Occupy the City Desert?

The Occupy Movement is an international protest movement against social and economic inequality, its primary goal being to make the economic and political relations in all societies less vertically hierarchical and more flatly distributed. Local groups often have different foci, but among the movement’s prime concerns is the claim that large corporations and the global financial system control the world in a way that disproportionately benefits a minority, undermines democracy and is unstable. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_movement
“In the Desert of the Cities: Notes on the Occupy Movement in the US” (Reclamations Blog, January 27, 2012), George Caffentzis publishes a paper suggesting a comparison between the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and the activists in the Occupy Movement in the contemporary world.

“Much of the excitement of the Occupy movement was the creation of a new living topos in the center of the city that had been previously deserted and that was being used to transform the quotidian, a place that was generative of political action and at the same time a living space for hundreds in the desert of cities.

For there is an ascetic element in the Occupy movement. By facing all the weathers in the open, the occupiers showed that they were willing to suffer to say their piece to Wall Street. This aspect was especially emphasized for me in the Occupy Maine camp, where the occupiers were offered an easy out by the Portland City Council, which ordered their encampment be dismantled in late December, but the occupiers did not take the invitation and decided to fight the order in the courts and stay on in their tents in the face of a Maine winter! Whenever it rained, snowed or the temperature fell below freezing at night, I would think of my comrades in their tents and share at a distance a sense of discomfort; as if their suffering was a verification of the worth of the political message that is being expressed. Similar stories of ascetic suffering could be told of the other Occupy sites.

In a society where shoppers are crushed by their fellows in a frenzied quest for the purchase of an I-Phone, this asceticism is a potent living expression of disgust over the willingness of so many of the 99% to destroy themselves at the behest of a capitalism that is increasingly making the cities deserts of “an immense collection of commodities.” The sharing of the Occupy site is not only that of food and shelter, but of shared pain, discomfort and commitment. Sleeping in the rain and snow, finding places to wash, to urinate and defecate, dealing with frostbite (at least in the northern areas), devoting 24 hours a day to political activities marked those who stayed at the Occupy site from the ones who came intermittently during the day. The ever-renewed discomfort and commitment remained as a badge of honor and a sign of legitimacy.
This might sound strange, but all this experience was reminiscent of the ascetics of the desert, whether Hebrew, Christian or Muslim. I was especially moved to compare the occupiers with the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the fourth century, who, at the moment when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, walked out of their comfortable homes in the cities of the Nile, gave away their wealth to the poor, and started to live in the Egyptian desert, suffering much, but learning much and through their very pain cast doubt on the new turn of the faithful to state power. As Thomas Merton wrote of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the epigraph to this talk, they found in their bodily privations the solitude and self-recognition that made it possible to “to pull the whole world to safety after them,” if the world was interested in being saved!”



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