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Participation deserves more than a ribbon

When I first heard of the Occupy movement, I was overjoyed. “Finally,” I thought “some people who have been paying attention and have decided this shit is enough.” As someone who follows politics, it’s often disheartening to speak to my peers and realize that they are, far too often at least, completely clued out about what happening in our system. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I at least scan headlines to keep track of the major stories. Not so my friends.

It was encouraging, therefore, to see a group of people energized and passionate about not simply one issue, but the entire political process. They were gearing up to try and tackle the system as a whole, not simply agitate for the flavour of the month – be that pay increases or blocking a given legislation. As long as I’ve been following politics, it has begun to become abundantly clear to me that the problem with our political system is not the corruption of those who participate – it is the apathy of those who do not.

Democracy can only work to serve the people if those people are actively represented. In some cases, that representation comes from a heroically-benevolent elected official who understands and sympathizes with the issues facing hir constituents, even in those times when ze does not necessarily agree. Those kinds of examples are what people have come to expect, but because of the natural corrupting influence of power, they are rare. What is a much better system is to have full and rigorous scrutiny of the elected by the electorate. In order for that to happen, however, the electorate needs to be actively paying attention.

I am, thankfully, not the only person who thinks this:

To be clear, looking back to government doesn’t mean blind support for the postwar consensus model of big government. It’s past time for us to innovate beyond that model, – not by abandoning the idea of government, but by being both imaginative and pragmatic about what it can look like in a networked society. Abandoning the idea that government – which, we easily forget, can simply mean the body of people who make and enforce laws, a body we are all potentially part of – can solve problems is some of what has gotten us into this mess of inequality in the first place.

(snip)

Looking to government is essential if we want a meaningful democracy that combats inequality. So is re-conceiving what government means to us. What we’re learning from this crisis and the response of Occupy movements is that “grassroots” democracy is the logical response to political systems that have lost touch with the body politic. That lesson is long overdue.

The author of the above paragraphs makes an important point: “government” doesn’t necessarily mean the conception that we have of it. If a people are self-governing, it means we have government. It may not need to be a state system, it may not need to have a military and a national anthem, but any group of people who act collectively have some form of government. We are the ones who decide what our government looks like. The Occupy movement is engaging in nothing short of seeking to redefine not only the relationship between government and the individual, but what ‘government’ means.

That kind of dramatic reorganization, a reorganization that I think is desperately needed, can only be accomplished when the people are actively engaged in the process of governing, rather than complaining from the outside and counting down the days to the next election (in which at least 50% of them will not even vote – the bare minimum of participation). There is cause for some optimism that this may, at last, be the moment for this kind of shift:

When we surveyed 50 people under the age of 30 at Occupy Toronto in November, the most frequent responses to our question, “What is your hope for the outcome of Occupy?” were visions of a better world, hopes for different values guiding government (such as people before profit), and demands for substantial public input into political decision-making at local and national levels.

These visions indeed defy summary as a single legislative act. Though criticized for idealism and insufficiently specified goals, the Occupy participants stand in the shoes of respected American philosopher Henry Thoreau, who once said: “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”

As I suggested this morning, anyone who thinks that the Occupy movement is over has severely misunderstood its purpose. While the tents and the chanting and the physical presence lent Occupy its name, the purpose is not so much to occupy as to participate. Not participate as in “become part of the system”, but participate as in “redefine the system”. No longer do decisions get made in the halls of power outside the scrutinizing gaze of the average person. No longer can politics exist in a vacuum created by disaffected citizens who see the political process as a waste of time or simply impolite dinner conversation. If Occupy has its way. the days of the “electorate” will quickly fade into history.

The people will not simply elect the government. The people will be the government, and those who are elected will become public servants in duty as well as in name.

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