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Occupy Wall Street: “We Are What Democracy Looks Like!”

Given how extraordinarily successful it has been both in its own terms and in its capacity to grab the attention of the media, Occupy Wall Street has been  conveniently misunderstood by its supporters and detractors alike.  Recently,  Mayor Bloomberg  patronized it haughtily, saying “It’s fun and it’s cathartic — it’s, I don’t know, it’s entertaining to go and to blame people, but it doesn’t get better by complaining about; it doesn’t get better by disrupting commerce (and) vilifying people.”(NYTimes, November 2).

Meanwhile, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote from India (where people like capitalism just fine, he explained) in a tone of mocking disdain: “I’m willing to celebrate when the Occupiers… accomplish something more than organizing their own campsite cleanup, demonstrating their tolerance for tear gas, and distracting the conversation a little from the Tea Party.” (NYT op ed, October 31, 2011). Like Keller and Bloomberg, critics but also would-be supporters announce their comfort level with demands by  demanding that OWS reveal its “demands.” The celebrity obsessed media, used to defining movements by leadership,  search for the real  “leaders.” Friends worry the movement is good-willed but amorphous and aimless, while critics dismiss it as another eruption of hippie anarchism –complaining  kids who, standing for nothing,  want to tear down everything; or perhaps are just offering an expedient feeding trough for the homeless.

To be sure, the occupiers themselves with their multi-hued cornucopia of perspectives are a diverse lot.  As one travels  from New York to Oakland to Chicago and Atlanta, and then on to Rome and London, the encampments embrace a panoply of causes, and contain tensions and fissure the protesters themselves acknowledge and even welcome.  OWS has become a vessel  into which people pour their own fears and aspirations, but that is a strength not a weakness. You can’t build a movement on a single narrow demand, however compelling it may be. Which may be why the movement has been slow to produce a defining document that  will define it in, but at the cost of  shoving lots of things out.

That is not to say there is not a unifying theme. It’s “occupy WALL STREET” not the Times Square military recruiting station or  BP Oil Headquarters or Gracie Mansion. It’s about the MONEY stupid! The money that has put profits before people and left human values to be measured by price alone. The money that (with the complicity of the Supreme Court ) has replaced votes (one for each of us) with  dollars (one for the 99 and 99 for the one!) and thereby replaced democracy with plutocracy.

Anyone who spends a little time at Zucotti Square, however, quickly learns that those occupying Wall Street share more than the unifying conviction that money has undone the social compact; they share something even more precious: a belief that what democracy really is cannot be defined by how it is being practiced today. If the occupiers do not have demands, they have an agenda;  if they lack a palpable politics, they exemplify a powerful process that speaks to their principles.

To understand what’s going on, look at what OWS is, not what it does. Start by taking seriously the ubiquitous signs asking “What does democracy look like?” and answering “WE are what democracy looks like!”  Look at the process, which is a bold attempt to embody an alternative paradigm of participatory engagement , one that offers an alternative to big league moneyball democracy.

What the process offers is a compelling rejection of that  instrumentalism so beloved of American politicians — you know, ‘ the end justifies the means’ so President Obama just has to raise funds from big-time bundlers and lobbyists despite his pledge not to do so, because how else can he get reelected? Or the hypocrites who temporize: “Yes, off-shore drilling does risk cataclysmic environmental disaster,” but go on to explain how “we need the jobs and besides it means independence from foreign oil!”  It is crass instrumentalism of this kind that turns the protesters  against not only Wall Street and capitalism, but against politics as usual and the righteousness of politicians on both sides of the aisle who piously insist they are different, when they aren’t.

The protesters’ principles are then in their processes, and the processes are quite remarkable, not only for the contrast they offer to how we normally conduct business, but for how well they actually work.  The key process requires that all decisions, whether about tactics or money expended or principles or changes in structure be submitted to the General Assembly that convenes almost every day and is the source of the movements’  “general will” and hence its legitimacy. The G.A s process is maddingly open and transparent, and must deal with the inconvenience of a changing constituency, since all are welcome at assemblies and the crowd can change from night to night.

Moreover, and here is the both the glory and the peril of the process, decisions are taken by consensus. Not majority, not two thirds or three quarters, but consensus. Consensus that must be realized In an evolving constituency in successive meetings where full legitimacy comes only after every amendment is considered, every point of process and every concern is put “on stack” and aired; and where — most tellingly — every voice has to be heard, including those of participants so offended by a proposal that they respond with a “block” — signified by arms crossed in an X. Blocks must be registered, responded to and overcome (or not), if consensus is to prevail.

There is a mechanism that allows a 90% supermajority to overrule a block (or blocks), but it is rarely used. When the GA wanted to send $20,000 to Oakland to help bail out abused and arrested protesters there, what could have been a 20 minute meeting lasted for over two hours so that blocks could be removed by persuasion and amendments incorporated into  the motion.  And when a 95% supermajority was finally invoked last week to install a “spokes council” system that allows the GA to decentralize some of its less important and more technical questions to caucuses and committees (“spokes” in a wheel), it was only after several meetings over a full week that allowed extensive time and voice to a handful of objectors (in the end, over 300 said yes, 17 said no).

Whether taking decisions by  consensus or by a 90%- plus supermajority, the process requires patience and tolerance. And a great deal of talk. Talk and debate and deliberation.  And an extraordinary focus on understanding and addressing objections. It makes it much harder to pass (and thus to decide or do) anything, but every decision that is passed can claim a legitimacy that finds no counterpart in how we otherwise do business in the public or private spheres, often under the anything but transparent influence of covert “free market” monopolies, special interest lobbies and rivers of cash.

Gesture also plays a role in the OWS process: the block can seem rather vehement, but assent and dissent are more gentle, hands up with fingers twitching for yea, arms forward, hands down with the same twitch for nay. As if the GA were consulting aspen leaves fluttering in the wind.  Drunks, crazies and disrupters with no interest in the process (a constant threat given OWS’s diverse constituency) are dealt with gently as well: escorted off by — call them ‘crazy-whisperers’  — who exert control by suasion and kindness; or where that doesn’t work, shielded from the assembly by a shirt held up in front of their faces, and perhaps drown out if they are screaming by repeated calls for a “MIC CHECK” from the patient crowd, which outlasts the disruptor.

Cynics on the right dismiss OWS as a bunch of socialists and collectivists, but  I know of no democratic process so attuned to the autonomy and rights of individuals. Indeed, one of the serendipitous features of Gene the process in Zucotti park is the “peoples’ microphone” (megaphone ) invoked by a facilitator who calls out  “mic check “–  an innovation necessitated by the refusal of the city to allow electronic voice amplification. With crowds of several hundred or more at the GA, individual voices cannot be heard, so speakers voice their concerns in snippets that are repeated (echoed) by the  crowd at least once and sometimes twice in an expanding circule, so that the words can be heard on the periphery.

The Peoples’ Mic is a clumsy process and makes complex and nuanced speech difficult. But it has two considerable democratic virtues: it forces relatively simple, straightforward speech that enhances clarity and communication; and it requires that in dealing with naysayers and “blocks” the majority must mouth and voice the actual words of those who disagree. How better to kindle a sympathy for minority voices than for their majority opponents  to have to rehearse  their protests, word for word,  and even mimic their affect (for the peoples’  microphone does that too)? And how fitting that a movement wedded to moral protest should be attuned to protests against its own actions that come from within.

Where does such a cumbersome yet truly democratic process come from? Rousseau? Jefferson? I call it “strong democracy” in my book on participatory governance. But the correct answer is anarchism.  Anarchism!? But isn’t that radical libertarianism? The triumph of the will of the heroic egoist — Ayn Rand’s protagonists  John  Galt or Howard Roark –  over all the others?  Surely anarchism means Rand and Nietzsche and Stirner  who reject not just government and the state, but all forms of authority and insist on the absolute sovereignty of the solitary self? of what Stirner calls ‘”the ego and its own”?

Not  at Occupy Wall Street. Because what media simplifiers watching OWS miss is that although anarchism is best known as a radical individualist rejection of every form of authority,  in favor of the absolute sovereignty of the solitary self,  it  has actually more often been represented by what we might call communitarian anarchism.  The kind associated with 19th century philosophers like Pierre Proudhon and Prince Kropotkin. Proudhon raged against property as “theft” (in his What is Property), but like Kropotkin in Mutual Aid, he assailed not common concern and cooperation but hierarchy and statist authoritarianism, even when they masquerade as  “democratic.”

For communitarian anarchists like those at OWS (not that they call themselves that or necessarily know the background for what comes to them naturally), human beings are social animals that do not require a hierarchical state to practice democracy or to live under decisions and rules made by consensus. There are local processes that make “the state” unnecessary and allow neighborhood democracy to secure a common authority comprised by the full participation by all in the process.  Communitarian anarchism is what democracy looks like, and it is from communitarian anarchism that OWS’s rules and processes seem for the most part to be drawn.

OWS may be naive and exasperating in its refusal to engage in ordinary politics and its disdain for voting when so much seems to turn on who is in the White house (think Supreme Court appointments,  for example). Surely they  would do better to acknowledge that capitalism is here to stay and that there are no systemic alternatives; to recognize that the challenge is to regulate and govern the system democratically rather than to abolish it.

Yet the occupiers know and show that American resentment, right and left, runs deeper; that there is something wrong intrinsically with how America does business that has impaired its leadership globally and undermined its democracy from within. That even when it is running smoothly, the system is deeply corrupted and its democratic ways badly compromised.  Greed, narcissism, avarice, self-interest and  egoism –radical individualism run amok and market ideology turned vicious — have  so corrupted the system, that it appears to be beyond saving.

So, take note Mayor Bloomberg and BIll Keller, protesters  are not complaining or playing the blame game. They are engaging with one another to develop an alternative, a paradigm shift: self-government in place of corrupt central government,  active participation in place of the culture of complaint, responsibility in place of cynicism. It may not be possible to govern a nation of 300 million this way, but it offers a powerful  riposte to the tyranny of money over everything under which we now live.

For too long we have taken our democracy for granted, assuming that it will ramble along, with or without us, in the name of somebody’s interests and somebody else’s money. Less government will fix it. Or more government. Voting will fix it. Obama will fix it. Or Michele Bachmann will fix it.

Occupy Wall Street is having none of it. Democracy itself is in deep trouble and so America is in trouble.  But there is another way, and we are that way. Occupy Wall Street speaks as our civic conscience and asks for deep reflection about who we are; and who, with engagement and a will to act, we might become. We will ignore OWS at the peril of the liberties about which we constantly chatter even as we sell, surrender and forfeit them.

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2 comments on “Occupy Wall Street: “We Are What Democracy Looks Like!”

  1. Claire Snyder-Hall on said:

    Great articulation of the democratic elements of OWS.

  2. Great article that I’m sure I’ll be coming back to again and again.