By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The question under discussion, over a pot of New Mexico green chili stew, at the Occupy Santa Fe site at the Railyard Park (see photo) was sustainable agriculture in Northern New Mexico, where local chili farmers, small farmers by any measure, are under pressure. People who know anything about chile line up to watch the local Chimayo chilis being roasted at the famers market in late summer and fall. Then they buy a year's supply (a lot!) to keep in the freezer. Without seed banks and strong local support these precious heritage chiles will be gone, their genetic material dead-ended by flavorless cheap and easy to grow varieties pushed by commercial interests. The occupy movement in New Mexico is trying to call attention to this problem.
Because I take some interest in things like this, I was invited, a week or so before Thanksgiving, to a dinner meeting that turned out to be a fund raiser for Russ Baker’s blog WhoWhatWhy. Grateful as I am for all evidence-based muckraking, the blog’s style is too steeped in conspiracy theory for me to throw money at, but I got into a great conversation with another guest who was deeply involved with the Occupy Santa Fe movement, which, I told her, I support mainly through membership in the local MoveOn group.
In the course of our conversation, I expressed my gratitude to the occupiers for their brilliant consciousness-raising. The supremely important issue of economic inequality, with all its consequences, is now a highlighted entry on the political agenda and the stroke-the-rich Republicans are on the defensive. I also complimented the occupiers for the inspired use of anarchist theory to broaden support for economic reform, while avoiding the wholesale destruction that has marred demonstrations at WTO meetings, where supposed anarchists in black masks have gone on the rampage. When the concentration of economic power has reached the level we now experience in the U.S., my new acquaintance and I agreed, there’s a lot to be said for a strategy of leaderless basic democracy. Good government can’t be a spectator sport.
Occupation, Politics or Both?
My OSF dinner partner loved the positive feedback. But only the accolades. She radiated instant hostility when I tacked on a few reservations having to do with scale and institutionalization.
Small groups can operate as a committee of the whole, I agreed, but you can’t have a town meeting with the entire population of the United States flipping hand signals simultaneously. At that scale, representative democracy of one sort or another is inevitable. The solution to bad government isn’t to make common cause with Tea Party types who hate government per se, I said, but to make sure that our representatives represent us, the so-called 99%, not the already rich and powerful, who want only to perpetuate their own privileges. Similarly, once feelings have been unearthed and expressed, they need to be collated and codified. Even those prone to demonstrate have only so much time and patience for marching and camping out and brandishing signs. Sooner or later, demonstration fatigue sets in. Therefore, while enthusiasm and participation are high, during the peaking and before the decline in momentum accelerates, it’s crucial to get explicit about what changes are to be demanded, to work out a strategy for achieving those changes, to begin thinking about who would make a good representative or senator to replace those who have sold us out. As for elections, it’s harder to buy them if turnout is high. Voting matters, I kept insisting, feeling ever so slightly Pollyannaish in that crowd.
And so it went. My dinner companion emphasized alienation; I pushed for using the system to the utmost. And then it was time for Russ to speak about himself as a journalist and about the blog he was trying to get financial support for. We arranged cards, but mostly as a matter of ritual, not because a new friendship had sprouted.
The Egyptian Example
Still, in following weeks, I found myself mulling over the dynamics of demonstration vs. the demands of organization as I watched the enthusiasm for the Arab spring congealing into fears of a very long Arab winter in the form of a counter revolution, such as that which seems to be happening in Egypt. The Army, hailed as a friend to the revolution for not firing on the crowd in Tahrir Square, was enjoying its monopoly on institutional power entirely too much. I couldn't help thinking that supplanting a tired old dictator with a shiny bright new general had been the prime item on the Army’s agenda all along. What’s more, if the Army weren’t certain of its path to power, it was hard to believe they’d be so brutally beating and torturing those its soldiers had seemed to make common cause with only a few months ago.
Still, there was hope. The upcoming election might prevent the army from realizing its most extreme ambitions. Whoever won might refuse to embed the Army’s supremacy in the new Constitution. For that to happen, however, the Constitution-writing assembly would need a very strong mandate. Voter turnout would have to be impressively high. The Muslim Brotherhood had been working hard to maximize its vote count, but televised interviews indicated that some or many demonstrators appeared to be ambivalent about participating in the election. Some had even made up their minds not to vote. On principle, evidently.
Now, standing on principle feels almost as exhilarating as good sex. But the no-compromise-with-imperfection approach, as applied to elections, often brings an absolutely-no-influence-on-what-happens-next result. That’s not so good, if you really do want political and economic transformation.
Those Who Organize Win
In Egypt, while too many secularists in Tahrir Square were basking the light of their clever use of social media, the Brotherhood and even the Salafists were focused on taking advantage of the triumphal deposing of Mubarak by winning the pending elections. Secularists, meanwhile, had a terrible handicap. During the Mubarak era Islamists had been able to use the mosques for keeping their organizations alive. Lacking that institutional advantage, no secular party lasted very long under Mubarak. Result: even if they had worked at nothing but forming an election-ready party from day one of the Tahrir Square phenomenon, secularists would have entered the elections at a disadvantage. So gaining anything close to a majority was unlikely. But every seat they won would have give them that much more voice in the writing of a new Constitution. Would it be more or less secular? Would it be more or less Sharia-based. Would the Army be given a veto on legislation or would the government be whollly under civilian control? By not maximizing their vote, the secularists would not only cede the future to Islamists, but the smaller vote total would make it easier for the generals to sweep civilians of all convictions aside.
Baghdad: Another Cautionary Tale
Going off in a snit is never a good idea when elections are in the offing. Consider what happened in Iraq. Sunni Muslims, a minority that had been disproportionately favored under the Saddam Hussain regime, decided not to participate in elections which would, at best, give them a minority bloc of seats in the new parliament. This would be the first post-Saddam Iraqi government, and they opted out of the process. Result of their boycott? Total powerlessness, politically, for which they compensated by a horrendous outburst of violence. Quelling the subsequent Sunni uprising required a surge in American troop levels an d a change of tactics by the U.S. military, too.
By the time the next elections came around, the Sunnis had learned their lesson. They participated. The result is far from perfect governance, but stalemate is better than slaughter.
Though the cops in some American cities were unnecessarily brutal in breaking up the occupy encampments in their cities, other city authorities, like those in Santa Fe, see no need to do so, and the amazing thing is that people continue to camp outside, even this week, in snow and sub-freezing temperatures. These are not sunshine soldiers. Meanwhile, others who sympathize with the occupy movement, an awakening whose goals have never been indecipherable to those who cared to listen, have begun to put particulars in writing. There's no excuse anymore for not understanding demands whose fulfillment will be good for all of us (even the 1%), if only we can create the politics to make them possible.
As for Egypt, the increasingly trigger-happy Generals should look toward Syria. Whether or not they wish to give way to civilian rule, the wiggle room for distators isn’t want it used to be.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cook-Romero.