Liberty, said John Stuart Mill, “is often granted where it should be withheld, as well as withheld where it should be granted.” I’ve often thought that the same could be said for democracy. And this is how we should interpret the Occupy movements.
What I mean is that if we think of democracy as an information-gathering device, it is used where it shouldn’t be and not used where it should. Most of us are either uninformed or actively misinformed about national policies, but democracy operates at this level. And yet we often do have knowledge about our locality or workplace, but local democracy and workplace democracy are weak or absent.
In this context, I’m not convinced by Anthony’s complaint that lefties such as the OccupyLSXers “know what people really want even if they don't yet themselves.” Such a stance is perfectly reasonable, given that cognitive biases research supports Marx’s view that there might well be such a thing as false consciousness and that - partly because of this - actually-existing democracy fails to advance justice or liberty.
By contrast, I suspect the Occupy movements might be starting to build new foundations for "fourth generation" democracy; as Sunny says, there‘s more to democracy than voting once every five years. I mean this in four ways:
- Advancing economic democracy. A theme of the Occupiers seems to be a desire for more popular control over the economy. This might take dangerous forms - the market, remember, is a good information-aggregating device - or it might not.
- Egalitarian democracy. A virtue of democracy is not that it leads to good outcomes - it often doesn’t - but rather that the “one person, one vote” principle embodies an important aspect of equality. Occupy seems to be taking this further, not just by demanding greater economic equality, but also by demonstrating an egalitarian form of political activity - one undistorted by lobbyists or media prejudice.
- Micro deliberative democracy. The Occupiers are creating an arena in which political questions about economic organization can be asked, and get the attention of the media and Westminster. Such arenas are rare.
- Macro deliberative democracy. In calling hierarchical capitalism into question, the Occupyers are helping to open the Overton window, to influence mainstream politicians into considering issues which have hitherto been little discussed. In this sense the Occupyers are complements for the parliamentary left, not substitutes.
Now, I’m almost certainly taking a rosy view of the Occupyers here. As James says, there’s a large element of narcissistic activism among them. But it might grow into something better.
My main point, though, is that the Occupyers are, potentially at least, a force for democracy in the best sense. And insofar as there is a tension between them and parliamentary democracy, so much the worse for the latter.