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 here: Ignite.)
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/