Tag Archives: social movements

Defining the Commons

River Gorge, by C. Krieghoff. Courtesy of Wikipedia

What exactly are “the commons”? Is water a common? Is the environment as a whole a common? Is education a common? And who exactly is in charge of governing these commons?

As the word suggests, the commons are resources which belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The springs, rivers and lakes whose waters we drink, the oceans in which we fish, the air we breath, the seeds we plant, and the cultures and traditions we share are all examples of commons.

However, the commons remains an elusive term, one which at times evades a precise definition. And this, sadly, is a pitfall. Without a clear definition and a coherent vocabulary with which to talk about the commons it becomes very difficult to protect them from instances of privatization, particularly when they must be defended through legislative means.

My aim here is to explore two different dimensions of the commons with hopes to provide firstly a coherent idea of what a commons actually consists of, and secondly to offer a political vocabulary with which to talk about them. By taking a look at the work of Nobel-laureate Elinor Ostrom, we will present a working definition of the commons and explore their empirical dimension. Secondly, I wish to present the recent and innovative work of Italian jurist Ugo Mattei, which examines the sociological and political dimension of the commons.

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy of Wikipedia

Elinor Ostrom’s seminal study Governing the Commons (1990) is premised on a refutation of Gareth Hardin’s basic assumption in his article The Tragedy of the Commons (1969). Hardin believed that individuals inevitably end up over-exploiting and degrading common resources. In his article, he presents an example of herders using a grazing field in common: without an external monitor the herders will increase the size of their herds unsustainably which will result in the over-grazing of the common field. Echoing a Hobbesian world-view, he states that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit – in a world that is limited”[1].

Policy-makers have since interpreted the Tragedy of the Commons as a paradigmatic example of individuals destroying their own resources, thereby causing environmental degradation. As a result, some policy-makers have argued that common resources must be put under the direct control of government agencies, while others have argued for their privatization making individual owners responsible for their own property[2].

Ostrom believes that both privatization and governmental control are policies based on generalizing and totalizing presumptions. Moreover, she refutes Hardin’s assumption that individuals are incapable of self-governing their resources. Contrarily, for Ostrom “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time”[3]. Individuals are not “trapped” in the tragedy of the commons paradigm, but are capable of creating their own institutions, rules and enforcement mechanisms which ensure the sustainable use of such resources.

By comparing case studies in which individuals were successful in overcoming the tragedy of the commons with cases in which they were not, Ostrom draws a set of variables and prerequisites which provide a general framework for self-governing and self-financed institutions. These include mutual monitoring, agreeing on rules written by the users of the common resource, establishing legitimate arbitrators, and instituting policies which incentivize collaboration and discourage free-riding[4].

Ostrom defines the subject of her book as common pool resources: resources which 1) produce a steady flow of resource units (benefits accruing from the resource), and 2) resources that are so large (an ocean for example) that excluding the individuals that use them unsustainably becomes almost impossible –hence her stress on the maximization of collaboration between users of common pool resources. The success of self-governing institutions, concludes Ostrom, proves that policies of privatization and government control are not the only alternatives open to us[5].

The second dimension of the commons I wish to talk about, can be found in the work of Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist deeply involved in the recent and successful efforts of preventing the privatization of public water in Italy. Mattei explores the historical, sociological and political development of the commons as well as their relationship with social movements and political contention in his book “Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto” (Common Goods: a Manifesto).

For Mattei, the commons are first and foremost contextual and contingent. By this he means that they acquire meaning the moment in which they are demanded for politically. For example, water has always existed as a natural resource, and yet it does not become “a commons” until individuals find that their access to it has been restricted by instances of privatization or bureaucratization. The commons “come into existence”, if you will, the moment they become relevant or even vital for a particular social end. Their political dimension is therefore shaped by the social context in which the demand for them has originated[6].

In addition, Mattei believes that a particular commons, say a forest, cannot be divorced from the cultural, social, economic or environmental context in which it exists. In such a way, it cannot be understood as an object separate from its surrounding territory, but rather as an integral part of complex human-ecological systems[7].

However, Mattei distinguishes the political demand for the defense of the commons from a demand for a right as understood by the political theory of classical liberalism. For example, human rights are transcendental rights which one possesses in virtue of being human. The demand for the commons, contrarily, is not claiming a right which exists separately from the individual claiming it. The demand for a common is not transcendental but relational: it is the object of struggle between communities attempting to defend them and structures of authority seeking to control them (be these property rights or state sovereignty)[8]. This type of demands are essentially dynamic relations of political contention.

And yet, Mattei asserts that the commons are absolutely central to the fulfillment of the rights pertaining to the classical liberal tradition. The human rights to food, water and education, for example, cannot be fulfilled unless these are recognized as common goods or common resources which we all, in virtue of being alive, owe to each other and have the responsibility to maintain for generations to come[9].

This very brief foray into the work of Elinor Ostrom and Ugo Mattei has served firstly to provide the empirical foundations for talking about the commons, and secondly to explore their sociological and political dimensions. Today, commons such as water, education, genetic heritage or culture are increasingly privatized in the name of a financial state of exception. Governments are forced to devolve and divest themselves of what were once seen as core responsibilities towards their citizens. As the State retreats we must ask ourselves who will protect our common resources from callous economic exploitation and environmental degradation. For now, the movement in defense of the commons is laying down the empirical, sociological and political groundwork for just this task.

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Bbliography

  • Mattei, Ugo. 2011. Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Hardin 1969, in Ostrom, 1990, p2

[2] Ostrom, 1990, p14

[3] Ostrom, 1990, p1

[4] Ostrom, 1990, p183

[5] Ostrom, 1990, p30

[6] Mattei, 2011, p53

[7] Mattei,2011, p, 62

[8] Mattei, 2011, p57

[9] Mattei, 2011, p59

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Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, Human Rights, liberalism, political theory, social movements

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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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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