Occupy: Some lessons for a better tomorrow

©REUTERS/Andrew Winning

A crisis may focus minds, but it often takes more than that to believe that change is possible. Citizens worldwide have made just that leap of faith. In OECD member countries, a grassroots movement has manifested itself in the overnight occupation of public space and the exercise of direct democracy on the model of what happened in city squares across Spain just over a year ago. After those demonstrations reached Wall Street, Occupy went global and I have been fortunate enough to be involved with the movement as it developed in London.

Indignation is often described as a protest against capitalism but, while the financial crisis and the austerity policies that followed acted as a trigger, that description doesn’t really capture what’s been going on. Occupy isn’t primarily a protest against the existing system, it’s a worked example of how things could be done better, by harnessing individual capabilities to the furtherance of goals established through an inclusive political process.

Occupy London started on an international day of action on 15 October 2011. We were aiming for the London Stock Exchange but ended up, perhaps serendipitously, outside one of London’s most famous buildings. Occupy London Stock Exchange was a tented village nestled below the grand neoclassical edifice of St Paul’s Cathedral, a defiantly untidy huddle full of life and spark. I’m not going to pretend that everything that happened within that huddle was perfect, but I do think there are lessons to be drawn from those five months that might help us move forward on a larger scale.

The first lesson to draw from Occupy is that civil society has the scope to be a dynamic force for change. People came to Occupy London knowing that they wanted something to happen, maybe without knowing exactly what, or even who they should be working with, but the experience of political education and participation was addictive. In the past year, public spaces have played host to ad hoc working groups who have taken it upon themselves to research and debate policy priorities and work through tough choices. In London these efforts produced statements on corporations, economics, the environment and local government within weeks.

The achievements of the occupations make it impossible for policymakers to claim that what they do cannot be understood by the public they serve. When existing commonplaces ring hollow–I think we know now that complex derivatives didn’t make the financial system more stable–there is a democratic imperative to bring ordinary citizens into the business of policymaking, and to treat their preferences seriously.

The second lesson to draw from Occupy is that when people are galvanised and working towards common goals, the energy harnessed can be enormous. The basic infrastructure of Occupy London’s site at St Paul’s–accommodation, kitchen, university, medical care, sanitation, legal team and media operation–came together within 48 hours, without any of it having to be consciously planned. Inclusive, non-hierarchical organising can be incredibly efficient, bringing totally unforeseen resources and ideas into play. There is scope for policymakers to use some of these tools to extend the range of the possible, but to do so requires a compelling narrative and the means for citizens to have genuine input both in the project itself and the formation of that narrative.

London’s Occupy and Spain’s indignados make great play of their use of consensus decision making in large assemblies. Lowering the barriers to participation enables more people to be included in the deliberative process, even those who might not have seen themselves participating in political activity before, but it’s equally vital that dissenting voices have a distinct and important role to play. Consensus itself can be a slow and cumbersome procedure, but there is something valuable to take from this, something close to Kant’s idea of the public use of reason: engaging in the public sphere, as Occupy does, eliminates some of the restrictions associated with the private use of reason–above all, the bureaucratic inhibitions on plain speaking.

We all know that we face profound challenges in the way we organise our economies, our societies and our government. In order to start to tackle these issues, we need to start encouraging brave ideas within institutions as well as outside them.

The experience of popular movements over the past year demonstrates that there is enormous popular desire to participate in politics but, equally, that there is a real disenchantment with systems that are perceived to be dominated by special interests. The idea that ordinary citizens have been left to pay for the bankers’ crisis is as damaging to the idea of democracy as it is to basic fairness. There’s a reason why “We are the 99%” has become such a rallying cry.

There are external threats to democratic governance too, and some of these may need to be tackled anew on an international scale. Tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions bring governments into a harmful race to the bottom that is against their population’s interests. They are a major driver of inequality, which we know correlates to poor health and social outcomes. The OECD has played an important role in drawing policymakers’ attention to these issues, but those efforts now need to be stepped up.

There are other urgent problems to be tackled. Without fundamental reform of the banking system that alters the current balance of privatised benefits and socialised risks, we are more likely than not to find ourselves in the midst of another crisis. Beyond that, we’re going to need some truly brave thinking if we are to align our economic goals with environmental imperatives.

The scale of these challenges, and others like them, are immense. It’s beyond the capabilities of any group in society to find the answers in isolation. The answers will be found through wide and deep participation in a debate that takes the principle of civic equality seriously. I hope the global institutions, and their employees, engage in this debate. There is tremendous knowledge and expertise to be found in the OECD, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and elsewhere. In any event, civil society is changing, and changing fast. It is becoming more confident and more capable. The lessons aren’t over for any of us.

For more on Occupy London, see occupylondon.org.uk

See also: 

Gurría, Angel (2011), "Tackling inequality", in OECD Observer No 287, Q4 2011.

OECD Observer (2011), "Inequality: Why the struggle matters". 

©OECD Observer No 290-291, Q1-Q2 2012

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