Saturday, 19 November 2011

Guest Blog - Occupy Can Make the World Better

I heard someone say recently: “I’m not naïve enough to think that camping outside St Paul’s cathedral is going to bring down capitalism”. Call them the sceptic.

The sceptic is saying: “Protesting is extremely unlikely to bring down capitalism. Even if bringing down capitalism is a worthy goal, why bother protesting?”

The obvious reply to the sceptic is: all movements for social change start out small. But they grow and grow, until success looks inevitable. So scepticism is premature. As Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Both the sceptic and the dreamer accept this assumption: if the movement directly brings down capitalism, then it has succeeded. Otherwise it has failed.
But that assumption is wrong. There are other reasons to protest.


Everyone likes democracy.

The definitive element of democracy is the feedback loop from the citizens to the leaders. The citizens tell the leaders what they want. The leaders are supposed to do things that the citizens want. If the leaders don’t do this, the citizens can make them leave. Because leaders don’t want to leave, the policies adopted tend to be ones that the citizens mostly agree with.
In the UK, the way this works is through elections. But elections are a crude way of achieving this feedback loop.
The quantity of feedback is pretty terrible too: turnout is low, and we vote roughly once every four years. Information-wise, it’s a choice on a menu. Worse, there are only two real alternatives: so the information coming to the government is just a set of binary yes/no answers.

The quality of feedback is poor, too. Elections focus on the wrong issues. If elections are the only reason for people to think about politics, then they end up not being very well informed on the majority of issues. Moreover, they don’t get to decide what we are talking about.

There’s a lot of evidence for this, and it’s easily found, so I will confine myself to one example. Americans want, by a 2-1 margin or higher, depending on which poll you look at, universal healthcare. When was the last time you saw universal healthcare seriously discussed in a Republican debate, or a Democratic debate, or an election debate? Instead they’re talking about putting tariffs on China, which will help nobody and hurt lots of people.
Leaders end up talking about unimportant things, acting however they want, and selling this to the citizens – which is not how it’s supposed to work. And citizens end up feeling either apathetic or angry.
After the great recession happened, a lot of apathetic people became angry.


‘Protest’ is the wrong word. It implies people shouting, ‘I don’t like this.’
Occupy is an organization, discussing how to improve the way things work. It’s a part of ‘civil society’. Democratic theorists like ‘civil society’, because:
It increases the quantity of feedback going to the leaders, both directly, by expressing citizens’ views, and indirectly, by encouraging people to talk more about politics, about the economy, the environment, and all the other things that elites would rather the people didn’t pay that much attention to.
It also increases the quality of feedback: by discussing politics, and thinking about politics, people learn. And because the issues being talked about are important, the value of discussing these things is higher. Moreover, the organization itself is way more democratic than the government in charge of us, and the quality of views expressed is much better than the media would like us to believe.

If you’re a democrat, and someone tells you that we can improve the quality and quantity of feedback to the leaders, you would have to welcome that. Your attitude to the protests would be: “Excellent. Let’s listen to them, and let’s talk.”
Most people’s response was far more negative than that. So most people must be anti-democratic, even if they don’t realize it.
What if they don’t end up bringing down capitalism? Who cares? That’s the wrong goal.
They’re making democracy work better.

Social change
Our picture of revolutions, and social change, is of lots of people marching through the streets and a defeated government eventually giving in and changing a law, or stepping down and being replaced by a set of heroes.
That picture is wrong. Revolutions can be much more gradual. You might not be able to point to a specific time when they happened.

For example, it used to be OK to call gay people ‘fairies’ and all sorts of ugly names. Casual racism was a standard part of the landscape in 70s Britain, as was blatant, overt sexism.

Now that’s unthinkable: people are growing up who are almost race-blind, i.e. the distinction between a brown person and a white person is ceasing to matter to people, just like the distinction between a ‘noble’ and a ‘base’ origin person has completely moved out of our minds now. A generation ago, that was unthinkable. Similarly, whether someone’s gay or straight is seen as unimportant. But there wasn’t a revolution. Nothing huge happened; change was gradual.

But that doesn’t mean that it was inevitable: it happened because people did something about it. Slowly, they changed the way we talk and the way we think. And the result is that whether someone is gay or straight or brown or white is becoming as unimportant to our view of them as, say, what flavor of ice cream they prefer. It just doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
Even if the Occupy movement doesn’t succeed in bringing down capitalism, they could accomplish something different – and better, by changing the way we talk and think, and by changing what we are talking about. If they continue, they could change the way we see things – which means changing the world.

Why ask them to stop?

Today's Blog entry is a guest post from Nabeel Qureshi, Casberd Scholar of Politics and Economics at St John's College, Oxford University and contested President of the Mensch Committee.

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