Is occupying the answer?

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Image by Knox O (Wasi Daniju) via Flickr

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for us, but I’ve been paying attention to the Occupy protests that have been going on in Manhattan, London and elsewhere.

There are two interesting blog posts on the topic today, one from Paul Mason at the BBC, and the other from Anthony Painter at LabourList. On the face of it, they look opposed – Mason broadly sympathetic to the protests, and Painter thinking that they are self-indulgent and irrelevant.

I think they’re both right. Paul Mason is right that the protests spring from a freezing of the political and economic systems, and Anthony Painter is right that the protests are unlikely to defrost them.

The visuals of the London rally were a directory of protest cliche – from Julian Assange to V for Vendetta masks via chucklesome placards. The interesting, underreported element was the organising method, particularly the democratic element of it, which is worth a deeper look.

Inevitably, though, an “Occupy Wall Street democracy” full of general assemblies and in-person voting works well for a small park in lower Manhattan, and less well for, say, creating an alternative to Somerset County Council or the European Central Bank.

At best, you could say that the people out on the streets of London might be the start of a broader feeling that we need to make an effort to reconstruct democracy. It should be said that their pressure of numbers was nowhere near the 6 million – 20% of Spaniards – who have participated in the 15-M movement, the 230,000 in Spain’s rightist HazteOir movement, or the 26,726 who have on average turned out at Norwich City’s Carrow Road ground for home games.

The protest are an example of the politicians’ syllogism – “something must be done, this is something, so we must do this”, but I don’t think that they are making that much of a contribution.

We do – as protestors and academics agree – need to create a 4th generation democracy (post Revolution, post universal suffrage, post welfare state) that can bring politics in line with speeding social change.

The social change requires 4th generation democracy to be open, flexible, personal, and light-footed, and much of that can be seen in the Occupy movement.

The morality of democracy, however, requires 4th generation democracy to be representative, to encompass all views, to make decisions, and to be ruled by law, and that’s where the Occupy protests don’t match up.

It feels that we’re in 1750 rather than 1776, with a lot of people working under the radar creating the foundations for a shift in politics, government and democracy. I suspect that the speed of change means that the 1776 moment will be with us a lot sooner than 2037.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

2 replies on “Is occupying the answer?”

  1. A comment under Painter’s piece rightly calls him on constructing the most enormous straw man, which he doesn’t respond to (he does, however, respond rather quickly to Billy Bragg. Go figure, which is telling in its own way).

    The point seems to be that protests alone won’t deliver the change needed, which one doesn’t need to be a post-doc at the Institute for Studies to work out. So what? If it came from anyone, it would be a relatively banal point, but coming from someone connected with the progressive policy professional community, it’s hard to read without a sense of indignation that its all juvenile, which in turn reads as a plea to leave things to the grown ups, the people who are serious.

    These people are acting; they’re not strategising, focus grouping, polling or biding time, or waiting for narratives to change or doing any of the things that policy professionals do which deliver little in terms of real concrete change. They’re trying to change the narrative itself, which used to be the task of political leaders but the politics of late neo-liberalism (one hopes) have relegated to a bygone era, just at the time when the era demands that kind of leadership. I never know whether to excoriate the generation of left politicians who have been so astonishingly rubbish at offering alternatives, or pity them because they’re so clearly prisoners of the ideological and political framework which they’re now tasked with fundamentally repudiating.

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