Adventures in democracy: A global social movement is rising

Source: New Internationalist

A global social movement is rising. It is open, participatory and public

‘The square mile’s perfect for rough sleepers ‘cause it’s dead at night… until three thousand people turn up on your doorstep with tents and bongos.’ Danny was a rough sleeper who had been living on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, next to the London Stock Exchange, for seven years before Occupy London came along and set up their ‘tent city’ in October 2011. In ‘Protest Song’, a play written by Tim Price based on interviews with Danny (not his real name) a defining aspect of the movement emerges through his account of what happened over the four months of the occupation.

At first, Danny didn’t want to have anything to do with the politics of the camp but threw himself into helping run the camp’s kitchen. He was amazed that people would look him in the eye, take seriously whatever he had to say and were happy to make physical contact with him. After years of experiencing the invisibility of being on the streets, Danny was a respected and much loved member of Occupy London and his views were held to be just as valuable as everyone else’s. He realized eventually that unquestioning acceptance and inclusivity werethe politics of the camp and he was sold on it. This was visceral politics, not left or right, not something you needed a degree to understand or be a certain kind of person to ‘fit in’; the drive of the camp was based on what it felt like to be a human being in a world being shaped to serve the one per cent at the cost of everyone else. The change this had on Danny ran deep: ‘I used to think I’m just an alki but I’m loads of things… I’m a dad. I’m a metal presser. A man. A fucking full-back. A divorcee. A rough-sleeper. A chef. A ninety-nine per center.’ He describes the broad spectrum of people who took part, ‘I’d go in the tea tent and I’d sit with a paranoid schizophrenic, a banker, a runaway, a professor and a tranny and we’d all have something in common. Getting fucked by the one per cent. I wouldn’t have done that before Occupy. But now the picture was bigger. I was finally in it. Connected, affecting others.’

This new sense of belonging and agency, particularly for the most marginalized, came from bringing together people who had mostly never engaged in any form of activism before, not exclusively those from the organized left or highly educated people or the established activist world. People from all walks of life were drawn to the very basic message of taking on a broken system and nobody was excluded.

This defining aspect was not just the preserve of the Occupy movement but was a collective shift experienced across the world in 2011 in what writer Paolo Gerbaudo calls ‘the movement of the squares’, in his seminal book The Mask and the Flag. The movement took in the various occupations through the Arab Revolt including the huge occupations in Tunis that led to the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the occupations of Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, as well as the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens, the Occupy movement that had over 1000 camps globally at its height and the Indignados and 15M movements that filled the squares of Spain, all with similar grievances being articulated and addressed through participatory democracy and occupations of public spaces.

‘The protest wave of 2011… managed to fire up a powerful sense of possibility for radical political change as no other movement in decades had done,’ writes Gerbaudo. The occupation of the squares ‘were not just a destituent moment announcing the illegitimacy of the neoliberal regime, but also a constituent moment, a sort of civic ritual and collective oath taken by indignant citizens to revive the age old democratic project.’

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