is this what democracy looks like?

From this week’s X-Ray Magazine

When I was fifteen, I stopped going to church, and told my mother I was an atheist. Needless to say she didn’t understand right away.

In an effort to explain myself, I played her one of my favourite songs, Panic, by The Smiths. Readers of my vintage, those who were teens in the 80s, may remember the refrain: “Hang, the blessed DJ, because the music they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life…hang the DJ hang the DJ hang the DJ…” I felt that way about the church in 1986. Today millions feel that way, and then some, about all of society’s official institutions.

When it comes to our collective loss of faith in official politics and the occupation of Toronto’s St. James Park, that great affirmation of faith in ourselves, the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hebert and Thomas Walkom remind me of well-intentioned but bewildered parents wondering aloud why their charges won’t come to heel, and why they stay out all night.

Writing in the Tuesday, October 18, 2011 edition, Hebert has some advice for protestors occupying public spaces in major cities across the country: go home, wait four years, and then vote.

“Hit the ballot box instead of the streets” is her formula for making “real change.”

We’ve done that. It doesn’t work. No political party or politician is offering meaningful change. And certainly none will do so unless they feel an immense amount of organized pressure from below.

Hebert’s suggestion, if implemented, would prevent real change. It would demobilize a movement with the potential to become a real threat to the powers that be in this country. There can be no real change without a real threat to those powers, as Chris Hedges puts it.

Hebert’s suggested option for “change”—voting in our shambolic elections—is based upon a faulty assumption: that a mere change in government from one of the three mainstream electoral parties to another will deliver a change in the way this country works, and for whom it works.

Recent US and Canadian political experience proves that something new needs to be created.

As Emma Goldman once put it, “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” While the liberal media remains focused on the political Kabuki theatre that is official Ottawa, a large section of the public, notably some of our most idealistic young people, have moved on.

During the first week of the occupation, Thomas Walkom spent a day looking for policy wonks in St James Park, didn’t find any, and came away with the impression that Canadians had no domestic reason to be on the streets, and the Occupation had no clear message.

It’s an understandable misunderstanding, as he consigns history, recent and not, to the memory hole. He claims Canada didn’t bail out its banks. Not so. Ottawa provided $125 billion to Canadian banks between 2008 and 2009 through the CMHC, as Murray Dobbin points out.

Is Walkom paying attention to the stories printed in his own paper? Canadian Chartered banks also took advantage of $111 billion in relief from the US Federal Reserve, as they now operate in the United States. TD Bank is now one of the largest banks on the US East Coast, with a branch at #2 Wall Street, which can be seen in many OWS protest videos.

Nobody’s bailing us out. Our social programs are being cut, our best jobs contracted out.

Walkom’s latest accusation against the movement is “simplistic thinking” and “scapegoating” the 1 percent, the super-rich. Not so. It’s Walkom’s own simplistic and anti-historical over-generalization, walking tall as an “analysis” which is at fault. It’s incredibly superficial.

Here’s what he’s missing. For the past 30 years, Canadian society has grown more unequal, and less just. Wages have stagnated, while corporate profits and the income of the super-rich have grown like cancerous tumours on society’s vital organs.

While GDP has gone up, the actual wellbeing of Canadians has declined. The reasons are well known, if seldom ever publicly discussed. Beginning in the mid 1970s the entire political establishment began to dismantle the progressive social and economic reforms of the post-war era.

The phenomenon occurred simultaneously in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. The formerly radical economic notions of Milton Freidman and Friedrich von Hayek became normalized through the influence wielded by a multitude of corporate funded think tanks such as the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the National Citizens Coalition, and others.

As the infamous Powell Memo details, it was all rather intentionally and consciously done, because the corporate CEOs of the day were threatened by new demands for an economic, social democracy thrown up by that last great movement of the 60’s. Our Prime Minister owes his current job to this new Thirty Years War to enthrone corporations, and defeat democracy.

The Occupation is democracy fighting back, because our elected representatives have fled the battlefield, or else run off with the arms merchants. Young people don’t vote, precisely because they are, as Hebert admits, “strikingly more progressive” than their elders.

The Occupation Movement speaks directly to them, and to older activists such as the author, who have been waiting a decade or more for this moment. Check out this short documentary about Occupy Wall Street.

It speaks to the highest ideals of humanity, making even the late Jack Layton’s appeal for hope and optimism look like the prelude to a great symphonic movement, not its denouement. If it doesn’t make you weep for joy, where is your soul? Who wants to talk to policy wonks when we can talk together about transforming everything?

Young people want to participate, and they want to make sacrifices for their ideals. No political party is able to mobilize them, precisely because the liberal political representative system was designed to limit participation and control mobilizations from below by forcing them into electioneering.

What is there for political party members at large to do outside election season? Walkom and Hebert are like parents telling their children “You’ll never amount to anything!” when those children tell their parents that they are going to strike out on their own, independent path.

And what a path! What we are witnessing is nothing less than the birth of a new, participatory stage of democracy where passive, electoral parties are obsolete. It’s a return to democracy’s 2500-year-old roots.

I’ve been attending the Occupation on weekends and have stood through two General Assemblies. It’s inspiring that young people are willing to spend hours standing in the cold and rain and in mud with freezing feet, democratically discussing not only the tremendous logistical problems of maintaining their society in miniature, but also higher, political questions.

Their completely open process forces people to listen to each other, and yes, it’s very slow, and the group has the combined flaws of its participants. Yes, occasionally a psychiatric survivor hogs the mike.

The people tolerate it for a minute then urge the speaker to wrap it up, not by shouting him or her down, but with a silent hand signal. Everyone is patient and respectful. Some rather half-baked, pet theories are trotted out, to the same general reaction.

Spoken word poetry of a rather middling sort is occasionally imposed upon the Assembly. Some speakers have great difficulty getting to the point, and others don’t have one at all. But these are the exceptions.

The use of the “people’s mike” forces speakers to be concise, and a two minute time limit forces them to be brief. But there are also passionate, articulate and tremendously intelligent voices in the Assembly, and these have mostly carried the day, but often only after hours of seemingly endless discussion. This is not the politics of sound bites, but its antidote.

I also talked to randomly selected people at the Occupy Toronto demonstration on October 15th. What I found was that people think that we need governments that actually listen to the people, and to do what we tell them to do. It’s an idea definitely at odds with the liberal “democratic” notion that the representative is elected to do what the party whip tells them to do.

The people I spoke with thought the job of an MP is to be our servant, our cipher, not to play the kind of backroom, brokerage politics that is the bankrupt bequest of liberal “democracy” to the present generation. Brokerage politics is considered the only fit subject for official journalism. But it’s missing the biggest story going.

If the desired role for an MP is essentially that of a delegate with very conditional authority directly transmitted from the people, what does their party affiliation matter? Do Liberals or Tories or NDPers have a monopoly on active listening? The people who were kind enough to speak to me also want an economic, material democracy. Are they going to get that by voting NDP?

To be clear, Occupy Toronto is definitely NOT a murder of revolutionary crows. There are certainly a few revolutionary activists dotting the landscape, but they mostly disagree about means and ends.

The point is that if this movement grows, that growth will force all of these questions into the world of practical politics, where it will suddenly become clear that for “everything” to change, something’s gotta give. And that something is the entirety of the existing political and economic system, perhaps even the very shape of the state itself.

The demand change everything cannot be met within a system that can’t change a single thing.

So expecting salvation from Ottawa is simply risible. When capital wants to move across borders, the borders come down.

When revolutionary ideas threaten to leap across borders, Canada becomes a “different country.” But no border can stop Canadians from questioning the fundamentals of our “democracy.”

Postscript: A quarter century later my mother no longer goes to church. (X)

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