The process is the point: the Occupy movement in Canada

Since the Occupy movement arrived in Canada, pundits and media commentators have been scratching their heads, asking the same question in different ways: what is the point? Critics of the nascent movement highlight a lack of coherent goals, the apparent disorganization of those involved, and the pointlessness of camping out to create more equity. In a more sinister vein, questions are raised as to whether the Occupy movement might do more harm than good, setting up a false and misleading dichotomy of “us” versus “them.” (We’re All In This Economy Together, Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 27 2011).

Such questions have a particular goal: they aim to confine the Occupy movement to categories that are familiar under current social structures. Is it a political party? Well then, it ought to have a platform. Is it an organization akin to NGOs like the David Suzuki Foundation, for instance? Then it ought to have a clear organizational structure. Is it an educational experience for young people? Then it ought to have a focused mandate and an end date.

The reason that public commentators are having such trouble with the Occupy movement is because it defies conventional categories. “Social movement” is the best descriptor that can be applied, but it also looks different than other social movements that Canada has seen over the last decade. This movement is not an exercise in what was derisively described as “summit-hopping” during the height of the anti-globalization movement 10 years ago (although that short-hand description was inaccurate). Instead, it involves people setting stakes in the ground, both metaphorically and literally, indicating through that act of claiming space that they plan to stay put for the long haul. It involves experiments in direct and radical democracy. In short, it involves trying out things that are neither familiar nor widespread under our current system.

Theorists of democracy have long understood that democracy itself is a process, not an end. Hannah Arendt famously described the public sphere as a shared table, around which we gather in order to relate to one another and find our common ground. This involves much more than going to the ballot box every four years; it requires human relationships, wrought through time spent together struggling over dilemmas and finding solutions to the problems that collectively face us. As the pressure mounts on individuals – not just young people but perhaps felt more keenly by young people – to seek out scarce jobs, pay off mounting debt, and struggle to survive under increasingly unforgiving economic circumstances, the opportunity to come together so as to share frustrations and seek solutions within the public realm is one that is rarely offered. The Occupy movement offers just such an opportunity: a genuine moment of democratic engagement not mediated through the interests of pre-existing political parties or NGOs. It represents a chance to experience the actual human relationships that lie at the root of democracy.

From the Occupy movement is already emerging new energy, new commitments and new conversations. The occupiers themselves are figuring out how to run their small communities, and more: they’re reaching out to others to expand the conversations begun within their tent cities. The Occupy Ottawa movement is engaging with academics at Carleton and U of O to develop panel discussions, in order to educate the public and themselves about the complexities of the capitalist system that they know is not working. The original movement in New York, Occupy Wall Street, has had regular visits from scholars and writers. The blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter are alive with conversations about what this movement means and what it is trying to achieve.

But beyond these conversations lies the more important legacy of a movement such as this one: the embodied experience of lived democracy. It is a recognition that at the root of democracy lies human relationships, in all of their messiness, complexity, and beauty. And it is the realization that the process of building a better world is just that: a process. That is the point.

Jacqueline Kennelly is a professor of Sociology at Carleton University. Her most recent book is entitled Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era (PalgraveMacmillan, 2011).

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