It has been a painfully long time since the opinion poll was fully assimilated into Canadian political life. In the arid and austere years of the 1980s, both federal parties began to outlay heaps of money to commission pollsters (an originally pejorative term) to not measure but control public opinion. Canadian politics has suffered accordingly. No stranger to this uninspired and faltering form of democracy, Judy Rebick, in her new book, sees the supple practices of Occupy Wall Street as the “deepest form of democracy I’ve ever seen.”
Judy Rebick is a scion of the Canadian left, and the merit of her book is its response to the question scornfully asked by every columnist from the organs of ruling-class reflection: “What does the Occupy movement want?” Rebick shows that the failure to yield an answer lies directly in the nature of the question itself. The mentally ill, the addicted, and those living in total abjection are magnetized to Occupy in search of a political process in which they are included. And included they are. The ostensible lack of demands and structure manifest because the “horizontality” of the movement, as Rebick calls it, is so sui generis as to not register in the minds of Occupy’s detractors at all. Real democracy, to them, seems confusing and alien.
Infused with the Desmond Tutu-inspired ubuntu, the communitarian socialism of the Bolivian campesinos, and the very North American style of rebellion epitomized by open-source software, Rebick’s short book encapsulates the internationalism at the heart of Occupy. People come to Occupy to be treated as equals and to hash out plans for the future of social activism. This is not your typical social-democratic movement, which is partly why the mocking and taunts from the corporate press miss the target as much as they are just plain unfunny.
Rebick’s book deals with not just the roots of the movement, but also the “wings” that it supports. Who could forget the imperishable image of the “rogue page,” Brigette DePape? The sprightly intern bit back against the heavy hand of tradition by disrupting a throne speech with a shoddy sign bearing the words “Stop Harper.” Rebick compares DePape to Asmaa Mahfouz, whose impassionate plea on YouTube brought throngs of people to Tahrir Square to push out Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mahfouz would later come to Occupy Wall Street to announce her solidarity.
Although trumped-up charges and hastily passed injunctions ended many of the occupations, Occupy, as Rebick explains, has now entered the second and more crucial phase of encamping in our consciousness, much like the Indignado campaign in Spain. The Occupants have left their makeshift worlds and returned to their places of origin, to put into practice the inclusionary principles of direct democracy that the Occupy movements called forth.
Occupy This! is exemplary because it shows that the movement is but one small cluster of a large constellation of global protests. But this expansive world view makes salient a key problem of Rebick’s pamphlet, a total absence of criticism. Rebick, for example, is too cavalier in dismissing how the “human mic” can become a dictaphone of demagoguery. The practice consists of the crowd shouting back what a speaker is saying, a type of organic amplification. Participants have been known to fall silent however when someone utters something they don’t want to hear. Does the “people’s mic” not lead to a type of self-serving tautology where the crowd claps at the speaker’s words and words are spoken only because they elicit claps? Rebick falls short of activating the constructive criticism the movement needs. Yet the founder of Rabble.ca has assembled here a much needed demystification of the Occupy movement. The digital and inexpensive character of this Penguin ebook makes it easily transmittable to those for whom opinion polls have imparted a refined pessimism about actual democracy in the rare time and space where it is actually practiced.
This article appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Limits of Medicine in a Sick Society).