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Notes on the Occupation – Occupy Melbourne

This post is a continuation of the last one – but this time with the benefit of lived experience. Here are my thoughts on the experience so far. (For my 4,000 word defence of the movement, please click hereIgnite.)

For the purpose of ‘occupying Melbourne’ in solidarity with the global movement, I headed down to City Square in Melbourne this weekend, arriving on Saturday morning before the start of proceedings. Roughly 1000 others were present during the day, and I joined about 60 of these participants in camping the night under tarpaulins in City Square. Despite my almost complete lack of sleep, it was something special to wake up on the grounds of City Square, in the middle of the city. To see the square occupied with free spirits was an incredible sight. Someone held up a poster: “If anyone needs a sign, this is it.” I certainly hope some passersby asked themselves: “What has driven these people to do this? Should I be involved?”

As well as the engaged conversations with warm, genuine people, there was a spirit of oppositional celebration throughout the weekend that I’ll not forget any time soon. On Saturday evening the bongos, flutes, guitars, and violins kept the mood animated, although at 11pm the police asked us to quieten down, which we did (although I heard someone object: “If you’re not going to let us dream, we’re not going to let you sleep!”)

At all times, the participants were respectful, and we took meticulous care of our makeshift home, and each other. In fact, so well behaved were we that during the early evening the police were entirely absent. Perhaps they were trying to offend the aspiring revolutionaries among us! “No threat to the system here,” they seemed to be saying, a point that prompts reflection.

As I left the scene on Sunday evening, after the second General Assembly – tired but inspired – my mind was a buzzing confusion of emotions. Something amazing had taken place (is still taking place), and yet, at the same time, I felt somewhat disillusioned. Or perhaps disillusionment isn’t the right word. I’m not sure what the right word is. Let me try to explain why I am feeling torn.

First of all, I’d like to extend my sincerest congratulations to the organizers and participants of Occupy Melbourne (and it was wonderful to see some of my students down there!). Before all else, this movement is being driven by a genuine concern for the dire state of the global economy, with particular focus being given to the issues of inequality and the concentration of wealth. If the movement can bring these issues back onto the political agenda, then it would have achieved something very important. This movement is also the most spirited expression of grassroots, participatory democracy I have seen in my life, and I am proud to be involved with it.

Secondly, there was something truly inspiring about the General Assemblies. The General Assembly was held in the evening where about 300 people from all walks of life would gather around in a semi-circle and listen to speakers from the audience discuss a particular issue and then make a proposal with respect to it. People would then vote (by a show of hands) as to whether they agreed with the motion, and if there were people who strongly opposed the motion, the issue would be debated. Two or three audience members both for and against the issue would get a few minutes each to speak, and then the matter would go back to the vote. If the issue got 90% support, it would be passed. If not, the issue would get noted down for a continued discussion in a working group the next day. This is participatory democracy in action.

However, things were not all rosy. First of all, the numbers were very underwhelming. For only 1000 people to turn up to this event was a real shame, and arguably an embarrassment to a city that claims to be progressive. I acknowledge that part of the problem was that the media has barely covered the ‘occupy’ movement in the US and Australia (or anywhere, it seems). But that isn’t a complete defence. We lose our right to complain about the state of the economy (including the ecological impacts of that economy) if opportunities like this are not searched for and taken up. I understand, of course, that life is busy for almost everyone, but it should be of great concern if life leaves us with no time to be citizens. (So far as the system leaves us ‘too busy,’ its power is close to being complete).

I think the low numbers are what got me down most. It just didn’t feel as if there was a critical mass of people capable of making a real difference. Is it the case the Melbournians / Australians are generally too comfortable to engage themselves politically? I’m not sure, but I cannot think of a more likely explanation. Perhaps the movement might grow in Australia, as it has done in the US. I hope so, but time will tell. Or perhaps we will have to wait for harder times before an oppositional movement ignites here.

Another concern I had with the weekend was the dominant slogan, “We are the 99%.” In one sense, I think this slogan is a very good one, since it says that this isn’t just some radical eco-socialist movement, but a movement for the great majority of people, whether on the Left or the Right or somewhere in between or beyond. And I certainly agree that the wealth that has been concentrated into the hands of an ultra-rich 1% ought to be systematically shared for the good of all. It is abominable, for example, that the richest 1% in the US owns more than the poorest 90%. No democracy could function on these terms, or even on terms less extreme, like in Australia.

However, by creating an enemy of the 1%, I felt we were deflecting attention away from the role that we, the 99%, play in creating the growth economy. Every time we seek a pay rise, every time we invest in the hope of ‘good returns,’ every time we increase our material standard of living, we are playing a part in the growth model. I think this point is important, and it links directly back to the core concept of this website, namely, voluntary simplicity. The point I raised most regularly in the weekend was that if we are truly trying to “live in opposition,” then we must try to live as simply as possible. Otherwise we implicate ourselves in the system we are opposing. This form of opposition will not be easy; in fact, it is likely to be a lifelong struggle. But it seems to me that we must recognize that our acts of consumption propel the growth model. I feel a truly oppositional social movement must be based on lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. But I’m not convinced the occupy movement has come to this realization yet.

Furthermore, I found the practice of participatory democracy quite challenging. Having never had the privilege of being involved in this type of participatory democracy before, perhaps I had romanticised the process a little. I found myself frustrated with the process at times, and I have been in touch with the organizing committee and made some suggestions about how the process could be sharpened. I fear that if it is not sharpened, the movement is going to lose people quickly. Since we may not get too many more opportunities like this, it would be a terrible shame if this one fizzled out on account of poor processes. I find this confronting because implicit to almost everything I write is a faith in participatory democracy. But I also recognize that direct action takes practice, and I have great respect for the facilitators who were doing their best. We just need to get better at it, and fast.

Finally, I found myself a little frustrated with the movement’s lack of direction. It’s seems that every aggrieved person got to the stage and voiced his or her particular concerns, and while I am glad these people were able to voice those concerns, the Occupy Wall Street movement is fundamentally an economic critique, as the name implies, as well as a critique of the role money plays in politics. Often the General Assembly would dedicate great amounts of time discussing various tangential issues (admittedly important issues), but at the expense of any discussion of the economy. I fear that this lack of focus is going to dilute the economic critique, and thus the movement’s force.

In the end, it is still too early to know what will come of this movement. Perhaps this is just the “first wave” of movements that will intensify over coming years. Who’s to know? There is much more to say on all this, and the notes above are really just an emotional and uncertain response that will require a more nuanced statement some other time. For now, however, let me just say this: watch this space, or, better still, occupy it.

If you would like to come along to a General Assembly and see how things work, they are held in City Square at 6pm on weekdays, and 4pm on weekends. If you are not in Melbourne, search online for your city’s event.

For more information, see: http://occupymelbourne.org/

17 Responses to “Notes on the Occupation – Occupy Melbourne”

  1. Samuel,
    Thanks for this article. I went to the (very small) Canberra action, and felt similar to you about it. I think the points you raise about the movement needing to get better at participatory democracy AND having a clearer message/critique, is absolutely central. I also think your point about our role as consumers in perpetuating the growth economy is massively important but, sadly, rarely understood (or at least explicitly voiced) even amongst radical lefties, particularly of the socialist variety.
    To be honest, my feeling is that movements like this, while they certainly are useful in expressing people’s concerns, are strategically wrongheaded, given the situation we are in. Like Ted Trainer, I think the task before us (as daunting as this sounds) is to build a totally new socio-economic system. Mere reforms just can’t work. As such, activists need to be focussed most of their energies, on building elements of the new economy inside the old (i.e. the old anarchist ‘prefiguring’ idea). For a long time these efforts are likely to be small and unnoticed, but peak oil etc may give us more opportunities. The transition town’s movement is moving in this general direction, but they need to sharpen and radicalise their vision.
    See here for Trainer’s ‘transition’ strategy…which i basically agree with
    http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TheTransitionProcess.html
    Cheers

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m a big fan of Ted Trainer’s work and reviewed his most recent book on this site. I agree that ‘strategy’ is an extremely important concept in all this. We simply don’t have time and energy to waste. But I’m not so sure that this “occupy” movement is wrong-headed. Before a new economy can be built, there needs to be a critical mass of people that think a new economy needs to be built, and this type of movement has the potential to create that sentiment. Of course, if this movement “got big” and then settled for tinkering with capitalism, it will (as you and Trainer suggest) fail to do much good. But if it got big and then evolved into many Transition Initiatives, for example, then real change is possible.

    Transition is where my money is, so to speak.

  3. Miro says:

    Thank you for voicing so many important points. I do wish to raise a question regarding this paragraph: felt we were deflecting attention away from the role that we, the 99%, play in creating the growth economy. Every time we seek a pay rise, every time we invest in the hope of ‘good returns,’ every time we increase our material standard of living, we are playing a part in the growth model. I think this point is important, and it links directly back to the core concept of this website, namely, voluntary simplicity. The point I raised most regularly in the weekend was that if we are truly trying to “live in opposition,” then we must try to live as simply as possible. Otherwise we implicate ourselves in the system we are opposing. This form of opposition will not be easy; in fact, it is likely to be a lifelong struggle. But it seems to me that we must recognize that our acts of consumption propel the growth model. I feel a truly oppositional social movement must be based on lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. But I’m not convinced the occupy movement has come to this realization yet.

    The problem as I see it is a little more complex in that even if we did go down the simple living road as I am working on I still find that I am buffeted by rapidly rising prices of items such as food. Some things such as utilities and so on are hard to simplify such as gas and public transport. So eventually these cost increases do lead us to increase our prices or our wages. Unless we can hold these level it is as situation that I’m having much trouble finding a solution to.

  4. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Miro, thanks for your comment, you raise some good points. You are right, the problem is more complex and I agree that “living simply” confronts the issues you raise. I did note, however, that “this form of opposition will not be easy… [and] is likely to be lifelong struggle” and the points you raise are the kinds of things I was thinking of, among others. We are, in many ways, locked into structures that make living simply very difficult – and this is why a politics of simplicity is necessary, to unlock us from those pro-growth, consumerist structures. My point was really just that resisting consumerism is one means, and a very important means, of resisting the growth model. But thanks for clarification. It’s an issue that I intend to address at more length in the near future.

    On the role simple living can play in changing structures, see my “degrowth from the grassroots up” paper available here: http://simplicitycollective.com/voluntary-simplicity-and-the-social-reconstruction-of-law-degrowth-from-the-grassroots-up

  5. SJ says:

    With regards to the lack of focus you mentioned, amongst the protesters, I think this is natural in this case because although wealth distribution, is at the heart of current protests, there is just so much more that is directly related. Any new economy must be respectful of the environment and for many people including myself, it’s more about trying to prevent big business from trashing the planet as it is about getting a greater share for myself. A point that perhaps Trevor was trying to make. So if you have a look at who turned up in New York, there were all sorts of groups representing many ideas but in general, a common goal of getting power back with the people. Financial equity and wealth distribution, environmental responsibility, social justice can all coexist under that heading. The story of Stuff people were there and there perspective is that there is enough money to fix the environment ect, but it is directed at subsidising big oil ect.

  6. Samuel Alexander says:

    Thanks SJ, I think you’re right. Getting power off big business and back to the people is central to all this. And I also agree that the economic / political issues being focused on can’t be isolated from, say, the ecological crises. Perhaps the diversity of grievances is natural, as you say, and cannot be avoided. But that doesn’t change the fact that a lack of focus could harm the movement. For example, how could a political party respond effectively to the movement if the movement isn’t making some reasonably specific demands? And how are people supposed to be drawn into a movement if it isn’t clear what the movement stands for? On the other hand, who is in a position to speak for the movement? I don’t have an answer to these questions, and am still thinking my way through these issues. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Hi Samuel,

    Thanks for your response. I think you are right that these movements/protests provide us ‘simpler way’ advocates with vital opportunties to educate and inspire participates, about the need to shift to very different systems, structures and values. Lets be honest though, the movement, as a whole, is very far from this view; it is largely reformist and does not fundamentally challenge affluence or growth. Its ‘solutions/vision’ (if it has one) is nothing like TSW.

    As such, in my humble view, simpler way activists should focus MOST of their scarce energies on two things; a) raising awareness/educating (with everyone!) and b) trying to build aspects of the TSW alternative in the towns and suburbs where people live.

    Cheers

  8. Miro says:

    Sam, thank you for your replay. I will just add that living simply is one of the best ways of minimising the buffetting of rising prices. The less we need (from external pay for sources) the less impact that has on us.

    With thanks
    for all you do
    Miro

  9. Samuel Alexander says:

    Jonathan, I agree with your position I think, it’s just that I think that this is a good forum to raise the issues that Trainer and others discuss. Not the only forum, but one that ought to be explored.

  10. Johnny Rutherford says:

    Thanks Sam,

    Do I understand you correctly, that you think this IS a good forum…or are you saying it isn’t a good forum? If the former, of course I wholeheartedly agree, and am glad you welcome discussion/debate on these vital questions of strategy and transition…

    Regards

  11. Samuel Alexander says:

    I think it’s a forum that shows potential. It has it’s problems, but I’m not ready to give up on it yet. Beggars can’t be choosers. If there is any hint of a crack in the status quo, we should do our best to get a wedge in there and see if it can’t be opened up in the name of justice and sustainability. If it turns out that the wedge does no good, then we have to reassess and look elsewhere.

    Thanks for bringing the question of strategy back into the discussion. It’s always good to be pushed on this matter, as it is very easy to misdirect one’s limited energies.

  12. Jonathan Rutherford says:

    Sorry I misunderstood your previous post. Thought you were talking about this ‘forum’ (i.e the website), not the protest. Yup, don’t give up on it, but hope you also give consideration to the analysis outlined by Trainer. Keep up the good work with this excellent website.

  13. Tim says:

    Hi Samuel,

    (Found your website a short time ago, googling a Thoreau quote incidentally. Very much appreaciate your work).

    Speaking as one who didn’t get out for Occupy Sydney, I found your reflections on the mark – for me, at any rate. Baring my soul a bit, I’d say I appreciated the importance but lacked the will (“akrasia”, Aristotle might say). But, having protested/marched/rallied for numerous events in Sydney before (and recently), I have a pervading sense that, as you say, there is not a “critical mass”. My feeling was/is that we are indeed too comfortable, and that it would unfortunately take something like a 15-20% unemployment rate, the real estate foreclosures, and generally the decay of society we seem to be seeing in the U.S. to shake people in the same way. Still, I am very hopeful that we’ll find effective ways to agitate for change together, and greatly admire everyone who got out on the weekend.

    The other thing I wanted to pose was regarding the 99% slogan. I like it in many ways, but I think it fails to take into account the however-many-percent that (falsely) believe they are in the 1%, and, more importantly, those who aspire to be there. At Politics in the Pub up here recently we had a US Studies professor discussing the Tea Party, and this point came up. He argued, correctly I thought, that referring to the “99%” is misleading because it fails to take into account this proportion of the aspiring. So I believe it should be something more like 70% or 80%. Maybe a pedantic point in this context, but I can’t get over thinking it important to avoid being in any way misleading. But of course, “We are the 70%” is nowhere near as catchy! – competing values abound in life…

    At any rate, I love to see any fresh discussion of participatory democracy more generally. Having read Race Matthews’ “Jobs of Our Own” not too long ago, I find it particularly resonating.

    All the best,

    Tim Niven.

  14. Juliette says:

    Outstanding post Sam! One of the best I’ve read on this issue.

    I visited the Occupation site in Melbourne this morning since leaving on Saturday afternoon. My heart was filled with hope when I saw that City Square was covered in tents of people still flying the flag high on Day 4.

    I harvested a local mandarin tree today. I think I will drop off some fresh fruit to them on Friday when I’m next in town… the simple pleasures.

  15. Samuel Alexander says:

    Ha – I’m glad we cleared that up Jonathan! And yes, you can be sure I have the highest respect to Trainer’s analysis. There is very little in his perspective that I disagree with. All the best, and thanks for engaging.

  16. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Tim, thanks very much for your comments. Your point about “the 70%” I think is very well made, and this has come up in discussions I’ve had down at the occupation. The 99% slogan is just that – a slogan, but it really is misleading. For example, if there is to be any significant redistribution, focusing merely on the 1% isn’t enough.

    As for updating my Melbourne experience, I spent the night down there again last night, and things are really taking shape. There were at least 60 tents, which is quite a spectacle if nothing else. The process of the General Assembly has been sharpened considerably. And the mood is passionate and vibrant. Now we just need to develop that critical mass of supporters….

  17. Samuel Alexander says:

    Thanks Juliette, I’m sure the kitchen will be extremely appreciative.

    I too am filled with hope by this movement. Although there still lacks a critical mass of people involved, the number of tents certainly makes for a spectacle, and perhaps this will provoke a bit of critical reflection in the minds of all those who walk past. It is such a positive, warm, inclusive vibe down there, filled with passionate, genuine, inspiring people.

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