The Occupiers' disdain for everyday democracy brings them dangerously close to their neoliberal foes.by Alasdair Roberts / June 21, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…