Friday, 28 October 2011

How Many Will It Take?

How many people must take to the streets?

The recent images of 100,000 Greeks demonstrating in the streets of Athens raises an intriguing question about the utility of protest. And, as it relates to the ever-widening Occupy movement, its worth asking: "how many people will it finally take"?

How many people must take to the streets before a government will respond to the will of its citizens? There's no ready answer. There's no absolute number. And just posing so fundamental a question itself unleashes a torrent of new ones.

In the case of the Greek protests, what is clear is that 100,000 was not nearly enough, because the country's parliamentarians enacted tough new austerity measures despite the vigorous opposition of those who elected them. The government clearly understood the pain it was inflicting on its own people, even as it refused to consider their wishes, and it chose instead to meet the demands of the international banking class. In a democracy, then, how many people must take their dissent to the streets?

The Greek example demonstrates yet again that the almost universal disapproval of a people, and massive displays of public protest, are generally insufficient to sway the course of government. In Greece, a higher authority was at work. Economists tell us that the world-wide catastrophe arising from a Greek default is too terrible to contemplate. They tell us that crushing the lives of ordinary Greeks is a necessary price for the greater good. A fact central to this unfolding drama that receives almost no commentary is that working- and middle-class Greeks played no part in creating the explosion of debt that now puts us all in such jeopardy. Adding insult to injury, those actually culpable for this mess have quietly and safely moved on with their lives, even as the austerity measures,
"are being imposed by the very people whom most Greeks blame for misgoverning the country and benefiting from pervasive corruption. Nobody has been arrested. Ex-ministers live lavishly in Athens' most luxurious properties. Everybody speaks furiously of the immunity of the political elite."
Still, there must be a number. At some point, a critical mass of citizen participation and dissent would have swung the balance in the Greek protests. So what exactly was that number? Let's look to other recent examples for a possible answer. 

Like OWS, the J14 movement in Israel was borne of a tent city and a growing dissent over the issues of social justice. A mood of palpable disaffection spread across the country this past summer, culminating in street protests that attracted 300,000 people, the largest such demonstrations ever seen in Israel to that point. What began as a protest by young Israelis against the high cost of housing soon turned to broader societal issues, ultimately giving voice to calls for Prime Minister Netanyahu's resignation and the fall of his government.

The J14 movement continued to grow in intensity, and was ultimately capped by the September 3rd Million Person March. While the actual numbers were closer to 500,000, it was nonetheless a truly inspiring example of mass participation and public dissent. However, like the recent events in Greece, it too has amounted to nothing -- Netanyahu expressed the appropriate concern; he formed a suitably august and benign commission to investigate the problem; and then he promptly ordered the tent cities forceably dismantled.

We can be certain that the J14 protesters anxiously await the solemn pronouncements of the Trajtenberg Committee on housing reform. But the larger issues of social justice that truly animated the average Israeli's active participation remain unresolved -- it was, and is, an extraordinary opportunity lost. Perhaps the average Israeli citizen is left wondering today just how many more thousands it would have taken to affect a real change.

Tahrir Square -- a million people in the streets.

We continue our search for evidence that a critical mass -- a tipping point of participation -- can bend the actions of the state to the will of its people. And so we turn our attention to the mother of all protests, an event so inspirational that it continues still to inform the Occupy movement in the US and around the world -- Tahrir Square in Egypt.

The popular revolt in Egypt brought millions to the streets of Cairo and other cities around the country. It riveted the world's attention, and it ultimately brought down the government of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. It was not polite, and it was not without bloodshed. But the sheer mass of people in the streets seemed to still the worst of the military's basest reactionary instincts -- this in a country dominated by the military.

The demands of the revolution's organizers and leaders were initially embraced by the ruling military council. In a country so rife with daily corruption and police brutality, there was much to correct. The success in social and political reform made for inspiring reading; the arrest and subsequent trial of Mubarak and his two sons; the dismantling of the hated State Security Investigations Service; the dissolution of parliament and the announcement of new elections; the removal of the SSI-controlled university police; and the dissolution of the singular and authoritarian National Democratic Party.

So, at last (!), a popular will that bent the state to its own service!

Well, no, not quite.

There are new reports of significant reversals by the ruling Egyptian council. In recent clashes with the military, several protesters have been killed. And in an announcement that has stunned the public, the military council has said it expects to retain control of the government even after the elections that have now been postponed till November. Moreover, the continued control by the council will ensure that the 30-year old emergency laws will remain in force, and that the ratification of a new constitution may not conclude till 2013, if at all. And finally, it appears that one dictator will simply be replaced by another.

Perhaps it was much too much to expect that a modern dictatorship could actually be transformed by the popular will of its people. And complicating this particular event, one wonders how much pressure was brought to bear on the Egyptian military by its major benefactor, the United States, in negating the gains of the people's revolution.


In the end, is it really possible? Are there no examples of government actually acceding to the popular will of its people? From the protests of the Indignados in Mexico and Spain to the labor wars in Wisconsin, the recent history of public dissent around the world is sadly bereft of success. Indeed, the scoreboard reads like a rout.

But before we give up, before we fold our tents and quietly go home, lets first consider the nature of our opponent -- the opponent that is our own government, and the representatives charged with upholding our will and best interests. Because that's just it, they don't. Instead, they represent the monied class and their own ideologies, with the backing and full coercive power of the state.

The struggle for social justice and the growing imbalance of the 99% demonstrate that, once safely in power, our representatives imagine themselves to be unassailable -- they are validated by a manufactured "democratic process" that is carefully scripted, choreographed and managed to ensure the "correct" result. George W. Bush was more forthcoming than he perhaps intended when he boasted of spending the political capital he had "won". Bush offered a rare glimpse of how today's ruling class views its own sovereignty; it is a view that holds the rest of us in barely concealed contempt. We are, at best, tolerated for the vote we provide and the vote they must have. The ruling class use democratic election cycles like a bludgeon, saying in affect, "you get your chance every four years, and you've had your say, so now sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up".

And that's precisely why we must stand up, and speak up, loud and clear. That's exactly why mass protest and public dissent have now become our last possible route to meaningful change. It explains why, in democratic societies that so righteously espouse liberty and the right of free assembly (unless, of course, you live in Oakland), the political class and their enablers and courtiers bristle at all forms of populist participation. And it explains why, in the final analysis, there are so few examples of a government actually heeding the will of the people it so earnestly purports to represent.

Governments routinely shirk their most important responsibility to us by relying on their most reliable weapon -- time. The state knows it has time on its side. It will stall and placate its activists (as in Israel), it will outlast its activists (as in Egypt), and it will ignore its activists (as in Greece), because by doing so it knows it will diffuse and exhaust their energy. In moving forward, our activists for social justice must gain a more complete understanding of these strategies to better aid in counteracting them.


What does all this mean for the nascent Occupy movement? Well, for a start, and in answer to our original question: how many will it take?, if we accept the lessons offered up by Greece, Israel and Egypt, it will take millions. And those millions must offer more than just supportive chatter around office water-coolers, or give solidarity through on-line opinion polls; they must demonstrate their commitment to our shared values through direct action and mass participation. At the same time, we must recognize the state's desire for certainty and the status quo, and in combating it's strategy to placate, outlast and ignore, we must hold firm to our right of free assembly, even as the state will embrace every opportunity to subvert it.

Compared to the Greek protests, the J14 movement, Tahrir Square and the Indignados, the Occupy movement remains embryonic and fragile. To be sure, it has accomplished much -- it has changed the nature of public discourse, and it has thrust the issue of social justice to the very top of our political agenda, something that all the pundits and bloggers in the world have been unable to do for all their years of trying. But this brave and dedicated vanguard camped out on the commons cannot themselves affect the necessary outcomes. They must be joined by many more, both in the tent communities and out on the streets, so that the Occupy movement will become more fully legitimized in the public mind, an important step in building a critical mass of participation that our politicos and their corporate masters cannot possibly ignore.

It is not our job to take power, but rather to hold our representatives accountable to us. The sheer weight of our numbers makes this goal possible, but only through the active participation of millions in the coming months can it become truly attainable.

Postscript. The situation in Egypt is not good. In a story published October 30, we learn more about the post-Mubarek era. And as I had suggested in the main post, it is almost impossible to resurrect and mobilize the passion and participation of the critical mass once it has been diffused. The state understands this fact, and uses it to its own advantage as part of its response to public dissent.

Also related to my piece is a newly posted column by Chris Hedges in Truthdig. This man is a well-respected chronicler of social and political trends and events in America. And I greatly admire his writing. But his last several pieces are difficult for me to embrace. There is a lot of poetic romanticism of revolutions past; too many fond recollections of anarchists and revolutionaries that have no bearing on the issues now at play in the 21st century. We're faced with a situation that is unlike anything we've ever seen, in that the financial control now exercised by the monied class is unprecedented. And to be brutally frank about it, Hedges has lavished much too much enthusiasm on a 27 year-old self-taught anarchist.

And when ever I need a little positive affirmation to shore up my own poor scribbles, I can always rely on Bill Moyers. And there he was, this morning, on the pages of CommonDreams. In a keynote address at Public Citizen's 40th Anniversary Gala, he quoted Lawrence Goodwin, who said there was,
"a mass resignation of people who believe the dogma of democracy on a superficial level, but who no longer believe it privately, [and who saw] a decline of individual self-respect on the part of millions of people."
Moyers understands perfectly well why this is so,
"We hold elections knowing they are unlikely to produce the policies favored by a majority of Americans. We speak. We write. We advocate. And those in power -- Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives -- turn deaf ears and blind eyes to our deepest aspirations."
These comments speak to my post, and the politicians who tolerate us for our vote, and then tell us to shut up and sit in the corner till next election day. Our democratic election cycles are truly used against us like a bludgeon. So I ask again, how many people must take to the streets before a government will respond to the will of its citizens?

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Pack My Jack, by J.J. Cale, from the album Shades. A great blues feel for a Friday afternoon. Enjoy.


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