Protest in a democracy represents a conundrum. Do we want change or do we want to complain?
Who doesn’t realize that our modern world is not serving the majority of us? Probably not even 1% – do you know anyone? We all know the banks have gotten away with theft. We all know politics has been, and is being further, corrupted by money. It’s not difficult to understand that burning millions of barrels of oil into the air every day and dumping tons of man-made chemicals into our waters is affecting our environment detrimentally. Let’s not do ourselves a diservice: we all know that “things ain’t right, and something’s gotta change”.
Our predicament is not in dispute. The solution is.
The fundamental obstacle to a solution is complexity. The reality of our modern world is that it is complex: the banking system is complex, sovereign accounting is complex, the interdependencies of our environment are complex. To understand why writing down half the value of some debts in one of the smallest economies in the modern world could affect the political stability of the largest country in the world is complex; to understand why the largest country can’t just step in a fix that problem is even more complex.
There’s a perfectly natural resistance in the Occupy movement to adopting a “simple set of demands” because, consciously and unconsciously, we all understand that our predicament will not yield to a simple solution or short list of demands. Matt Taibbi, one of the most dogged and brilliant journalists on the financial beat, recognizes this even as he offers a short list of key changes that could be made to address the specific problems resulting from casino capitalism in our overweight financial sector; but, good as his list is, it does not address why we have an overweight financial sector in the first place.
The Occupy movement is a protest movement. It takes its name and its inspiration of the occupation strategy employed by the revolutionaries in Egypt this spring, and it is stirring the wider public to more open consideration of changes that seemed inconceivable only a few years ago. But the difference is that the Egyptians were revolting against a dictatorship and they could coalesce around the simple demand that the dictator be removed; in contrast the Occupy movement is almost exclusively active in wealthy democracies, and cannot reasonably demand the removal of a government chosen by the people a few years ago and available for replacement in a few years time.
The lack of a simple set of demands is not a purposeful tactic of the Occupy movement, it is the manifestation of an understanding that the problems are more complex than a simple list could address. Housing, healthcare, tax policy, the environment, social security, employment and inequality are all prevalent issues expressed in the Occupy protests, and such a broad agenda does not lend itself to a simple list of demands. The protestors can point to the simple manifestations of the problems in their lives, but they also know that any real solutions are going to be complex.
To move forward we need to remember that what appears as complex is in fact just lots of simple things seen at once. And while you cannot solve a complex problem with a simple solution, you can solve a thousand simple problems with a thousand simple solutions. This is the key to system change: it’s not one big solution, it’s a million small solutions.
Self-evidently: every aspect of human society has been created by us, and so it can be re-created by us. But we did not arrive here in one stroke, we are where we are as a result of the culmination of millions of small and simple decisions taken by people like us. When democracy arose it was the next vital step in enabling the broadest possible collective application of decision making to complex problems; and it lies before us now with the same urgent potential that drove its early advocates with such zeal. The short list of demands can be replaced with one: “Occupy the Ballot Box!”
We do not need anyone’s permission, we are not dependent on anyone else’s favors or attention – we are the ones who can bring about the changes we need, one decision at a time. We already have what the Egyptians in Tahrir Square died for: the right to select our own government.
If you support the Occupy protests you must take the next decision and vote for real change. If there’s no one to vote for, you must stand for change yourself – you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to know it all, you just have to care enough to be one of a million decision makers who will contribute to the long list of solutions. If you want to stand for election but need a broad platform that fills in and addresses the complex issues raised in the Occupy protests, take what you want from the Standards of LIFE and make it your own. We will vote with you, we will stand with you and we will bring change to our world together.