Occupy Wall Street and a New Politics for a Disorderly World

Occupy Wall Street and a New Politics for a Disorderly World

Occupy Wall Street and a New Politics for a Disorderly World

In a volatile era, OWS’s participatory democracy makes more sense than top-down government.


The global financial crisis has provoked a profound and necessary questioning of the prevailing political and economic orthodoxy. So pervasive is this disillusionment with the current order that it is hard to find anyone prepared to defend it. Disorder is the new order; disequilibrium rules, and old assumptions no longer hold.

As Kuhn’s theory might suggest, the rank contradictions of the current political-economic paradigm—gross inequality and massive environmental destruction—are so great that a new paradigm should emerge: a system of thought and method of political action that can address these ills, and indeed offer a better method of organizing and understanding human society.

As a diplomat in the British foreign service, I served deep inside one bastion of conventional politics—the world of international diplomacy. I helped propagate “top-down,” government-dominated politics across the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. I resigned because my government ignored available alternatives to violence and dissembled before the Iraq invasion (I had been Britain’s Iraq expert at the UN Security Council). This breach triggered a deeper questioning of the way things are done. I concluded that top-down management was not working and that conventional political models, including representative democracy, were producing not stability but its opposite, an increasingly fractured society at home and around the globe and a perilously vulnerable environment.

In my former career, I saw how governments attempt to enforce order on a world that resists their methods. But complex systems, such as a world of billions of dynamic connections, cannot be frozen as if on a chessboard, intelligible and susceptible to step-by-step command and control. Indeed, governments by their own admission are less and less able to control the massive, heterogeneous forces now making our world: dramatic economic transformation, mass migration and climatic change.

Worse, and this helps explain the failure, these attempts exclude the people most affected—ordinary people. It has become clear that even in our supposedly iconic democracies, government decisions do not reflect the needs of everyone but rather those who enjoy privileged access: large corporations, the superwealthy, the elites—the 1 percent who benefit from this disorder, like the speculators who play volatile markets, companies that profit from the absence of price on environmental destruction and the cynical politicians who exploit the growing anxiety and disaffection with crude and atavistic certainties.

* * *

A new politics is needed, and in the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street, I saw signs of its emergence. Some would see the Occupy protests as yet more evidence of disorder, not its solution. But to my jaded eye, the beacons pointing to a better method were bright indeed. At the UN Security Council and other diplomatic forums, I had taken part in high-stakes negotiations on everything from Iraqi WMDs to Palestine to the future of the Balkans. But the experience of hundreds of people listening to the voice of one—anyone!—through the “people’s mic” moved me more than any of those worldly negotiations. This was a politics of the many, included at last, at least in the small square of Zuccotti Park, if not in our distant capitals. Here I saw true respect, not the pretend respect of diplomacy. Here I saw involving and passionate debate, not the childish antagonism of Internet debate or the partisan rancor of Washington. The crowd was gripped by an unfamiliar emotion, a shared sentiment that others were listening and that their decisions truly mattered.

This is the start of a new politics, but obviously mere meetings and protest marches are not enough. There is nothing certain about the future, save that it is our actions that will create it and that others are already exploiting our inaction. It is no longer sufficient to appeal to government to put things right; a corrupted system will not reform itself. We must create new systems, new modes of decision-making and interaction, and new forms of economic behavior to replace the old.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrated some of the necessary elements of this new politics. Anyone who wished to participate could do so. All had a voice in decisions. These are the features of “participatory democracy,” which, when practiced more broadly, delivers outcomes unfamiliar from our own corrupted democracy: equality (because the interests of all are accounted for); transparency (and thus less corruption); and a civic culture of respect, not ugly partisanship.

This is a politics of the many for the many, rather than that of a small clique of elected representatives, co-opted by the powerful few. It requires patience and work, as the Occupiers of Zuccotti Park have learned. The consensus principle is vital, and prevents the “tyranny of the majority,” but it must (and can) be engineered to allow fast decisions and discussions of complex issues. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, mass participation in decision-making has succeeded in deliberating the affairs of a city, and the results clearly indicate more equal provision of services, better environmental protection and an improved political culture, one that is open, nonpartisan and uncorrupted.

Once decisions are made this way, they have immense force. Unlike with the distant machinations of government, all participants feel that they have been consulted. Everyone commits.

Participatory democracy should be promoted for every public setting, from our neighborhoods to our cities and counties. As turkeys will not vote for Thanksgiving, politicians are unlikely to institute such systems. Instead, we will have to set them up ourselves, starting local—our street, our building, our school—and in doing so establish legitimacy from the ground up, a legitimacy that today’s politicians evidently do not enjoy.

* * *

The second element is equally critical: this is the politics of the personal. Our political goals must be embodied in everything we do, for this is the most direct way to produce necessary and urgent change. Despite its perpetual encouragement by over-promising politicians, the habit of asking government to produce the ends we seek is out-of-date. Given the way that Washington (and indeed London or Paris) works, there is zero chance that any politician, even one with the best intentions, will deliver a just society, where the weakest are properly cared for and where the earth that sustains us is itself sustained.

Personal action is also the most effective means of influencing others. Forget Internet petitions, tweeting, writing to your Congressman or other formats of usually fruitless complaint—what you do will have the most persuasive force in encouraging others to do the same. Think of “the wave” in a sports stadium. This is the way to change a complex, highly interconnected system, not top-down management, as network theory and social research are demonstrating. And throughout, an older maxim carries an eternal message: the means are the ends, as Gandhi taught. If you use violence, you are likely to get violence. Like his famous Salt March (or Salt Satyagraha), the ideal political protest is the one that embodies the change you wish to see. Do it yourself, and nonviolently.

Self-organized, nonviolent action by the many, consulting all those affected: some would call these methods anarchism, but if so it is a very gentle kind. In fact, these techniques amount to a politics of modernity, of complexity, a politics most appropriate to our current state. These methods also inhere in a new economics, for Marx was in this sense correct: the economics makes the politics. You cannot have a fair, cohesive or happy society when a tiny few hold the vast bulk of the wealth and where companies are legally bound to maximize profits over all else, ignoring any un-costed effects to the environment or society.

There are forms of business that in their very design make up a better politics. Cooperatives share ownership among their staff as well as agency—that sense of control and participation that contemporary society denies us. As Britain’s massive retail giant John Lewis has shown, cooperative companies can be just as successful, and can endure much longer, than the merely profit-driven. “Triple bottom line” companies give equal weight to their social and environmental impacts alongside the profit line.

Such companies can be founded. They can be competitive. And we can support them by choosing them over more negligent businesses. In the OWS Alternative Banking working group, for example, we are building the elements of a new Occupy Bank [see Carne Ross, “Revolution Through Banking?” TheNation.com, December 22], which would be democratic, transparent and egalitarian, and would offer better services than for-profit banks.

* * *

Finally, it’s not just a better political system or a better economy that the new paradigm promises; it is also a richer aesthetics, a better culture. The ghastly homogenization and banality of consumer culture undermine our experience of life (this is perhaps the reason for the weird idol worship of the aberrational design fetishist Steve Jobs). The rabbit-hutch geography of the office combines with the humiliations of corporate culture (for bosses as much as the bossed-about) to alienate and demoralize everyone concerned. How we crave escape—pharmacological, alcoholic or virtual.

The current malaise is thus existential as well as political and economic. Nonetheless, this collective crisis can be captured in one word: agency. Control. We have lost it. We need to take it back.

The methods proposed here flow from an appreciation of society and the human project that differs fundamentally from the assumptions that underpin conventional neoclassical economics and representative democracy. The premise is that people are not merely self-serving but value other qualities—compassion, meaning, community, beauty—at least as much. That they can be trusted to run their own affairs, a trust that is repeatedly undermined in today’s fear-based culture. Hobbes’s “state of nature,” of war of all against all, is a bogeyman belied by real-life experience, which suggests that after disaster strikes, people facing common hardship collaborate without need for overweening authority, as Rebecca Solnit has eloquently written. Human nature is more beautiful than we have been led to believe.

But perhaps because the human is a rather subtle and undefinable beast, these methods, and this new understanding, may never make up a complete new system or structure, in theory or in practice. Marxism and neoclassical economics sought comprehensive explanatory systems of society and indeed of human behavior. Both in their ways proposed complete accounts of the human project, with all loose ends neatly tied off.

But if 1989 marked the end of communism, the global financial crisis and the insistent drumbeat of environmental disaster should mark the end of the political and economic orthodoxy that brought these perils about. The presumption of completeness inherent in both these thought-systems was their downfall because, inevitably, they left out crucial factors.

Marx failed to foresee that totalitarianism was an intrinsic risk of a self-appointed vanguard movement. The rationalist models of neoclassical economics failed to take account of the influence of irrational human behavior, like that witnessed in the credit bubble’s credulity, as well as the revealingly named “externalities” like social and environmental costs. Unpredicted and unmanaged economic volatility, mounting social fragmentation and grave environmental damage are now overwhelming the appealing but simplistic “internal” logic of equilibrium-seeking markets and utility-maximizing consumers.

Indeed, the pathetic human need for a complete explanatory system needs to be resisted, for no theory can offer a full account of a world that is already massively, and yet also increasingly, complex, where any event, from the destruction of a job to war, is the subject of countless factors, all in constant, dynamic interaction. We hunger for a detailed map of the world, but the best we can hope for is a general understanding of a new dispensation: complexity. And complexity does not demand management by authorities; it is instead best influenced by individual agents, acting by themselves at first, then with others, carrying the potential to affect the whole system.

This, then, is the new politics for a disorderly world. The defenders of the status quo claim that only their methods can maintain order. They are, in fact, achieving the opposite. The politics proposed here, and already evident in Occupy and elsewhere, can foment a deeper order, where people are connected to one another, reweaving our tattered social fabric, where work is fulfilling and responsible, and where everyone in society is given their proper voice and their interests are accounted for. Our current political and economic forms have made avowal of these ideals seem archaic, almost absurd. How ridiculous to wish for such virtues! We cannot let such cynicism triumph. A new way is possible, but it has to be enacted, not asked for.

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