the system. We are thus formed into the cogs and springs and gears that keep the system running.
If we ever want to make any useful, lasting change, we’re going to have to finally break out of the system. That won’t be an easy task.
I picture us as the first astronauts, born on Earth and told we will never be able to leave. After a long period of research and testing on Earth, we make our first forays outside of the atmosphere, outside of the system.
Ed White made the United States' first spacewalk on 3 June 1965 during the Gemini 4 mission.
The Paris Commune! Tahrir Square! Zuccotti Park!
The experiments are relatively brief, and they always end in a return to Earth as we know it, but the experiences are invaluable. We utilize decision making methods that are unheard of within the narrow confines of the system. In doing so, we accomplish feats unimaginable and convert all those who experience the wonders of outer space to a higher level of social consciousness. Through our experiences, we learn that what we once thought was impossible only needs to be attempted again and again.
So, though I agree that we must work inside the system–since that is what we have–to reclaim our democracy, we must also take the fight into our own spaces, out among the stars, where we can shape the new possible. Only then will we come to a planet on which human needs are more important than profiteering, and only then can we imagine the structural changes that will save us all.