Various ‘Occupy’ protests around North America are being shut down on the orders of city governments, and apparently by means of police driving everyone out in the middle of the night and arresting those who remain. Regardless of the politics of the protestors, this is objectionable. While it is fair enough for cities to try to maintain safe conditions in the encampments, it doesn’t seem necessary to use such heavy-handed tactics to do so. They could correct potential fire hazards one at a time, clean the parks in segments without evicting everyone, and so on. The current approach seems unnecessarily violent and not respectful of the right of the protestors to speak and assemble – rights that trump superficial concerns like grass getting trampled.
An incoherent movement
While I object to the manner of these evictions, I continue to see limited value in the ‘Occupy’ protests themselves. There are definitely reasons to be concerned about things like the regulation of the financial sector and social justice issues generally. The way in which those in extreme poverty are treated by our society is deeply objectionable. At the same time, I think it is fair to say that the ‘Occupy’ movement lacks coherence and political savvy. While the particular democratic approach being employed seems to be gratifying for participants, it prevents the movement from articulating clear demands that can penetrate into the political system or even into the wider public discussion in a discrete way.
I also think the protestors have an inflated sense about their level of public support. They claim to represent 99% of the population, but it seems clear that 99% of the population does not want what they want – at least in terms of radical redistribution of income, or the wholesale modification of the corporate capitalist system that predominates in North America today. Most people are reasonably happy with the status quo, which is why the ‘Occupy’ movement is marginalized and confined to a few parks.
Part of the reason for that inflated sense of popularity probably comes from the ease with which the media can be captivated by the sort of stories the ‘Occupy’ movement produces: clashes between protestors and police, heated arguments within municipal politics, colourful signs and soundbites, and pundits arguing energetically. ‘Occupy’ has been all over the news, despite how there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of intellectual substance behind it.
The political situation
The political situation in North America is certainly discouraging for those who favour redistribution of wealth (a group that includes many traditionally identified as part of the political ‘left’). In Canada, the Liberal Party have been in disarray for years. It has performed poorly in successive elections and lacks an inspiring candidate for leadership or a clear sense of how to restore itself as a plausible government. The right is united and the left is a mess, which is the major reason why right-leaning governments have endured and strengthened in recent years.
In the United States, a left-leaning president has become quite unpopular, largely as a result of ongoing economic problems that are basically an accident as far as he is concerned. He inherited a big mess and has been fixated on trying to sort it out, fully aware that his re-election prospects depend more on that than on anything else. His efforts to produce growth and reduce unemployment have not been terribly successful (though you can argue that things would have been far worse without them) and he has sacrificed most of his other priorities to achieve what little he has on the economy. (Health is the only other area where he has devoted substantial effort, and it remains to be seen whether that will be picked apart.)
The state of the right-leaning party in the United States might be the most depressing thing about North American politics. The leadership candidates are mostly clowns, and the one who is most credible (Romney) has been driven to say some awfully discouraging things by his more populist rivals. It is deeply worrisome to see how little American Republicans care about empirical evidence and science, and frightening to think what policies would come out of a new Republican administration, regardless of which specific candidate leads it.
‘Occupy’ in context
The political left is a mess, so the prospects for more redistribution through the ordinary political system are poor. That may explain the effort to sidestep politics as usual through encampments and attempts to engage with the population directly.
And yet, I don’t think the general population is being convinced by the arguments the occupiers are making. They recognize that there are important problems being identified, but ‘Occupy’ doesn’t seem capable of managing and sustaining itself as a movement, much less of being the source for major political or economic changes in society as a whole. Their criticisms are more convincing than their proposed solutions, insofar as a clear set of proposals can even be discerned.
Eventually, some combination of official pressure, bad weather, and sheer exhaustion will probably lead to the end of the encampments. It is not clear to me that they will have any legacy worth pointing to. They demonstrate that people are unhappy with the state of politics and the economic order of society, but they do not seem like the start of an effective movement to alter either of those things.
For those who want to reduce economic inequality in society – a project that I do not fully endorse personally – I think the task that needs to be undertaken is the rebuilding of the left within conventional politics. The Liberals the the NDP need to be brought together in Canada, and they need to craft a set of policies that can appeal to a majority of the population. The same is true in the United States, in that the Democrats need to find their way after the disappointments of Obama.
Redistribution versus decarbonization
What worries me most is that the most necessary political project is not one that really has any popular support to speak of. I am talking about the preservation of the habitability of the planet. It is a task that is essential to the welfare of future generations, but which primarily requires sacrifice from the generation that is making decisions now. It may be that when you rank all the human beings who will ever live, including those in the past and those yet to be born, virtually everyone alive today is part of the 1% who are the wealthiest and most privileged.
George Monbiot captures this well, in saying: “[Decarbonization] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.”
The way I see it, extreme poverty and the treatment of mentally ill are major moral failings in North American society which ought to be prioritized within the political system. The simple redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor and/or the middle class is a less important project, and one that is more morally questionable. The decarbonization of the global economy, by contrast, is a critically important project of enormous moral importance. It is more important than preventing future banking crises, and certainly more important than reducing the gap between those who travel by private jet and those who travel by Greyhound. Preventing future banking crises may be a precondition for decarbonization – since economic turmoil sucks the air out of politics and effectively forbids politicians from working on anything else – but that is an instrumental rather than a fundamental argument for increasing financial stability. Decarbonization also cannot survive as exclusively a movement of the left. It must become post-partisan. As such, the linkages between the movement to fight climate change and the ‘Occupy’ movement may be counterproductive in the long run.
Ultimately, I think our generation will be judged on how quickly we move beyond fossil fuels and how effectively we develop and deploy zero-carbon energy options. Decarbonization is the means by which we can reduce the terrifying risks associated with climate change, and zero carbon energy will be the basis for whatever level of prosperity is actually sustainable for the indefinite future of human life.