The #Occupy movement: Strength through disunity

To play by the rules of the failed party political system would be to invite failure from the outset for the #Occupy movement, writes David Johnson.

In an article published on this site yesterday, Paul Murphy, Socialist Party MEP and member of the United Left Alliance, had many positive things to say about the #Occupy movement, and ways in which traditional parties on the left could learn from it. He has spent a good amount of time on Dame Street, speaking and participating in marches, general assemblies and workshops, and perhaps more than any other Irish politician understands what the movement is about. He has seen the best of Dame Street, and the bad and indifferent, and those on Dame Street would do well to read his piece and learn from it as much as those on the traditional left he is ostensibly speaking to.

However I find myself in disagreement with his conclusion that while the left could better itself by becoming more like the #Occupy movement, the future of the #Occupy movement is to work more closely with the traditional parties of the left. To understand my concerns with his thesis, it is perhaps worth starting with an exploration of another grassroots movement and what happened when it encountered the party political system.

Founded in 1981 as the Ecology Party of Ireland, The Green Party emerged from a number of community-based initiatives and as it coalesced it rejected many of the trappings of traditional political parties, even remaining leaderless until 2001. By the 2007 election the party was still campaigning on issues like Shell-to-Sea, the Tara bypass and the use of Shannon as a military stop-over, and was a party that embraced activism and social justice. Uniquely in mainstream Irish politics the ordinary membership of the party play a central role in its running, with all major decisions coming back to the rank and file members for discussion and approval, and entering into government afforded it a unique opportunity to effect change on a national level. Unfortunately its period in government coincided with the start of the worst economic crisis our nation had faced in generations, and the reality of partnership with Fianna Fáil was far harsher than any in the party leadership (save maybe Trevor Sargent and Patricia McKenna) had anticipated. There was no room for manoeuvre given by their government partners on core campaigning issues, Tara, Shannon and Rossport were all quickly jettisoned and token initiatives like the carbon budget and cycle-to-work scheme were cold comfort in the face of the bank bailout and NAMA. As the party moved further and further away from what attracted many voters to it in the first place and in a seemingly desperate effort to cling to power and safeguard what few achievements it had overseen, it wound up perpetuating the existence of the most destructive government our nation had ever experienced and facilitating the introduction of measures that would cripple future generations. In so doing, it found itself estranged from an electorate increasingly alienated not only by the party but by the reality of the party political system, with disastrous consequences for the Greens in this year's election.

If even in this, theoretically the most democratic political party in the state, it seemed that decisions were being taken to protect a small minority in Irish society at the expense of the majority of the citizenry; that the words “there is no alternative” were being used to end every debate; and that as we looked from man to pig, and from pig to man again and found it impossible to say which was which; then it seemed that it must be in the nature of the party political system that the acquisition and retention of power becomes an object in and of itself, as opposed to a means to an end, corrupting all who touch it.

I say all this not to single out the Greens for criticism, but to highlight genuine concerns that many people have with the party political system; why they feel excluded from or alienated by it, and why they would hesitate before becoming involved. In order to reach out to as many people as possible, #OccupyDameStreet has called for anyone that wishes to participate in the movement to do so as an individual, and to leave their party affiliations at the door. In not adopting a single creed or manifesto, in embracing people from all political backgrounds and none, it seeks to be as inclusive and representative as possible. There is no One True Way, one ideology or one set of answers to all of society’s woes, and to try an force the movement into the narrow confines of a party straightjacket would be to misunderstand the very reason why #OccupyDameStreet came into existence in the first place.

But even if you reject the structures of the party political system, are the trappings and tactics used by parties for the last two hundred years or more so bad? Have they not worked in the past and could #OccupyDameStreet not use them to their advantage?

In December of last year, motivated by what I saw to be a criminally unjust budget and refusing to sit passively by while my future and the futures of those around me were compromised for the sake of a golden circle of financiers and developers, I took myself down to the Dáil and joined the Pots and Pans protest as TDs inside went through the motions of debate. The outcome of the debate was never in any doubt, thanks to the whip system and back-room deals done with Deputies Lowry and Healy-Rae, but I felt that even if my voice couldn't be heard in the Chamber, perhaps the banging of my wooden spoon on an old and battered saucepan would remind those inside that there still was a citizenry outside to whom they were answerable.

The crowd at the budget day protest was small. To the left of the Dáil's main gates you had a mixture of old and young, families with their children, workers and those seeking work, academics and students and more, all standing together as individuals, drawing inspiration from the people of Iceland and making as loud a protest as they could with kitchenware and, god help me, drums. To the right of the gates stood a much larger crowd from a republican political party, with banners and placards raised high, throwing themselves against the crowd barriers and setting off flares in the street. At one stage an older man left the Dáil and as he walked down the street a mob broke off from the republican group, mistakenly believing him to be Jackie Healy-Rae. They chased after him, hurling their placards and throwing punches before the gardaí intervened and bundled him into a nearby building for his own safety. The contrast between the two groups of protesters could not have been greater, and as I watched a mother beside me shield her child as the mob ran down the street, I knew that she would never again join a political protest.

While mob behaviour and violence are definitely a rarity in organised political protests, it cannot be denied that the very presence of banners, placards and the like are an intimidating sight, for that is their purpose: they are meant to physically increase the visual impact of the crowd. Like a cat raising its fur and arching its back they are supposed to convey a message directly to a target and strike fear into the heart. They are a sign of anger and aggression, but one which ultimately fails in their traditional form because they simply do not work, so ingrained in the culture of mass protest have they become that their intended targets ignore them. In recent years we have seen amongst the ordinary citizenry who engage in protests a move away from party political placards towards more homemade ones, with messages satirical and humorous or deeply moving and personal. These are the signs that the media love to show because they tell an immediate story.

So if party political banners are ignored by both the targets of the protests and the media, who are they intended for? The answer is quite simply that political banners and placards target the other people on the march. They are a show of strength to other organisations involved and a recruiting tool for the uninitiated. They are less about the message of the march and more about identifying the presence of a particular group. “Look at us,” they say, “We are here and we are here in strength.” Placards and banners are more about the internecine struggle of the disunited left, with groups constantly jockeying for supremacy and positioning themselves as the One True Voice of the People. They are used to hijack marches, to portray their bearers as more involved in the organisation than they are or as having greater support within the movement, and in these seemingly eternal battles the real victims are the ordinary citizenry, unaligned with any faction, who are threatened, intimidated and scared away by their presence, or quite simply leave because they do not want to be associated with a given organisation.

This is why so many within the #OccupyDameStreet Movement feel so strongly about this issue. They feel that political groups who are wedded to their banners care more about advertising themselves on a march or at the camp than they do about the issues #OccupyDameStreet are trying to raise; that the issue is one of branding and not solidarity, about recruitment and not support, and that it is all about power. If those in political groups genuinely care about #OccupyDameStreet why can they not come along as individuals and offer their support, knowledge and experience, unencumbered by the negative trappings of the old political order that alienates so many around them?

Perhaps no issue has arisen with more alarming regularity at #OccupyDameStreet general assemblies than this, and realising that consensus is unlikely to be reached on a change to this policy at any stage in the near future, those who passionately believe in closer ties with political parties find themselves increasingly frustrated with the consensus decision making process itself.

To those unfamiliar with it, consensus decision-making can seem laborious and confused, and for me moving to it from a hierarchical business environment, in which I solicit opinions and feedback but ultimately make the decisions myself, was a challenge. But what were initially, for me, major frustrations with the process soon became its saving graces. While not requiring unanimity, if there is even a significant minority who are unwilling to stand aside and let a motion pass with their objections noted, it means that more time is necessary for discussion before a decision is made. In our corporate culture we are taught to praise rapid decision-making; that fast is better than slow, but events of the last two years have highlighted just how harmful decision-making without adequate reflection can be. The bank guarantee scheme was announced within a matter of hours of the banks approaching the government, and Anglo Irish Bank, not one of the original supplicants, was included without any proper consideration. The Second Programme for Government agreed between the Greens and Fianna Fáil was not available for Green Party members to read until the debate on its adoption had already begun, and a vote was taken on it and their acceptance of NAMA with only an hour or two to discuss the issues. The use of the so called guillotine in Dáil debates is frequent, and while the outcome of most votes are known beforehand thanks to the whip system, the fact that our parliamentarians no longer even go through the motions of debate should be alarming, “Act in haste, repent at leisure' is a motto that should be emblazoned above the gates of every parliament. 

These traditional forms of political decision making are all predicated on the assumption that those participating come to the debate with their minds already made up, that the result of the vote would be the same before the debate as after and that the debate itself is but a hollow exercise to have their opinions noted for posterity. This is not true democracy. On Dame Street there is a sense of genuine debate, a sense that people have come to listen and are willing to change their minds. Already we have seen consensus be reached on changing the approach to union participation, with original statements calling for people to leave their party political and union banners behind at marches being amended to refer to political parties only. This does not mean that #OccupyDameStreet has embraced unions, only that the wording on statements shouldn’t specifically exclude them. The discussions around this took days and were quite heated at times, but in the end people changed their minds or stood aside, consensus was reached and #OccupyDameStreet moved on. No such consensus has been reached on embracing political parties, but this does not mean either that discussions on the subject should stop altogether or that the system should be changed because it doesn't suit those who disagree with the outcome.

What attracted me to #OccupyDameStreet in the first place, and keeps me coming back day after day, is the fact that it has dispensed with the language and trappings of the old political order and is unafraid to try something new. Hierarchies and leadership, manifestos and party dogma, simple majority rule and the language of class warfare have all been discarded for something far more inclusive, organic, and yes, very messy at times. This is not about nineteenth century notions of left and right, of workers and bosses, of socialists and capitalists, it is about social equality, fairness, justice and inclusivity.

To play by the rules of a failed system would be to invite failure from the offset. It is time to create something new.

Image top: lusciousblopster.