|Photo: Occupy London tents, 2011. Picture taken by Neil Cummings|
How can we become social actors in a global age, actors able to make a real change in the systems in which we live? His research, involving interviews with activists in many countries over the last decade, reveals two dominant pathways to change: the way of subjective experience and the way of reason.
The way of subjective experience, he told us, is about local change, changing your day to day life, your behaviours. It accepts that everyone is part of the problem and can therefore be part of the solution. This kind of action is personal and local. It does not lead to a manifesto. It does improve lives.
But it does not change the world. Geoffrey used the example of Mexico where there are plenty of innovative examples of direct local democracy and alternative ways of living, sitting inside a country with an intensely neoliberal government and hideous inequality. ‘Islands of beauty’ within such a system are not enough. And it also takes an inordinate amount of time to organise this kind of movement, the one based on ‘being the change’ – there is no easy organisational blueprint.
By contrast, the way of reason suggests that in order to solve global problems we first need to understand them. The people who follow this path, in Geoffrey’s experience, read lots of books and listen to ‘boring lectures by economists’. They are really dedicated. More so than the political system itself: Geoffrey gave the example of the French Parliament in 1998 which spent two days debating the opening date for the hunting season and 15 minutes discussing the World Trade Organisation treaty.
The way of reason believes in detailed research and investigation and expertise. They lobby governments and policymakers to achieve change. And they have had some success – for example their advocacy for a Tobin Tax.
But this way too has its limitations. Whilst they advocate for participatory democracy, the movement itself often becomes hierarchical (based on expertise and authority). And although the way of reason has been very powerful in predicting crisis, it has less to say on what to do after it hits (eg economic and social policy after the financial crisis). Geoffrey suggested that there is a dangerous tendency to assume that crisis is inevitable and will itself trigger change. Both propositions can be seen as diminishing (at least) the call to action.
Geoffrey then turned his attention to the latest manifestation of the global justice movement: Occupy. He was struck by how the movement itself had been very small (certainly by comparison with some of the older movements he had studied like the World Social Forum). But they gained a huge amount of publicity: ‘300-400 people camped outside St Paul’s were written about in The Economist’.
It is better, he suggested, to view Occupy as one part of a much larger tapestry. Whilst Occupy grew out of the financial crisis, in practice it shares with other parts of the movement a concern with democracy, in particular a widespread mistrust and dissatisfaction with the structures of representative democracy. Even if it elected exceptional people, his interviewees told him, representative democracy is now flawed. It is unequal: ‘corporate power and lobbyists have more influence than humble voters’. It is empty: ‘we vote for governments and then decisions are taken elsewhere, in Brussels and Berlin’. And it is meaningless: ‘there is no real choice – all main parties are in favour of the corporate agenda for globalisation’.
In effect the movement offers four different correctives to representative democracy, which Geoffrey suggested should be seen as complementary to it rather than as alternatives. They are not the politics we read about in the press, conducted by parties at conferences. These are ‘subterranean politics’:
All four forms can be seen both in different movements in different countries, and within any single manifestation. Indeed, whilst Occupy is no longer visible as an occupation, Geoffrey argued, the issues it raised and the people involved are still very much present – but as mobilisers, experts, or living experiments in alternative practice.
The protests are not against democracy, they are calls for more and more varied democracy. Expectations have been raised. The challenge now is to figure out how to move beyond the limits of each of the four forms, to figure out how they can each effectively complement representative democracy. That is the path now being explored by would-be global citizens and social actors.
The discussion that followed this presentation raised a number of other issues:
All in all this was a fascinating contemporary reflection on some of the issues raised by our previous speaker, Alexander Broadie, on the Enlightenment notion of the good citizen. Like Adam Smith, Geoffrey Pleyers has been ‘down at the quayside interviewing the merchants’ – talking to the people actually involved in the global justice movement in all its many forms and seeking to understand it in all its diversity. He provides a useful map to what is otherwise a largely hidden world.
I found myself in conclusion reflecting on two things. First: how will the four modes of ‘social action’ Geoffrey has identified – direct democracy, responsible democracy, expert networks and street-level mobilisation – find expression in the next couple of years in the run up to the referendum on Scottish independence? How will the ‘subterranean politics’ in Scotland come to the surface?
And secondly, when those who have participated in these processes, those who have enjoyed the rich subjective learning experience of the global justice movement, are 10 – 15 years older, with children and mortgages, what kind of society – and democracy - will they start to shape around them? Perhaps the marriage of the way of reason and the way of subjective experience that we see struggling to be born in these movements gives us a glimpse provides a glimpse of the future.