Though it has been oddly absent from the so called mainstream media, the recent occupy wall street movement has been making big waves within the wider progressive movement. I read somewhere – although irritatingly I can’t find it now – that ‘the movement has been characterised by a coolness, even hostility towards traditional politics’.
The focus has been on another way of doing things. I read this brilliant blog recently, which did a great job of illuminating what they are trying to do at liberty plaza. It’s so good in fact, that I am going to make a lengthy block quote from it:
Living occupation is the antithesis to colonialism’s deadly occupation. Living occupation works by bringing daily life back to circumscribed spaces. More than simply putting our bodies where they don’t belong, as living occupiers we live our lives where they don’t belong. We take private space and we use it for doing everything that we do in the course of our lives: talking, reading, acting, thinking, arguing, laughing, dreaming, dancing, urinating, defecating, loving, cooking, eating, building, playing, sleeping. By giving up our private lives, we return space to the public and we make room for the possibility of a life worth living. In living occupation, not only do we do everything in public; more than that, what we do, we do together as a public.
Another very well written blog piece by Rortybomb points out that this different model is very much a conscious choice and is a definite rejection of representative democracy:
The ideology of the alter-globalization movement was contained in its practice. What seemed to outside observers like a chaotic mish-mash of messages at protests staged by Marxist groups was actually a conscious choice to allow a diversity of viewpoints to be expressed. And what seemed like a tedious attention to meeting process was the result of a commitment to direct democracy and rejection of a politics of representation in favor of a politics of participation.
This is all fine and well but it risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater in my view. Specifically, rejecting the politics of representation is fine, especially in favour of a politics of participation – a position which accords neatly with the Simpol philosophy.
However what it seems is happening in practice is a rejection of the concept of politics altogether.
Jodi Dean argues that:
Once the New Left delegitimized the old one, it made political will into an offense, a crime with all sorts of different elements:
–taking the place or speaking for another (the crime of representation);
–obscuring other crimes and harms (the crime of exclusion);
–judging, condemning, and failing to acknowledge the large terrain of complicating factors necessarily disrupting simple notions of agency (the crime of dogmatism);
–employing dangerous totalizing fantasies that posit an end of history and lead to genocidal adventurism (the crime of utopianism or, as Mark Fisher so persuasively demonstrates, of adopting a fundamentally irrational and unrealistic stance, of failing to concede to the reality of capitalism).
Doug Henwood then argues from that:
An agenda—and an organization, and some kind of leadership that could speak and be spoken to—would violate these rules. Distilling things down to a simple set of demands would be hierarchical, and commit a crime of exclusion. Having an organization with some sort of leadership would force some to speak for others, the crime of representation.
But without those things, as Jodi says, there can be no politics.
It seems then (and please forgive me for all the block quotes) that politics has indeed become a dirty word. It has become, in the minds of many, inextricably linked to the format (and failures) of representative democracy (and all the other political systems before it).
But politics is so much more than that. In spite of all the jargon that seems to fly around these days, the simplest and best definition I have yet found for politics is this, from good old wikipedia:
Politics (from Greekπολιτικός, “of, for, or relating to citizens”), is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions.
From this we can see clear as day that this ‘rejection of politics’ is in fact an act of politics!
Politics is, in this sense, something utterly unavoidable for a social species such as ours. It is the naturally self organising principle inherent to all diverse and dynamic social groups. There are of course many many models for this organisation to take place.
So returning to Rortybomb’s blog, we are looking for an organisational model that encourages participation. That model IS direct democracy and it is surely this that they are trying to create within the Occupy Wall Street movement (along with the aims set out above regarding reclaiming public space and life).
There is a problem though, in the form of policy. Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology argues that:
The notion of “policy” presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others. “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs.
Not to be rude, but this strikes me as nonsense… and a pretty central piece of nonsense at that. Borrowing again from Wikipedia:
A policy is typically described as a principle or rule to guide decisions and achieve rational outcome(s).
So in any direct democracy it should be perfectly possible for the people to decide the policy. Indeed, in an earlier blog piece, I quoted from the etymology dictionary the origins of the word democracy from the Greek for people (demos) and rule/strength (kratos).
So where has all this epic block quoting and pondering got us? Well, we have established:
- Politics is any self organising principle within a social group -and is therefore NOT a dirty word.
- Representative democracy should be replaced by direct democracy.
- Policy for that direct democracy should be decided by the people so that they can form their own agenda.
Those last three words are truly crucial for me. In spite of the great work being done by the wall street occupiers, there has to be a way forward after that. No occupation can last forever after all.
Rather than being a dirty word, politics must be seen for what it is, the only long term way forward. Rejecting it will lead to what Henwood describes as a ‘paralysis of will’ (see my previous piece Mainstream Dreaming for my thoughts on political and intellectual paralysis).
For one last quote, Henwood finishes his piece thus:
Occupiers: I love you, I’m glad you’re there, the people I talked to were inspiring—but you really have to move beyond this. Neoliberalism couldn’t ask for a less threatening kind of dissent.
This is the point where Simpol comes in. We are political. We recognise that politics is a necessary element in society and arguably the only way forward long term. We are providing a means for genuine direct democracy and the creation of an open and participative people’s agenda.
Occupy Wall Street is an brilliant social and political movement, no doubt about it. Simpol is its natural successor and the way forward to really change the world.