Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Occupy Protests: Being Leaderless Helps Reshape The Territory

Perhaps the most striking characteristics of the protests that have emerged over the past year and half, whether they have originated from the Arab Spring in the middle east, or in the cities of the developed world, is that they are mostly leaderless, and that their various manifestations have proven to be devoid of a single governing ideology. Instead, they have become forums for participation, where a wide variety of views and ideological orientations can find a voice. As one OWS protester put it, it is not so much an ideological movement as much as it is a space for participation.

In the Arab Spring, a necessary debate has emerged around how to reconcile Islamic governance with democratic principles, and the elections in Tunisia reflect this. There is also an emerging debate on the role of women in Islamic democracy. These are both welcome developments that attest to the power that the Arab Spring has brought to the general discourse on politics and political freedom in the middle east, and the role of society and leaders within it. Islamic extremism has been put under the microscope and questions that were once thought unthinkable have now entered the mainstream. It's not perfect, but it's a beginning.

In developed countries where 'mature' democracies have been in place for the better part of the last forty years, the occupy and anti-austerity protest movements have also re-opened the space for debate around the fundamentals of democracy. In the last 20 years, 'talk left, walk right' political strategies have emerged in the wake of the weakening of the left through the era of neoliberal 'free' market economics. At the same time, conservative ultra-right movements such as the 'tea-party' increasingly appropriate the language of the old left. In short, developed countries have become plagued by bipolar democracies where it has become increasingly meaningless whether a democrat/labour or republican/conservative government is voted into power, because they ultimately end up thinking and acting in the same way.

Whether one chooses right or left, is an increasingly meaningless exercise in this muddled new territory of democracy, and it is obvious that the public responded with a profound apathy during the boom times. Now that the bubbles have burst, their voices are being raised. Those who were once content to sit in the middle and watch either side throw barbs at each other have entered the fray. They are not explicitly ideological, but they all want change. They may not all have the same ideas of how to make changes, but they know what needs changing. Simply put, it is unfairness at work in the heart of democracy. It is the violation of the egalitarian principle that lies at the heart of democracy itself. Inequality has always had strong appeal as a mobilising factor for those on the lower rungs of the divide, and when their ranks grow they become dangerous. It's as simple as that. And it's not perfect, but it is a beginning.  

It is a beginning because these leaderless mass movements have opened up the space for participation, and participation is the first step towards greater dialogue and exchange that can shape a new discourse. The 'leaderlessness' of these movements is precisely what makes them a potent force for change. That is, they are not already wrapped up in ideological clothing that predetermines how the debates and conversations may unfold. Instead, their leaderlessness and lack of monolithic ideological posturing means that the opportunity now exists to host a social dialogue on what core principles are needed to navigate the territory of the new century, and what kind of changes might be necessary to realise these principles.  

Perhaps the most significant demonstration that the protesters have given the world, is that it is still possible to engage governments and institutions through direct protest action. Some may underestimate this, but for the past twenty years there has been a significant public reluctance to engage in direct protest action. This critically important regulating function of democracy gave way to a global wave of apathy, especially in the countries of the developed world. The triumphal march of a victorious capitalism brought with it a sense that capitalism itself was timeless, and the reigns that had previously kept markets in check were loosened, as markets themselves were seen as the 'self-regulating' magic-makers of prosperity. The results of this victory are now plain to see, and the hopes that things would 'self-correct' after the collapse are proving more distant than ever before.

We are now entering an era where new norms will be established. Business as usual may find a few more tricks and turns to keep itself alive, but the foundations of business as usual have been shaken. The longer the recession persists, the more it becomes a rallying cry to the middle and working classes who have been displaced from real power in the oligarchical functions of the neoliberal dream where there are 'one set of rules for us, and another set of rules for them'. The longer they remain leaderless in their protests, and refuse to be coopted into simplistic sets of agreements that hijack their momentum, the momentum will grow, ideas will flourish, and a new discourse and new normative orientations will be birthed.

Perhaps we are at a moment of the same significance as the modernists of the 20th century found themselves at, filled with the promise of a brave new world, yet unsure of exactly what it may end up looking like. Let's hope that this time we are able to avoid falling into the trap of conflict, and that our enhanced ability to share ideas, conduct campaigns and achieve genuine political action in different places of the world can help us overcome the very real challenges we face. Should these leaderless protests become captured by populists who skillfully capture the 'vacuum' instead of celebrating the potential of the 'vacuum', then the risk of fragmentation and conflict will become more significant and perhaps overwhelm the momentum that, although currently loosely bound, may yet still yield a new set of ideas, visions and norms that effect change in ways that are as yet unforeseeable.

Again, true freedom is the ability to bring about fundamental change, so we might regard the 'leaderless vacuum' as a free space in which the birth of the new is possible. Straight-jacketing this space into a re-run of old positions and ideologies will prove to be its undoing. A parody of the ideological conflicts of the 20th century is hardly likely to achieve anything more than it has already, and in truth, these positions have already compromised themselves to each other, and to their own foundations, and have drifted far away from their original foundations.

And we do need the new to flourish, now more than ever. The Euro hangs on a thread, the dollar would be a worthless currency without China's strong backing. The 'free' market has failed because the most predictable of human behaviours, greed and the propensity to desire wealth without work, triumphed over the imaginary virtues of self-interest. We are now in trouble, and we have to work together to dig ourselves out of the mess we're in. An old supervisor, who oversaw me through probably the most difficult career transition I've ever attempted once gave me some advice that has seen me through many do it?" from me, he replied, "I find that the most difficult thing is keeping the space open long enough for something to emerge".

In research, as in life, you often have no idea what you are going to discover or develop when a project begins, all you have is a bunch of ideas and speculations about how to move forward. Yet if you keep the space open long enough, and stay faithful to the spirit of the project, something always emerges that makes it worth the wait. Perhaps the same kind of philosophical openness is required now, and hopefully we will find the strength to move into the unknown so that we can discover something better than what we have now, because more of the same isn't going to make the cut, and is more likely to sink the ship than to keep it afloat. Tossing the blame from one side to the next isn't going to solve anything, and we have to face up to the deep flaws that exist on both sides of the political divide, and soon.     

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