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The UK Occupy movement five years on and the growth of direct democracy


The first assembly on the first day of Occupy London, October 2011. by Jamie Kelsey-Fry

Being among thousands of people shaping a new vision of what the world could be like was intoxicating, writes Jamie Kelsey-Fry.

Five years ago, on 15 October 2011, around three thousand people turned up at the London Stock Exchange to form the UK response to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Occupy was inspired by the Arab Spring and the 15M movement in Spain and was the beginning of a global response to what was seen as the corporate capture of politics, democracy and life itself by a neoliberal economic system that served only the wishes of ‘the 1%’.

Blocked by barriers and police from getting in to the square, people started to set up tents in the shadows of St Paul’s Cathedral next to it. The camp lasted for four and a half months and was joined by 42 other Occupy camps across the UK and Ireland and a few months later, at its height, Occupy had more than 800 camps globally.

One of the core founding aspects of Occupy was that decisions were to be made by using direct or participatory democracy at general assemblies. That is, there were no leaders and the voice of the people decided everything. I had seen this method of organizing being used by grassroots groups like Climate Camp and at the anti-G8 camp in Scotland in 2005 but I’d never participated in the kind of regular peoples’ assemblies that characterized the heart of the Occupy London camp, where hundreds of people would take part in deliberations and decisions over everything, from matters connected to the day to day running of the camp to the political visions and ideas projected by it.

The experience of being part of thousands of people shaping a new vision of what the world could be like was intoxicating, feeling deeply betrayed and sold out by current political parties, we all became high on hope. The first time this happened was within 24 hours of starting the occupation, as the first responsibility for the assembly was to provide a response to the accusation that we stood for nothing. The initial statement was first announced at 7.30am on 16 October after many rounds of assemblies and break out groups where thousands of people had fed into the process before the final document was arrived at.

When human beings come together and ‘do’ politics for themselves, we all have a very similar vision. The Occupy London initial statement and their further statements echo the results of direct democracy globally; people want the same thing, from the Occupy camps in the US to the kinds of statements coming out of the Icelandic ‘pots and pans’ revolution and their ensuing peoples’ constitution to the kinds of political visions that came from Tahrir Square in Egypt, the 15M movement in Spain and the anti-corporate uprisings in Argentina in 2002.

Today, this process is manifested in the Icelandic Pirate Party, Podemos in Spain and the Alternative Party in Denmark, all brave approaches to developing a new politics based on facilitating direct democracy, genuine engagement with the will of the people and doing away with the closed shop of corporate captured politics.

The January 2015 issue of New Internationalist magazine was guest edited by the co-founder of the Icelandic Pirate Party Birgitta Jonsdottir, who focused on these new approaches to politics and specially the potential for new digital democracies. As we were told by a spokesperson from 15M at an assembly in the first week of the Occupy London camp, even though this new movement may be anti-capitalist, it does not mean going backwards to communism but forwards to something new that people themselves create together rather than relying on representatives who inevitably fail us by building on old failed ideologies.

Occupy was a simple, visceral message as opposed to a complex or intellectual political argument; capitalism is broken, neoliberalism and the cult of consumerism is enslaving humanity and representational democracy no longer represents the people but represents corporate interests and the greed of the 1% only.

A view of New York City's business skyscrapers Randy Pertiet under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s not a new message but Occupy was the first time that the message was being amplified globally within one movement linked together by the internet.

We got to find out what real democracy looked like close up; painful, messy and fraught with contradictions. But at its best, direct democracy is testament to the fact that we are greater than the sum of our parts and when human beings come together to share their thoughts and feelings and develop their ideas for change together, we have a far more sustainable and inspiring vision of what is possible for humanity than anything suggested by the moribund politics that we have become used to from the Houses of Parliament.

We realized that traditional politics is failing us dramatically and the world is too precious and fragile to trust to the current system. Our only chance to survive as a species is to become politically active in our every day lives, to stop passing on responsibility to representatives and to step up and take responsibility ourselves and work together to develop new systems that serve us and the planet first and put sustainability at the centre instead of profit. Direct democracy is our future because without it, we won’t have one.

Jamie Kelsey-Fry is a contributing editor to New Internationalist. Follow him on Twitter.

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