Voices from the Occupation
The Woeful State of Public Debate & Democracy – Learning from Occupy
As Occupy London were evicted from St Pauls – people asked what the occupation had achieved. In today’s article I take a look at the woeful state of public debate and representative democracy. I argue that Occupy has achieved is in rescucitating political debate and present a new challenger to representative democracy.
What can we learn from Occupy about how to share,debate and implement ideas in a way that develops thought into action toward a world that works for everyone?
Representative Democracy: A Zero Sum Game
When David Cameron became Prime Minister of the UK in 2010, he promised an end to ‘Punch and Judy’ politics. He was responding to a widespread feeling that public debate, political debate in particular, had been reduced to pointless squabbling. He scented a yearning in the body politic and the public alike for genuine debate and discussion of the important issues that face us. However, within a week, this idea was abandoned and he has not been heard to mention the promise since. In fact, taking a look at Prime Ministers Question time – the thirty minute weekly slot where the PM faces questions from other MPs and the Leader of the Opposition – one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a playground scrap.
I attended PMQs once and found the feral roaring intoxicating. It is fight club for the political class. I understand entirely how tempting it is to ‘destroy’ an opponent with a flippant aside which sets the audience alight with laughter and applause. I spent most of my childhood doing just that in the playground, and have been known to employ such tactics in my professional life. But at some point, we have to stop and ask ‘why?’
Why it necessary to take people apart we perceive to be getting in our way? Why do we confuse disagreement with our ideas, with a direct personal attack? We miss out on a whole lot by operating in this way. Developing our ideas with other people. Developing other people’s ideas with them. Don’t you ever wonder just how much more quickly and effectively we could operate in the world, if we were able to galvanise the creativity, thought and consideration of other minds?
In the UK, six hundred people represent the views of 62 million people. Those 600 people divided into two main parties where dissent becomes an act of treachery. Those outside those three groups are left with little power to effect change. The 62 million other people in the country’s sole input into this process being 4 yearly general elections, and slightly more frequent local elections. It is no wonder we have dearth of genuine political skill, debate and innovation in the UK.
In its absence we have seen two numbing outcomes. First, the Westminster world has divorced itself from the world outside. The political elite have benefitted from the apathy and over subsequent decades seized greater power, eroded community and succeeded in turning our country into an engine for corporate power. Secondly, we have ceased to engage in proper public debate and the gulf has been filled by pop politics. He said, she said, I put it to you, gossipy bilious ill tempered and vacuous argument forwarding nothing – sofa wars of attrition, panel based pugel stick battles and a zero sum game for our society and culture.
Silence of the Wage Slaves
The result? We have trained the initiative and gumption out of people leaving the only response to an issue to complain up. We are left with a country that complains about everything and proposes nothing.
People are so used to not being heard, that they are now either forgetting or choosing not to speak.
This has serious repercussions for our democracy. The central pillar of a real democracy is an educated, informed, robust civil society. People need to be vocal and reflective, able to examine and consider policy and empowered to respond to it and shape it in a real way.
Can we really say that this is present in the UK today? I would argue that we cannot. We have a disengaged, disinterested, poorly educated and under/misinformed majority keen to get on with enjoying their lives and anxiously waiting for it all to get better. It is all too common for people to say ‘I don’t do politics’ while bemoaning the lack of carriages on their train journey, the hikes in the cost of their ticket, the crippling costs of childcare, the state of the roads, the lack of time their teacher has with their child as the class size is too big, the unclean ward their Nan suffered through while in hospital, the cost of the Olympics or the number of young people in hoodie sweaters hanging out in their road.
I argue this is because our current state of social organisation, particularly our neo-liberal Westminster consensus is simply warped. For example, contrast the ideas of the Big Society, with the government’s actual policy of public sector cuts, the Welfare Reform Bill, Workfare and the Health & Social Care Bill. On the one hand, we are supposed to be responsible for creating our society, for supporting our neighbourhoods and our neighbours, for working together to achieve our social goals. Meanwhile, in justification of the actual policies of government, we are told to disavow the vulnerable, mistrust our neighbours (they’re all out to rob us blind dontchaknow?), compete with each other over limited means and opportunities – then praise the winners and to hell with the losers in that tussle.
The Occupy Approach
As a serial occupier of Occupy London Finsbury Square, I was incredibly challenged by the General Assembly process when I first arrived on site. In my day job, I am used to speaking to groups, formulating proposals and giving people feedback. However, despite all this, I felt woefully unprepared for being this responsible for my opinions and for listening and responding to those of others. I was not alone. In my article- The Trouble with Consensus – I covered in detail the car crash of people used to representative democracy meeting direct democracy head on. It was funnier watching others go through it, than going through it myself.
The General Assembly (GA) is the ‘parliament’ on site. Every person on camp is their own representative. So, if you have an idea about an action, something to build or a policy to have on site, if you want to start a working group around something, it’s on you. You are responsible for thinking about a proposal, raising your hand at the GA, putting forward your idea and maintaining openness and good humour as people ask questions or disagree or provide counter proposals. You need to listen, understand people’s concerns, and reflect on them without launching straight into defence. Furthermore, any one person can block your proposal. So you can’t simply focus on your majority and write-off a disgruntled minority. Consensus is not a majoritarian vote. It means that everyone agrees. There are opportunities for people to all out agree, they can stand aside (this means they are not fans of the proposal but see it can operate without harming the camp & they don’t need to be involved), they can Disagree (this means they oppose the initiative but are not sufficiently opposed to Block it – gives an opportunity to debate/negotiate further) or finally, they can Block (the Block should only be used when someone feels that if granted, the proposal would constitute a fundamental break with the principles of Occupy, meaning they would need to consider leaving the camp). In the case of a Block, the Blocker is responsible for meeting with the Proposer to reach a negotiated solution within two weeks – if this doesn’t take place, the Block is withdrawn the proposal approved. This means that people cannot use the Block with no regard for the consequences, as they will need to commit to working toward a workable outcome. If not, the Block is worthless as it will be revoked anyway. There are hand signals explained at the beginning of a General Assembly which symbolise these positions.
There is also an order to a GA. There is a rotating facilitator role. All occupiers are encouraged to attend facilitation training workshops to develop a wide and dynamic pool of facilitators. There is an agenda – updates from working groups, proposals, notifications and shout outs. People must use hand signals, and wait for the facilitator to bring them in to respond to someone else’s comment, idea or shout out.
I have witnessed several rather profound meltdowns at GAs over the last four months of Occupy. Suspicion that some people facilitated more than others, anger at being expected to wait one’s turn to speak rather than interrupt someone, following an agenda – I have witnessed all these thing send people storming away from the GA cursing and blinding.
Another aspect of the GA that has unleashed the dragon in some is their inability to deal with opposition to their proposal. Instead of seeing a discussion, a debate, an opportunity to explain further or reflect and amend, often people perceive a direct personal attack and enter fight or flight mode.
All of these responses are responses I myself suffered in my first weeks with Occupy. All of them as a direct result of being completely unprepared for direct democracy, for real democracy. In this current world system, we are trained to argue, win, compromise if we must as a last resort, form alliances to amplify our power and undermine our opposition. It is them and us.
However, over time, most (not all...yet) were able to develop their speaking and listening skills, to learn how to frame an argument, to stay in the conversation past the point of discomfort until they reached understanding and workability. This is tough stuff, and incredible experience. As the Occupy movement is dynamic, with the population of camp shifting fairly frequently, this process is constant. It is therefore important for everyone to remember and nurture those who are going through this process after or at a slower pace than them.
The outcome is that ideas can be thoroughly, robustly and vigorously interrogated. The person with the idea is free to have their idea probed and argued with, even in a heated way, because they accept that this will get to a better result. People feel free to make such a challenge because they’ve taken their muzzles off. Even more importantly, there are no winners or losers. No one is seeking re election by other occupiers on the basis of how many of your proposals got implemented. It is an environment where each voice is equal to anybody else’s and it is no one else’s job but each individual’s to represent their view.
Imagine we dispersed national power in this way? Localising governance among groups, unleashing the innovative power of the disenfranchised. Educating our children from nursery how to form ideas, share them, debate them with others. How would classrooms look in a direct democracy? Imagine the level of education in politics, economics, history, social theory that would be present if we needed each and every citizen to participate fully in the democratic process? It would be in everyone's interest that each were, else how would we gain consensus? Everyone invited to make their broadest contribution in their role of choice. My mind boggles at this, and I enjoy the challenge of debating the idea. It would, to me, be the greatest step of social evolution since the Enlightenment and our move from monarchic rule with national ideas located in religion (not states) to a political system of government among states.
Find the Representative in You
What all this has lead me to conclude, is that representative democracy is no democracy at all. It is a wanton delegation of power upward, and an abdication of each of our responsibility to represent ourselves. The by-products of this behaviour leave us impotent, apathetic and untrained in the core skills required to develop our society. If we are to continue to progress and evolve our social, political and economic ideas, we need to be able to innovate, articulate and debate them. As things stand, The Occupy movement is a social breakthrough in just this. Our world will work for everyone, when we find the representative in ourselves, and Occupy the debate.
Given most people also work in a hierarchical organisation – they are used, in their working lives, to being told what to do and passing issues up to a more senior member of staff to resolve. Hence a general lack of experience in innovating, negotiating and conflict resolution. Most of the country simply doesn’t get an adequate amount of practise to develop these muscles.