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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

Occupy Wall Street -- "We Are What Democracy Looks Like!"

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OCCUPY WALL STREET TRADEMARK
AP

Given how extraordinarily successful it has been both in its own terms and in its capacity to grab the attention of the media, Occupy Wall Street has been conveniently misunderstood by its supporters and detractors alike. Recently, Mayor Bloomberg patronized it haughtily, saying "It's fun and it's cathartic -- it's, I don't know, it's entertaining to go and to blame people, but it doesn't get better by complaining about; it doesn't get better by disrupting commerce (and) vilifying people."

Meanwhile, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote mockingly from India (where people like capitalism just fine, he explained): "I'm willing to celebrate when the Occupiers... accomplish something more than organizing their own campsite cleanup, demonstrating their tolerance for tear gas, and distracting the conversation a little from the Tea Party." Everyone wants to know OWS's "demands." And the names of its "leaders," because there have to be leaders, right? Friends worry the movement is good-willed but amorphous and aimless, while critics dismiss it as another eruption of hippie anarchism -- complaining kids who, standing for nothing, want to tear down everything.

To be sure, the occupiers themselves are a diverse lot. The encampments around the country (and the world) embrace a panoply of causes, and contain tensions and fissure the protesters themselves acknowledge and even welcome. OWS has become a vessel into which people pour their own fears and aspirations, but that is a strength, not a weakness. You can't build a movement on a single narrow demand, however compelling it may be. Which may be why the movement has been slow to produce a definitive document.

That is not to say there is not a unifying theme. It's called Occupy Wall Street for a reason: it's about the MONEY, stupid! The money that has put profits before people and left human values to be measured by price alone. The money that (with the complicity of the Supreme Court) has replaced votes (one for each of us) with dollars (one for the 99 and 99 for the one!) turning democracy into plutocracy.

Anyone who spends a little time at Zuccotti Park, however, quickly learns that those occupying Wall Street share more than the unifying conviction that money has undone the social compact; they share something even more precious: a belief that what democracy really is cannot be defined by how it is being practiced today. If the occupiers do not have demands and lack a palpable politics, they exemplify a powerful process that speaks to their principles.

To understand what's going on, look at what OWS is, not what it does. Start by taking seriously the ubiquitous signs asking "What does democracy look like?" and answering "WE are what democracy looks like!" Look at the process, which is a bold attempt to embody a "horizontal" paradigm of participatory engagement as an alternative to "vertical" big league moneyball democracy.

What the process offers is a compelling rejection of that crass instrumentalism so beloved of American politicians. You know, "the end justifies the means" so the Republicans condemn all government spending, except when it's for the military-industrial complex! And President Obama just has to raise funds from big-time bundlers and lobbyists despite his pledge not to do so, because how else can he get reelected? The protesters assail not only Wall Street and capitalism, but also the hypocritical cynicism of politics as usual.

The protesters' principles are in their processes, which stand in radical contrast to how we normally conduct business. For starters, all decisions must be submitted to the General Assembly that convenes almost every day and is the source of the movements' legitimacy. The GA's process is maddeningly open and transparent, with changing constituencies from night to night, and decisions are taken by consensus. Not majority, not two thirds or three quarters, but consensus or a staggering 90% super-majority. Most tellingly, every voice has to be heard, including those of participants who offer a "block" -- that must be responded to and overcome, if consensus is to prevail.

The process requires patience and tolerance. And a great deal of talk. And an extraordinary focus on addressing objections. It makes it much harder to decide to do anything, but every decision that is passed can claim a legitimacy that finds no counterpart in how we otherwise do business under the sway of special interests and rivers of cash.

Cynics on the right dismiss OWS as a bunch of socialists and collectivists, but find a democratic process more attuned to the autonomy and rights of individuals. Consider the "peoples' microphone" -- an innovation necessitated by the refusal of the city to allow electronic amplification. With crowds of several hundred or more listening, individual voices cannot be heard, so speakers voice their concerns in snippets that are repeated (echoed) by the crowd in an expanding circle, so that the words can be heard on the periphery.

The Peoples' Mic is a clumsy process and makes complex and nuanced speech difficult. But it has two considerable democratic virtues: it forces relatively simple, straightforward speech that enhances clarity and communication; and it requires that in dealing with naysayers and "blocks" the majority must mouth and voice the actual words of those who disagree. How better to kindle a sympathy for minority voices than for their majority opponents to have to rehearse their protests, word for word, and even mimic their affect? And how fitting that a movement wedded to moral protest should be attuned to protests against its own actions that come from within.

OWS may be naive and exasperating in its refusal to engage in ordinary politics and its disdain for voting when so much seems to turn on who is in the White House (think Supreme Court appointments, for example). Surely it would do better to recognize that capitalism is here to stay and that the challenge is to regulate and govern the system democratically rather than to abolish it.

Yet the occupiers know that greed, narcissism, avarice, self-interest and egoism -- radical individualism run amok and market ideology turned vicious -- have so corrupted the system, that it appears to them to be beyond saving.

So, take note Mayor Bloomberg and Bill Keller, protesters are not complaining or playing the blame game. They are engaging with one another to develop an alternative, a paradigm shift: self-government in place of corrupt central government, active participation in place of the culture of complaint, responsibility in place of cynicism. It may not be possible to govern a nation of 300 million this way, but it offers a powerful riposte to the tyranny of money over everything under which we now live.