The publicity surrounding the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ campaign, and its offshoots across the USA and similar movements in other countries across the world, suggests that politics is being parked to one side so as to attract a diverse range of individuals in support of the campaign’s central aim – of taking control back from the powerful and super-wealthy 1% and redistributing both the power and the wealth among the other 99% so as to create some form of genuine democracy and much fairer and more equitable societies.
These aims are entirely laudable and rational, and, despite the constant assertions from various right-wing ‘elites’ (their self-serving word) that only they have the expertise and knowledge to govern and to administer public policies and programmes, these aims are also entirely sustainable. After all, is it not the case that responsibility for all of the major military, economic and political disasters over the past century and beyond can be laid right at the door of the various ‘elites’ and their ‘expert’ advisers? Only a self-serving, powerful social deviant or a supportive fool would suggest that human beings who manage very complex personal and community lives do not have the capacity through acting in alliance with others for the common good to make decisions that are at least no worse than the calamitous decisions made by the existing ‘elites’, and likely far better.
Many older political activists and agitators will have been pessimistic over the past decade and more at the prospects for the development of new radical social movements willing to shake off the illusion of increased personal wealth and ready to tackle the problem of political and economic neo-liberal hegemony in North America and Europe. They need not have been pessimistic since if history teaches us anything it is that history is composed of cycles, of highs and lows, of periods of apparent peace and of periods of conflict, of oscillations between what we describe as the politics of the left and of the right.
So certain were neo-liberals and neo-conservatives of their ultimate triumph over the forces of the left following the fall of the Iron Curtain that one of them, Stanford University academic Francis Fukuyama, was prepared in 1992 to declare the following nonsense with a straight face, and was lionised in many quarters for it – “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” That sound that we can hear in the background is of furious back-pedalling, but too late – the hubris of the political right is the cause of their undoing as will become apparent as this latest cycle unfolds.
Many of those older political activists and agitators will shake their heads at the notion of a de-politicised or apolitical movement for fundamental reform (in other words a revolutionary movement). They need not worry. What is going on is a process of attracting support from populations that have been subjected to many decades of media-delivered propaganda, populations that are unsure of the consequences of challenging authority, of stepping ‘over the mark’. That is how hegemony works most effectively through what Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman described as a Spiral of Silence in which individuals, confronted with potentially contentious issues, scan the horizon to determine what they think is a social consensus out of which they are disinclined to break because of fear of social isolation or physical injury. The Spiral of Silence is broken, and with it hegemony, when voices begin to challenge authority and increase and magnify as more people find their courage. That process can be very rapid. The fall of the Iron Curtain is one case in support of this, Tunisia another.
Canadian blogger Shafeen Charania writes that “Things don’t suddenly hit the fan, there is a lead up that gets to the point when people, despite the risk, say “Enough.” It is at this point that revolutions are born, that causes are formed, that the Man is made to pucker. As the unjust disparity grows, the people’s desire to hold on to the status quo shrinks to the point where what was once unthinkable becomes thinkable. Unjust disparity is the gap between being controlled and being in control”.
If the ‘Occupy’ movement is successful in maintaining and then expanding its support then that may take care of the question ‘how are we going to get there?’. But that leaves unanswered the question ‘Where do we want to go?’. In effect it is the ‘the cart before the horse’ scenario. As things stand the movement has some nebulous idea of the need for a transformation in the way political and economic power is wielded and its effect on societies and individuals, but that revolutionary idea needs to have a focus, a destination, a ‘place’ where a majority of people are prepared and interested enough to go, and it must be a journey that has the possibility of a successful conclusion in as short a space of time as is possible to avoid the potential for a political vacuum that may be filled by malign forces. History can illuminate that journey.
At another time, in what seems like a strange land, the then ninety-niners lived in conditions not dissimilar to but very much more exaggerated than those that today’s ninety-niners rebel against. They were governed by a succession of tyrannical kings and governments that constantly shifted wealth from the poor to the rich, stole the ninety-niners’ lands and resources, used famine as a genocidal tool, and the noose, the sword and the gun as a means of suppressing dissent. The tyrants did all they could to destroy the indigenous laws, culture and language, used the ninety-niners as slaves at home and abroad, ensured that living conditions were, for the vast majority, utterly sub-standard and that hope for a better future seemed an impossible illusion.
Eventually, just as today, a small number of ninety-niners determined that change must come, that they would attempt to transform the lives of all ninety-niners in their land by creating revolutionary change. A journey would be required, and all involved knew that it would be an extremely hazardous one, that some would make it to the destination but that others would fall in the making of the journey. But what would be the destination? It surely had to be one worth reaching, if the human cost was to be high. No point in making a journey that ended up, more or less, at the point of departure.
What those ninety-niners did was to draw up a set of requirements for a new society, which are, again, not dissimilar in many respects to the requirements that today’s ninety-niners are articulating – justice, equity, freedom, genuine democracy by ownership of government by citizens, and prosperity. Oh, and for good measure, those ninety-niners of old added a truly revolutionary notion, that the government would work, not just for the prosperity of its citizens, but for their happiness!
Now, not only did the ninety-niners of old know they had a journey to make, but that there was a destination worth arriving at. If today’s ninety-niners are to be successful then it is imperative that they set down the broad requirements of the renovated societies that they wish to achieve – only then will they have the potential to attract the mass support needed to overcome seemingly impossible odds. To do that they must lay out some sort of vision for their particular society in the country in which they are campaigning.
In their deliberations, today’s ninety-niners might examine the template for a better society drawn up by the ninety-niners of old. It may be that they might find ways of improving on it, but that is doubtful. Here is the essence of it – “The Irish Republic is a Sovereign Independent State and is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of all citizens. The Republic declares the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.
No privileged ‘elite’ outside of the rule of law; no preferment for corporate interests over the citizens’ interests; religious and civil liberties enshrined; absolute parity of esteem for all citizens without qualification on grounds of gender, race, religious persuasion, intellectual or physical ability, social class or profession/trade, etc.; control of national wealth and resources by the people; ownership of government by the citizens and not vested interests; prosperity and…happiness.
Today’s ninety-niners might well consider these ideas – would they be satisfied with a society in which these were the rule of law and enshrined and underpinned in a costitution? If not, how are they to be improved on? It is reasonable to suggest that the vision of the ninety-niners of old represents an achievable destination, and that the journey need not take an inordinate amount of time to complete.
Occupying Dame Street is a worthwhile and admirable thing to do. It could be the first step towards a bigger objective with a slightly different slogan – ‘Occupy The Republic’.