If direct democracy is truly to take hold, it needs to go beyond popular causes of today, no matter how all-encompassing they might seem.
Published October 22, 2011
Over the past year, the explosive growth of protest movements has become impossible to ignore, from North Africa and the Middle East to the unrest spread through the Mediterranean, throughout Europe and then across the Atlantic. As of this past Saturday, it's now easier to list parts of the world that aren't rising up.
In each region, these protests took on a broad but distinct direction. At first, they targeted dictators and despots, in the name of democracy. As they moved northward, though, these protests began to appear in "democracies" as well.
Not only did these new European protests focus on the sweeping "austerity" measures being imposed, but especially in Spain, took this democratic mandate much further. Using the same methods - occupied public spaces and open public assemblies - they demanded "Real Democracy Now", straight from the grassroots.
Now that these protests have spread across North America, the focus has shifted to the elite rule of the economy, beginning with the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York's financial district.
Steeltown has a fair bit to be angry about. Beyond our own stunning disparities in wealth and living standards (including a two-decade difference in life expectancies), our entire economy has taken a dramatic turn for the worse over the past few decades.
The effects of globalization - outsourcing, consolidation and a general shift away from First World manufacturing has laid waste to many of our town's traditional keystone employers, leaving us with little but many brownfields and plentiful unemployment.
Hamilton, like most of Canada, held our first rally this past weekend. It was modest in size and faced horrific weather, but spirits were high and many excellent speeches were made, coming from quite a variety of backgrounds.
This Saturday, plans are to bring our decision making out into the public and hold Hamilton's first General Assembly in Gore Park, beginning at noon.
In both personal conversations and large-scale discussions in the media, I keep hearing about the "need" for clear and decisive demands and platforms. So far these protests have been almost mysterious on the subject of aims and goals.
There are very good reasons for this strategy.
First, this list of demands is still very much on the drawing board. The point of these protests and assemblies is to draw attention to the issues and create a space to build a list through open discussion. Second, a few individuals "taking charge" and "issuing statements" early on can have a very powerful effect on the "tone", which would both turn people off and overrule the assemblies. Thirdly, it's gained a lot of attention.
As a long-time activist, I often find myself cringing when told what activists "should" do. Sometimes the ideas are very good, but most generally are not. Some are dismissive, others clichéd, but even with the best of intentions, the sad fact is that strategies that work from positions of power generally do not work very well against them.
Bold, decisive leadership may work well in the business world, but it can be utterly crippling to an association of equals. It turns people off, breeds conflict, tends to produce fairly mediocre decisions, and is utterly hypocritical.
This last point demands special attention, since it's such a favoured critique of protests of all kinds (from both activists and detractors). When organizations that claim to represent the oppressed and marginalized in the name of freedom and liberty start behaving like those they oppose, they offend people to an amazing degree.
True grassroots organizing requires a far more open approach.
This new generation of protests is the accumulation of decades of experience. They go beyond the confines of single-issue protests, back toward the kind of radicalism of the 1960s or 30s. Unlike many of their predecessors, though, it's being done in a very different way.
Given the colossal failures caused by seemingly "radical" authoritarian parties and regimes, there's been a growing consensus on more directly democratic forms of organization (no pun intended). These traditions have a rich history, in the peace movement (SNCC, Quakers) along with many indigenous societies.
Recent examples include the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, where villages turned to autonomous self-governance by local consensus-based meetings (in the Mayan tradition) to the large anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s that ultimately managed to shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) process.
Locally, the struggle against the Red Hill Valley Parkway also functioned largely in this way, often involving large 60+ person consensus-based meetings of activists, neighbours and Six Nations representatives.
When it comes to these occupations, the medium is the message. Many demands could be made, but none are more important than public discussion. To some degree, this has already been massively successful. Everyone's talking about inequality, up to and including US President Barack Obama.
The more important discussion, though, between "the 99%" ourselves, is only beginning.
What struck me first upon visiting these fledgling demonstrations wasn't the lack of answers I'd heard about, it was the plethora of answers being offered up. Both in personal conversations and at the microphone last Saturday, there was an amazing depth and diversity of ideas.
Some were critical of fractional reserve credit, others jaded ex-bankers, anarchists, poverty advocates or random people from the street.
People were talking at length about the economy itself and not just a few issues in isolation. It goes without saying that it'll take time for something truly substantial to come from all this discussion, and that much of it will have to wait until even more people are involved.
When it does, though, it will be very different from the simplistic programs put out by vanguards of the past.
In many ways, North Americans are latecomers to this party, and we'd do well to mind some of the lessons learned so far across the Atlantic.
In Spain, in particular, the popularity of these assemblies became overwhelming. General assemblies of thousands began to drown out the voices of individuals. At this point the movement made a crucial choice to return to the neighbourhoods from which they came and set up assemblies there.
Similar assemblies have long been an important part of the radical tradition. Neighbourhood-level organizing was a big part of the Egyptian revolution for tactical reasons.
On the other side of the globe, the role of neighbourhood assemblies when Argentina's economy collapsed a decade ago is well documented, helping to hold communities together.
Of course, it doesn't need to take a revolution or a recession to seriously consider these ideas. The work being done over at Town Halls Hamilton is truly inspiring. Local issues are far easier to tackle on a face-to-face basis than global crises.
If direct democracy is truly to take hold, it needs to go beyond popular causes of today, no matter how all-encompassing they might seem. Serious engagement requires more than ad-hoc meetings, and our city desperately needs every venue it can get for open discussion.
It's hard to tell what will come of the "Occupy" movement. While it's literally exploded over the past month, it's also only a symbol. Whether this momentum will continue over the coming months or fade and make way for something else is still very uncertain.
The cold northern winter may defeat many cities, or a meltdown in the economy may rapidly add fuel to the fire. It's an experiment, and one that is teaching us a lot.
Poverty, inequality and corruption are finally getting the attention they deserve, and people all over the world are gaining loads of first-hand experience at grassroots organizing.
Perhaps most inspiring is the way that boundaries are breaking down, as people of the Americas, Europe and the Middle East are realising that we all have a lot more in common than we thought.
Disclaimer: The above represent comments and observations reflect the views of the author, Undustrial, and not Occupy Hamilton.
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