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The Occupy Movement’s Enthusiasm and Contempt for Democracy

Following Julian Sanchez‘s lead, I’ve argued that now that the Occupy movement has succeeded in shining a spotlight on its primary concerns — rising inequality, political corruption, and debt peonage — Occupiers and their allies now ought to pull up stakes, give up their whimsically undemocratic semi-privatization of public spaces, and endeavor to reform public policy through the democratic institutions established to make the collective determination of binding public rules legitimate. Moving on to seek reform through established democratic channels would require giving up the insolent and frankly disrespectful presumption that these often radically left-wing congregations somehow represent not only a majority of Americans, but 99% of them. It would require Occupiers to square up to the fact that their movement’s implicit ideology is an ideology, and a minority ideology at that — just one among our society’s many rival moral and political worldviews. The intransigence of the Occupy movement suggests an unwillingness among its numbers to take seriously the fact of pluralism, and the corollary impossibility of consensus, which makes majoritarian democratic procedures necessary in the first place.  

The replies I’ve most often heard to this line of argument are (a) that America’s democratic institutions are too corrupt, too far gone to serve in the quest for progressive social change, and (b) that agitating for social and political change through the sorts of public protest and civil disobedience the Occupy movement are engaged in is a kind of democratic action.

Shawn Gude makes a case for (b) in this thoughtful post  replying to Julian and me. Let’s start here: 

Parliamentary bargaining and cerebral discussions have their place—indeed, I wouldn’t blog at the League if I thought otherwise. But agitation outside the ballot box or the walls of Congress is a necessary antecedent to social change. As Howard Zinn felicitously phrased it, it’s “that healthy commotion that has always attended the growth of justice.” …

To democratic minimalists like Sanchez and Wilkinson, democracy is electoral politics. Citizen participation means voting, if one is so inclined. Enhancing citizen power is gratuitous. But this is exactly the kind of narrow, elite-enhancing conception of democracy that the Occupy movement so clearly eschews. What many occupiers do seek is a more vibrant democracy in which corrupt influences don’t dictate policy and average citizens can meaningfully influence the forces and decisions that shape their lives.

I won’t presume to speak for Julian, but I don’t believe either of us said or implied that agitation or protest is not often a necessary antecedent to social and political change. The function of democratic rule-making procedures is to reflect public opinion, not to change it. And no one thinks the proximate cause of public opinion is the sort of cerebral discussion we’re having here. Of course rallies, protests, letter-writing campaigns, sit-ins — all manner of Zinn’s “healthy commotion” — help shape the inputs to formal decisionmaking. We couldn’t do without it. So I happily affirm (b). It’s perfectly consistent with my argument. 

For my part, I’m glad OWS came along. I’m glad it’s drawn a bunch of young people into political engagement, changed a bunch of people’s opinions about important subjects, and refocused the public debate about the direction of this country. Moreover, I happen to like commotion, whether or not it’s healthy. It makes life more interesting. And I’ve got an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide. When it comes down to a crowd of people who haven’t done anything really wrong versus the cops, I’m reflexively against the cops. That said, my idiosyncratic preferences are hardly a reliable guide to the nature of a decent liberal social order. So, as much as I might love commotions generally, and unauthorized camping specifically, at a certain point you’ve got to ask whether an ongoing commotion really continues to be healthy. The Occupy movement’s commotion served a healthy purpose, but that’s done. It’s not so healthy anymore.  

Of course, “healthy” can mean several things in this context. As I pointed out in my Economist post, public attitudes toward the Occupy movement have gone south. I think the evidence supports the proposition that keeping up the camping is counterproductive, unhealthy if you will, for the Occupy movement. And I don’t think it’s hard to understand why the Occupiers have so swiftly lost anything resembling a populist mandate. Like I’ve said, the movement is audaciously presumptuous, claiming to represent “the people”, even when most people don’t want anything to do with it. In many cities (but by no means everywhere), the Occupiers are violating local laws and ordinances put in place by “the people” through ordinary democratic means. They are not only asserting de facto property rights over public spaces, but are creating significant public expense at a time when municipalities are stretched thin. It’s not surprising that many citizens resent this, and it’s hard to see the strategic upside of aggravating people further.

Occupiers are quick to point to the proud tradition of civil disobedience in the name of justice, as Gude does, again citing Howard Zinn. Yet the Occupy movement has failed to communicate adequately to the general public exactly what specific injustices their defiance of law is supposed to protest, or what measures would be adequate to remove their grounds for civil disobedience. According to most plausible theories of civil disobedience, clear communication of specific grounds for protest and specific demands for reform are necessary for an unlawful act to count as legitimate civil disobedience. This implies that most Illegal Occupy encampments don’t count as civil disobedience at all. They’re just illegal encampments full of very self-righteous people who may or may not be right about the unspecified things they are upset about. 

This gets directly to the contention that the Occupy movement fails to take pluralism seriously. I might be quite sure that I stand for justice, that I am on the right side of history. But the intensity of my confidence doesn’t give the public, or their duly appointed official agents, any reason at all to tolerate my refusal to comply with local laws determined by a presumably legitimate democratic process, especially when I won’t communicate my reasons for noncompliance. I owe others an explanation of why I’m so sure I ‘m right, or at least why the public rule I’m breaking ought not be considered binding in this instance. A load of vague handwaving rhetoric about how the whole system is crooked won’t do. I need to offer specific reasons others can see from their own perspectives to have some merit. If I can’t manage to do that, then I should either stop publicly flouting the public rule, or stop expecting that I be treated as a special case immune from the normal enforcement of laws.

None of this is to say that cops should beat people up, or steal or ruin their property, or spray them in the face with toxic substances. I think a lot of the police violence we’ve seen recently is criminal, in the moral sense, and that it ought to provide grounds for successful criminal and civil complaints. America certainly doesn’t suffer from hesitancy to lock people away, or to bring lawsuits. Quite the contrary. But there really are too few cops in jail, too few cops working off steep civil judgments. In any case, the police have discretion. Municipal governments have discretion. And they ought to exercise it prudently and humanely. That said, as a general matter, it’s not healthy for communities to indefinitely tolerate large-scale disregard for the law. That communicates, among other unhealthy things, contempt for democracy, as it is popularly understood.  

Gude writes:

The Occupy movement is … concerned with reshaping popular conceptions of democracy and citizen participation. …

After facilitating at a general assembly several weeks back, one of my best friends received a message from a participant thanking him for the empowering experience. Even in the “world’s greatest democracy,” she had never felt as engaged in the democratic process. At a recent Occupy DSM statement of principles working group meeting, one member said he never dreamed of trying to solve the world’s problems. He said it partly in jest, but these anecdotes get to the heart of what I think the Occupy movement is all about: augmenting agency and correcting deep societal power imbalances.

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That’s really wonderful. But why can’t Occupiers meet up in a church basement, or check out a room at the public library like everybody else? This sort of meet-up to chat about heady things, to solve all the world’s problems in a comfortably multi-purpose institutional setting, maybe with danishes and bad coffee, is the bread and butter of the authentic pre-electoral democratic process. If building a little model society, a little pocket of utopia, is really they way to go, then why can’t the Occupiers practice participatory democracy on a friendly farmer’s plot and make a documentary about how awesome it is? Their reason why not, I freely speculate, is that none of these options puts the Occupiers’ favorite ideological conception of democracy and citizen participation (or of agency and societal power imbalance) right in folks’ faces in a way they can’t easily avoid. Which is to say, from the Occupiers’ perspective, the reason they need to be allowed to camp indefinitely, in defiance of the law (where they are in defiance of the law), is that otherwise people won’t be forced to confront how right they are about everything. Listening to some Occupiers, you get the sense that they think participatory egalitarian democracy is somehow catching. If you see it, you’re going to want in, for sure. And once you’re in, well, then it’s all over, friend. You’ve caught social justice fever! But how is the fever supposed to spread to the general population if these modest bustling colonies exhibiting the inspiring virtues of true democratic community are only allowed where they are not unwanted? Camping and deliberating and participating democratically together on somebody’s back forty, rather than in peoples’ way, is a less empowering experience. It’s too clearly LARPing.

Think about an analogous case with a contrary ideological valence. Many gun-owners have extremely strong views about their God-given right to carry guns around in public — in parks, on the streets, at public swiming pools, in public schools, on and on. Many of them even sincerely think public gun-toting augments agency and corrects deep societal power imbalances. Now, in many cities and towns the local population has voted against public gun-toting, despite the forceful case to be made for it. It may be true that if we were all to witness what really happens when gun-owners carry their guns everywhere, our objections to people carrying guns to junior-high football games would dissipate, and agency would be augmented, societal power balanced, etc. But that putative fact (just suppose — a lot of people believe it), together with my unflagging conviction in my right to bear arms everywhere doesn’t justify my decision to carry a Glock to my parent-teacher meeting anyway. It just doesn’t. I’ve got no good excuse when the cops show up in perspiring Miss Peabody’s classroom to arrest me. If I want to get the law changed, I’ve got to convince as many people as it takes to change it. That’s how it works. It’s a good system.   

Gude concludes:

In the face of this reality, the most democratic, discourse-shifting left-wing protest movement in years is now being implored to funnel all its aspirations into a moribund, perverted political process.

This is a shift to argument (a), that our democracy is too broken to bother with. If true, (a) really does overthrow my argument. But really? There’s no point in running for city council? For county recorder? For the state senate? I don’t believe it and I don’t think Gude believes it either. I bet he voted in November, and I bet he’s prepared to do it again. Why? Anyway, if the political process is so moribund and perverted, how is all this discourse-shifting supposed to eventually change public policy? A coup? A revolution? When decadent Late Capitalism finally collapses from the weight of its internal contradictions, the participatory democrats will rush in to fill the power vacuum?

Maybe the idea is that if we continue to accommodate the Occupiers’ quasi-privatization of our city’s parks, eventually the discourse, and thus public opinion, will shift so far to the left that America will have been rendered once again safe for mundane voting-booth democracy, at which point the decent people, the justice-minded people, will be ushered into office and seize the commanding heights. The problem’s not voting-booth democracy, per se, it’s just too early. Well, again, I think continued camping hurts the prospects of the left more than it helps. I’d like to know why it is Gude thinks it’s still helping his cause at this point. Is it that the camps are producing a promising crop of highly motivated activists bound to go on to do great things, but that it’s too early for the harvest, and so the bounty of activist energy will go unrealized if the tents are packed and folks go home, or to someone’s large backyard? I’d really like to understand what Occupy folks have in mind about the way this works out.

But don’t let’s forget about pluralism. If it’s true that Occupy’s brand of strategic, coordinated, not-really legit civil disobedience can reshape the space of the politically possible, what do you suppose the gun nuts ought to do? 

[Photo credit: rikomatic @ flickr


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