Occupy and the democratic tradition
It’s been a hell of a year for democracy. From Tahrir square to Wall Street, the call for democratic change has reverberated loudly around the world. In the Middle East, people continue to struggle for democratic breakthroughs in the face of sometimes severe repression, encouraged by the toppling of authoritarian rulers across the region. In the West, there’s growing discontent with corporate control of the political system and radical austerity agendas.
In America and other Western countries, the Occupy movement is a symbol of that growing discontent. Defining the movement is difficult – it varies in each country, after all – but there is a common thread: the act of occupation.
Occupation and public space
Why was occupation the required starting point? It’s ironic that Zuccoti Park, the privately owned park in Manhattan, was formerly named “Liberty Plaza.” In 2006, it was renamed after John Zuccoti, a former New York City civil servant and current chair of the private firm Brookfield Estates. The renaming is symbolically significant – it testifies to the widespread shrinking of public space.
By occupying the park, the protesters were able to create a semi-permanent space for discussion, debate, and democratic practice. The occupation consciously echoed the efforts of participants in the Arab Spring – notably the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt, the focal point for the efforts to overthrow Mubarak’s ossified regime.
Long-term occupation, it seems, is an antidote to the transience of protest marches and demonstrations.
Protest marches do play an important role in raising awareness, bringing people together, and fostering democratic principles of self-organization and active political participation. But they are here-today-and-gone-tomorrow and fail to provide a lasting forum for direct democracy.
In the Occupy movements, the “general assembly” addresses this need. This body acts as the democratic basis for decisions taken by the occupy movement. On a daily basis, meetings are held in which all participants have the right to shape the agenda and express their opinions of the issues at hand. It creates the conditions for legitimate decision-making, in which collective interests are fairly expressed.
The general assembly is a counter-weight to the isolation that many ordinary people feel from the political process in the West. Historically, the general assembly model has been used by a diverse set of organizations, ranging from trade unions to church associations. Forums like these have been key to the project of freedom and autonomy in Western civilization, perhaps most notably in 6th century BC Athens, where the democratic project first took root. Here the agora functioned as an open place of assembly where people could exchange ideas and discuss the issues of the day. It was fundamental to the maintenance of an informed citizenry, who were able to participate in the Athenian Assembly and voice their opinions directly.
Where is the modern day agora in the West? We have to look pretty hard to find it. Today, fewer and fewer public spaces are amenable to interaction and discussion. Imagine attempting to gather hundreds of people in the local Starbucks to hold a general assembly on political issues. The expectation – ignoring the plausibility of the owners allowing such an event – would be that the participants continually buy coffee or other services, sort of like paying for admission to the assembly.
In North America, shopping malls are designed to simulate the experience of a public meeting place, with seating, open courtyards, and even neo-classical fountains. But this is a deception. The type of activity allowed within the mall is not freely shaped by public interests, but limited by the discretion of private owners. Anti-corporate gatherings at the mall are not looked upon kindly for obvious reasons, and burly men in uniforms are hired to prevent these types of occurrences Business trumps democracy every time.
Historically, universities played an important role as sites for debate, discussion, and political opposition – think of the Sorbonne during the 1968 Paris. But universities are increasingly unable to perform this function. Corporate-sponsored research agendas increasingly prescribe the kind of knowledge production happening in academic institutions, while student codes of conduct tie the hands of would-be activists. In addition, prohibitive fees and crippling debt burdens deter more and more young people from entry in the first place.
With public libraries and community centres targeted for closure in cost-saving drives, it seems all public spaces are under threat. But what’s all the fuss about? Don’t we already have democracy in the West?
Thinking about democracy
Modern representative government was designed as a limited form of democracy. In America, the founding fathers were keen to impose property qualifications as a requirement for those seeking office. But they soon realized there was no need: the cost of running an election campaign across large areas ensured that only wealthy individuals, or candidates with wealthy backers, would stand a realistic chance. They could rest easy: elite rule wouldn’t be in danger.
No fan of democracy, Aristotle was nonetheless quick to point out elections as an aristocratic method for selecting governments. The most distinguished and elevated from the citizenry, “the best,” would be most likely to command the consent of voters. Lot, the practice of drawing contending candidates at random (no longer in use today), was considered a more democratic method. In more recent history, Jean-Jacques Rousseau viewed the English government of the 18th Century, with periodic elections, as a “form of slavery punctuated by moments of liberty.”
Even the idea of citizenship in modern liberal societies is extremely diluted: classical political theorists gave detailed accounts of the nature of citizenship and related duties. In modern liberal thought, freedom tends to be associated with owning property rather than with consistent, active citizenship. The classical Republican idea of the citizen takes a back seat and begins to disappear from thought, leaving us with property owners consenting to be governed by their elected representatives.
And this takes us back to the crisis: the American dream of owning property has been shattered by an economic system that no longer distributes wealth widely enough to allow popular enfranchisement through owning property. The enormous increase in concentrated corporate power and the armies of professional lobbyists promoting business agendas make a mockery of equal representation for all citizens. This has increased the need to find other alternatives; rediscovering direct democracy is one.
Government of experts
Unfortunately, those in power have different ideas. Their solution is to put their faith in the same bankers and economists who presided over the financial crisis.
The term technocrat is thrown around a lot in the media at the moment, referring specifically to the new leaders put in place in Greece and Italy. Mario Monti, an economist who’s also worked for Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs, is now in charge in Italy. In Greece, new premier Lucas Papademos’ resumé includes central banker and member of the shadowy Trilateral Commission.
At a time of economic crisis, governments are turning to financial “experts” in order to steady the ship. But is a leadership of appointed experts democratic? Economics is about power; it’s a fundamentally social question regarding who gets what. Why should these decisions be given over to unaccountable experts who did nothing to prevent this crisis from occurring in the first place, rather than to the people who will feel the consequences? Having already devastated the chicken coop, these foxes are being welcomed back in.
Rule-by-experts is not in the spirit of democracy. It’s actually based upon the opposite principle, that people are unable to rule themselves and should defer to those who have elite, specialized knowledge and training. The will of the people is being steamrollered beneath the dictates of the European elites. The foolish idea for a referendum on the austerity packages in Greece effectively ended Papandreou’s rule. The bitter pill of austerity is being forced down the throats of a public whose consent is rarely sought.
By claiming space, the occupiers are recreating the public and with it the foundations for a genuinely democratic alternative to existing society. Lets hope that they can keep themselves occupied over the cold winter months ahead.