This is what democracy feels like

The people of the world are pissed off. They're angry that the neoliberal experiment has failed them. They're frustrated that the corporate greed that they detest controls the media that should be spreading their message They're angry that not only are things not getting any better, they're actually getting worse.

The Occupy movement around the world stands for many things. Some of them I support, some of them I'm not that bothered about, and some of them I think are either incorrect or extreme. But at least they're fucking saying something.

As far as Occupy Auckland goes, I've made a few comments on this blog already about what they're up to and what I think they're trying to achieve. But, since I firmly believe that ongoing conversation is good, I will repeat and restate some of those here.

I don't have a problem with capitalism in and of itself. I subscribe to the theory that allowing the owners of capital to appropriate the value of surplus product encourages individual enterprise and motivates class aspirations. There is nothing inherently wrong with 1% of the people of New Zealand owning 16% of the country's wealth.

That sort of disparity of wealth is a problem though when there are 200,000 children living in poverty. It's a problem when there are people living on the streets with no job no home and no food. It's a problem when large segments of society can't afford to send their children to university. It's a problem when the profits of the capitalist system are privatised and the costs externalised. Capitalism, in its present form, is a hypocrisy.

For the kind of disparity of wealth that we currently have to be morally defensible, there needs to be a minimum floor in the system. Society needs to provide to all of its members a decent and dignified existence. It needs to ensure that class mobility is possible and encouraged. Only then can the rich justify their hoards of wealth. When the 99% live in comfort, they won't care what excesses the 1% enjoy.

Those are experiences that are generally common to most of the developed capitalist economies at the moment. However here in New Zealand we have our own problems. Not only are the 1% living it up while many of the 99% are unable to sustain a happy and dignified life; but the majority of the population continue to enjoy a privileged position in our country that they have not earned and have not paid for. We do not have an absolute right to the product of this nation. Someone else was here first.

The Maori effort to achieve recognition of tino rangatiratanga is not some idealistic concept which can be satisfied by treaty settlements and superficial policies of biculturalism. It is a constitutional issue as well as a social and economic one. At some point in the relatively near future this country needs to sit down and decide where its place in the world is. That place is not trailing on the apron strings of a fallen empire, or barking excitedly at the heels of a new one. That conversation can only achieve any widespread moral legitimacy if it is framed with tino rangatiratanga in mind. This country has a first people that have never been validly displaced. It is to their table that the rest of us go begging.

All of that of course is very big-picture. It's about the economic, social, political and constitutional shape of our country (and indeed much of the world). There are of course within that various more specific issues that can and should be addressed within the current frameworks. Some of those issues are the ones that the group calling themselves We Are The University are advocating.

Today a group of staff and students entered and occupied the Council boardroom at the University of Auckland. During that occupation they issued a list of eight demands. Included in that list were things like universal free education and a more democratic system of university management.

Now I'm young naive and inexperienced, but I don't think our university education system is all that bad. But I will admit that it's getting worse. In the five years that I have been at university even I've noticed the effects of cutbacks. Classes are getting bigger, lecture times are being reduced, and most importantly in my opinion, tutorials are becoming increasingly unavailable.

I support We Are The University to the extent that I think we need to stop the downward slide in education. I don't think, at this point, we need to make radical changes to the structure of universities or rush to introduce free education.

That's not to say that I don't support those issues as ideals to which we can aspire, but I think that the more pressing issues are the ones that larger groups like Occupy Auckland are fighting for. It doesn't make sense to try and attack specific issues like university education while there is a much bigger war going on all around us. Depending on the outcome of that war, the battlefield for those smaller issues might be quite different.

Surrounding all of this is another, slightly different, objective. The various Occupy movements around the world have been criticised for not having any particular demands or recognised systems of leadership. I've criticised them to some extent for their lack of leadership and the lack of consistency in their message. All of that however is overshadowed by the intrinsic value of the discourse that they are generating. There's a huge power simply in the fact that they're getting people talking. Whether you agree or disagree with everything that's been attributed to the activity that's been happening around the world, I don't think it's possible to deny that the conversation that they're generating is a good thing in its own right.

I said in my post on Saturday something along the lines of "there's a problem; these people have something to say about it; I'm going to help them say it". And I think that captures my feelings towards the idea of protest more generally.  The title to this post is, "this is what democracy feels like", not because I think that an ideal system of government would be based on consensus decision making, minority rights and constant protest; but because conversation and engagement is absolutely critical for democracy to flourish. 

Al Gore in his book The Assault on Reason suggests that the age of television has been a dark moment for democracy. Television, says Gore, is a one-way medium that actively discourages citizen engagement in the mechanisms of democracy. Well all is not lost. The age of the internet is upon us, and people all over the world are seizing the tools of democracy that have lain sadly underused for a generation.

The protesters in Auckland lately have been chanting, among other things, "one solution: revolution". I sincerely hope that's not the case. I still think that, through conversation and engagement, our democratic system can be saved. Though crippled and sick, the system is not yet dead.

I'm not a socialist, but I do think we have a problem and that the system needs to change. I think one of the most important things that government needs to do is provide for the people a system whereby everyone enjoys a basic minimum standard of living and everyone lives in dignity. I think freedom is an immensely complex concept, but that part of it must surely be the freedom to achieve and improve one's own life. I think New Zealand has to start seriously thinking about its constitutional foundation and finally recognise the tino rangatiratanga of the tangata whenua. And most of all I believe that we should never stop talking. No matter how bad things get or how tired we become, we must always hold onto the hope that democracy cannot be allowed to fail. True democracy is not about political parties and elections, it is about the people and their engagement with the democratic process. The moral foundation of government is the consent of the governed.


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