"Please pardon the mess"

Every time I visit Occupy Auckland my perception of the movement changes. I was interested before it began (4 October), I marched with them up Queen Street on the first day (15 October), I observed from a distance the We Are The University occupation of the UoA Council Chamber (17 October), and I attended a few mundane General Assemblies in between. On Wednesday night I went back. This is what I saw, and what I think.

The 33rd General Assembly began at 6pm with a taste of what was to come - a request that an individual, previously excluded from the site, be permitted to attend. Agreement was reached that the individual would be allowed to enter at 7pm and stay until the conclusion of the GA. I doubt anyone expected that the meeting would not finally close until 11pm.

Next was a lengthy explanation of the GA process: hand signals, speaking orders, etc. Reporters from 3 News and Radio NZ took note.

A proposal that, in response to concerns from the Auckland Council, the Occupation pack up and go home was resoundingly defeated. A resolution to the opposite effect was promptly adopted. The reporters took note.

Next up was a proposal that Occupy Auckland follow the lead of various other occupations around New Zealand and institute a "People's Parliament", to be held every Friday at 5:30pm. Pains were taken to emphasise that this was not to be a decision-making body, but one for discussion and debate. Objections were raised as to the name "Parliament" and its implication that voting, decision-making and supremacy follow from the term. The point was made, though not in these words, that the Occupy movement is about direct, not representative, democracy. The point was not made that by adopting a definition of parliament based on a specific example of the concept (national legislatures), the movement was conceding a power of definition to the system it opposes. If the movement is to truly shape debate, then it should make "parliament" mean what it thinks the word should mean. At the risk of sounding like a postmodernist hack: the only power that the movement has is its power to influence a wider discourse, and "parliament" means only what a social discourse holds it to mean. A resolution was passed supporting the motion, with the amendment that at least for the first sitting the body should be known as the "People's Discussion Forum". The reporters did not take note; they had already left.

There was some discussion about the kitchen and means of ensuring everyone contributes. I'm not sure if this ended up as a formal proposal, but there appeared to be general agreement.

By this stage I think it was after 7:30 and a proposal was put that a "code of conduct" be adopted. Copies of the proposal were distributed to the participants and time was given to group discussion. The meeting reconvened. Speakers raised issues about the different approaches to grievances, with some divergent views of the blanket application of survivor politics to all grievances becoming apparent. Issues about process were raised from varying viewpoints. The proposal had been put in the abstract: that the code of conduct (including sanctions of exclusion) be adopted; however the discussion soon turned to the particular: what to do about the individual discussed at the opening of the GA. From this point on the thread of the discussion became somewhat fractured as speakers spoke to the original proposal, modified proposals involving the already established Safer Spaces Policy, issues that really didn't concern the proposal at all, and the immediate issue of what to do in the there and then about the specific individual.

It has been noted elsewhere that the perceived failure of the Occupy movements around the world to formulate a concrete set of demands and policies is not unexpected. The point is made that the leaders of the world have had decades to solve the economic, social, political and cultural problems that the movement rallies against. And failed. To expect a relatively small group of everyday citizens to come up with all the answers is simply preposterous. The same argument can be invoked in the context of last night's discussion about grievance, crime, process and justice. The concerns raised by speakers at the GA – the balancing of rights, institutional competence, inclusivity and exclusion, etc – are concerns that have yet to be resolved anywhere in society.

There are a few points that I think are worth exploring in relation to the debate that occurred.

The first is that, on my understanding, the Occupy movement is not about creating an alternative society; it's about fixing the one we already have. If that statement is valid, then it follows that the way in which the movement decides to deal with a particular internal issue does not have to be an exemplar for what they would like to see happen in wider society. The movement needs to recognise its limitations. While it might be desirable that society adopt a particular type of grievance resolution system, that does not necessitate the adoption of a similar system internal to the movement. It may be that, because of the scale and character of the movement, it lacks the institutional capacity to implement the kinds of policies that it desires for society at large. To admit that is not to admit defeat.

The second point I would make, which I think was woefully misunderstood by some speakers at the time, is that there is a world of difference between "crime" and "grievance". Crime is a concept focussed on a perpetrator, a standard and a breach of that standard. We speak of crimes as being committed. Grievance, by contrast, is focussed solely on the person who feels aggrieved. We speak of grievances as being suffered. There is necessarily no standard which must be breached in order to establish the suffering of a grievance.

My third point builds on those made so far: institutional capacity, the nature of grievances, and the relationship between the movement and the society that it is trying to change. In the effort to establish a solid 'process' for dealing with grievances, I think that some of the speakers failed to recognise the validity of informal consensus established through a discursive process. This is an inherent power of groups that has at least some democratic legitimacy. Standards of behaviour, complaints processes, approved sanctions, and so on, all serve to create a bureaucracy that comes between the aggressor and the will of the people. The will of the people, however expressed, should be sufficient. Where there is an identifiable collective will that someone should leave the occupation, then that should stand. If the movement hopes for success then it will be motivated to exercise this power cautiously. As already noted, the movement's power is nothing more than its ability to shape discourse; where its actions damage perception, its power is diminished.

All of this brings us back to a claim I have made previously, though I will attempt to refine it somewhat here: the movement cannot succeed so long as it remains leaderless. That does not mean that it needs a leader, merely that it needs some sort of unifying and directing force. While such a force could be an individual or group of individuals, I think that approach would destroy what the movement it about. Rather it should be a belief, ideology, philosophy or principle. The movement of course already has a lot of ideas and beliefs, but the desire to avoid definition is preventing those beliefs from becoming leaders.

Coherency necessitates exclusion. No movement which is 'about something', which has a purpose, which hopes to achieve something, or which represents an interest or group of interests, can be entirely exclusive. The sooner this harsh reality is accepted, the sooner meaningful progress can be made. As I said earlier, the goal is not (in my understanding) the creation of a new social order, but rather the correction and development of society as it stands. If the movement is characterised in that way, as an external force seeking to influence existing structures, it is clear that such a goal cannot be achieved if the movement becomes merely a mirror of the society it seeks to correct. Like it or not, the Occupy movement represents, at its heart, an interest group much smaller than the 99%.

Anyway, this post has taken me almost a week to write and I fear it has already descended almost too far into a rambling mess. Perhaps it is best to cut my losses and simply leave it at that.

The only thing left to say is that, rambling though it may be, it is accounts like this one that you will never see in the regular media. The sum total of coverage that I have seen of the Occupy movement here in New Zealand has been a fascination with hand signals and a multitude of interpretations, some kind and some not, of the supposed 'demands' that the protesters seek to have addressed. It is the internal workings of the movement which is genuinely interesting. The way they approach principle and practicality is essential to understanding not only what they are about, but what they might achieve. Occupy is trying to create a new paradigm – the only way to grasp it is to dive right in.


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