Occupy movement: all process and no principle

ESSAY: If the occupiers are so opposed to ‘the one per cent’, why do they keep ripping off its soul-destroying managerial style of politics?

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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For some time now, it has been clear that politics is lost for words. Both establishment politicians and radical protesters share a political vocabulary that is denuded of principles and meaningful content. Instead of talking to people about their beliefs, elite politicians modestly refer to their ‘agenda’ or ‘project’. In turn, the protesters currently occupying public spaces in New York, Madrid and London make a big deal of their refusal to formulate political demands and principles.

Of course, sometimes it is difficult to find the right words to formulate policies and objectives relevant to our times. Even the most far-sighted political leader would feel severely tested by the scale of the problems thrown up by the current global crisis. But at least a sense of responsibility would force such principled leaders to struggle to find their voice and formulate some semblance of a way forward. All we get from politicians today is a pro-forma communiqué and a promise of another global conference of world leaders. Tragically, this affliction of political paralysis has become contagious and now envelops the whole of public life.

While the political elites pretend to have a plan and avoid facing up to the consequences of the fact that actually they lack ideas, their opponents in the Occupy movement make a virtue of having literally nothing to say. Even more striking is the affirmation that such a reluctance or inability to formulate political demands receives from the media. One commentator after another insists that the protesters are doing something far more important than coming up with political demands. They are ‘raising questions’, ‘serving as the conscience of society’, ‘demonstrating the idealism of youth’, ‘highlighting problems’, ‘creating democratic spaces’ or ‘providing an alternative form of organisation’. Or in Labour leader Ed Miliband’s words, they are reflecting a ‘crisis of concern’ apparently shared by many millions of people. It seems that the inability to formulate any solutions to the predicament facing humanity is a marker of virtuous and moral behaviour these days.

Anyone who asks what the protesters actually want is dismissed as a hopeless simpleton who fails to grasp that incoherence and inarticulateness are the new chic. In fact, given that the protesters are now supported by everyone from political leaders to bishops, and by every media outlet from The Times to the Guardian, with ‘the 99 per cent’ even in the running to become Time’s Person of the Year, it seems that inarticulate posturing is super chic. ‘Those who deride [the protest] for its lack of concrete demands simply don’t understand its strategic function’, lectures Gary Younge of the Guardian. Apparently its strategic function is to confront the ‘task of creating new possibilities’. It is as if the chattering classes have decided that the emperor’s clothes are not only terribly fashionable but actually represent the height of taste.

Processed politics

The clearest sign that the vocabulary of politics has become emptied of meaning is the ascendancy of process in public life. In effect, in recent years the political process has mutated into processed politics. Today, the language of public life is dominated by the rhetoric of process. Terms like ‘empowerment’, ‘support’, ‘inclusion’, ‘exclusion’, ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’ or ‘best practice’ all refer to institutional and organisational matters. The most significant expression of the shift from a political to a managerial style of authority is the fetish of governance. Once upon a time, governance referred to the act of directing and governing. Today it refers to the management of rules and processes. According to one definition, governance is ‘the systems and processes concerned with ensuring the overall direction, effectiveness, supervision and accountability of an organisation’.

The impoverishment of the language of politics, or what the Australian social critic Don Watson describes as the ‘decay of public language’, reflects the erosion of a normative framework for the conduct of public life. It is when ideas about right and wrong, and when the question of what we should value cannot be taken for granted, that process comes into its own. The proliferation of rule-making within institutions and in all domains of human experience is an inexorable consequence of the hollowing out of a moral and political vocabulary. From the standpoint of governance, there is no normative expression of right and wrong; all that counts is whether the correct process has been followed.

The supremacy of process elevates people from making judgments about what is good or bad, right or wrong, a moral way to do things or an immoral way. It also disassociates people’s actions from their consequences. Instead of leaders, we now have the institutionalisation of mentoring. Contemporary political mentors, who are everywhere in the political sphere, do not lead – they ‘facilitate’ and ‘enable’.

The governance of protest

Protesters, like the targets of their actions, have also lost the capacity to express themselves in a moral or political way. The idealism and passion of young activists has been absorbed into a preoccupation with how to organise themselves. So a statement issued by Occupy Melbourne says: ‘We envision a politics of self-determination and direct democracy without the need for representation.’ From this standpoint, radicalism has more to do with the rules of organisation rather fighting for certain objectives.

The obsession with rule-making and process within the Occupy movement is now discussed as the defining feature of this new radicalism. One of the websites supporting the occupations declares that ‘the non-hierarchical decentralised structure, the inclusiveness and cooperation, are staples of the occupations’. Time and again, the occupiers boast that they are leaderless and non-hierarchical. Indeed, they have invented rules for achieving consensus without the need for political debate or an old-fashioned show of hands. Instead, agreement or dissent is expressed through silent gestures, such as waving your arms upwards to show consent or downwards to signal disagreement.

Processed protest can be seen in its most caricatured form in the Spanish Indignados movement. Their manual, titled How to Cook a Non-Violent Revolution, contains an organisational chart that is so intricate it would make the most bureaucratic bureaucrat proud. It describes the importance of having a Communication Commission to interact with the media and an Outreach Commission to engage with other assemblies and institutions. The Group Dynamics Commission is a heavy-duty body responsible for dreaming up new rules that assist ‘the consolidation of a group consciousness’. It ‘prepares the methodology to be followed in assemblies’ and draws up ‘moderation arrangements, floor times and systems for taking the floor’. The Respect Commission is charged with ‘conveying the importance of a respectful campground atmosphere’. There are literally more than a dozen other commissions and workgroups to oversee the governance of the Occupy camp in Spain.

What is desperately sad about this protest movement is the almost spontaneous manner in which it has internalised the ‘best practices’ of process-driven managerialism. So when Occupy London needs to respond to an event, it follows the practices routinely used in private and public sector ‘away-days’. At such events the pretence of participation and engagement is maintained through the phenomenon of breakaway groups. Likewise, at the occupation outside St Paul’s Cathedral the ‘general assembly’ of campers splits up into groups of 10 to discuss whatever issue is under consideration. In both instances, the manner in which a discussion is conducted trumps any consideration as to its content.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the organisational models adopted by the protesters is just how much they mirror those of ‘the one per cent’ they claim to despise. Consider the Occupy movement’s continuous celebration of non-hierarchical organisation. A regular reader of the Harvard Business Review would be quite comfortable with such advocacy of non-hierarchy. Numerous articles in the Review, with headlines such as ‘To Be A Better Leader, Give Up Authority’, clearly express the view that good business practice requires a non-hierarchical culture. These days, companies brag about their non-hierarchical business structures and non-hierarchical teams.

Although it is outwardly radical, contemporary protest culture has in fact adopted the procedure-oriented approach of the very establishment it claims to be protesting against. Paradoxically, it has embraced one of the least attractive features of contemporary Western public life, which is the tendency to look for organisational solutions to what are in fact political and moral problems. The most disturbing thing about today’s religion of governance is its addiction to rule-making. The institutionalisation of process inevitably begets more rules. It creates a demand for auditors and new processes to ensure that the proper processes are always followed.

When process turns into an ideology, it is only a matter of time before it becomes an instrument of deception and dishonesty. In the public sector, people can cut corners so long as they make sure that their paper trail is up to scratch. And in the new protest camps, the performance of non-hierarchical rituals allows a group of unacknowledged, unrepresentative ‘leaders’ to set the political agenda. Paradoxically, the protest-chic of the street exists in a symbiotic relationship with the process-chic of the boardroom.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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