For a long time, political demonstrations have been highly impersonal affairs. Almost as sterile and almost as impersonal in fact, as going to a mainstream church on Sunday. In both settings, people join a group of strangers who allegedly believe in the same thing, observe a ritual – march here, chant this – and then after a perfunctory gesture of kinship they go home, strangers as before.
The form of the Occupy protests has been strikingly different. Occupy treats as its first task the creation of kinship and community among its participants. This is a necessary first step, and one that runs counter to the market mentality’s most successful achievement – which has been the alienation of people from one another, so that they can be treated as interchangeable and disposable economic units. In contrast, Occupy has set out first and foremost to create a community where people do interact, and show respect for each other.
To that end, instead of marching in file to some pre-arranged destination, Occupy assemblies take a circular form. Within the circle, the technique of the ‘ human microphone” can at first seem like an awkward way to communicate. (With the human microphone, who-ever is speaking to the assembly has their phrases repeated back to them by the group. Here is film director Michael Moore communicating via human microphone to the Occupy Wall St. protest.)
There are multiple advantages with this technique. One, it is genuinely democratic. (Opportunities to respond and endorse or reject proposals are built into the procedure.) Also, the crowd is not as likely to become a passive receptacle for charismatic orators or single issue obsessives. Speeches are reduced to short, informational phrases. Goodwill and good humour are fostered, and repressed anger is less likely to be unleashed on the wrong targets, which has been a turnoff feature of traditional liberal left political meetings. In this and other respects, the Occupy movement offers a powerful rebuke to the way in which Parliament routinely conducts its business.
Sure, if this was all that the Occupy movement amounted to, it could just as well be a school camp in the woods. Obviously, there’s an added political dimension to Occupy. Before getting onto what the items on that agenda may be, the most important statement is the one that Occupy has already made : namely, it has rendered the resistance to the market mentality visible. It has taken opposition to the inhumanity of capitalism out of the realm of private grumbling and put it out there in public. By standing up to be counted, the Occupy protesters have already made the status quo defend itself – and in time, the authorities may well go on the attack and try to drive the Occupy people back into invisibility. Yet for now, at least some of the 99 % are being seen, and heard, and more are joining. That is a major achievement in itself.
But what do they want ? That’s the demand being made – usually, with the added requirement that the evils of the market mentality be pinpointed and a remedy provided within the usual dumbed-down boundaries of the media’s 30-second soundbites. There’s an even more profound misconception at work here. Almost certainly, things have passed the point where the Occupy protest is going to produce a tidy list of demands, deliver them to the gates of Parliament, trust the politicians and their corporate chums to respond positively, and go home.
The system failed that test of trust quite some time ago. This is not about delivering a petition to those in power and leaving them to pick and choose what they enact, if anything. Occupy is a request for direct engagement by the public in the solutions. Right now, the real shortfall in credible solutions exists within Parliament, and not at the Occupy sites. Parliament is living in denial, and asking the public to do the same. For that reason, MPs need to do a lot more than use the Occupy protests for a photo opportunity during this election campaign, and then drive off.
As usual, it was the comedians rather than the political commentators who first grasped the de-centralised nature of the Occupy protests. Weeks ago, the Onion satirical newspaper carried the headline “Nation Waiting For Protesters To Clearly Articulate Demands Before Ignoring Them” and went on :
Americans are eagerly awaiting a list of demands from the group so they can then systematically disregard them and continue going about their business, polls showed this week. “The protesters need to unify around a shared agenda with precise policy goals so I can begin paying no attention to them whatsoever,” said Tulsa, Oklahoma poll respondent Kaye Petrachonis, echoing the thoughts of millions across the country. “If they don’t have a clear power structure organized around specific demands first, then I’ll never be able to completely tune them out due to a political conflict of interest or an inability to comprehend complex, detailed economic concepts. These people really need to get their act together.”
For that reason, the Occupy protests around the world are not – as yet – ticking off a numbered agenda of demands. A spectrum of issues is being raised though, and it is not hard for anyone to see the common themes. IMO, that agenda appears to begin with a rejection of the politics (and economics) of greed – and of the income inequality this creates, with all the attendant diseases of poverty and crime that result from unequal access to resources and to opportunity. These elements appear to be among the things that the Occupy movement wants to change. It isn’t hard for anyone of good will to know where to start.
How specific do the policies really need to be to turn the current range of social evils around? Not much. However, the financial analyst Bernard Hickey (who doesn’t exactly fit the media stereotype of the dreadlocked Occupy protester) has come up with some policy suggestions that would go a long way to meeting the apparent goals of the Occupy movement. Hickey’s suggested list of policy changes include :
1 A land tax to rectify the transfer of wealth to the landed generation and make our budget more sustainable.
2 Reversing the tax cuts for the highest income-earners, which are not working to boost economic growth and are being paid for by foreign borrowing.
3 Joining the European push for a global Financial Transactions Tax to forcibly reverse the financialisation of the economy.
4 Avoiding taxpayer bailouts of our biggest banks. The Reserve Bank’s Open Bank Resolution proposal is heading in the right direction.
5 Extending the retirement age to 67 over time.
6 Our banks further reducing their reliance on foreign bank funding that can freeze in a crisis.
7 Pulling out of free trade talks with the United States, which is an enemy of free trade and bankrupt politically and financially.
8 Balancing our budget as quickly as possible to reduce the burden of debt on future generations.
9 Reducing consumption of imports, and saving, producing and exporting more…
That would seem to be enough for anyone to go on with, for now. The next test will come when the local government authorities currently housing the Occupy tent cities decide to call in the Police to move them on. So far, mayors Len Brown in Auckland and Celia Wade-Brown in Wellington have handled the Occupy protests very intelligently, and humanely. (One shudders to think what excesses would already have been committed in Auckland by the mayoralty of John Banks.) For their part, the Occupy protesters have not yet tried much in the way of overt actions (such as occupying the Stock Exchange) that would give local government a pretext for moving in and clearing out the tents. However, Wade-Brown has signalled that the Occupy tents can’t stay on council land forever.
To which one can only say – why not? The Occupy movement could be viewed as providing a new and valid part of civic life, as much as any Hyde Park corner soapbox. Whether the Occupy movement itself can – or should – settle merely for passive and symbolic forms of protest is over to the assemblies to decide. No doubt, symbolic protests in Civic Centre, or even marches to symbolic landmarks such as the Reserve Bank will try the patience of local government, in the coming weeks and months. What would be advisable is for the likes of Celia Wade- Brown and Len Brown to come down and participate in the assemblies – and engage directly with the people on site – before they take any decision to bring in the Police. That outcome would only be a confession of failure. It would also be highly cynical for the Police to wait until Rugby World Cup euphoria was over, and then move against young people in this way.
It is, after all, a sign of a mature political system that it can tolerate and even encourage visible forms of peaceful dissent. Go back to that church analogy used at the outset of this column. Dissent is not supposed to be comfortable, or excessively polite. Jesus Christ, it is worth remembering, went into the contemporary version of the Stock Exchange, and upended the tables of the moneylenders, because he was so outraged at the social harm they were doing. The test for Len Brown and Celia Wade-Brown in the coming weeks will consist in whether they choose to allow themselves to become the enforcement arm of the money lenders. Lets hope they can resist the pressure.