Written By: - Date published: 3:31 pm, October 22nd, 2011 - 70 comments
Categories: activism, community democracy, democratic participation, political education, Politics - Tags: activism, democracy under attack, movements, occupations, participatory democracy
I’m not sure where the call for solidarity action on O15 came from. But from scanning through the OWS pages, it didn’t emanate from there. (How could it when no-one speaks for OWS?)
From what I can gather, the pre-planning for the occupations in New Zealand involved a not inconsiderable input by the authoritarian left, ie organisations that have hierarchical internal structures; that operate from a rather particular interpretation of history that informs and guides their agendas; and whose members adhere to prescriptive ‘solutions’ and interpretations of contemporary political events (the ‘Party Line’).
In Dunedin, the pre-planning for the occupation of the Octagon involved the input of the International Socialist Organisation. In other centres, it appears that Socialist Aotearoa were heavily involved.
The result of that particular genesis is predictable (see here) and contrary to the spirit of Occupations elsewhere.
Whereas other Occupations from across the globe espouse ideals of democracy, inclusiveness and horizontal organising, in New Zealand the occupations are heavy with the influence of hierarchy and project a degree of exclusivity.
In contrast to Occupations here, OWS is not exactly awash with the banners of organisations who would proclaim to ‘hold the key’ to the solution for the occupiers’ problems or concerns. The reason for that should is patently obvious to any critical observer. The people in Wall Street are seeking (by various means and through experimentation and revision) to formulate and develop their own democratic structures. Some hope this will empower them and enable them to forge their own future to some greater or lesser degree. In other words, the people in Wall Street are attempting to develop a movement that is predicated on ideas of substantive democracy; a democracy that allows and encourages the involvement and empowerment of individual citizens. This stands in stark contrast to the disempowering hierarchical, representative democratic structures we have become used to and that demarcate the democratic potential of liberal or traditional organisations.
It is this, and not the plethora of issues peoples’ discontents revolve around that is at the core of the Occupations. And it is this that frustrates and stymies attempts by traditionally structured organisations to either understand what is going on or to insert themselves into proceedings. The media and the authorities want a list of demands they can focus on. The organisations of the authoritarian, prescriptive left want likewise. Neither of these anti-establishment or pro-establishment camps can deal with nebulousness. They cannot understand it. They cannot engage with it and so cannot co-opt and control it. They are politically impotent in the face of ordinary people developing and exercising democratic processes that they themselves control.
Sadly, that’s all half a world and a million miles away from what has happened in New Zealand. In New Zealand, the occupations were contrived. And the structures and habits of the organisations that pre-planned the Occupations have flowed through to and infected them.
In Dunedin’s Octagon, there is no concerted effort to develop and establish resilient and inclusive democratic structures. Token gestures are made and lip service is served to democracy. There is a theatre of democracy on display. But there is no underpinning substance. It is claimed that decisions are subject to consensus, but the observed reality is that consensus is only applied where no opposition to the position held by the dominant faction within the occupation is put forward. Otherwise, questions are decided on, or sidelined via, manipulation of the inadequate decision making processes in use. Important questions or issues are not routinely explored at length and in depth in any organised fashion before a decision is called for through the ‘open mic’.
Meanwhile, practical suggestions that would promote and encourage the development of democratic procedures and practices are being deferred and/or opposed.
There are people involved in the occupation who desire the development of democratic structures and forms. Some are not very experienced and are, anyway, in a bind. Too many things have been done in a less than democratic manner and are now established fixtures of the landscape. Getting them undone is no easy task. In fact, it’s probably well nigh impossible given the situation that has now developed.
To give just one illustrative and literal example of this, (and there are many others besides) the Octagon has various banners on prominent display that, ironically, represent examples of the very organisational structures that the people of OWS and elsewhere have rejected and are forging alternatives to. (Organisational banners for the PSA, Unite, Mana, the ISO and …Save Alan Hubbard.) Some of the people occupying the space understand that these create a psychological hurdle to would be participants in their occupation and create a less than inclusive environment. The inference these banners make is that to be a part of the Occupation, you are offering de-facto tacit support or endorsement to the various positions, causes or programmes on display.
And they want them removed.
But how do people who want to act via democratic means undo something like that when (maybe half?) of those present overtly associate with, and/or endorse what the banners represent; can’t see the occupation as anything beyond an opportunity to paddle their own canoe and, quite frankly, have no interest in any developments that would, by necessity, silence their organisational voice in order that individual citizens gained theirs?
In an odd way, the position of some of the people occupying the Octagon reflects the very position that the people of OWS and elsewhere were in before they began their occupations. Before they began their Occupations, they had no real voice and, if they wanted to participate in decisions affecting their lives in any way at all, they were compelled to pick and choose between, or offer some level of support to, competing representative options that were presented to them.
People of OWS and elsewhere have walked away from that particular paradigm of agency and are forging alternatives. Occupiers of the Octagon on the other hand (and I suspect the same is true for other Occupations in New Zealand) are mired in it.
The Occupation has been occupied.
Can it be ‘un-occupied’? And if it can be, would those left – those who were genuinely concerned with matters of democracy and individual agency – would those people be willing to spend the next however long in Occupied Spaces (maybe a couple of years or more), waiting for world crises to bite hard enough on New Zealand’s middle class and deliver a potential ground swell of support?
If not, then leave it to the conspiracy theorists and the authoritarians. And know that next time around you will have a heads up on what to expect and also some ideas (which can be worked on in the interim via regular discussion, networking, workshop initiatives etc) on how to protect and nurture an environment conducive to genuine expressions of democracy and empowerment.
At the end of the day, hype can be beguiling and consuming. And it’s hard to walk away from something you have invested time, energy and emotion in. But I think people have to walk away from these so-called Occupations in New Zealand. The Occupations here are not emulating the Occupations of elsewhere and worse, are offering up a sad parody of the very political environment that others are Occupying in opposition to.
[edit: In light of many comments made and so, for the sake of clarity, this post was intended to compare and contrast only the dynamics present at the Occupation in Dunedin at the time of writing with the practices and themes of the general Occupation Movement and ought to be read in that light. It was not intended as a critique of the all the Occupations under way in New Zealand. That said, I acknowledge that an assumption on the political make up of other Occupations was stated and made.]
[Update: it appears the issue of organisational banners being hung in the Octagon, as well as other matters relating to better expressing the democratic will of the Occupiers has, or are being, addressed]