The year 2011 has seen uprisings like the Arab Spring across the countries in the Middle East, the Civil Society movement against corruption in India, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States and elsewhere. These movements have captured public imagination to a point where the authorities have had to climb down, whether it be from power or from highhanded indifference. All of these movements have been grass root movements with participation by the common people. In most cases, the new media, the internet with its digital social media and news television, have been successful in getting the masses to share information and organize themselves.
Question. What is it that has shaken people out of their stupor and out into the streets to protest against the three most powerful institutions - governance (state), financial institutions (banking) and law enforcement (defence)? What is motivating people to take on forces for whom it has become normal to crush dissidence at its first appearance? During the Anna Hazare movement, several thousands of common people across the nation from all walks of life showed up and stood up to be counted in spite of the risk of police action. The people that I know who were part of this movement are people who would normally avoid any kind of confrontation at any other time. Why did they decide to invest their time, risk their welfare and take to the streets?
It is a classic case of many things at the same time. A classic case of governments and private corporations trying to fool all the people all of the time. A classic case of an a-ha moment as people realize they cannot question corporate greed without addressing personal greed. A classic case of people realizing that public policies were borrowing too dangerously from a future that might not even exist. And finally, a classic case of betrayal, as institutions such as trust, faith, generosity, compassion, leadership, and commitment have started being exposed as bankrupt, a reflection of the overall bankruptcy of our times. These movements are proof that even when society has been riddled through with corruption and contempt, it is possible for spiritual values of fairness and justice to emerge, thrive, and overcome all obstacles.
Another question. Why do the demands of the protesters look so outrageous, not only to the bodies that are being challenged, but even to the lay observer? In India, ministers and public servants have scoffed at the concept of a body where people can complain against corrupt practices by law enforcement officials. Some of the audio material in the public domain have a minister calling it laughable and unlikely to ever happen. The Occupy Wall Street movement is still in a formative stage, with the generalized disenchantment of the people gradually morphing into a cohesive set of demands. The core demand of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that the government do something to end the marriage between big business money and governmental actions and policies.
I believe that we, as individuals, are part of a larger organism. You can call it society, you can call it humanity, or you can call it the universal consciousness, but the fact remains that we are driven to do things, and to act out in ways that are not entirely explicable. Most of the philosophies that have originated in the Indian subcontinent do not dwell a lot on why things are the way they are in the field of morality and values. They build upwards on the premise that there is an ethical construct that is innate and in no need of deconstruction, and focus instead on how to put that construct into practice. The laws of karma or the laws of compensation are immutable and universal. The turmoil that we are seeing in the world is the result of uncontrolled endorsement of values that are fundamentally detrimental to the welfare of human beings, even though they do not appear so on the surface. The economic trends of the last century have redefined the true meaning of words like wealth, value, development, profit and prosperity.
Wealth creation is possible only through leveraging the need of people to compete for providing services at cheaper rates than their neighbor. That is how the global economy has emerged, capitalizing on economic disparity to create a profit advantage where none existed otherwise. Development is another area that has attracted unimaginable violation of human rights, not only of the present generation of humans but even those who are yet to be born. The larger organism that we are part of is plagued today by this imbalance, this hypocrisy, this tendency to self destruct. What we are seeing is the survival instinct that we are all born with. The guys in their sleeping bags at Zucotti Park are not out there hoping for a magical improvement in their personal situation in the next few years. Most of the people protesting against the lack of will among Indian political parties to introduce anti-corruption legislation had little clue about the nitty gritty of the Lokpal Bill, but were there out of their generalized anger at the way the system refused to do what it was expected to. What drove them to expect a change was the inequity that we as a society have built into our selves.
The reason that these movements look so absurd is precisely because in our minds, they are interpreted as just that - absurd. Regressive. Unreasonable. Where do these responses, and trust me, they are absolutely valid and natural responses, come from? They come from conditioning. We have conditioned ourselves to be indifferent to what our heart and our spirits need to feel joy and contentment, and instead listen to the messages sent out by the gears of commerce (and war) that tell us that we cannot be happy unless we have the latest, the lavishest and the largest. If the demands being voiced by the people today are regressive and unreasonable, so be it. If they can bring back happiness, contentment and equal access to natural and economic resources, they are worthy of being demanded.
“Being unhappy and discontent is completely reasonable within our society. We see it every day. Being reasonable means lowering your standards. Being reasonable means doing what everyone else expects you to do. Being reasonable means living an average life. But I’d rather be extraordinarily unreasonable and content and happy. I’d rather live a meaningful, albeit unreasonable, life. Get unreasonable and everything is possible. Forget about being reasonable—being reasonable got me into the pile of shit you are in now.” - From the Minimalists