Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Occupy, the New Politics Initiative and reclaiming the commons

By Murray Dobbin
November 29, 2011

My nearly 30 years of experience as a social activist in Saskatchewan immediately attracted me to the NPI 10 years ago: I had despaired for years over the deep and irrational divide between NDP party politics and the active social movements which characterized Saskatchewan political culture. The two should have been working together -- at least informally -- yet they existed as two solitudes. The NDP establishment detested social movements (and distrusted the labour movement) as naive and uncontrollable troublemakers because when the NDP was in power they persisted in criticizing the NDP government and making things uncomfortable for the ministers. Roy Romanow once told me he thought social movements were "totally useless."

Social movement organizations saw the NDP almost as an alien entity -- closed to any dialogue about policy or politics and weak and meek when it came to taking risks and pushing the policy envelope. Even at the individual membership level many NDPers could barely hide their disdain for any progressives not dedicated completely (and exclusively) to the party. And so when out of power there was virtually no conversation between the two sides -- there were parallel universes of opposition to the various reactionary parties (like the Grant Devine Conservative government in the 80s). The NDP fought them exclusively in the legislature and the movements fought them on the ground.

The bitterness was such that even when the NDP did something right there was not a word of praise or support from places that should have been cheering. As for the NDP, it could never acknowledge that effective social movements changed the political culture, opening up political space for the NDP to pursue more progressive policies. The party was a closed system: decades separated it from the time in the 1930s-1950s when the party itself was a movement. It had become a party machine and with the exception of a small percentage of members, most who joined were restricted to writing cheques to the party and working in elections for a few weeks every four years. The party's culture became over the past few decades profoundly apolitical.

What can we accomplish from looking back at the NPI? Many things have changed as Jim Stanford points out -- most of them for the worse in terms of the opportunities for challenging corporate power and state complicity. Specifically, for the goals of the old NPI, we now have weaker social movements and an NDP machine politics even more entrenched than it was in 2001. The opportunities to make anything like the NPI happen now are very hard to imagine let alone make real. None of the candidates has made the need to change the way the party does politics a key part of their campaign.

But this doesn't mean that the goals of the NPI, broadly defined as a new kind of deep democratic politics, rooted in community re-building, are not still valid and can't be pursued. As the political theorists like to say -- it's a question of agency: who and what is going to pursue the goals and how?

The old galaxy of social movement organizations and the labour movement are for the most part tired and bereft of new ideas for engaging people in politics. Indeed the incredible Occupy phenomenon took all these groups completely by surprise -- in part because it simply didn't occur to those engaged in the occupations to even talk to any of the old players until after the fact. It could be argued that had those traditional groups been on top of the crisis and the opportunities it presented, Occupy would not have happened -- the Occupiers would have been inspired and motivated by existing organizations.

Imagine for the sake of argument that a New New Politics Initiative reconstituted itself, examined the new political landscape, and perhaps engaged with the new Occupy forces -- or emerged out of it. The NPI was all about doing politics differently and remaking democracy by deepening it and making it a living, daily process in communities across the country (check out rabble's series Remaking Democracy, Reclaiming the Commons [2] for some excellent contributions to new ways of thinking). For me, it was looking back at the old Saskatchewan CCF which was a movement/party, and remaking the NDP in that image.

It cannot be a coincidence that it occurred to Jim Stanford and Judy Rebick to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the NPI while Occupy was having success around the world. What would Occupy do if it took up the mantle of the values and goals that drove the NPI? As the Occupy camps break up -- or succumb to being broken up -- how will it/they decide to engage the many tens of thousands of other citizens who were sympathetic but not inclined or able to join physically in the demand for equality?

Occupy was and is as much about reclaiming the commons and community as it is about equality and corporate greed. It was not successful just because it focused on the issue of inequality. While the media have not given a huge amount of coverage to the issue, it has been out there. People know in their gut that the world has become less equal -- and they see the obscene greed represented by the tens of millions paid to CEOs even when their companies are failing. It was the powerful sense of taking something back -- by occupying it -- that got people in hundreds of cities, large and small, around the world to take risks and do things they hadn't done before. It was and is (we hope) going to keep trying to engage people on the issue of destructive capitalism, equality and building a better and different world.

One of the greatest successes of neo-liberalism and its policy prescriptions has been the systematic destruction of community -- the atomizing of citizens and exiling them to the shopping malls. By doing so it has weakened the forces that allow us, compel us, to do things together. And Occupy's success in creating amazing sympathy well beyond the universe of activists and lefties was in creating these self-governing communities with their kitchens, libraries, medical centres, child care and more. As temporary as they were they captured our imaginations as communities. The joy they experienced, and the thoughtful, caring way they dealt with each other are things that are characteristic of vibrant communities. Few people today experience anything like community -- and that's why Occupy was and is so compelling. If we had mustered the courage, we all wanted to be there, in the tents, occupying the commons.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee. He is the curator of rabble's Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons [2] series.

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