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The need to influence the trajectory of one’s own life: Ruchi Gupta

December 2, 2011

Guest post by RUCHI GUPTA

The Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Morocco were hailed in much of the democratic world. However the Occupy Wall Street protests, which till date have spread to 100 cities in the United States and 1500 globally have met with mixed response.

The Arab people are fighting for democracy, and thus their resistance must be respected and supported. But the OWS folks, proudly leaderless and having framed no concrete demands are vulnerable to all manner of criticism, even from those expected to be supportive. Bill Keller, the former editor of arguably one of the most influential newspapers in the world, the ostensibly liberal, New York Times derides,  “the Occupiers have been pandered to (“Love your energy!”); patronized (“Here, I’ve drafted you a list of demands …”); co-opted by unions, celebrities and activists for various causes; demonized by the right; arrested and tear-gassed in some cities; and taken lightly by the likes of me”.

However the uprisings in the Arab nations, the OWS demonstrations and even the wave of anti-corruption protests that swept India this year are all ultimately an expression of people’s resistance to disenfranchisement. Whether it’s those fighting for democracy or those who find themselves powerless in face of a system that’s been hijacked by the illegitimate nexus between the financial and political elite (the metaphorical 1%), the underlying sentiment is a demand for fair play and the right of self-determination.

The question – now that the status quo has been rejected – is what is the alternative conception and how will be it achieved? Events in the Arab world are not a success yet. Tunisia has been the most encouraging with over 90% turnout of registered voters in the last election. Perhaps, initially the most exhilarating of all, Egypt, is now mired in military rule and sectarian strife. Other Arab spring countries are in the midst of state repression and internal turmoil. The OWS movement in its third has resisted outlining a unified set of demands, and seems to want the process (general assemblies in occupy sites) to define the outcome. The catalyst occupation in New York (and some others were forcibly cleared) by the billionaire Mayor, Bloomberg’s decision.

This is appealing however change can come only if the process goes beyond the occupation sites, and into the society. In any case reform for socio-economic-political equality requires a sort of permanent movement, which must be rooted not in occupation (of Tahrir Square or Wall Street), but organization.

Organisation mandates engagement with the immediate. Even though the nature of systems today will necessitate reform on a global scale, the first set of alliances and resistances must be local. The “system” too is too complex to be reformed in one shot through a single set of demands. The strength of these popular resistances is that they have brought together disparate groups, but in the non-antagonistic demands (against a dictator, against the metaphorical 1%), some alliances will splinter, and need to be rationalized and/or resolved.

Organisation means too acceptance that there will be no revolution, that there isn’t a one “big idea”, which will yield an egalitarian happy healthy world for all. People in history have argued that “democracy” and/or “free market” is the one big idea however popular protests have swept countries along the continuum of democracy, development and capitalism – from authoritarian to established democracies; from poor and developing to rich and so called developed countries; from erstwhile welfare states to overtly free market. In fact the very nature of democracy defies the notion of a big revolutionary idea since it’s impossible to democratically push through an idea for universal acceptance in a short period of time.

At the heart of all resistance is a desire for self-determination – the need to influence the trajectory of one’s own life. In this the protests mushrooming within and across countries are a hopeful sign. However given the “wax and wane” nature of pressure politics, the occupiers should define interim achievable demands in each local area before the protests fizzle out. In the long term, the OWS protests should be used to create a public policy platform for the thousands of local level organizations spurred by the protests.

(Ruchi Gupta works on development issues and blogs at Bourgeois Inspirations.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    December 2, 2011 6:49 PM

    I believe you are right about the need for organization at OWS, but in interview after interview people involved have made it clear that they view that as the wrong way forward. They are smitten with the concepts of anarchy.

    The leadership and organization of Team Anna in India is exactly what OWS seems to fear — leaders who then get unmasked as disappointing hypocrites who fight amongst themselves and cut deals with the establishment. It’s how they feel about Obama, too.

  2. vallyettans permalink
    December 3, 2011 12:16 AM

    timely one.i have been wondering all these days why the OWS is not getting the much needed boost that the Arab spring had. may be perhaps its the way forward. but seeing the recent developments across OWS sites ,am not too impressed.

  3. shama zaidi permalink
    December 3, 2011 11:12 AM

    maybe we need to go back to gandhiji’s idea of village republics and apply it to urban neigbourhoods as well.

  4. Shuddhabrata Sengupta permalink
    December 3, 2011 11:14 AM

    I read this article with interest, but I think it under-estimates the efficacy of anarchy as a self-organizing principle.

  5. December 3, 2011 1:08 PM

    The Libyan movement appearing manipulated by NATO does for sure undermines the efficacy ( and also the vulnerability) of the Arab Spring movement. Also the anti-corruption movement in India lands into the political arena and it further mutters the overall image of the NGO’s in general. Very little we know of the OWS! May be Ruchi Gupta can throw some light in these lines!

  6. Varun Anand permalink
    December 10, 2011 9:56 PM

    Arabs are not fighting for democracy; they are fighting for the right to wear beards, for the right to force women into black tents and for the right to close girls schools.

    Arabs are fighting for more Islamization of society, and this fight for democracy is just a convenient fig leaf.

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