If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
What do I know? When the first protestors set out to occupy Wall Street in September, I thought their achievements would be modest. After all, the first signs weren’t exactly promising. They were relatively few in number, so it would have been flattering to call them a movement. They were denied access to Wall Street, which meant their name looked a misnomer and the mainstream media ignored them.
As it happens they have inspired similar protests around the world and forced the issues of inequality and corporate greed onto the public agenda. As Paul Mason pointed out last week:
#OWS has, in just a few weeks, become global shorthand among policymakers for “what can happen” if they don’t regain control of the situation. Once you get a coalition of perfectly ordinary people saying “we’ve had enough”, and then you have to watch as the cops baton and taser them in the name of the trespass laws, you know you are in a reputational crisis.
The success of the Occupy movement – and it is a success – lies in its statement of the bloody obvious – greed and inequality are indefensible; the economy is run in the interests of 1% of the people with the other 99% suffering a democratic deficit. It’s not a subtle message. It’s not a sophisticate message but it resonates because it’s true.
The Tories can usually depend on their lickspittles in the media to tow the ideological line with stories of benefit cheats, bloated public sector pensions, feral youths and immigrants – all manner of coverage that serves to obfuscate and deflect from the elephant in the room. In this instance the elephant in the room is that democracy and capitalism are parting company.
In the recent edition of New Left Review (Sept-Oct 2011), sociologist, Wolfgang Streeck writes:
Democratic capitalism was fully established only after the Second World War and then only in the ‘Western’ parts of the world, North America and Western Europe. There it functioned extraordinarily well for the next two decades—so well, in fact, that this period of uninterrupted economic growth still dominates our ideas and expectations of what modern capitalism is, or could and should be.
Streeck argues that this brief post-war period was ‘truly exceptional’. Capitalism has reverted to type and the powerful narrative asserting that freedom and democracy are indivisible from free-markets now looks like a fairy-tale. Streeck again:
As we now read almost every day in the papers, ‘the markets’ have begun to dictate in unprecedented ways what presumably sovereign and democratic states may still do for their citizens and what they must refuse them. The same Manhattan-based ratings agencies that were instrumental in bringing about the disaster of the global money industry are now threatening to downgrade the bonds of states that accepted a previously unimaginable level of new debt to rescue that industry and the capitalist economy as a whole. Politics still contains and distorts markets, but only, it seems, at a level far remote from the daily experience and organizational capacities of normal people: the US, armed to the teeth not just with aircraft carriers but also with an unlimited supply of credit cards, still gets China to buy its mounting debt. All others have to listen to what ‘the markets’ tell them. As a result citizens increasingly perceive their governments, not as their agents, but as those of other states or of international organizations, such as the IMF or the European Union, immeasurably more insulated from electoral pressure than was the traditional nation-state. In countries like Greece and Ireland, anything resembling democracy will be effectively suspended for many years; in order to behave ‘responsibly’, as defined by international markets and institutions, national governments will have to impose strict austerity, at the price of becoming increasingly unresponsive to their citizens.
There used to be a complacent assumption that countries that abandoned command economies for capitalism would sooner of later find democracy irresistible. We could do business with China, for instance, because its capitalist reforms were a sure sign that democracy and an end to human rights abuses would follow. We’ve been looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
In Cannes this week, as the G20 met, Paul Mason noted that ‘the only confident body language comes from people with money. And who has money? China, Singapore, Russia, Brazil, the Saudis.’ He went on: ‘Are you noticing a pattern there? Each of these countries is an export giant, has experienced rapid-fire modernisation and income growth, has a heavily statised economy, practises some form of covert protectionism, and has – with the exception of Brazil – either zero or attenuated democracy.’
There has been confusion about what the the Occupy movement is proposing in place of capitalism. Admittedly it has been difficult to discern any coherent plans and this has been a criticism leveled at the protestors. But actually if you look closely enough you can see the alternative their attempts to assert democratic principles and practices in the very way they conduct themselves. This can be unwieldy, no doubt. As one journal commented: ‘There are the large, drawn-out General Assemblies, operating a process of consensus-based participatory democracy that sounds immensely complicated and boils down, in practice, to several hundred increasingly frustrated people waving their hands at each other until they decide who cleans the dishes after the revolution.’
These are fledgeling efforts and easily mocked. But democracy has got to be infinitely preferable to living under the jackboot of the markets.