The word democracy originates from the Greek words demos ‘people’ and kratos ‘power’, and roughly translates as ‘rule of the people’. In this country we do not live in a democracy, as we are so often told, we live in a representative democracy, where elected officials represent the public and make decisions on their behalf. This means one day every five years, on general election day, we have power, the other 1,824 days we effectively live in an oligarchy (olígos, ‘few’), a power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. These people are distinguished by wealth, family ties, education, or corporate power (sound familiar?). As John Sinha so succinctly puts it, ‘if Parliament is not representing us, who is it representing?’. Occupy Democracy’s answer: big businesses and the wealthy. Occupy Democracy are demanding real democracy, real power held by the people, this is why they have switched their attention from the City of London to Westminster.
On the 27th October I attended the inaugural event of the New Putney Debates, a series of ten free talks aiming to continue to push for real democracy, following Occupy Democracy’s week-long occupation of Parliament Square.
Occupy Democracy had used Parliament Square for the reason it exists: as a civic space for talks, workshops, and community assemblies attempting to re-envision what our society could be like. However, this protest was met with police repression, and, last Sunday, a group of protesters were forcibly removed from a sheet of tarpaulin that was judged to be ‘sleeping equipment’ by the police. The Greater London Authority erected fencing around the square and brought in ‘Heritage Wardens’, who told protesters that they were there to protect the grass. As John Sinha puts it; ‘when you exercise your democratic rights, the police, it seems, will shut you down, and will prefer to protect grass than humans’. However, you could be forgiven for not knowing that peaceful protesters were being met with police repression in front of the Houses of Parliament last week. The story has not featured in much of the mainstream media, as it is not deemed newsworthy, even by the ‘impartial’ BBC, the same BBC who offer wall-to-wall coverage of similar protests about democracy on the other side of the world in Hong Kong.
So why is there such limited coverage by mass media of issues that are so close to home? Noam Chomsky argues in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media that to minimise financial danger, news media businesses editorially distort their reporting to favour government and corporate policies in order to stay in business. In this we can see a similar argument to that of Occupy Democracy, namely, that corporations and business have too big an influence over our legislature, and that instead of representing people and civil society, our MPs are representing businesses and capitalists. In the same way, Chomsky is arguing too that the system by which mass media organisations operate means they too look out for big business.
Despite these difficulties we can see that the Occupy movement has still had success, they have helped shift the focus of national dialogue to the major issues of social and economic inequality prevalent in our society today. We are living in a time of distrust of mainstream politics and of political upheaval, in some ways a time similar to the time of the original Putney Debates. However, in order to utilise this time of social change, people need to come together to talk, to make decisions and take action to make social change happen. In his rousing call for action, Owen Jones urges us to remember: ‘Who caused this crisis, who’s been made to pay for it? Who’s booming whilst others are struggling? In the last five years the wealth of the top one thousand people has doubled, whilst up to a million people depend on food banks in the sixth richest country on the face of the Earth, unable to feed themselves. That’s what Occupy have put on the agenda, but it’s up to all of us to solve it’.
The question is: can these protests be successful in the face of opposition from the rich and powerful, and disinterest from mainstream media? In order to overcome these difficulties, the movement needs to inspire more everyday people to stand up to the establishment, people need to be woken from their apathy and defeatism. A tall order, but debates and protests like these are surely the way forward. The movement will need to be highly organised, and utilise social media for publicity if it is to succeed. But one feels if ever there was a time when change is really possible it is now.
Occupy Democracy plan to re-occupy Parliament Square in November with even more people, let’s hope this time they get the media attention they deserve!