Tag Archives: Occupy Wall Street

The Reverse Panopticon

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Is the advent of easily available recording technology coupled with mass-distribution of content through social media platforms allowing for the democratization of the state’s surveillance apparatus?

Most of us fear the totalitarian dystopia imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which citizens are controlled and stripped of private rights through the use of technologies enforcing total surveillance. It is easy to draw parallels with our world today, where the proliferation of CCTV devices and the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement eerily appear to emulate Big Brother’s tactics.

In fact, police forces worldwide are increasingly relying on overt and covert surveillance technologies. In the UK, police plan on deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to aid them in day to day surveillance operations in the light of the 2012 Olympics[1]. Similarly, on the ground, police are increasingly using Forward Intelligence Teams – officers armed with camcorders and other recording equipment used to document anti-social behavior[2]. Still, local governments continue to spend large sums of money on CCTV surveillance, despite evidence questioning its effectiveness as a deterrent[3].

However, in the past years we have witnessed the mass-consumption of relatively cheap products such as cell-phones equipped with camcorders. By now, any footage recorded by these devices is easily disseminated on the web thanks to social media platforms such as twitter and facebook. For example, the worldwide protests of 2011 have captured hours of footage in which civilians documented and “surveilled” law enforcement operations from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. We are all familiar with the grotesque images of a police officer pepper-spraying a row of seated and peaceful students at UC Davis.

Today we live in a world in which technology allows virtually anyone to easily document the actions of the same individuals whom operate the state’s surveillance apparatus. What occurs to the logics underlining mass surveillance when the “watched” are finally able to “watch the watchers”? And what implications does this have on the dynamics informing popular protest?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault studied the effects that mass surveillance has on society very carefully. For him, modern law enforcement could not possibly sustain the economic cost of maintaining social order through the threat of physical coercion alone. Modern mass democracies would enforce compliance to law through less intrusive and more subtle techniques: techniques which would push individuals to “self-police” themselves. Foucault refers to one of these techniques as “panopticism”. In his studies regarding carceral institutions he analyses the architectural plans of a new type of prison built during the 19th century. The Panopticon was the first prison constructed in such a way so that inmates were always visible to the wardens, but where the inmates could not see the wardens. Its effect was that of forcing inmates to behave as if actually being observed, even though no-one was observing them. Modern surveillance devices such as CCTVs function along the same logic, as “eyes that must see without being seen”[4].

For Foucault, this type of constant and total surveillance produced disciplined subjects; individuals whom would spontaneously conform to socially acceptable behavior thereby conspiring in their own self-regulation. Its effects were those of discouraging abnormal behavior –such as political protest- while fostering acquiescence and the internalization of the status quo. Panopticism, said Foucault, “was the most direct way…of making it possible to substitute for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance”[5].

Yet, alas, Foucault died just before the mass availability of today’s recording devices and before facebook and twitter accompanied the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. However his ideas might still prove useful in determining the effects that these new technological innovations have on society.

On one hand, the fact that we are increasingly watched not just by law enforcement but also by the public at large might reinforce and possibly magnify the discipline-inducing effects that Foucault highlighted. Individuals might feel observed to an even greater extent and behave in an ever more docile manner -with serious implications on their willingness to publicly vent political contention. Moreover, it might render individuals fearful of their neighbors, thereby tearing at the social fabric of our communities. Finally, it would negatively impinge on one’s sacrosanct privacy.

On the other hand, the ability of any individual to surveil public officers might induce law enforcement institutions to “self-police” themselves. The footage of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, an ex Marine, being shot in the head with a tear-gas canister at an Occupy Oakland protest created public outrage in the US and caused a serious investigation of the Oakland Police Department’s tactics[6]. Last December at an Occupy Wall Street protest the Guardian reported the use of the “occucopter”: a remote controlled helicopter equipped with a camcorder, broadcasting live on the web and documenting police repression[7]. Such devices are often the only instruments that a non-violent protest movement such as Occupy may employ against violent crackdowns.

These technological innovations have the potential to enforce accountability and to increase transparency, particularly within the murky dynamics of street protests. Being able to record and effortlessly disseminate evidence now allows any citizen to report “abnormal” behavior (as Foucault would put it) exhibited by law enforcement officials such as with the pepper-spray incident. However, this new-found ability possesses actual potential only if used to enforce compliance to law, to civil/human rights and to the norms of dignity. Moreover, it is effective solely when those caught breaking the law are held responsible for their actions or when the footage captured manages to influence public opinion.

Perhaps the apparent “democratization” of the surveillance apparatus is not a game-changer for social movements and will not tilt the game of political contention in favor of protesters. But it does serve to remind us that in any healthy democracy everyone should be held accountable for their actions, and if the evidence garnered by and spread through new technologies serves this purpose then this new phenomenon should be welcomed.

This article was originally published by The Heptagon Post on February 9th 2012

Bibliography

  • Foucault, M. 1991. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Rabinow, P. Penguin: London

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Filed under Human Rights, Indignados, Michel Foucault, Occupy Wall Street, security, social movements, surveillance

Occupy Hegemony: Gramsci, Ideology and Common Sense

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Why do we consent to the status quo of the neoliberal hegemony?

It is simply baffling that citizens in both Europe and the US continue to tolerate the neo-liberal agenda. After the unrestrained greed of financial institutions brought the world to its knees, and after tax-payers bailed out those same institutions responsible for the crisis, the rules of the game appear more or less unchanged. Moreover (and even more baffling), the culprits of the crisis seem to be no longer the unaccountable financial institutions but the citizens responsible for sovereign debt. We are told that “we have lived beyond our means”, that “we are all in this together” and that these are times of sacrifice and austerity for the sake of financial stability.

And the vast majority of citizens consents. We tolerate unelected technical governments (Greece, Italy) and we elect conservative administrations (Spain, England) whose main objective is that of not arousing the ire of financial markets with talks of progressive taxation, labor rights or welfare services of any kind. The only cure for the crisis, we are told, is the well-rehearsed neoliberal mantra of deregulation, liberalization and privatization. Why, may I ask, are we accepting the preposterous idea that the sole cure to a failed free market is more free market theory?

The answer, I believe, lies in the particular way in which the neoliberal hegemony has been able to saturate contemporary political discourse. The way neoliberalism has positioned itself within the field of political theory has effectively displaced alternative political paradigms capable of challenging its hegemony. And it is specifically the alleged lack of political alternatives which functions as a primary generator of consent to an imposed status quo.

An important issue that any movement committed to structural change should consider is to challenge the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts on political discourse, for it is precisely there that consent to its worldview is produced. A brief look into the ideas of the great theorist of hegemony Antonio Gramsci, will reveal the dynamic relationship between the power of hegemony and the consent of the governed.

According to Gramsci, hegemony is a disposition of power which does not merely coerce its subjects into submission through top-down impositions. For Gramsci, hegemony is a power which saturates, influences, and permeates all aspects of one’s life:  the economic, cultural, social, ethical, political, and so on. In doing so, it shapes and moulds consciousness, conceptions of common sense and world-views. More importantly, it creates an “ideological terrain” by positing which are the acceptable political alternatives that may be expressed within the particular world-view it is advancing.

“The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates new ideological terrain, determine[s] a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge … when one succeeds in introducing a new morality in conformity with a new conception of the world, one finishes by introducing the conception as well; in other words, one determines a reform of the whole philosophy.” (Gramsci, p192)

Consent to the hegemony, said Gramsci, does not arise solely out of the elites coercing the masses, but through the denial of alternative world-views with which the oppressed can conceive of their positions as subjects. Writing between the two World Wars, Gramsci, a communist, could not understand why the peasant masses of southern Italy were unable to organize and join the militant communists of the industrialized north. He concluded that their plight and immobility were not only caused by the post-feudal domination of the rural bourgeoisie, but rather by the peasants’ lack of a language, of a vocabulary, and of a philosophy capable of explaining the causes of their material conditions.

The peasant masses of the south lacked their own intellectuals, and relied only on their notions of common sense and folklore to conceive of their every-day travails. Gramsci maintained that “common sense” was a piecemeal composition of life experiences, of religion, and of popular morals. Common sense was also heavily influenced by the dominant ideology. In fact, the ability of the hegemonic ideology to mould common sense was of particular concern to Gramsci. Ideological influence did not occur in the form of a coercive “brainwashing” of the ignorant peasant, but was rather a subtle exercise of power which induced a fragmentary and inchoate conceptualization of one’s life experiences. Moreover, this confused worldview would inhibit individuals from thinking outside of the “ideological terrain” predisposed by the powers of hegemony. In sum, a fragmented world-view coupled with the lack of an alternative language with which to vent political contention generated consent to the status quo.

A similar scenario presents itself to us today. Out of the dust and rubble of the Berlin Wall, neoliberalism has proclaimed itself “the last game in town” and politicians for the past twenty years have merely presented variations of the same neoliberal game to which we have consented for too long. If the Occupy and Indignados movements wish to win the hearts and minds of US and EU citizens they must break this mass consent by demonstrating that neoliberalism is not in fact our only option and that mainstream political discourse must be pluralized.

In the same way as the occupation of public squares opens up a new space for democratic participation, occupying hegemony must open up political discourse to a plurality of alternative political ideas. It must explode the hegemony’s veneer of inevitability by exposing its uses of ideology as strategies for sociological subjugation and political displacement. Neoliberalism is not inevitable nor is it the last game in town. In truth, it has failed in both of its privileged sites of intervention: capitalism and democracy. The first step in breaking its hegemony is therefore to demonstrate that alternatives to a world-view founded on the myths of rugged individualism and rational free markets do in fact exist. We are in desperate need of a radical pluralization of the ideological terrain, so that new ideas may emerge and contest the neoliberal hegemony over political discourse. As Gramsci put it:

“Ideologies are anything but arbitrary; they are the result of historical facts which must be combated and their nature as instruments of domination revealed, not for reasons of morality etc.; but for reasons of political struggle: in order to make the governed intellectually independent of the governing, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another one.” (Gramsci, p196)

Bibliography

  • Gramsci, A. 1999 The Antonio Gramsci Reader. ed. Forgacs, D. Lawrence and Wishart: London

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Filed under Gramsci, hegemony, Indignados, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, occupy, Occupy Wall Street, political theory, social movements

Innovation and Indignation: from Tahrir to Liberty Square

They say that when America catches a cold the rest of the world gets pneumonia. Even a mild recession in the US is able to send ripples of influence throughout the globe which balloon into tsunamis of change for third world countries. And yet, recent events have turned this statement on its head. A street vendor in Tunisia, by setting himself on fire when bullied by the regime’s police, set in motion a chain of events which eventually worked their way back to the very epicenter of US financial power. From that initial act of immolation, a shared sentiment of indignation spread to Tahrir square, hopped over the Mediterranean to the “Indignados” at Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and eventually jumped the Atlantic to Zucotti Park, placing itself right under the mighty halls of Wall Street. It is one of those rare moments in history when events at the neglected “periphery” of capitalism profoundly shake the previously unassailable financial and political hegemony of institutions such as Wall Street.

And yet, many say, there is not much in common between these worldwide protests other than a sentiment of indignation. The Economist recently labeled the OWS and European Indignados movements as protesters merely venting their “rage against the machine”, simply reacting to inequality and denied opportunity[1]. Moreover, these movements are often portrayed as heterogeneous groups, articulating disparate demands ranging from the environmentalist to the anarchist, and incapable of producing coherent political programs or leaders. Although these critiques may have a point they should not be understood as inherent weaknesses of these movements, on the contrary they are the source of a novel strength and resilience. Within these collages of disparate identities we find much more than mere indignation: we find a common logic of democratic re-appropriation expressed through the reclaiming of a public space -a space in which to collectively construct alternatives to an unsustainable system embodied by Wall Street.

Let us take for example the Indignados movements in Europe and compare them to the Occupy movements in the US. A brief look at European demands reveals a greater concern for the protection of those public services which are presently under attack by austerity measures devised by unaccountable supranational institutions. Another popular demand is an end to the lavish privileges that many European politicians have bestowed upon themselves. On the other side of the pond, throughout the Occupy movements, a common demand is the end to the influence that big corporations and Wall Street exert on the democratic process. Despite differences in their claims -which reflect local and national contingencies- there is much more that ties the Indignados and OWS together in a truly global framework for change.

Both the Occupy movements and the European Indignados share similar organizational strategies which are non-hierarchical, horizontal and which aim at achieving the broadest consensus possible when collectively taking decisions in assemblies. Both have also embraced a staunchly non-violent stance in regards to police repression. Many of these strategies were first adopted by the Spanish Indignados and eventually exported to OWS. In fact the Spaniards, taking from the Egyptians, demonstrated how powerful the form of protest of indefinite occupation of a public square actually is -not only in its organizational successes but more so in what it represents symbolically.

The act of occupying has a specific logic behind it. Firstly, it is the reclaiming of a public space in which difference and social plurality may be expressed. The celebration of difference in these movements shows us that society is intrinsically different and plural on ethnic, political, cultural, economic and spiritual levels and that these differences have a sacrosanct right to be expressed and represented. The occupied square provides an inclusive platform of democratic representation for difference which has been systematically excluded and silenced by our present political system.

Secondly, the occupied public square is a space of transparency. Every decision is taken openly, publicly and collaboratively. There are no deals being made behind closed doors as all assemblies record what they deliberate and make it available for all to see online. This is in stark contrast to the unaccountable, obscure and far-removed ways our political and economic institutions are run and reminds us that transparency is a pre-requisite for democracy.

Thirdly, the occupied public square is a space in which to construct an alternative to the status quo through the exercise of direct and participatory democracy. It provides the space in which we can confront each other so as to come up with new ideas to challenge the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism which feeds upon the democratic deficit it is responsible for.

Every movement is different and will produce different claims. But what makes these movements truly global is not a common shopping-list of demands. What links Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol and Zucotti Park is that shared feeling of denied basic dignity which spurs the will to construct spaces and organizational methods which defy the “business as usual” paradigm. It is that constructive will to re-create our financial and political institutions so that difference is adequately represented, where there exists an effort for transparency and accountability, and where collective decisions are taken in a more participatory manner. This shared will creates the empathic channels through which events at the periphery of the first world are finally able to influence even the most powerful institutions on earth. Today, when Tahrir square catches a cold, Wall Street shudders.

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Founding Fathers and Ethnosymbols: Re-interpreting the Founding heritage according to Occupy

Intro

The Founding Father legacy is without a doubt the primary source of American nationalism. The American Revolution, George Washington, the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell are symbols which inspire pride and passion within the hearts of American citizens. The narrative of the emancipation of the thirteen united colonies and the subsequent establishment of the first modern republic is indeed the beating heart of American nationalistic sentiment.

An interesting field of study is the way in which these national symbols are re-interpreted politically. Although they may all point towards an idea of “Americanness” they are used to convey different messages by different social actors. In the past year, we have witnessed how the Tea Party has employed them, accusing Obama’s administration of straying off the sacred path set by our Founding principles; namely small government, individual freedom and free trade. And yet, very recently, even the Occupy movement has begun re-articulating the Founding legacy in progressive terms, invoking a new American Revolution to emancipate the nation from the stranglehold that corporations and financial institutions impose on the democratic process.

This re-articulation of Founding Father symbols is an act of liberation from the conservative interpretation they have traditionally been imbued with. It distances them from the domain of the political right. Moreover, it breaks the ideological chains which confine the Founding heritage to a narrow set of conservative, individualistic and capitalism-justifying principles, thereby allowing us to fully appreciate the emancipatory potential found within its political discourse.

Theories of Nationalism

Within the study of nationalism, national symbols are referred to as ethnosymbols: myths, customs, traditions, and memories which pertain to dominant ethnic groups. According to the ethnosymbolist school of thought, modern nations emerge out of the cultural traits and traditions of dominant ethnic cores[1]. In the case of the US, these would be the cultural values highlighted for example by Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” belonging to the descendants of the Plymouth Rock pilgrims. Contrarily, the school of thought referred to as modernism asserts that ethnosymbols are not necessarily genuine products of a homogeneous ethnic core but are rather symbols which elites manipulate -or deliberately “invent”- for the purposes of nation-building[2].

However, a third school of thought attempts to reconcile these two opposite approaches. The ideas of theorists such as Oliver Zimmer and Eric Kaufmann reject the notion that ethnosymbols are mere constructs. Nonetheless, they believe that they may be re-interpreted in different ways depending on who is articulating them. Zimmer suggests that social actors may access a “stock” of deposited symbolic resources (national myths, memories, traditions) and employ them to advance their own particular idea of the nation’s culture, politics or society[3]. Similarly, Kaufmann asserts that different social actors view symbolic resources through different “ideological lenses”: what looks like a symbol signifying conservative values for some, might stand for progressive values for others[4].

This third approach allows us to recognize that the Founding Father symbols do not point towards a single set of values, traditions or political ideas, but that they may be employed to grant historical legitimacy to alternative ideological dispositions and demands.

Re-Articulating the Founding

A brief look at the rhetoric employed by Tea Party movement websites reveals a particular understanding of the values attributed to the Founding Father legacy. For them, the Founders believed primarily in individual liberty, limited government and free markets, and abhorred ideas regarding the common good, collectivity or redistribution.

“The Tea Party Patriots’ mission is to restore America’s founding principles of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”[5]

“The Tea Party Patriots stand with our founders, as heirs to the republic, to claim our rights and duties which preserve their legacy and our own. We hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual.”[6]

Such statements re-interpret the Founding legacy as being based primarily on the tenets of possessive individualism and laissez fair capitalism. Moreover, the Tea Party claims this heritage for itself:

“From our founding, the Tea Party is the voice of the true owners of the United States, WE THE PEOPLE.” [7]

Of course, this interpretation is historically inaccurate. The research of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock has revealed that the Founding Fathers were not cut-throat capitalists but rather civic republicans. In fact, they were concerned with the common good, the primacy of the collective over the individual and nurtured a profound distrust of private interests[8].

More recently however, we are witnessing the use of Founding Father symbols by the Occupy movements as well. The most visible example is the Declaration of Occupation drafted Sept. 29 at the New York City General Assembly[9]. The vocabulary used to express OWS grievances is deliberately similar to that in the Declaration of Independence. “Let these facts be known” (“let Facts be submitted to a candid world” in the DoI) followed by a list of grievances, basically replaces George III with the 1% as the source of injustice and inequality.

A similar example is the re-interpretation of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. For the Tea Party movement it is a paradigmatic example of resistance against government taxation. For many in OWS it represents the first act of resistance against a transnational corporation: the East India Company. In a brilliant essay published on the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Rebecca Manski writes:

“The biggest act of sabotage against a multinational corporation in American history began with a gathering at the Liberty Tree. That act was the Boston Tea Party.”[10]

Similarly, a disgruntled citizen venting his grievances on wearethe99percent.tumbler.com states:

“That is not the America our Founding Fathers built. People forget that the original Tea Party was against a corporation and its influence on our government. Our Founding Fathers feared just what is happening today. I AM THE 99% AND I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!”[11]

Occupy History!

The model presented by Zimmer and Kaufmann suggests that national symbols are never totally pre-determined and that they may be invested with different meanings and used for alternative purposes. This “liberates” such symbols from the traditionally conservative interpretation they have long been invested with. Once they are available for use, we may fully recognize the emancipatory potential found within them and the radical dimension of their politics.

The American Founding Fathers ignited a democratic revolution which turned the feudal and aristocratic world on its head. They fought a democratic revolution for political participation, liberty, equality, free constitutions and bills of rights. Of course, they owned slaves and most of them were wealthy aristocrats. They were not free of faults, vices or contradictions. And yet, this does not mean that their radical political discourses should be absorbed within the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism -which has neutered their radical character and used them as symbols to grant itself historical legitimacy.

The re-articulation of these symbols demonstrates one of the greatest strengths of the Occupy movement: the ability to reclaim the social, political, cultural and economic discourses from fields of thought which were previously saturated with neoliberal ideology. The reclaiming of history sends out a clear message: our Founding Fathers were not devoted to unfettered markets and laissez fair capitalism. Far from it. Our founding fathers provided the foundations for the democratic revolution which We the People, as their heirs, are still fighting today.

Bibliography

  • Smith, A. 1994 “The Origin of Nations” in Nationalism ed Hutchinson, J. & Smith, A. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Hobsbawm, E. 1994 “The Nation as Invented Tradition” in Nationalism ed Hutchinson, J. & Smith, A. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Zimmer, O. 2003. ‘Boundary mechanisms and symbolic resources: towards a process- oriented approach to national identity’, Nations and nationalism, Apr 2003, Vol.9, No.2, pp.173-193
  • Kaufmann, E. 2008 “The Lenses of Nationhood: an optical model of identity”, Nations and Nationalism, Volume 14, Number 3, July 2008 , pp. 449-477(29)


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Filed under Nationalism, Occupy Wall Street, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party

“Real Democracy”: Negotiating Difference within Consensus

Caught Between Habermas and Mouffe

From Syntagma Square to Zuccotti Park many protesters claim to be exercising a novel idea of democratic politics, one which breaks away from the worn-out paradigms of representative democracy by presenting itself as genuinely inclusive, direct and participatory. One of the most visible slogans amongst the European Indignados movements is that of “democracia real”, meaning “real democracy”. Similarly, in the US Occupy movements many speak of new kind of democracy called “consensus democracy”[1].

This new type of politics is exercised in the hundreds of open assemblies occurring worldwide in various occupied squares. It is referred to as “real democracy” because decisions are not taken by majority vote but rather through extensive deliberation over decisions which all consent to.

And yet we may ask, what is actually “new” about consensus democracy? And is it bringing any significant contribution to democratic theory? It is useful to compare consensus democracy with other democratic theories which claim to be just as participatory, direct and inclusive. Consensus democracy in fact shares many traits with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “deliberative democracy” and Chantal Mouffe’s theory of “agonistic democracy”. From this brief analysis, we will see that the major challenge faced by these theories is the accommodation of social plurality within the process of achieving a collective consensus.

How does Consensus Decision Making Work?

Consensus decision-making offers a procedure through which participants of an assembly may take decisions collaboratively through deliberation. The decisions taken through this process are not necessarily ones that all individuals support wholeheartedly, but ones that everyone can live with[2]. As such, its goal is the facilitation of a deliberative procedure in which proposals may be reworked so as to accommodate as many interests as possible.

Consensus decision-making is an inclusive, participatory, collaborative, agreement-seeking and cooperative method of deliberation. It therefore attempts to remedy the exclusionary byproducts of majority vote and top-down approaches towards decision making[3]. However, it is not a process limiting itself to the achievement of compromise; rather, it attempts to construct new proposals from the confrontation of different ideas[4].

Participants in the assembly are helped by facilitators, which aid the smooth running of the discussion. An impartial moderator keeps the discussion on track and makes sure that anyone wanting to speak is allowed to do so. Other facilitators keep time and take down the minutes (this guarantees transparency). In order not to interrupt the discussion with applause, jeers or boos, sign language signals are practiced: the waving of open palms (twinkling) expresses consent, the crossing of the arms signifies dissent[5].

Assembly discussions produce proposals which are tested for consent. Participants have four choices when faced with a proposal. Firstly, they may express consent. Secondly, they may stand aside, signaling that they don’t fully support the proposal but that they are not against it. Thirdly, they may raise concerns and ask that it be modified. Lastly, they may block it, thereby effectively vetoing it. If this occurs, the proposal returns to assembly discussion, where it is modified/amended and re-tested for consensus until all consent to it. Blocking a proposal is a serious matter. It means that a participant deeply disagrees with it and that she/he will leave the assembly if it passes[6].

This type of democratic politics has been adopted by the Occupy and Indignados movements as an alternative to the “politics as usual” paradigm which has crippled our democratic institutions. Its leaderless and non-hierarchical mode of organization -which finds its only legitimate voice in the open, egalitarian and transparent popular assembly- provides an alternative to both traditional party-politics as well as vanguard-driven political struggle. Consensus democracy is more than anything a procedure: a process which allows for a more inclusive, direct and participatory exercise of democracy.

Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

In a similar way Jürgen Habermas’s democratic theory aims at creating a type of consensus based on extensive deliberation.  Habermas asserts that there exists a type rationality implicit in the act of communication between individuals. Communicative rationality grants legitimacy to deliberation in virtue of its intelligibility, correctness, sincerity and truth. If two individuals feel that the discussion they are having is characterized by these attributes the outcome of their deliberation will be perceived by both as rational and therefore legitimate[7].

Habermas then develops the concept of the “ideal speech situation”, an ideal space in which perfect and balanced deliberation occurs: where there is full participation, where all are equal, all have a voice, and where there are no asymmetrical power relationships. These conditions allow for the maximization of communicative rationality. If we were to re-model our political institutions on the ideal speech situation the decisions reached through such a process would be endowed with a rational consensus, and thus garner increased legitimacy. Decisions taken through this process are legitimate and enjoy a rational consensus when they are determined by the quality of the better argument rather than power[8].

He is therefore arguing that increased democratic deliberation and participation grant legitimacy to the decision making process . Introducing something akin to the ideal speech situation within our political institutions (and in civil society) would begin to restore the democratic legitimacy which they currently lack[9]. Deliberative democracy therefore attempts to produce a rational consensus between rational participants, achieved through a deliberative procedure which ensures inclusion, participation and communicative equality.

Mouffe and Agonistic Democracy

Chantal Mouffe wholeheartedly rejects the possibility of a consensus reached through the procedures of deliberative democracy. For her, Habermas fails to recognize the true nature of the political, which is not underlined by rationalism but rather by political antagonism. Mouffe believes that society is irreducibly plural, in the sense that there exist a multiplicity of different identities and ideologies which often possess irreconcilable and diametrically opposed positions. The idea that all identities may deliberate on the basis of a shared communicative rationality is therefore implausible. Also, the idea that an unadulterated and unbiased ideal speech situation should serve as a model is unrealistic[10]. Mouffe’s main critique is that Habermas understands of a rational consensus specifically in Eurocentric and liberal terms, a consensus founded primarily on individual rights and the rule of law. This excludes, a priori, individuals and collective identities who do not fully identify with liberal tenets. Such groups are therefore perceived as irrational or premodern (aboriginal peoples or Islamist movements for example) whom often react antagonistically towards impositions of liberal consensus. As such, a rational consensus may perversely exclude difference as it would not allow irrational ideas into the deliberative process[11].

For Mouffe, the future of democratic politics lies in the transformation of antagonistic social conflict into agonistic political confrontation. Instead of absorbing social plurality into a universal liberal-democratic framework we must erect the democratic institutions and discourses which allow for increased political confrontation between different ideas and identities. The sharing of the symbolic spaces and participatory democratic institutions in which to exercise our democratic rights attempts to defuse antagonism by transforming it into “agonistic” confrontation. This implies a confrontation not between enemies but between political adversaries[12]. Mouffe concludes that the “stuff” of democracy is political confrontation. Attempting to reach a final rational consensus spells the death of democracy because it puts an end to political confrontation which is the life-blood of democratic politics[13]. The type of consensus emerging from such a Mouffe’s theory is therefore not a universally shared consensus but one emerging from democratic confrontation:

“This is how I envisage the agonistic struggle, a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus: consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation”[14]

Occupy: deliberative or agonistic?

While Habermas justifies his democratic theory on the possibility of an universal rational consensus, Mouffe founds hers directly on political confrontation. The first seeks the absorption of political confrontation within consensus, the second makes political confrontation its raison d’être. But where does consensus decision-making enter this debate?

Deliberative and consensus democracy share the fact that they both offer a procedure through which to democratize decision making. However the main difference between them is that underlining deliberative democracy is the assumption that all participants share some understanding of what constitutes rationality. Yet, Mouffe has revealed that the understanding of this alleged universal rationality is specifically a liberal one, and hence is capable of excluding individuals whom do not identify with it. Contrarily, consensus decision-making makes no such assumptions. Its primary goal is to create the space and process in which egalitarian deliberation and decision-making between different political identities may occur.

In respect to the accommodation of social plurality, consensus democracy as practiced by the Occupy and Indignados movements is closer to Mouffe’s agonistic democracy. It does not seek to absorb different political identities into a rational consensus but attempts to accommodate difference temporarily precisely through deliberative confrontation. The assemblies in the Occupy movements are very confrontational as their participants hail from disparate political positions on the ideological spectrum, from the liberal to the anarchist. Discussions are both lively and intense. And yet, consensus is more than often reached precisely because they are allowed to confront each other politically and forced to reach temporary collective decisions – which may always be improved and modified in the future. This allows the assemblies to recognize what Mouffe calls the irreducible plurality of the social; they understand that we are all different politically, culturally and socially, and that difference cannot be absorbed by any idea of universal consensus.

Moreover, the ability of any participant to block a proposal forces the assembly to recognize and negotiate with minority views, an issue which most democratic orders systematically ignore and overrule. The consensus reached in the Occupy movements is therefore a contingent one: the product of temporary and negotiated discursive articulations and the child of an open, egalitarian and participatory democratic procedure. And these few facts alone, are truly breaking new ground within the field of political theory.

Bibliography

Habermas, J. 1996, Between Facts and Norms. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK

Hartnett, T. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making [online] Group Facilitation, available at http://www.groupfacilitation.net/Articles%20for%20Facilitators/The%20Basics%20of%20Consensus%20Decision%20Making.html

Mouffe, C. 2000, The Democratic Paradox. Verso:  Essex, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, On The Political. Routledge: Abingdon, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, Articulated Power Relations – Markus Miessen in conversation with Chantal Mouffe [online] available at: http://roundtable.kein.org/node/545

Seeds for Change, 2010 Consensus Decision Making. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/consensus

Seeds for Change, Making Decisions by Consensus. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/practicalconsensus.pdf


[2] Making decisions by consensus

[3] Hartnett, Tim. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making, http://www.grouopfacilitation.net

[4] Consensus decision Making seedsforchange.org.uk

[6] Consensus Decision Making, seedsforchange.org.uk p6

[7] Habermas 1996,  p119

[8] Habermas 1996,  p226

[9] Habermas 1996,  p304

[10] Mouffe 2000, 49

[11] Mouffe 2000, p46

[12] Mouffe 2005, p16

[13] Mouffe 2005, p31

[14] Mouffe interview

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Filed under Chantal Mouffe, democracy, Democratic Theory, Habermas, Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements

Why Occupy?

Neo-liberalism’s false choice

The politico-financial system which has led to the present crisis has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. People have lost their homes, students are beholden to enormous amounts of debt, rating agencies downgrade our bonds, and unemployment remains stubbornly high –just to name a few of our ailments. But perhaps the greatest violence perpetrated by this unsustainable system is presenting itself as the only solution to the problem it was responsible for in the first place.

By Barcex (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Under the pressure of financial markets and supranational institutions, sovereign nations were forced firstly to bail-out a system on the brink of collapse and secondly forced swallow austerity measures devised with the aim of easing the markets’ fears of sovereign debt insolvency. The complex “packages” the European Central Bank is concocting to save debt-ridden countries in the Euro-zone are aimed not at reforming an unsustainable system but at keeping the show going on just as it has. We are still working within the “business as usual” paradigm, accepting harsh measures with no strings attached.

This occurs because of the false choice presented to us by our political and economic institutions, namely that there is no alternative to the neo-liberal hegemony: we must therefore choose between saving an inherently unsustainable system on the one hand, and an Armageddon of financial meltdown, chaos and anarchy on the other.

Such a false choice is nurtured by a well-rehearsed narrative: since the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union, we are told, capitalism has remained the “last game in town”. Increasingly, more and more nations have followed Huntington’s fabled “third wave of democratization” and embraced the American model of the liberal capitalist democracy[1]. The triumph engendered by this progressive trend has led some to proclaim its universalization and to declare the end of history, for no better system could possibly be devised by human intellect[2]. The lesson is clear: there is simply no alternative to this political and financial system.

The Logics of Occupying

In the light of this situation, the American and British Occupy movements along with the European Indignados merely appear as a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis. They are portrayed as having no demands, no propositions and as a ramshackle puzzle of heterogeneous identities unable to formulate a common statement of intent. It seems essentially an anti-capitalist mobilization simply venting out its “rage against the machine”, no different from the 90s no-global movements of Seattle and Genova. However this time it’s different.

Naomi Klein has pointed out one important characteristic of this new phenomenon. While past protests against neo-liberalism have targeted periodic meetings such as WTO and G8 conventions, this time the Occupy movements are here to stay indefinitely. This means that the protest against the system is not transitory but sustained[3]. There is therefore a particular logic behind the act of indefinite occupation: it is a symbolic re-appropriation of democratic space in which to exercise our rights as democratic citizens. Reclaiming that space therefore openly challenges the false choice presented to us by neo-liberalism.

Occupy: a space for difference and social plurality

The Occupy and Indignados movements are indeed a collage of heterogeneous identities. Pacifist, feminist, gay, environmental, and all sorts of other movements have pitched their tents together in hundreds of cities worldwide. This is often seen by the media and political pundits as an inherent weakness, as it contributes to the inability of producing common statements and proposals. Yet, this is no weakness. Contrarily, it is a conscious expression of difference and has at its heart a precise message, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong with our democratic institutions: political representation has ceased to reflect  the multiplicity of identities and demands found in society. Our political delegates are distant, unaccountable, over-privileged and in many cases corrupted by the power of organized crime and/or of campaign contributions and donations from the private sector.

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The act of occupation by this multitude (I am referring to Hardt and Negri’s multitude) of social movements and private citizens expresses the discontent caused by years of government by unresponsive, dysfunctional and far-removed legislative assemblies. Occupying the public square means reclaiming a space in which diversity may be publicly expressed: a space which is not provided by our liberal-democratic constitutional orders and our representative system. The occupied public square reflects social plurality: it shows us that society is intrinsically different and plural on ethnic, political, cultural, economic and spiritual levels and that these differences have a sacrosanct right to be expressed and represented. Occupying the square provides a platform of democratic representation for difference which has been systematically excluded and silenced by the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: a space for transparency

Occupying a square is also an act of openness. Inclusion and participation are the main attributes of the public assemblies of these movements. Every action, decision, thought or idea is formulated collectively and openly in the square[4]. The fact that the decision-making process is exercised in a public location and on public property is a symbolic assertion of the need for transparency in our political and economic institutions.

In this way, not only is the occupied square a democratic space in which diversity is adequately represented, it is also a space in which power asymmetries (gender, cultural, economic, etc.) are laid bare and may be denounced precisely because of its inherently open and transparent character. This is in stark contrast with the obscure, distant and unaccountable ways our governing bodies are run. It is the reclaiming of a transparent space which is not provided to us under the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: as space for an alternative

Above all however, occupying the square intends to reclaim a space in which an alternative to the status quo may be constructed. This is by far the most radical and successful achievement of the movement. Its success lies not in the presentation of a fully defined new paradigm which will serve as an alternative to the neo-liberal status quo, but the demonstration that there is the need for a space in which alternative ideas may be expressed, deliberated, contested and experimented. How can any alternative to, or reform of, the present system ever emerge if we lack the space in which to express them?

Through the reclaiming of public squares the Occupy and Indignados movements have shown us that our political orders are lacking the democratic institutions and the democratic instruments through which new ideas may be proposed. They have shown us that our western democracies are in desperate need of institutions which foster participation, transparency and inclusion so that new ideas may emerge and change this system which grotesquely feeds on its own inherent contradictions.

In this light, the over-rehearsed slogan “another world is possible” does not present itself as a naïve hippie’s dream of a tree-hugging utopia, but as an active challenge to the idea that neo-liberalism is “the last game in town” and that no alternative may even exist. None of these nascent movements will propose a new economic or political system to replace this one. But they will invite us all to participate in an open, transparent and inclusive public space so that we may collectively debate, converse and construct it together through democratic deliberation and  political participation.

Conclusions

Ultimately, the very fact that such a movement is actually in the squares occupying indefinitely is presently the only check on the un-democratic excesses of this unsustainable system. There is no political effort on behalf of any elected government in the world (except Iceland probably) that is willing to reject the false choice of neo-liberalism – which increasingly looks more like an ultimatum. Bailouts, austerity measures and these so-called un-elected “technical governments” are giving up the hard-earned democratic rights that define us as democratic citizens: they are giving in to the neo-liberal ultimatum.

In this context, the Occupy and Indignados movements are the only mobilizations  standing up to this blatant assault on popular sovereignty and human dignity. They are the only movements which have rejected this false choice and reclaimed a public space in which people may be truly represented, where an effort for transparency reigns, and in which to collectively construct an alternative through democratic confrontation. And this fact alone, for me, has won half of the battle already.


[1] Huntington, S.P. 2003 “Democracy’s Third Wave” in eds. Dahl, Shapiro, Cheibub. The Democracy Sourcebook. MIT Press: Boston

[2] Fukuyama, F. 1992 The End of History and the Last Man. Penguin: London

[3] Klein, N. 14 Oct. 2011 “The most important thing in the world”, The Occupied Wall Street Journal [online] available @ http://occupiedwallstjournal.com/2011/10/the-most-important-thing-in-the-world/

[4] takethesquare.net 2011 “Quick Guide on Group Dynamics in People’s Assemblies” [online] available @ http://takethesquare.net/2011/07/31/quick-guide-on-group-dynamics-in-peoples-assemblies/

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Filed under Indignados, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements