#OccupyDemocracy? – Third Letter To The Lefts

A couple of days back I got into an e-mail exchange about what course Occupy in Ireland ought to take in future. I’m not really sure. There have been successes -the maintenance of month-long presences of protest that impinge on public consciousness is probably a more significant achievement that those of us anxious for a more concrete political movement might readily acknowledge- and failures, as I covered in my previous post.

My own feeling is that most of what there has been so far has operated out of a desire to emulate what has gone on elsewhere (I would include in this the Real Democracy Now demonstrations from the middle of the year) rather than a focus on elaborating responses specific to the Irish context.


This is hardly anyone’s fault: there is nothing wrong with experimenting with forms of political action that originated elsewhere, and a side-effect of this has been to help recontextualise the Irish situation in a global setting. Remember, it has been a conscious activity of Irish political and media establishments to foster a feeling of isolation and disconnectedness in the population, intended to make people feel that their destiny is bound up with meeting the requirements of ‘the markets’, or refraining from displeasing ‘our European partners’ with whom ‘we’ have wisely ‘pooled our sovereignty’, and that as such, their destiny must be entrusted to the wisdom of the Government cabinet and to the bounty of captains of industry sitting across the table at Farmleigh or Dublin Castle.

I made out a list of points that I thought ought to be the focus for the Occupy movement. The initial idea was that defence of democracy should be its overwhelming focus: i.e.

  • the anti-democratic character of the current regime (all ruling parties serve ‘the markets’ not the people);
  • the lack of possibilities for ordinary people to take part in democratic decision making (decisions taken behind closed doors in Frankfurt and Brussels instead of public deliberation and assemblies at local level);
  • the concentration of decisive political power and influence, not just income and wealth, in the hands of a privileged few (99% vs 1%) through socialised private debt and consequent politics of deficit reduction and ‘austerity’
  • the crisis as a restoration of male power (banking, politics, law and economics are all male-dominated professions, for example) at the cost of women’s rights and entitlements (weakening of conditions for public sector workers will affect all women disproportionately);
  • a blunt withdrawal of consent from officials (cabinet members, TDs) who claim to represent the people and act on behalf of the people: like the 15-M movement put it in Spain – “they don’t represent us!”

The idea about defending democracy as a primary focus came from Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s first letter to the left, which I translated here. His second letter is translated here. And I have translated his third letter further down.

In de Sousa Santos’s first letter, he writes that ‘capitalism conceives of democracy as an instrument of accumulation; if necessary, it consigns it to irrelevance and, if it were able to find a more efficient instrument, it would get rid of it (the case of China)’. But it is no longer simply the case of China: recent experiences of populations in Greece, Italy and Hungary stand out as indicators of the contempt for democracy among ruling powers in the European Union.

The situation in Ireland –under Troika administration- is hardly any better. Witness, for example, this Peter Mair quote from a Stephen Collins article last Saturday in the Irish Times:

“In present circumstances, in short, democracy in Ireland is also becoming a democracy without choices, one in which elections might continue to be full of drama, sound and fury, but in which the outcome might signify little,”

which was all the more striking for the fact that it was contained in a Stephen Collins article. And yet, that is not even the half of it.

If you want an instance of unalloyed contempt for democracy among those calling the shots in Ireland, read the Economic Adjustment Programme for Ireland Autumn 2011 Review, where the European Commission reports on the Republic of Ireland’s ‘progress’, in terms that leave it very clear that the supposedly sovereign government of the Republic of Ireland is acting, and is treated as, nothing but the local enforcement arm of the European Central Bank, the Eurogroup, and the European Commission.


The authors of the report do not even bother referring to the government as the government, but as ‘the authorities’.

Hence the need for a popular mobilisation in defence of democracy. But who is going to do it? It is all very well to point to the horizon of absolute democracy in some of the manifestations of the Occupy movement, and the absence of a formal hierarchy. But I do not think it realistic to expect that this is a basis for mass popular mobilisation.

Moreover I think discussions in the abstract about the type of democratic structures we want doesn’t convince many people who are attached to the idea that the system we do have (representative democracy) still works, or at least can be made to work, with a mere sufficiency of electoral resolve and persuasion.

This attachment persists in spite of the fact that what is supposed to be a sovereign government is obeying the orders of an unelected Troika in the dismantling of welfare state provisions, the privatisation of State assets, and the scapegoating of the unemployed, all in the interests of financial corporations.

If there is a role for an Occupy-type mobilisation in Ireland, and let us admit that it would have to be on a far greater scale than what has been seen hitherto, I do not think it should be to invite people to come on down and work out ‘solutions’, like reforming the constitution, or introducing a Tobin tax, or whatever. So much of this talk about ‘solutions’ strikes me as a means of ignoring the dimensions and nature of the problem, in particular the class antagonisms that underpin it, as in “Yes, that’s all very well [i.e. I don’t want to talk about what you’ve just said and let’s not go there again] but what do you propose to fix it?”

The point should be to maintain the focus on defining the problem, not the solutions. I mean, what sort of solution do you need to the ongoing payment of Anglo Irish bondholders out of the public purse? The solution is to bring an end to the robbery, not design a spanking new set of political institutions.

I think that as far as possible an Occupy-type movement should address the capture of state institutions by anti-democratic forces, but by sounding an alarm, not by posing as the embodiment of a new order. This, among other things, is one of the reasons I think the Occupy Dame Street occupation can re-invent itself, if it is so inclined, by turning its focus on the Central Bank.

One of the two signatories to the covering memo of the letter of intent to the Troika, after all, is Patrick Honohan, Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland.


But the best hope for existing Occupy sites, as far as I can see, is to function as a catalyst for wider mobilisation. But the problems of the Occupy movement should not be allowed to distract from the disarray of other forces.

Third Letter to the Lefts

This is the third in a series of letters to the lefts by Boaventura de Sousa Santos. It was originally published on Brazilian site Carta Maior and translated into Spanish on Rebelión by Antoni Jesús Aguiló and Àlex Tarradellas. I have referred extensively to the Spanish translation in what follows.

The letter reflects on the fact that many of the new popular mobilisations have articulated ideas that are historically of the left, without actually referring to them as such, and wonders what role the lefts will have to play at the present juncture, and from here on in.


When they are in power, the lefts have no time to reflect on the transformations taking place in society, and, whenever they do, it is always as a reaction to any event that disturbs the exercise of power. The response is always negative. When they are not in power, they divide among themselves in order to determine who will be the leader in the next elections, and as such reflections and analyses are related to this objective.

This unavailability for reflection, which has always been pernicious, is today suicidal. For two reasons. The right wing has at its disposal all the organic intellectuals of finance capital, of business associations, of multinational institutions, of think tanks and lobby groups, which provide it daily with data and interpretations that are not always lacking in rigour and always interpret reality in a way that serves its own ends. By contrast, the lefts do not have any instruments for reflection open to non-militants and, internally, reflection follows the sterile line of factions.

Today, there circulates in the world a wave of information and analysis that could be of decisive importance in rethinking and refounding the lefts after the double collapse of social democracy and real socialism. The imbalance between the lefts and the right in relation to strategic knowledge of the world is today greater than ever.

The second reason is that the new mobilisations and political militancy for causes that historically belonged to the lefts are being carried out without any reference to them (with exception, perhaps, of the anarchist tradition) and even, many times, in opposition to them. This cannot but give rise to a deep reflection. Is this reflection being carried out? I have reasons for believing it is not and the proof of this is in the attempts to capture, educate, minimise or ignore the new militancy.

I propose some lines of reflection. The first refers to the social polarisation that is emerging from enormous social inequalities. We live in an era that bears some similarities to that of the democratic revolutions that convulsed Europe in 1848. Back then the social polarisation was enormous because the proletariat (at that moment a young class) depended on work to survice, but (by difference with what happened with parents and grandparents) work did not depend on the proletariat, it depended on who gave it or withdrew it at will, that is, the boss: if one worked, wages were so low and the working day so long that one’s health was endangered and one’s family lived on the verge of hunger; if one was sacked, one had no form of support, apart from economic solidarity or recourse to crime. It is not surprising that in these revolutions the two great banners of struggle were the right to work and the right to a shorter working day. One hundred and fifty years later, the situation is not exactly the same, but the banners remain relevant.

And they are probably more relevant today than they were thirty years ago. The revolutions were bloody and they failed, but the conservative governments that followed had to make concessions so that the social question did not lead to a catastrophe. What distance are we ourselves from a catastrophy? Until now, the mobilisation against the scandalous social inequality (similar to that of 1848) is peaceful and has a strong moralistic tendency towards denunciation.

It does not frighten the financial-democratic system. Who can guarantee that it stays like this? The right is prepared to respond repressively to any potentially threatening alteration. What plans do the lefts have? Will they continue to divide themselves as in the past, some adopting the posture of repression and others that of struggle against repression?

The second line of reflection also has a lot to do with the revolutions of 1848 and it consists of how to reconnect democracy with the aspirations and decisions of the citizens. Among the slogans of 1848, liberalism and democracy stood out. Liberalism meant republican government, separation between State and religion, freedom of the press: democracy, for its part, meant ‘universal’ suffrage for men. There have been many advances made in this respect in the last one hundred and fifty years. However, in the last thirty years the conquests achieved have been called into question and democracy, of late, seems more like a house locked and occupied by a group of extra-terrestrials who decide democratically on their own interests and dictatorially those of the great majorities. A mixed regime, a democratorship [in Portuguese, ‘democradura’].

The movement of the indignados and the Occupy movement reject the expropriation of democracy and opt to take decisions by consensus in their assemblies. Are they mad or are they an indicator of the challenges that lie ahead? Have the lefts thought yet that, if they don’t feel comfortable with high intensity forms of democracy (within parties and in the republic), they should either retire or refound themselves?



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2 responses to “#OccupyDemocracy? – Third Letter To The Lefts

  1. CMK

    Interesting post and translation, as always. The point about the re-assertion of male power, through the denigration of a relatively female friendly public sector, is something I hadn’t seen articulated before. There is a clear undercurrent of misogyny, if you look close enough, in the rush to rip apart the public sector, particularly the health and education sectors which have a preponderance of female staff. That runs counter to the official emphasis on gender equality and female advancement and it might be one way to resist attacks on the public sector to make clear that these attacks are motivated by a desire, unspoken but implied, to put women ‘back in their place’.By the way are there any women who occupy senior positions in Goldmann Sachs?

  2. Richard

    <html><head></head><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div>Thanks CMK. I agree with what you’re saying. As for Goldman Sachs, I have no idea, but if this twitter account <a href="http://twitter.com/gselevator">http://twitter.com/gselevator</a&gt; is genuine I doubt it is foremost in its field for gender equality.</div><div><br></div></body></html>

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