Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and 70 other cities

The slogan of all the 70 occupations in the US, “We are the 99%,” has received high praise because it captures the pervasive sense of how unjust our present economic system is. We have known about inequality for a long time. Now we have a vocal and passionate protest.
But the slogan also misrepresents this movement because its complaints are much more complex.
Wherever there is an encampment, there are General Assemblies where those present discuss what needs discussing at the moment. The assemblies I witnessed were exemplary in the respect with which everyone treated everyone else, for the painstaking effort to ensure that everyone was heard. Groups make a major effort to establish far-going equality. They want to function without leaders.
This is not some sort of youthful anarchism from people who have dipped into Bakunin or Kropotkin or have read some pages from Emma Goldman. The deliberative practices are based on a sophisticated explanation of the raging inequality which the occupiers deplore.
This inequality, they imply, is the result of our existing political system. Ordinary citizens do not participate in policy discussions. They pick representatives who then disappear in Washington, DC where they make laws that favor the rich. Our representatives are corrupted by large campaign donations from those with money. The present economic disparities are the result of a failed version of democracy.
It is simply not true that the occupy movements do not have any proposals. They have a very concrete proposal, to reconstruct democracy so that everyone is heard, everyone can participate, everyone gets a respectful hearing.
Now many people will say that such a project is not practical and the Occupy folks should instead work to reelect Obama. The only way to make change is though the electoral system.
But the Occupiers remind us, that electoral democracy has landed us in the mess we are in. It is our electoral democracy itself that needs changing.
Now, no one knows how to do that. But the Occupiers are trying. No one else is trying, certainly not all the liberal pundits like Bill Clinton or ex-radicals like Mark Rudd, who keep saying, in effect, our form of democracy is the only possible form of democracy. Everything else is worse. How do they know that?
It is to their great credit that the Occupiers do not believe that. They do not believe that a nominally democratic system that effectively disenfranchises most citizens and yields political power to global corporations, who do not pay taxes but massively foul the environment, is the best, let alone the only kind of democracy available.
They are working to discover better versions of democracy. They challenge us to do the same. Our leaders will not do that since they are in the pay of the corporations that like our democracymore accuratelytheir democracy--as it is.
So we will have to do that work of building a new democracy ourselves.