24 October 2011 — The Return of the Public
There is something very striking about the occupation in the City of London. From the outset the ordinary dynamics of protest appeared to have been suspended. The form was different, for a start. This wasn’t a march from A to B, with its accompanying sense of an ending. But more than that, the occupiers weren’t trying to stop anything or resist anything. There was no vote in Parliament that acted as a focus for popular outrage. The occupiers weren’t resisting, or trying to stop something. They were making something happen.
This found physical expression in the first Assembly. The crowds were surrounded by police officers, who were attempting an ineffectual kettle of some sort. But rather than confronting the police lines people turned their backs on them. For most of the afternoon, the officers guarding Paternoster Square looked almost forlorn.
This lack of interest in the police and in confrontation is perhaps what is most troubling about the occupation, from the point of view of the government and the larger ruling elite. Confrontation they can cope with, serious discussion of the origins of the financial and economic crisis poses a much more serious problem.
The media sometimes seem desperate to get the occupations to set out a programme and they are quick denounce them for being confused because they won’t. These denunciations of ordinary people for their lack of a comprehensive plan are usually much more strident than criticisms the major political parties have to endure. The Coalition and the Labour party clearly have no idea what is happening or what to do about it, but their consensual cluelessness is treated with great solicitude by their many admirers in the press.
Besides, once protesters set out what they want, the government can simply reject their demands and declare the whole unfortunate affair over. If the protesters are relatively few in number, governments invoke the majesty of the silent millions who implicitly endorse the prevailing order of things. After all, are they not elected? Why should they bow to the will of an unrepresentative few? On the other hand, if there are millions of protesters, governments claim they have secret knowledge and must act in the national interest, even though the untutored people show them no gratitude.
Either way, those who hold power like simple, clear demands. Demands give them an opportunity to look principled and dignified while they press on with their madcap schemes. Demands take the elite seriously, they confer authority; the power to say yes is, after all, also the power to say no. To call on the occupations to issue demands to government is to call for a return to the ordinary dynamics of protest, in which established power is the focus.
It makes more sense for the occupations to address themselves directly to the wider population, and to do so modestly, as citizens seeking to debate with equals. And it makes sense to begin from first principles.
Almost none of us understand the economic system of the country in which we live. A sensible response to the problems in that system will only become clear once we all understand how it operates. The arrangements currently in place rest on faith rather than knowledge. We orbit the dazzling mystery of money and credit. And there’s plenty more we don’t understand, plenty that the media we rely on garble or ignore.
But these mysteries are, to a large degree, contrived. Once they are subjected to properly open debate and deliberation, we can replace them with reasonably certain knowledge. And it is this, I think, that the powers most fear, a public that understands the structural conditions in which we as individuals try to make our lives.
So, the key message of the occupations is the medium of assembly and the knowledge it makes possible.
Each occupation can and should issue declarations and statements, and debate them with one another. As the assemblies become more widespread, this process of developing a programme will become more and more important. But at the moment an assembly could set out in exquisite detail a practical plan for political and economic reform – very few of us would be in a position to know that they had made an announcement, even fewer would be able to grasp its merits.
So the main point to communicate right now is that we must assemble as publics if we want to understand what is happening and what is likely to happen in the future. That doesn’t have to mean occupying landmarks or pitching tents in city parks. Parish halls and civic centres can serve just as well as venues for deliberation between equals.
An once we have assembled as publics we can begin to wield power. A few thousand people in a constituency who have developed a common understanding of how power works in Britain and are no longer entranced by party loyalty can do a lot. They can. for example, call on their councils to make the money they spend on communications available to the citizen body, so that they can decide for themselves what kind of information they need.
They also can invite their elected representative to come and explain themselves. If they are not satisfied with what they hear they can wield the one power that MPs understand, the power to end gratifying careers. To put it another way, a townhall full of informed citizens is the best way to convince an MP that they need to stop recycling neoliberal nonsense and figure out how the economy actually works.
(At the moment MPs mostly deal with constituents who have welfare issues. They don’t often meet large numbers of people who are politely interested in hearing their views on the economic crisis and its social impact. And so they don’t so much fear us as pity us. Oh, they make sympathetic noises, they aren’t fools. But they don’t much care what we think. because we haven’t figured out what we think, in collaboration with others, in a way that is directly threatening.)
The mere fact of assembly unsupervised by established authority has a transformative effect on those who participate and on those who watch, more or less anxiously, from outside.
Don’t get me wrong, we need as many occupations as possible. They are an invaluable way of meeting people who share similar concerns. They help build networks of people who aren’t daunted by the mainstream political culture. Each occupation is pregnant with the eggs of future direct action, occupation and assembly – both UK Uncut and the student movement made the current occupations possible. But occupations are a model to be adapted and employed in different conditions, by people who would no more camp outside St Pauls than fly to moon. Two people involved in Occupy LSX, Naomi Colvin and Kar Wargalia, wrote recently that they ‘want t o generalise the idea of the assembly‘. And that is surely right. Each assembly will reach its own conclusions. But they will converge on a description of social reality that is better than the one currently on offer.
It is, after all, only a widely shared, coherent and accurate description of current conditions that can provide the basis for an irresistible programme of reform.
So let the media demand to know our demands. We have instead a suggestion – that we all try free deliberation for ourselves and turn our attention back to our rulers when we are ready, on terms we choose.