Why the Occupy Movement Represents a New Politics
"This is the start of a new politics, but obviously mere meetings and protest marches are not enough. There is nothing certain about the future, save that it is our actions that will create it and that others are already exploiting our inaction. It is no longer sufficient to appeal to government to put things right; a corrupted system will not reform itself. We must create new systems, new modes of decision-making and interaction, and new forms of economic behavior to replace the old.
Occupy Wall Street demonstrated some of the necessary elements of this new politics. Anyone who wished to participate could do so. All had a voice in decisions. These are the features of “participatory democracy,” which, when practiced more broadly, delivers outcomes unfamiliar from our own corrupted democracy: equality (because the interests of all are accounted for); transparency (and thus less corruption); and a civic culture of respect, not ugly partisanship.
This is a politics of the many for the many, rather than that of a small clique of elected representatives, co-opted by the powerful few. It requires patience and work, as the Occupiers of Zuccotti Park have learned. The consensus principle is vital, and prevents the “tyranny of the majority,” but it must (and can) be engineered to allow fast decisions and discussions of complex issues. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, mass participation in decision-making has succeeded in deliberating the affairs of a city, and the results clearly indicate more equal provision of services, better environmental protection and an improved political culture, one that is open, nonpartisan and uncorrupted.
Once decisions are made this way, they have immense force. Unlike with the distant machinations of government, all participants feel that they have been consulted. Everyone commits.
Participatory democracy should be promoted for every public setting, from our neighborhoods to our cities and counties. As turkeys will not vote for Thanksgiving, politicians are unlikely to institute such systems. Instead, we will have to set them up ourselves, starting local—our street, our building, our school—and in doing so establish legitimacy from the ground up, a legitimacy that today’s politicians evidently do not enjoy.
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The second element is equally critical: this is the politics of the personal. Our political goals must be embodied in everything we do, for this is the most direct way to produce necessary and urgent change. Despite its perpetual encouragement by over-promising politicians, the habit of asking government to produce the ends we seek is out-of-date. Given the way that Washington (and indeed London or Paris) works, there is zero chance that any politician, even one with the best intentions, will deliver a just society, where the weakest are properly cared for and where the earth that sustains us is itself sustained.
Personal action is also the most effective means of influencing others. Forget Internet petitions, tweeting, writing to your Congressman or other formats of usually fruitless complaint—what you do will have the most persuasive force in encouraging others to do the same. Think of “the wave” in a sports stadium. This is the way to change a complex, highly interconnected system, not top-down management, as network theory and social research are demonstrating. And throughout, an older maxim carries an eternal message: the means are the ends, as Gandhi taught. If you use violence, you are likely to get violence. Like his famous Salt March (or Salt Satyagraha), the ideal political protest is the one that embodies the change you wish to see. Do it yourself, and nonviolently.
Self-organized, nonviolent action by the many, consulting all those affected: some would call these methods anarchism, but if so it is a very gentle kind. In fact, these techniques amount to a politics of modernity, of complexity, a politics most appropriate to our current state. These methods also inhere in a new economics, for Marx was in this sense correct: the economics makes the politics. You cannot have a fair, cohesive or happy society when a tiny few hold the vast bulk of the wealth and where companies are legally bound to maximize profits over all else, ignoring any un-costed effects to the environment or society.
There are forms of business that in their very design make up a better politics. Cooperatives share ownership among their staff as well as agency—that sense of control and participation that contemporary society denies us. As Britain’s massive retail giant John Lewis has shown, cooperative companies can be just as successful, and can endure much longer, than the merely profit-driven. “Triple bottom line” companies give equal weight to their social and environmental impacts alongside the profit line.
Such companies can be founded. They can be competitive. And we can support them by choosing them over more negligent businesses. In the OWS Alternative Banking working group, for example, we are building the elements of a new Occupy Bank [see Carne Ross, “Revolution Through Banking?” TheNation.com, December 22], which would be democratic, transparent and egalitarian, and would offer better services than for-profit banks.
Finally, it’s not just a better political system or a better economy that the new paradigm promises; it is also a richer aesthetics, a better culture. The ghastly homogenization and banality of consumer culture undermine our experience of life (this is perhaps the reason for the weird idol worship of the aberrational design fetishist Steve Jobs). The rabbit-hutch geography of the office combines with the humiliations of corporate culture (for bosses as much as the bossed-about) to alienate and demoralize everyone concerned. How we crave escape—pharmacological, alcoholic or virtual.
The current malaise is thus existential as well as political and economic. Nonetheless, this collective crisis can be captured in one word: agency. Control. We have lost it. We need to take it back." (http://www.thenation.com/article/166122/occupy-wall-street-and-new-politics-disorderly-world)