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Democracy and Process: The Real Power of Occupy LSX Comment

Writing from Occupy LSX, Ian Chamberlain argues the real power of the movement is the new world of possibilities it has created, built on consensus, cooperation and a rejection of the corporate-guided, party-political approach that has dominated the country for generations.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, November 18, 2011 2:37 - 5 Comments


I now know that I’m hardly alone in thinking, and feeling, that for too long the views and needs of ordinary people have been ignored by our “democracy.” The sense of powerlessness that I experienced after I lost my job, when I saw so many opportunities disappear – such as going back to college or university to re-train, as fees tripled beyond my reach and as I struggled to find enough work to pay the rent – I experienced this as an individual, but now I see it throughout my South London community.

I needed an antidote to this powerlessness, and I have found one.

I have found an inclusive space where it feels safe to express opinions, where people are actively listened to, where common experiences are discovered regardless of party labels and diverse identities. But more than that – people soon get bored of talking shops – this is a space where beliefs and ideas result in action. This is the real power of Occupy LSX.

At Occupy, decisions are made by consensus. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on everything, but that participants have agreed to use a set of tools which produces decisions that more accurately reflect the will of the camp than voting would have.

This combination of diversity and process produced an ‘Initial Statement’ on the 16th October which seems to have chimed with the 99% not just in the camp, but across Britain.

When decisions are made through voting, people vote for their favourite option, but more often this feels like voting for the least terrible one; that’s certainly many people’s experience of the electoral system, where options are reduced to a choice between one set of corporately-funded policies or other.

Noam Chomsky has talked about commercial newspapers as a business-to-business product. The paper’s primary product is access to its audience which it sells to other businesses in the form of advertising. A newspapers’ output is modified slightly to appeal to the lifestyle sensibilities of readers, whether they are liberal or conservative, educated or uneducated. But primarily the output of newspapers reflects the priorities of its biggest customer: big business. The customer is always right, especially the one spending most on advertising.

The same can be said of political parties. Their product is the sale of electoral support for corporately sponsored policy options. Businesses pay the political party most likely to implement corporate-friendly policies and win the election. From the electorate’s point of view, party politics has been reduced to salesmanship, with little participation from citizens.

So how refreshing to come to the Occupation and discover that when a proposal is made, it’s because someone really believes in it, that the proposer feels it would be good for the community and environment, were we to implement it. But we don’t have to take their word for it, participants can reject or modify proposals to better reflect the interests of all.

We gather at the general assembly twice a day. When a proposal is made, people indicate their support by waving their hands in the air. If people express their disagreement with other hand signals, the assumption isn’t necessarily that they oppose the proposal. The follow question is often in mind: how can the proposal be modified to elicit the support of those who disagree?

Outside the camp, if someone proposed the NHS principle of “free at the point of use” and then said this would be provided by a market of private institutions, many would vote against it. But many wouldn’t vote against it either. not because the NHS’ principle wasn’t valued, but because of how the proposal suggested it should be implemented. The power of consensus is the way we see the nuance in people’s views; participants don’t just select preferred options, they can suggest modifications to allow for broader support.

The history of consensus is long and varied. In Britain, Quakers have used consensus in their business meetings since the 17th century, which reflects their non-hierarchical methods and emphasis on equality. Today it is popular amongst activists who attempt to create something of the future, a more horizontal world, in the present.

Of course, many activists would admit that in the past these methods seemed to lack a relevance to the wider public. It felt like a hard sell – something fluffy and unrealistic – to a population whose ability to make decisions about their economic lives was travelling in the opposite direction: the decreasing power of trades unions to negotiate better conditions for workers and the flat-lining of wages, increasing working hours, along with a narrowing of political arguments within the party-political sphere.

However, what has characterised the experience at Occupy LSX is the appetite of participants to find new ways of interacting, starting with a rejection of “experts” claiming to provide all the answers, and opting instead to engage with ideas on their own merits. This appetite has come from within individuals rather than a forced political ideology. Paul Mason in his BBC article on the Occupation (16/10/11) summarised a truth first articulated by sociologist Manuel Castells:

“the more autonomous and rebellious a person’s attitudes are, the more they use the internet; the more they use the internet, the more autonomous their lifestyle becomes.”

People use the internet not only to talk, but to propose ideas which yield results, whether its organizing an event or producing Open Source software. The real-world results which come out of these new processes energises people to continue to participate. The activity at Occupy LSX is its offline equivalent and is the opposite of purists sitting in a room talking endlessly while fewer people return to follow-up meetings because of boredom.

People keep visiting and engaging because they see the consequences of a working democratic process. In doing so, they discover power in collective action, one which inspires optimism in its ability to effect wider and more fundamental changes during these gloomy times of economic collapse.

It seems that we no longer have to persuade people of the need for a different kind of politics. The sense of irrelevance of the major political parties whilst they continue to talk among themselves, alongside a mindset of collaboration and co-operation which has taken form on the internet with the horizontal tools of social networking, the democratic deficit of the world around us is a stark comparison.

People, in their masses, are discovering new ways of transforming their personal and economic lives and are attempting to build a very different sort of community.

Ian Chamberlain

Ian Chamberlain is a writer, human rights campaigner and activist in the Occupy movement.


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Occupy decision-making similar to Quakers
Nov 18, 2011 7:15

[…] protestor Ian Chamberlain writing in Ceasefire magazine about decision-making at London Occupy. Click here to read the article in […]

happy smiles
Nov 18, 2011 13:12

“It seems that we no longer have to persuade people of the need for a different kind of politics” – I want some of those drugs please! This certainly gives a sense a detatchment from “the masses”.

Is everything at Occupy LSX rosy? I am quite experienced with consensus-decision making and know that there are always ‘leaders’, or least ‘key facilitators’ (people with power). Is it not still merely an appeal to authority-government? I recently spoke with an American-Palestinian who had spent time at a number of the Occupy protests in the USA, he said there was clearly too much Zionism amongst thier “masses”; are they not merely reformists, wanting to make thier own lives more comfortable? Even in Egypt a few reports indicated that it was a mainly an upcoming middleclass that organised so many of the demonstrations…

I would have to say the more rebellious and autonomous people are the more they work in reality, and are not so interested in the internet; because they are too busy implementing meaningful change. In this regard what are your concerns about this movement, if the internet is important surely it is for its potential to address concerns?

It is of course evolving and/or devolving all the time but is merely a question of attracting more to the fold?

Democracy and Process: The Real Power of Occupy LSX « Solidarity Bank
Nov 18, 2011 15:42

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John Cartmell
Nov 18, 2011 16:56

Ian certainly has the right (= I agree) goals but they are goals that we will never achieve unless we set up systems that make it possible – and such systems need to be implemented within our present political and electoral arrangements. It doesn’t matter how much we want change, we need to find ways of facilitating that change. And that’s where we get our hands dirty, because working within the present system means compromise and ‘agreeing’ with ideas that we don’t like, and working with people who we may hate. We need people like Ian to show us a desirable target but we also need people to take us through the maze that might, in the end, open up close to that target.

So far so good. But (in most of the UK for example) we have an electoral system that punishes those who want to strike out with something new. Even worse, for if you support a Parliamentary Candidate with policies similar to another candidate then both will lose out with a split vote, likely letting in the candidate with very much opposing policies. Vote (left wing) Green and, in most constituencies, you will promote the chance of a (right-wing) Tory winning against a (left-wing) Labour candidate.

The solution? Assuming that you have ruled out violent revolution, is to work within the present system to implement the tools that would dismantle the present system. It is possible – but the route we are taking (in the UK) at present is almost exactly the opposite to the route we need to take. Ian is spot on right with his main observations: we need dialogue and education on a grand scale (that 99%!) to have any chance of implementing the changes required.

Nov 18, 2011 23:00

The anti-government protests currently going on in United States, Greece, Spain, Italy and Israel – have different agenda than the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ mass protests we witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. While the ‘Arab Spring’ is against the western-supported corrupt ruling classes – the Western protesters are carrying an open war against the 1% rich-vultures. However, in both cases, the rich 1% minority is using every mean (government, politicians, police, bankers and media-outlets) at its disposal to destroy the 99% majority’s demands for equality and justice. So far, more than 3,000 protesters including journalists and war veterans have been arrested in United States.

Americans make a little over 4% of world population – but consumes over 40% of world’s resources. The US has world’s highest numbers of billionaires (450) and millionaires (320,000) – but 80% of them belongs to country’s 1% rich minority. The new census data released shows that over 49 million Americans (16%) live below poverty line. America has the worst wealth inequality among the industrialized world.

America still is the largest economy ($14.6 trillion), thanks to US$ being world’s reserve currency. However, its military budget ($680 billion/year) for Zionists’ war has already bankrupted the nation. The world’s future emerging economies are China ($10 trillion), Japan ($4.3 trillion) and India ($4 trillion). According to World Bank’s projection – Asia and Africa will leave behind North America and Europe during the next few decades. That’s the main reason for Qaddafi to be eliminated.

Professor Joseph Eugene Stiglitz (Columbia University) wrote in EconomyWatch: “The rise in equality is a product of vicious spiral; the rich rent seeker use their wealth to shape legislation in order to protect and increase their wealth – and their influence. The US Supreme Court, in its notorious Citizens United decision, has given corporations free rein to use their money to influence the direction of politics”.

While more and more Americans are joining the unemployment lines and making two-ends meals on food-tokens, the business elites have just made America’s record highest profit of $1.7 trillion in the third quarter of this year.

In 2007 – the 1% owned 50.9% of country’s stocks, bonds and mutual funds as compared to 0.5% of the 50% Americans (149 millions). During the same year, the 1% owned 33.8% of country’s total wealth while the lower 50% American population owned only 2.5% of country’s total wealth. See the wealth distribution chart here and here.


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