In hindsight, I can gladly admit that my original reaction to the first day of Occupy Melbourne was wrong. As a left-wing cynic, weary from years fighting alongside the fragments of an old and obsolete reactionary left, I noted the usual suspects and assumed too quickly that these dogmatic, semi-cultish organisations would try to succeed in taking over the movement. I wrongly doubted the new faces would survive the first assembly and assumed most passers-by would leave when confronted by an outdated lecture on Marx or Lenin. While the left’s key thinkers are still relevant, their use as a quasi bible by self-righteous crusaders and vanguards sits somewhat uneasily in the struggle against the contemporary form of capitalism. Yet the idealist in me was still alive and I went back the next day to see how the movement had evolved. While the square was much less populated on that Sunday afternoon, there seemed to remain a spirit of freedom and independence which made me optimistic, if not for the future of the movement, for its relevance in the ongoing emancipatory struggle.
A fit in itself, the collective had managed to resist domination or leadership from any group. This was both good news for its long-term public success and quite impressive when one looks at past demonstrations. Highly symbolic, the best-organised socialist group even agreed to remove their huge banner after a much-heated discussion. This was a fantastic outcome as it showed that, despite the peaceful atmosphere, political confrontation was not prohibited or feared and that pointless divisions between the left could be overcome, allowing all to focus on less self-centred issues. The general assembly remained extremely messy and rather unproductive. While this created frustration amongst the public, it was the sign of a healthy democratic process; the symptom of real democracy which cannot but be messy and disorganised if it is to offer an equal voice to all its participants and unleash a passion for politics.
When I later praised the movement for its messiness, I was met with a reaction of shock, or at least unease, as those involved felt it misrepresented or downplayed what they had achieved. When I described the lack of organisation, the insufferable amount of time it took to enact the simplest decisions and the effort it took to make one’s voice heard in this overly democratic space, many took my opinion as an insult to the cause. Their reaction showed the degree to which we have all come to believe that democracy is flawless, clean and sanitised. The logical conclusion of this trend of thinking is that it is best left to experts. The messiness I described in fact demonstrated how radical and refreshing the Occupy movement was, for it stood in opposition to this hegemonic fantasy. If anything, my description of Occupy Melbourne was a tribute to the emancipatory spirit and potential of the movement. Learning, democracy and emancipation are linked in the process of creating a better society and none can be merely granted by the state. None will be achieved without pain and hard work. Samuel Beckett’s words are to me central to what was most important about the movement: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ The democratic mess at Occupy gave me hope that something new could come of it.
Added to the aforementioned disorder, the incoherence and aimlessness of the movements we witnessed across the western world, held by pundits as the very weakness of the Occupy movement, was in fact another of its greatest strengths. Nothing tells us for sure that anything good, or even anything at all, will rise up from these movements. Yet what is already an immense achievement was the will of ordinary people to get together and discuss what they are commonly told to take for granted. The will to challenge a system that is increasingly openly imposed on the population. The will to stand in opposition to the take-over of various European countries by unashamed technocrats hired to save the world from the doom they cast upon us. The will to fight against the economic injustice that has grown immeasurably in the past three decades and is leaving more and more people in social and economic poverty. Their will to think about a different future where those who created this dire situation might no longer be the best to lead us.
Criticising the lack of direction is therefore a response of either denial or fear. Denial about what democracy really is about, and fear that real democracy could come about. Quite logically, these movements started from the beginning, by challenging what they saw as a wrong, unjust and broken system. This is a feat in itself after 30 years of a hegemonic neo-liberalism that made many of us believe history had ended. These movements refused the decisions made by their masters and the apparently implacable logic of the market. It has been said that these movements are not anti-capitalist and yet they challenged the very inequalities embedded in the core of this system. However, they also refused to sign up to any old left-wing dogma which provided a solution already written and which would only require them to follow obediently. Instead, they reclaimed our public space and began to exchange, to communicate, to share amongst equals and to learn from each other. While these movements might well bring nothing, they were essential in providing a new impetus for real democracy.
Reclaiming democracy is central to the Occupy movement and to the future of the left in general, as it is one of those words which have been perverted to represent the interest of the few under the cover of a reactionary form of equality. As Josiah Ober noted in his historical study of the word, accepting that democracy only relates to a voting rule for determining the will of the majority, is accepting ‘fifth-century anti-democratic polemics as an accurate description of political reality’. Democracy, as opposed to monarchy (solitary rule) or oligarchy (the rule of a few) is not concerned with numbers: the many will not hold office or power. Instead, the conclusion is that democracy originally referred to ‘power’ in the sense of ‘capacity to do things’. Therefore, reducing democracy to elections elides much of the value and potential of democracy. As Ober describes, ‘demokratia is not just “the power of the demos” in the sense “the superior or monopolistic power of the demos relative to other potential power-holders in the state”. Rather it means, more capaciously, “the empowered demos” – it is the regime in which the demos gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm.’ Therefore, voting is not democratic in itself if it is to promote the status quo that all major parties currently defend. What made the Occupy movement democratic was the will of its protagonists to empower themselves as part of the people. It was the realisation that only by becoming democratic beings could they effect change, that only through a reassessment of what is believed the cornerstone of our society could change happen, through the acknowledgement of the system as more akin to ‘capitalo-parliamentarianism’ and the reclaiming of what is truly democratic.
In Australia, the confused reaction of the media was telling. Only the Herald Sun felt it could side vehemently against the whole movement, even mock the peaceful demonstrators violently ‘handled’ by the police. Others oscillated as the movement proved harder to sideline than previous movements created to defend some limited agendas under banners which had all too often made themselves irrelevant in the present political situation by sticking to their outdated modes of thinking and actions. The democratic impetus of the movement led to the state showing its true face to those who still doubted. The police were sent to most Occupy spaces and riot squads were deployed to deal harshly with the public occupying its own space. The refusal to see beyond the system we live in was manifest in the success of the most incredible spin. How can pepper-spraying the public and fencing of a public square be argued to be a liberation of public space?
Yet while the media machine worked for the government and elite to some extent, the Occupy ideas, if not the movement itself, started to gain sympathy. The people were thinking; the elite panicked. The mask fell. The hatred of democracy became ever more obvious. This hatred is so brilliantly described by Jacques Rancière and so deeply felt by our governments of wealth and science, by those who refuse to admit that at the core of democracy lies equality and the negation of all ‘natural’ claims to leadership; that democracy is not oligarchy or technocracy (the rule of the experts) and needs not be governed by those who wish to do so or are trained to do so; that it is to be realised by all who want to participate, indeed, by all those who are equally and inalienably part of it. The leaderless character of the Occupy movement, the ‘chance’ by which its organisers found themselves there and the lack of personal glory to be taken from the task made the movement democratic. The acts of voting and consensual decision-making were mere tools, not the enactment of democracy itself. As Rancière eloquently wrote, ‘democracy is not a type of constitution or a form of society. The power of the people is not that of the gathered population, of its majority or its working class. It is merely the power of those who have no more rights to govern than to be governed themselves.’ It is this very form of equality and democracy which confused the media and scared the elite. When those who were meant to exercise their illusion of democracy solely in the ballot box decided to reclaim the public sphere, the elite began to shake. When the people no longer accepted waiting for elections to decide who in the hoi oligoi would rule, to vote between one set of elite and another, they reclaimed politics, they acted democratically. In our common understanding of democracy, this was unacceptable. In an emancipatory understanding of democracy, it was a victory, albeit a small one.
It is not surprising therefore that complex measures were put in place to quash the movement. While many places remain occupied, the movement is struggling to gain momentum and pales in comparison to the enthusiasm surrounding trivial events such as the Queen’s visit to Melbourne or horses running laps in Flemington. While the mess at Occupy was a tribute to democratic ideals, the apathy of the population at large and their obedient participation in commercialised and aristocratic orgies is a tribute to the capitalist oligarchy and to its successful creation of a society of alienated, satisfied and selfish undemocratic individuals. Yet this success is only partial as the democratic swell takes new and unpredictable shapes. The Occupy movement shows us that people beyond the usual suspects have become involved in the fight for the public sphere. The left itself is taking new shapes and rekindling what had made it a progressive and creative force in the past. Only with the people aware of their emancipatory democratic and political power will the left revive. Only by challenging its gods in the name of equality will it break the shackles of its past, challenge the present and finally face the future.
More practically, the Occupy movement has demonstrated that the hegemonic dome cast upon us is weakening as the economic system seems on the verge of collapse. For decades now, people have quietly accepted that our leaders led because they were the best and only ones who could do so. If we were not happy, they allowed us to vent our rage through well-coordinated demonstrations, although few believed we were still being listened to. If still unhappy, we were able to vote for the other party. If extremely unhappy, we were offered caricatures of alternatives on both the left and right, to vote for or to align ourselves with on university campuses. This led to increasing disenchantment and powerlessness in those who would have previously sided with the left and to increased frustration and a penchant for exclusivist neo-racist ideas in others. The rise of the extreme right was skilfully interpreted by the elite as popular common sense. The extreme left’s resistance was caricatured and vilified as outside of the democratic realm. If politics happened in this deeply inegalitarian and hegemonic state, it was violent and discredited as extreme or radical, the remnants of a bygone anti-democratic anti-human rights world. It is this state of affairs, this accepted end of history that the Occupy movement has challenged, for the elite failed to discredit it as old-fashioned extremism, despite their best efforts. They failed to caricature it as just another Socialist Alternative/Alliance rally or as a hippie-fest. People from all walks of life gathered and discussed what to do next. The real democrats had no programs, no banner and no personal agenda. They simply saw that something was wrong in their public sphere and that it was time to reclaim it with politics. They are the future of the left if the left is to have one. This future could be bright, for they are any of us.
As the Occupy movement seems to be on the wane, there is still much hope, as no matter what, it will have opened a breach in what was believed to be a consensus on the system which rules over us. It demonstrated to all those who had forgotten it that the people can organise outside of the state and can make decisions themselves. It showed that anyone who is willing to open their mind and work hard can achieve anything. Most importantly, it proved that we can and must take responsibility for what we were told we were not capable of: democracy and politics.