I am not an expert on the #occupy movement. I’ve spent some time at the occupy toronto site, and I’ve visited and spoke with various people at the encampment in Kingston and in Zuccotti park in New York City. Still, I’d like to say something in response to a consistent complaint made about the movement – that they lack a coherent set of demands, a coherent leadership, and that if they “really want change”, they should simply join the existing democratic political system.
Unfair Burden Expected of Protestors
The first fallacy I see in critiques of occupy is the implied and unjustified burden placed upon the occupiers to have the answers to all the problems they choose to concentrate on. Political progress can not occur when a problem is not even focussed on – first we need to put our attention towards a problem, and then we can come up with solutions. We’re used to politics of politiciens, where problems are only talked about if the politicien has a story about how the problem will be fixed – and really this is usually only brought up to increase the politicians popularity. That’s what’s normal to us, so it’s strange to see a group of activists focussing on problems without a coherent clear solution. But, actually, that’s what a revolt should look like in a democratic country – we’re not going to demand the fall of dictator, because we already have somewhat democratic structures. Instead, we’re going to demand that issues that concern everyone be focussed on, become part of the political conversation.
There is a coherence of demands
As for the list of demands, if you wander around the encampment, you’ll see lots of demands. But, if you can’t see a coherence between them, then there is something wrong with your eyes. The first demand is that society be run for the benefit of the 99%, rather than the 1%. These numbers may be too extreme for Canada – but they certainly work in the US, where the 1% really does own the government through lobbyists. The situation in Canada is not as extreme, but the demand is the same because if income inequality and american-style politics continue to grow in Canada, we’ll begin to look more and more like the failed democracy of the United States.
Every other demand falls within the rubric of the idea that society should not exploit the less well off for the benefit of the wealthier. There are lots of specific demands, but I’ll just concentrate on two – one is to reduce economic inequality, and one to move towards just solutions to the problems that still face first nations people hundreds after hundreds of years of colonization.
Income Inequality Hurts Everyone
As for economic inequality, this should be a mainstream of the political centre. The research is in, and we know to a much greater degree of certainty than we normally know anything in the social sciences that too much inequality results in people being worse off not only at the bottom and middle of society, but at the top as well. Basically, the wage share has not increased since the 70s, and yet consumer consumption has increased hugely. How? Well, maybe the 25,000$ average consumer debt of Canadians can explain why we own more and more and yet make the same as we did 40 years ago. This is not a sustainable situation – not even for the 1%, who own the consumer debt of Canadians, and who will themselves begin to lose out as that debt becomes less and less serviceable.
Canada’s treatment of its colonized Peoples – Dishonesty and Embarrassment
The situation of indigenous peoples in Canada is a national embarrassment. Just for an example, the Globe and Mail reported this morning the findings of a controversial national panel on native education:
The decision to open the schools on some native reserves is made on a day-to-day basis according to whether or not the water is running.
The staff turnover rates range between 20 and 40 per cent as teachers leave for better pay in non-aboriginal schools. Libraries, special education and computers are unaffordable luxuries.
The annual hike in federal funding for native schools has been capped at 2 per cent, while provinces have been getting increases of 6 per cent. At the same time, the growth in the number of on-reserve students has dramatically outpaced the number attending provincially funded schools.
While this and a thousand other stories can tell of the experience of Canada’s colonized peoples, I think the cause of their continued plight can be distilled remarkable easily: dishonesty. When the British set out to take control of the resources of a land the size of Europe as a whole, the sovereign native peoples of the land were perceived as a challenge to British/Canadian sovereignty – either they had to go, or we wouldn’t get the resources. Compared to the revisionist zionists dream of a “Greater Israel” which might include Jordan and part of Syria and Egypt, the dream of Greater Canada was much grander – dozens of times more territory. The land was taken by disabling the local populations from presenting serious resistance against the occupying forces – this was sometimes done militarily (sometimes through germ warfare, sometimes open combat), but more often it was done by subsidizing European settler communities who would, to borrow a phrase, make the desert bloom and extracted great bounty from sometimes not terribly rich Canadian farmland. But their presence on the land pushed off the natives, who often used the land in a nomadic way rather than sedentary farming. But once the natives had been pushed off their traditional territory, which made their traditional ways of life unsustainable, they were literally imprisoned in permanent refugee camps that we call “reserves” (which were studied by South Africa for the development of the Bantustan and Apartheid system there). And, if imprisoning natives on “reserves” (as if they were some kind of wild animal) wasn’t bad enough, the next stage involved kidnapping their children, and forcing them to learn the British ways of life – in child prisons, or “residential schools”, where they were punished for speaking their own language or doing anything from their own traditions, like carving for instance. After the residential school system became too gruesome for white Canadian society to accept, it was replaced by an agressive child services department which took more native children away than the residential schools every had – giving birth to the famous “sixties scoop”, which continues today as my lawyering friends try to defend the rights of native families to keep their children at home.
But, we never tell the story this way – we tell a tiny bit of it, and we find some way of blaming the chaos of native communities on themselves, rather than on the colonizer/occupier. At occupy Toronto there is a strong native presence, and a strong contingent of native activists who can tell you about the problems in their communities in relation to Canada’s colonialist and genocidal policies. And if you’re willing to listen, you might learn something. And, I honestly believe, that if we were all just honest with ourselves about the situation of Canada’s colonized peoples, it wouldn’t be so impossible to put the practical programs into place that would improve their situations greatly. If we understood the context in which we took sovereignty away from them, we might think it a bit more reasonable to give it back – to negotiate away Canadian sovereignty over large tracks of stolen land, and over resource and airspace rights. To negotiate away our right to tell the band councils how they are allowed to organize themselves, and to decide which treaties we want to obey, and which ones we can safely ignore. This is of course considered “politically impossible”, but I contend it is only politically impossible due to the standardization of dishonesty about history as concerns first nations people in Canada.
Effective Leadership? (Isn’t that an oxymoron?)
The other thing I want to address is the idea that the occupiers don’t have an effective leadership. This is a more complicated issue – certainly it is sometimes important for revolts or reform groups to have leaders. However, the occupy movement grows out of a new political tendency – group autonomy, and consensus rather than leaders. I first experienced this kind of group interaction at my first Critical Mass bike ride - Halloween in Vancouver about 10 years ago. Certainly there are advantages to a clear leadership – but there are also disadvantages. It’s easy to frame the leaders, put them in jail, and use attacks against them to discredit the movement. Wikileaks is a great example of what can go wrong if you have a public leader. Not having leaders doesn’t mean you can’t organize – the General Assembly has facilitators, and resolutions do get made. So, it is possible without a leadership to develop a list of demands – something Occupy New York is currently working on, with difficulty, and with some resistance against the idea of demands in general. There already is a list of demands from #occupywallstreet called the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”. I’m not sure if there is any list of demands from Toronto, if there is, I haven’t heard about it.
Watch Gord Perks’s CBC interview
Even without demands, Gord Perks put it well on the CBC recently when he said that important things are happening at the park, regardless of whether the protestors have all the answers.