Embrace Participatory Democracy

Economic inequality is one of the greatest disasters afflicting Americans today. According to Pew Research, the top 20 percent of American earners made more than half of all income in 2018. Between 1989 and 2016, the wealth gap between the richest and poorest more than doubled.1 Nothing symbolizes this disparity more than the Great Recession of 2008, which was a culmination of thirty years of oligarchic rule marked by the privatization of public goods and the deregulation of the financial industry. Big banks like Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo were bailed out by the US Treasury Department. They were given a slap on the wrist with fines that did little to deter their bad behavior. Sincere public apologies were demanded of their executives, many of whom who got to keep their stock options and million-dollar yearly bonuses. Working Americans, in contrast, lost their life savings. Their retirement accounts plummeted. They were evicted from their homes.

To add insult to injury, working Americans were singled out as the primary culprits of the recession. The cause, according to leaders who themselves had been busy for years building up the real estate bubble, was working Americans’ imprudence. They had made bad financial choices by taking on burdensome subprime mortgages they couldn’t pay back. It wasn’t the fault of the greedy banks, who pushed these mortgages and turned massive profits as a result of selling them. In the words of the billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the richest people in the world, “What happened here is a bunch of people who didn’t really have the wherewithal to get mortgages, got mortgages.”2

What a predictable tactic. After disaster, you blame the disenfranchised, saying that the problem isn’t that they were unjustly manipulated. You say that the marginal opportunities they received were, in fact, the cause of their undoing. When you make this sort of argument, you can even proclaim, as Bloomberg did at Georgetown University in September 2008, that the Fair Housing Act of 1968’s ban on the racist practice of redlining is responsible for the financial crisis.

The end to racial segregation, in which banks denied Black families mortgages because they were deemed “high risk,” was, for Bloomberg, the real cause of our troubles. “Redlining, if you remember, was the term where banks took whole neighborhoods and said, ‘People in these neighborhoods are poor, they’re not going to be able to pay off their mortgages, tell your salesmen don’t go into those areas.’“ So, Bloomberg continued, “banks started making more and more loans where the credit of the person buying the house wasn’t as good as you would like.”3

Bloomberg’s argument makes sense if you assume that our existing system of mortgage lending is fundamentally correct, that big banks should decide who to make loans to in a society where the free market rules supreme. However, if you don’t agree, if you believe that housing is a right and that government should place limits on how much banks can profit from homeownership, then not only is Bloomberg’s view dismantled, but you’ve now embraced a new idea of democracy. This new idea is that democracy can’t be ruled by an oligarchic minority of the wealthy. It must be a participatory democracy in which power is shared among the majority of people, who get to decide how to spread the wealth they create.

This is what happened in the fall of 2011, during Bloomberg’s third and final term as New York’s mayor. It was then when a Canadian magazine, Adbusters, put out an ad that featured a ballerina perfectly balancing one foot on the iconic seven-thousand-pound bronze sculpture Charging Bull in New York’s financial district. The headline read: “What Is Our One Demand? #OccupyWallStreet September 17. Bring a Tent.” That day, hundreds of tents, carried by thousands of people, were brought to Zuccotti Park in the financial district. Their gathering would mark one of the most memorable experiments of direct democracy of late. Zuccotti Park, a privately owned space that doubles as a walkable park because a private developer wanted to erect private buildings in exchange for maintaining it, became a public festival. People from all over New York, and then from across the nation and the world, gathered to discuss revolutionary politics. They sang protest ballads, ate communal meals, made art, and read books.

Before being forcefully evicted by the NYPD six weeks later, in November 2011, Occupy Wall Street did something that we haven’t seen since the 1960s. They explained to the general public how the financial crisis, and the government bailout that followed, was a product of a world in which the “1 percent” of the rich wielded far more influence than the “99 percent.” If this was the argument Occupiers made about the ills of US democracy, then Zuccotti Park was their stage for embodying an alternative. The occupation created its own rules. Trash was picked up, and fiery debates were adjudicated through peaceful mediations. This happened without police intervention. Because New York City wouldn’t allow loudspeakers, Occupiers resorted to an ingenious solution, what they called the “human megaphone,” in which word of mouth was used to convey messages from the front of the crowd to the back. Collective decisions were reached through consensus rather than decree. The openness of the square allowed for the community to always change, from one minute to the next. The space wasn’t enclosed and was visible to pedestrians who were on their way to work, to school, or enjoying a stroll in the neighborhood. There was no executive council of charismatic elites. No formal constitution or written rules. Not surprisingly, mainstream coverage of the movement, in the New York Times and Washington Post, construed this as a failure. What was Occupy’s agenda or its concrete demands? What, beyond the spectacle and the tax and housing policies, did it want?

True, successful social movements affect change. But sometimes the measure of success isn’t a specific proposal but, rather, how it inspires a future legacy. Who was inspired by Occupy’s participatory democratic vision? A year later, in 2012, Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets against anti-Black racism after the brutal murder of a seventeen-year-old Black teen carrying Skittles in a gated community, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watchman in Florida. In 2016, the Lakota at Standing Rock put their bodies on the line to prevent an oil pipeline from being built on their sacred land. The insurgent candidacy of the democratic socialist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, in 2016, who openly spoke of the need for political revolution. His presidential runs that year and in 2020 were fueled by Occupy veterans. The Debt Collective, whose slogan is “You Are Not A Loan,” and whose mission is to cancel exorbitant debt that weighs on a sizeable percentage of Americans, is on the front line petitioning the Biden administration to end $1.7 trillion of federal student-loan debt. Grassroots activism. Disruption, but not the kind embraced by Silicon Valley and Big Tech. Bodies in motion. This is what all such movements share, so that we can all share the world. We owe them all a debt, the kind they’d be okay with, but a debt that can’t be monetized: the debt of gratitude.

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