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The Feeling of Power: Occupy as a Model for Democratic Government

February 4, 2012


Do we want the symbol?

Non-U.S. readers, insert your own flag here

Or the reality?

General Assembly at Occupy LA. Note that the person currently speaking has no qualifying prerequisites besides being human.

You decide you’re going to do your duty as a citizen and participate in electoral politics.  You research the candidates and find one you really agree with.  Problem is, the mainstream media has already declared your candidate unelectable, before a single vote was cast.  You vote anyway, maybe even go out and campaign for your candidate.  Your candidate loses by a large margin.

Or maybe you voted for somebody who was deemed electable, and they actually won–only to renege on all their campaign promises once in office.

Or maybe your vote was stolen.  Or you went to the polling station and were told you couldn’t vote because you were a “felon”, your crime being Voting While Black.

Or maybe you were a consumer activist.  Maybe you decided to only buy American, or to only buy ethically sourced animal products, only to discover that those “cage-free” eggs were still from tortured chickens, and that shirt “Made in America” was actually produced by sweatshop workers in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Then you went to your first GA (General Assembly).  There was an issue being discussed, and you spoke up and contributed your point of view.  Everybody listened respectfully to what you had to say, and if the area was large and/or noisy enough to necessitate the “human mic”, everyone repeated it.  Someone else spoke after you disagreeing with what you said, and that person addressed your points directly.  If you went to a GA at Occupy Wall Street, chances are you made funding decisions involving larger amounts of money than you’ve ever had in your bank account.  Nobody cared how good you were at baby-kissing or how many rich friends you had, the only thing that mattered was what you said.

Power to the people.  Not just the slogan, but the reality.  That’s how it should be, right?

Nay-sayers will argue that this is all very well, but direct democracy is impossible with large numbers of people.  They’ll say that the current system of “Western-style democracy” or “free market democracy” is the best that can be hoped for in the First World, and to hope for even less in the rest of the world.  They’ll usually invoke the scare words of “socialism” (i.e. the idea that any government that truly commits to ending poverty is heading down the road to Stalinist terror) and “anarchy” (the idea that if we get rid of our current corrupt “leaders”, we’ll inevitably be left with a lawless non-society where the guy with the most guns wins), and euphemisms about religion and culture (i.e. people outside the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Western Europe can’t handle freedom, so it’s really best for everybody if they just have a dictator who does what the U.S. wants.)

They’re full of shit, of course, but you knew that.

Let’s look at how Occupy-style direct democracy can be implemented by actual governments:

On the small-town scale, we can look to the example of the early colonial settlers of New England and of modern Vermont, and do Town Meetings.  Government through meetings is workable on a larger scale than you might think: the Assemblies in ancient Athens consisted of a minimum of 6,000 citizens!

On a larger scale, there is the National Initiative for Democracy, which was promoted by former Alaskan Senator and media-ignored 2008 U.S. presidential candidate Mike Gravel.  Basically, it would allow citizens to propose laws and then vote on them via a ballot initiative process.  (Also see Article 8, a proposed alternative with similar ideas.)

Even with representative democracy, there are better ways to make it truly representative.  Consider the example of the Iroquois (Hau de no sau nee) Confederacy, where representatives who didn’t heed the people’s wishes could be deposed or killed after three warnings.  (Ref.: Article 59 of the Iroquois Constitution.)  Their Constitution also stipulates that a “specially important matter or a great emergency” would require a decision made by all the people.  (Ref.: Article 93.)  I remember liberal talk-radio host Randi Rhodes used to say something similar.  Her idea was, let’s make all politicians speak under oath whenever they’re speaking in public.  That way they won’t be able to make false promises or send us to war based on lies.  If they do they can be prosecuted for perjury.

Or you could, just as a start, get rid of the money in politics.  Get rid of this “corporate free speech” BS, make elections completely publicly financed so that winning elections becomes about what you say on the issues during debates, not about how much money you can raise from pay-for-play corporate donors.

More on direct democracy, Occupy-style: an argument often used against direct democracy is that since public debates can take a long time, that means having everyone participate in policy decisions would take up so much time that little would get done.  There are some major problems with this argument.

For starters, the corruption in our current system means that measures that would pass in a direct democracy (I should say: in a real democracy) die without debate.  This was the case with Intro 48, a bill introduced to the New York City council in 2010 by Picture the Homeless that would force NYC to conduct an annual count of vacant buildings and lots in the five boroughs.  It was co-sponsored by a majority of City Council members, but was “set to the side” by the director of the City Council’s policy division because they were “getting push-back” from the Mayor’s office.  (Picture the Homeless conducted a citywide vacant property count in 2011, in partnership with Hunter College, which proved that there’s enough vacant property in NYC to house five times the city’s homeless shelter population.)

Also, a lot of what our elected representatives do bears little resemblance to either legislating or governing.  For a great example of this, see the chapter in Matt Taibbi’s book “The Great Derangement” wherein House representatives spend a hard afternoon’s debate naming a Smithfield, NC post office branch after Ava Gardner.  I am not making this up, and unfortunately, neither did he.

Finally, not everything that elected representatives do “get done” is wanted or needed by the people who elected them.  For a lot of us, the Wall Street bank bailout was what killed our faith in party politics once and for all.  It was detested by Americans of both political parties according to the polls, and passed in Congress with bipartisan support.

But the main argument against direct democracy is the same argument used against campaign finance reform, against free and fair elections in the developing world, against third party candidacies and not-for-profit universal healthcare in the U.S.: that our current crappy system is so entrenched that getting rid of it is impossible.  It’s all very well to dream up better ways of doing things, but let’s be realistic, they say.

To which the short answer is: “Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible!” 

And to which a slightly longer answer is: Yeah, that’s what you said about Moammar Gaddhafi.

And Ali Abdullah Saleh.

And Hosni Mubarak.

And Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Dictators who remained in power for 42 years, 33 years, 29 years, and 23 years respectively.  All kicked out last year.

Power to the people.  Not just a slogan.  Let’s make it into a reality.

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