Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Inside or Outside the System? Both.

There are few political commentators that combine the clarity, intelligence, integrity, and intellectual courage of Glenn Greenwald. He argues here that Occupy is wise to remain non-partisan and not endorse any specific legislation, because our current legislative system and both parties in it are thoroughly corrupt, so therefore few new laws could have any real effect and staying within the realm of civil society helps keep OWS from being co-opted and corrupted itself. Glenn correctly points out that truly mass-based movements have positive effects on the culture that ultimately, in turn, also bring about positive change to the political system. This is a very solid point, and one I agree with, as far as it goes: the civil rights, feminist, and GLBT movements obviously have had strong non-partisan elements that worked to change the culture precisely this way. 
Yet there is more to the story. All these movements have operated within civil society, but they all also eventually combined that with partisan and legislative political activity, for in the end that is a necessary part of social change: you have to change the basic laws of the land in order to achieve a social movement’s aims. The civil rights movement produced the landmark 1960s civil rights laws that brought African-Americans into the political system for the first time -- and paved the way for an African American president. Feminism brought changes to rape, harassment, domestic violence, workplace equality, and abortion rights laws, and almost resulted in the Equal Rights Amendment. The GLBT movement brought an end to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, has won equal marriage laws in some places, and continues its aim of achieving legal changes that guarantee equality regardless of orientation.

Civil society protests are beneficial in bringing people together and expanding their communal spirit despite whatever political effects they might have, but they are also inherently a way of pressuring politicians to change law and policy. Doing so will be necessary as long as government exists. The state does not appear to be withering away anytime soon. My political philosophy is ultimately “anarchist” in the positive sense of that term as meaning “no chief or ruler”: I believe that human beings are capable of cooperating and governing themselves without resorting to the use of institutionalized coercion. But we are a long way, in practice, from actualizing those capacities.  The communal and non-partisan democratic practices of OWS, such as the General Assemblies and the emphasis on consensus, are wonderful democratic advances that should be taught and instituted in communities and associations widely, to help get us back in the habit of exercising the civic virtues within our various communities and fellowships. Yet even if we do that, we are still going to be working with the institutions of modern government for the foreseeable future, including bureaucracies and ostensibly representative legislatures. Thus, for now, we are in conditions where social change requires changing the operations of government. And part of social reform involves an effort to root out, or at least significantly diminish, corruption, so that we can stop thinking of the government as an alien force wielded over us by elite others and remake it into a public thing, a republic, commonly shared by all. To ensure true and lasting social change, you have to eventually change the laws of the land. This also has the positive additional effect of giving society's imprimatur to those changes.

So Glenn is right that Occupy should stay within the sphere of civil society and resist partisan co-optation for now, at some point it, or some political wing running in parallel with it, will have to enter the sphere of elections and legislation. And while Occupy has already begun to influence the choices and behavior of elected officials, eventually a discussion will have to be had about the best ways to get those elected officials to changes laws and policies to address the issues of economic class and equality that Occupy is raising. That is likely to be a point of contention and division within the movement -- we on the Left have battled over whether third parties are legitimate before, for example -- and everyone should be aware of that and be ready to accept multiple approaches.
The Occupy protesters, and those posting at We Are the 99 Percent, have changed the public debate and brought about a greater sense of our common conditions and interests, valuable things in themselves. And it seems plain to me (and I may be misreading it but I don’t think so) that the underlying drive to all this civil disobedience is a desire to create a truly just and democratic economic system.  We can do this -- create a truly just and democratic economic system -- it is not a utopian pipe dream. And doing so will itself go a long, long way to remedying many other injustices and collective problems within our society and even globally. And that will ultimately entail an explicitly political effort to alter laws and institutions.
If Occupy is the beginning of a movement in the tradition of the civil rights or feminist or GLBT movements, but one focusing specifically on class rather than race, sex, or gender, then more power to it! A thousand thousand wishes for its success, culturally, socially, and economically! But it will eventually have to be successful politically too, for our laws and political structures themselves need to change so that they are truly democratic and serve the interests of the public as a whole, not simply the special class interest of the top 1%. 
Occupy Democracy!

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