I. Why Occupy Failed
The Occupiers’ disdain* for everyday democracy brings them dangerously close to their neoliberal foes.
It was a just a year ago—on July 13, 2011—that the Canadian magazine 'Adbusters' sent the tweet that triggered the Occupy movement. “Flood into lower Manhattan,” said its editors, “and Occupy Wall Street.” Thousands responded, not just in Manhattan, but in cities around the world. By the end of 2011, Occupy was hailed as the most powerful progressive force in American politics in a generation. Today, just six months later, it is all but dead — an apparent suicide, killed by its own distaste for democratic politics.
It may seem odd to say this. The hallmark of the Occupy movement was its commitment to open, consensus-based decision-making. “This is what democracy looks like,” its supporters proclaimed. Anyone could attend one of the Occupiers’ general assemblies and block a proposed decision if they felt that it violated an ethical principle. Of course, this made it difficult for assemblies to agree on policy demands, manage life in the Occupy camps, and condemn vandalism by fringe elements. Many sympathisers quit the movement out of frustration. Some said that Occupy’s problem was actually too much democracy.
But was Occupy really what “democracy looks like”? To answer this question, we need to be clear what democratic politics is about. Certainly, a healthy democracy is one in which political power is broadly distributed. However there is more to it than that. As the political scientist Bernard Crick famously said fifty years ago, democratic politics is a way of living within a community composed of groups with differing interests and truths. To succeed, it requires a willingness to bargain and compromise. As Crick said, it often demands that we work with people who are “genuinely repulsive to us.” It compels us to accept results that fall short of our ideals but which are feasible* in practice. Democratic politics, Crick concluded, is “a messy, mundane*, inconclusive* business.”
It was this conception of democratic politics that the Occupiers rejected. The movement believed that it would be possible to achieve social transformation without really engaging with groups or individuals who had power to help or hinder its cause. One of its most prominent philosophers, David Graeber, said that the movement refused “to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions.” This was not merely a swipe* at politicians corrupted by Wall Street. It was a rejection of the entire political order, including many people who were prepared to work with Occupy because they sympathised with its goals or simply found it politically expedient*. “We don’t need politicians to build a better society,” boasted an Occupy Wall Street website.
Supporters called the Occupy model “pure democracy.” Indeed it was pure, in the sense that it reduced the need for horse-trading with adversaries and fair-weather friends. But because it was pure, it was not democracy. It was a form of utopianism that sought transformation in the established order without violence (which in any case would have been efficiently suppressed) or action through existing political structures. Some Occupiers hoped that their camps would cause change by example alone — that Americans would be inspired by this demonstration of how the “institutions of a new society” might work. But Americans did not like Occupy’s methods, even if they approved of its goals, often because these “institutions of a new society” barely worked at all.
Bernard Crick had a phrase to describe the philosophy of people who refuse to accept the complications of everyday democracy. He called it anti-politics. Neoliberals engaged in a kind of anti-politics, and so did Occupiers. Each group sought its own utopia, free from dissensus and deal-making: either the self-regulating market, or consensus-based anarchism. Neither project has come to a good end. Democratic politics may be messy and inconclusive, as Crick said. But it is still better than the alternatives.
Source: Prospect Magazine by Alasdair Roberts, June 21, 2012
* disdain - Verachtung
* to violate - übertreten, verletzen
* repulsive - abstoßend
* feasible - realisierbar, durchführbar
* mundane - banal, profan
* inconclusive - nicht eindeutig
* swipe - Schlag, Affront
* expedient - nützlich, zweckmäßig
II. Occupy: the real realists
On Prospect’s website last month Alasdair Roberts gave his interpretation as to “Why Occupy Failed.”(see above) Chief among the reasons for this failure, according to Roberts, was the movement’s anti-democratic nature. Roberts admonishes the movement for its unwillingness to compromise, suggesting that Occupy’s “disdain* for democratic politics” places the movement in the company of the very neoliberals which the movement sought to attack.
Yet, in criticising the Occupy movement for its lack of pragmatism, its unwillingness to operate through existing political structures, its refusal to “accept results that fall short” of its ideals, Roberts misunderstands the very principle on which Occupy was founded; a principle without which there would be no Occupy.
Consider the standard liberal response to the financial crisis and the ensuing austerity measures* that have emerged across the globe. This viewpoint criticises the capitalist system for its recklessness and political institutions for their carelessness. What we need, the liberals say, is some tightening of regulation for the financial sector, a little bit more money spent on welfare, strong penalties against corrupt bankers, and so on. In other words, a series of small adjustments to the system without questioning the fundamentals of the liberal democratic capitalist system itself.
The point of the Occupy movement was precisely not to engage in this standard liberal critique of contemporary capitalism. Roberts’s pragmatised version of the Occupy movement would result in nothing but a replication of this standard liberal narrative. The underlying ideological premise* in Roberts’s call for realism is that it is not possible to fundamentally change the liberal democratic capitalist system, and that all we can hope for is a small series of adjustments to that system, achieved through negotiation with existing institutions of power.
Contrary to Roberts’s claims, the Occupy movement was not utopian, precisely because they realised that it was not possible to achieve their aims through engagement with standard democratic processes. They were not utopian precisely in their refusal to believe that we have already found “the least worst system.” It is Roberts who is utopian in assuming that it would be possible to create the kind of just society to which the Occupy movement aimed through engagement with existing institutions of power.
Austerity measures are predicated on* the same kind of pragmatic language Roberts uses. It is this language of “realism” through which financial institutions continue to exert their power and influence. By employing this language Roberts reveals that it is in fact he who is in the company of the neoliberals — while they may have their disagreements, both admonish the “utopian” idea that the very framework of our society could be fundamentally altered.
From this perspective Occupy’s reluctance to engage with existing institutions of power was not a sign of the movement’s anti-democratic nature as Robert’s claims; rather, this reluctance was simply a reflection of the occupier’s willingness to be radically realistic.
Source: Prospect Magazine by Paul Walker, July 6, 2012
* disdain - Verachtung
* austerity measures - Sparmaßnahmen, strenge Auflagen
* premise - Prämisse, Voraussetzung
* to predicate on - etwas auf etw. gründen
1. What does A. Roberts criticize the Occupy movement for and say what his view is on the future of the movement?!
2. Is Roberts argumentation convincing?
3. Summarize Walker's response on Roberts' view on the Occupy movement.
4. Do you have any idea how Occupy could make radical changes to 'the liberal democratic capitalist system'? Think of aspects within our capilalist system and say what could be changed.