02 November 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - Strength through Disunity

In a recent article on Politico.ie, 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 post and learn from it as much as those on the traditional left he ostensibly is 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 originally 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 Fail was far harsher than any in the party leadership (save maybe Trevor Sargent and Patricia McKenna) had anticipated. There was no room for maneuver 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 in a seemingly desperate effort to cling to power and safeguard what few achievements it had overseen, perpetuating the existence of the most destructive government our nation had experienced in the process and facilitating the introduction of measures that would cripple future generations, 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, that it must be 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 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 and 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 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 Dail and as he walked down the street a mob broke off from the republican group, mistakingly believing him to be Jackie Healy-Rae, and chased after him hurling their placards and throwing punches before the Gardai intervened and bundled him into a nearby building for his own safety. The contrast between the two groups of protesters could not be greater, and as I watched a mother beside me shield her child as the mob ran down the street, a look of terror in both their eyes, 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 their 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 supposed 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 home-made 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 supposed targets of the protests and the media, who then 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 organizations 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 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 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 would solicit opinions and feedback but ultimately made the decisions myself, was a challenge. But what initially for me were 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 Program for Government agreed between the Greens and Fianna Fail 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 in 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, 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 at such an early stage 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.

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At 7:20 pm, Anonymous Mark P said...

(Apologies for the length of the response, but it's a long article)

There is much to disagree with in this piece. The problem with the Greens for instance was less that they were a political party and more that their key personnel were essentially Fine Gaelers with a fondness for bicycles and yoghurt. They could as easily have become a professionalised NGO as a political party and would likely have been just as lacking in radicalism if they had taken that path.

There are many other incorrect assumptions and ill-founded claims made in the article, but the two key points can be found quite late on. One is encapsulated in the following question:

"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?"

And the answer is very straightforward. People are involved in political organisations precisely because they do not think of politics as something best approached "as individuals" but instead see political change as a collective process achieved through collective action. Part of the "support, knowledge and experience" they bring is precisely the knowledge that organising together with people with a shared political outlook is much more effective than approaching each new movement as an atomised individual starting from scratch.

People like the writer are entirely free to be "alienated" by the "negative trappings" of political parties. Nobody is forcing him to join one, to carry the placards of one, to hold a banner belonging to one, to distribute or even take a leaflet issued by one. He on the other hand, along with a smallish number of others involved in OccupyDameStreet have taken it upon themselves to inflict their views on all those within the movement who disagree by censoring participants who are also members of political organisations. This is a serious mistake, grounded in a lack of confidence in their own ideas and views. Within a protest movement, different ideas and views should circulate freely and be subject to open debate, including the ideas of participants in that movement who happen to be members of political organisations.

At 7:20 pm, Anonymous Mark P said...

The second issue is that of consensus voting. The writer wrongly assumes that many participants in ODS object to consensus decision making because it is the method being used to enforce this censorship. In fact, most of the people who object to it have long disagree with consensus decision making for a number of very good reasons. One is that it has a distinct and inbuilt tendency to push positions taken towards a sort of blandest common denominator, where anything that might be controversial within a movement is smoothed away. Another is that it is an extraordinarily inefficient and slow method of making decisions, as anyone who has ever been involved in the organisation of a Social Forum could tell you. Another is that in many circumstances it leads to the inversion of the democratic norm of majority rule in favour of a minority getting its way in disagreements.

And yet another is that it gives the earliest participants a permanent veto over any changes in direction. No matter how much a movement grows and develops, those who join the developing movement can never outvote the first movers and can never change anything of significance without the agreement of those first movers. The "consensus" is as declared by a small number of people at the start and reaching a "consensus" to change that decision means that the smaller group who declared the first consensus have to agree to the change. This remains true no matter how large the movement grows or how different majority opinion becomes to that laid down by the smaller group. For a movement which prides itself on being allegedly "leaderless" this is a truly remarkable stance to take. Nobody would sit still for an elected leadership awarding itself this kind of permanent veto over its decisions being overturned by a majority.

The Occupy movement is something to be welcomed, but like all nascent political movements it is full of contradictions and fudges, issues to be worked out and confusions to be unpicked. The ban on union involvement, since at least partially ended, the censorship of members of political parties, and the insistence on using the anti-democratic consensus system are some of these.

At 10:48 pm, Anonymous Dave Kelly said...

"those who join the developing movement can never outvote the first movers..."

Complete lack of understanding of what is being said, and of the process at play at Dame Street.

All to be expected from one of the most sectarian commentators online, the socialist party's Mark P.

At 11:20 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@Mark P- thanks for the lengthy responses, and for taking the time to cross post them here from Politico, your comments are very much appreciated.

I am glad that you have a positive opinion of Political Parties, it is refreshing to hear from somebody who does. Before I became involved with #OccupyDameStreet I may have been more apathetic towards them, but I don't think I would be so distrustful towards them as I am now.

I tried to write this post from a theoretical position, rather than being overly influenced by my experiences on the ground these last four weeks, but the fact is that our experiences with one particular Political Party have soured our impression of all, perhaps unjustly.

From the very day that #OccupyDameStreet was launched a specific Political Party has been trying to hijack the movement, and if it can't do that it has attempted to negate or destroy it, and talking to many with experience in community and local organizations this appears to be the standard modus operandi of this group.

For the first two-to-three weeks almost every General Assembly saw members of this group arrive, spread out amongst the crowd, and try to steer the conversation towards linking up with external groups, or allowing external groups to march with banners and hand out leaflets at the camp. Simultaneously this group were fielding questions from the media and giving the impression that they were behind #OccupyDameStreet.

While their overtures were consistently rejected at General Assemblies, there were a sizeable number of folks who felt that the issue should be resolved once and for all and set up an outreach group to talk with this Party about how the two groups could interact and work together in the future. After a series of meetings a proposal was brought back to General Assembly, which rejected it. The Party were asked to respect this decision, leaving the door open for future negotiations at a later stage.

The following day the Party arrived at an #OccupyDameStreet march at the garden of Remembrance with their banners, and during an open mic session before the march publicized their own group and aims, in direct contravention of the wishes of the previous night's General Assembly. A stall was also set up near the Camp by the party to distribute political leaflets. Following the march a number of speakers at the post march assembly highlighted their concerns and disappointment over the actions of this Party, feeling that this had been at the least disrespectful of #OccupyDameStreet and at worst a deliberate attempt to hijack it. Even those within the camp who had been in favour of closer links spoke out against the actions of this Party.

Verbal and online assaults followed calling #OccupyDameStreet participants everything from fascists and Thatcher's children through to Stalinists.

If this group ever wanted to genuinely work with #OccupyDameStreet as equals in the future the sure have a funny way of showing it, and their behavior in the last few days have pushed far more people away than the vocal minority that spoke up last week. It would be fair to say that there is almost no-one in the camp or who attends the camp regularly that would wish to work with this Party now.

In the light of such blatant attempts to hijack, derail or intimidate the Movement by one particular political party, perhaps those of us in the Movement who are hesitant about forging links with any external political group could be forgiven for having such a reaction.

If you are a member of a political party then I am sorry that the actions of one group have spoiled it for the rest of you, all I can say is please keep coming down to Dame Street and participating, and keep trying to win people over to your side of the argument by showing that not all those in political parties are like this one particular group.

At 11:46 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Oh, its also worth stressing just so there is no confusion here that the Party in question in my comments above is not that of Paul Murphy, MEP, whose original article this post was a counter-point to; Paul has been a good friend to #OccupyDameStreet and his original article on Politico, criticisms and all, was also very much appreciated.

At 3:46 pm, Blogger RichardM said...

'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.'

I've admired your informative and articulate posts about the occupation in Dame Street, but to be honest this is just disastrous, and if it's indicative of the disposition of a decisive number of people at Dame Street, then you might as well pack up your tents and leave now.

Do you know what this sounds like? To me it sounds like the ideology of the Irish neo-liberal State, having of its parliamentary trappings.

After all, a frequent rite of passage for any neoliberal technocrat who aspires to a position of political power is to disavow the idea that politics involves a differentiation between left and right, but requires in its stead a coalition around a vague consensus (which leaves prevailing power structures untouched). What you have written here sounds like Eamonn Gilmore (Remember: One Ireland of Employers and Employees), Brian Cowen (Recall that Fianna Fáil: 'new politics that cherishes all sections and interests of our people irrespective of class') and Seán Gallagher (who included 'social inclusion' on his presidential candidacy platform).

If I were to read your comments as representative of what goes on at Dame Street, I would conclude that the occupation is shying away from confronting the nature of political and economic system in this country. You say you are not playing by the rules of a failed system. I'd recommend you take another look.

At 4:22 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@RichardM - thanks for your comments, and your kind words about previous posts.

The first thing to be clear about is that I speak for no-one but myself. All posts are my own impressions and experiences.

Secondly it would be impossible to place #OccupyDameStreet anywhere but on the far-left of a left/right axis, but I have noticed that very few folks in the camp have been willing to label the Movement as 'anti-capitalist', 'socialist' 'anarchist' etc even though there are very obvious signs that it is some or all of these things, and even though they might self-identify themselves as anarchists, communists, socialists etc.

My comments are more about the use of labels and political language, and how #OccupyDameStreet seems to have tried to avoid falling into stereotypical rhetoric of previous movements. Instead of 'workers' and 'bosses' it talks about the 99% and the 1%, which for me sounds far more inclusive. The Movement is founded upon a condemnation of the vast inequalities in the state (and globally), that the 1% control far more than their fair share of everything, and that this has to stop. While I myself might self-identify strongly as an anti-capitalist, not everyone in the 99% would, and this if the Movement is truly going to represent the whole of the 99% it needs to invent new language to deal with this new paradigm.

Now, I have yet to meet anyone actively involved in #OccupyDamesStreet who has self-identified as a capitalist, but so far the avoidance of labels has meant the anarchists are getting on with the socialists, the communists are getting on with the left-greens, and everybody is getting on with those who expressly have no political leanings beyond knowing that something is very, very wrong in this country and it needs to be fixed.

There is a vast difference between the politics of the left and the right, and I am very uninterested in some middle ground that leaves us with social injustice and inequality, but the language used to bring about change has itself to change first.

Now, your point on confronting the nature of the political and economic system is well taken, and the time is coming that the Movement needs to be more vocal about its position on areas beyond the 4 key demands (or in more granular detail). There's an assembly tonight about the (now cancelled)Greek referendum and a number of assemblies have been held on Health Care, the environment and other issues, so expect concrete actions to emerge from these.

At 6:55 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@RichardM - actually your whole comment made me go off and put my thinking cap on. I don't fully agree with you, but you've got me thinking.

I posted up my thoughts here.


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