Occupy Local Government?

Ballot box

For the last year New Compass has published several articles on crucial topics for what is invariably called the Occupy-movement, “indignant”-movement or movement for real democracy. We’ve written about historical attempts to create real democracy through revolts and revolutions, about lessons from the neighborhood assemblies in Buenos Aires in 2001 and lessons from the occupations of town halls in Greece during protests in 2008.

We’ve also discussed strategic issues such as how the movement can combine its long term goal of a participatory democratic society with the struggle for immediate reforms today. Others have been how to make decisions inside the movement (consensus or majority voting) or how the movement can spread further by establishing assemblies in non-activist communities.

The Election Question

One topic that we haven’t touched so far has been elections. Although the movement in Spain has already been faced with parliamentary elections, and the movement in the U.S. will have to deal with the presidential election in November this year, we will have to relate to the question of elections in different ways in the future. I’m not talking here of whether the movement should support a certain party/candidate or not or how it can influence the electoral agenda, but if the movement itself should participate in elections.

My thoughts on this issue are that the movement should participate in local elections, and to do so with a twofold aim: On the one hand to create participatory democratic spaces inside local government, and on the other hand to devolve both political and fiscal power to the municipal level.

Expanding Civil Liberties

But isn’t participation in elections – local or not – just a way to succumb to the capitalist system? It is a widespread notion among radicals that almost every contemporary political or economic institution is part of “The System” or “The Established Order.” And hence, we have to avoid anything that has to do with these institutions.

I think this assumption is wrong. Our societies are not perfect authoritarian systems. We do not live in a capitalist North-Korea, but enjoy certain rights and liberties that protect us from being completely dominated by ruling elites. One of these freedoms is the right of a community to have a say over its own affairs, or what is often called local self-government through municipalities

Now, municipalities often have very restricted rights to self-government and municipal freedoms in most countries have been eroded by State institutions. However, this does not imply that the right to self-government is unimportant or merely a part of “The System.” Instead, this should be an argument to strengthen and expand these freedoms to create a bottom-up democracy.

Some of the changes the movement can demand in local government could be the retention of tax revenues, and the redistribution of these funds for welfare purposes instead of bailouts to the financial sector. This could be accompanied by demands for more progressive taxation and demands to reverse the privatization of public services, and to re-municipalize parts of the economy that has been taken over by private capital.

Opening up Municipal Institutions

Another major reason for participating in local elections – and not national elections – is the potentiality for democratizing municipal government. Unlike bureaucratic state institutions which are bluntly speaking made to administer the public in a top-down fashion, municipal institutions can be opened to the public and put under democratic control.

Historically, there are many examples of municipalities that have been governed in a directly democratic manner, but even today there are places where participatory institutions exist. In New England in the U.S. the open assembly or Town Meeting is the highest institution at the municipal level. Another example is participatory budgeting as it can be found in some Brazilian cities, where the entire investment budget is distributed through a complex system of popular assemblies and elected delegates. The point of mentioning these examples is that the opportunity of creating “real democracy” is attainable at the local level. It’s not just a far away dream.

Through local government the movement could open up very important spaces for the public to have a real say over municipal affairs. It could institute the general assembly that it is practicing today, and make spread it to all citizens and not only an activist minority. This should be combined with demands for greater popular control over elected officials, such as the formulation in assemblies and the opportunity of control.

Reaching Out

The demands listed above are just a few central ones that the movement could try to realize through local elections. In Oslo, Norway a few years ago I myself participated in a campaign to democratize the city, and you could read our program that contained a much more varied list of demands at the New Compass website.

Exactly how to democratize local government or to devolve power to the municipal level, is a discussion that probably will vary from country to country. What is common, however, is that the movement needs to reach out to more people than it does today, and to show that it is relevant in real life politics to a greater extent than what it is the case right now. By democratizing municipal institutions it can both provide a space for current progressive movements to convene, and also to discuss its demands and ideas for a better society with a wider public.

If we claim to speak on behalf of the 99%, this means that we have to find means through which the vast majority actually can be empowered. Participation in local elections is one strategy to reach for that goal. It is not the only one that the movement should pursue, but it is an important one that it should not miss.