After facilitating at a general assembly several weeks back, one of my best friends received a message from a participant thanking him for the empowering experience. Even in the “world’s greatest democracy,” she had never felt as engaged in the democratic process. At a recent Occupy DSM statement of principles working group meeting, one member said he never dreamed of trying to solve the world’s problems. He said it partly in jest, but these anecdotes get to the heart of what I think the Occupy movement is all about: augmenting agency and correcting deep societal power imbalances.
I wonder, though…
Is it perhaps more about feeling as though we are correcting deep societal power imbalances than it is about actually correcting them? Is it more about this sense of participating in the democratic process than it is about actually participating in the democratic process? A protest movement is just a protest movement, it isn’t some microcosm of society. It’s very existence relies upon friction. It requires some imbalance, some provocation, some thing to be against just in order to survive.
This isn’t to say that there’s anything at all wrong with the aspirations of Occupy Wall Street. And yet… All this talk of democracy sounds an awful lot like romanticism to me, and I should know. I suffer frequently from bouts of romanticism.
Shawn is responding to a post from Julian Sanchez. And actually I think Julian is right on the money in his closing argument:
I’m neither cynical enough to believe that our deeply flawed democracy is a complete sham, nor optimistic enough to hope the appearance of fundamental political conflict is a stage production masking an underlying harmony. But if disagreement is real—if large numbers of my fellow citizens sincerely hold very different views about what policy is best—then protest, however vital as a consciousness raising tool, can only be a preparation for the more humdrum enterprise of convincing your neighbors with sustained arguments (or being convinced yourself), electing candidates, and all the rest. To imagine protest not as prologue to politics, but as a substitute for it, suggests a denial of the reality of pluralism, and an unwillingness to find out what democracy actually looks like.
“In the face of this reality,” Shawn writs, “the most democratic, discourse-shifting left-wing protest movement in years is now being implored to funnel all its aspirations into a moribund, perverted political process.”
I’m not so sure that Julian or anybody else is suggesting that all OWS’s aspirations ought to be funneled into the political process, but yes – this is what OWS needs to do. Unless they have guns and plan to wage an all out war to topple the current government and drag the bankers down to the guillotines, then it’s the political process or bust. For all this talk of democracy as if it’s a noun rather than a verb, without the perverted political process demands do very little good.
A conversation over economic inequality (or consumerism, Black Friday, etc.) is all well and good but it’s just a conversation. The political process may be shit but it’s also where Scott Walker was able to disenfranchise Wisconsin public sector unions. It’s where the Democrats passed Obamacare, and where previous generations enacted things like Social Security.
Protest is prelude. It’s kindling. Inevitably the honorable protesters with nothing to lose are co-opted by cynical politicos who know how to get things done. Inevitably it all becomes cheapened and dirtied by that awful, unfailingly corrupt political process. But that’s what democracy is – it’s us against them. It’s our money against their money. It’s our propaganda against their propaganda.
It isn’t about feeling democratic. It isn’t about a sense of democracy. It’s about crunching numbers. Who has more votes and who gets screwed? Who wins and who loses? Democracy is like nature. It’s lovely in theory, but once you get out into the weeds you discover the mosquitoes, the lack of running water. You notice how bloody dirty you’ve gotten and you begin to miss your bath.
In any case, I’m not really saying any of this because I think OWS is wrong-headed (or wrong-hearted rather.) But a protest isn’t ever enough. It’s not democracy. The thing that feels so wonderful, so magnificent and fulfilling, is community – it’s the sparks that ignite in your brain when like-minded people all gather together and agree with one another passionately. It’s belonging to something greater than yourself.
That’s lovely, sure, and we all need it from time to time. But democracy is about destroying our enemies through political force. It’s not about feeling anything.