Occupy, direct democracy and socialism

Despite constant harassment from Brisbane City Council and the Queensland government and despite slander and misinformation from the corporate media, Occupy Brisbane has maintained a constant presence in Brisbane’s public spaces since October 15. The occupation has challenged corporate greed and the undemocratic power that corporations and their capitalist owners wield over the majority of the world’s population. The occupiers have been pushed around, but are providing hope and an example for a better future for the working class.

Occupy Brisbane has held daily general assemblies that show how ordinary people, even under immense pressure, can take democratic control of their lives. In the space of just days, people with no previous political or public speaking experience feel confident enough to stand up in front of dozens of people and voice their opinions. This phenomenon is certainly assisted by the fact that meetings held at the occupation aren’t constrained by the time limits that normally occur when campaign meetings are held in a hall.


Occupy Brisbane at Post Office Square being evicted by police.

Threat of a good example

While detractors of the Occupy movement worldwide have tried to dismiss the movement as directionless, one of the movement’s key strengths and potential powers for change is its ability to provide people with the experience of genuine, participatory democracy. This threat of a good example is why the powers that be, the capitalist class and its agents, are so keen to crush the movement.

The idea of working people taking democratic control of all aspects affecting their lives is new to many participants in the Occupy movement, but it is not a new notion. It lies at the very heart of socialist thought and practice. The movement is planting the seed in people’s minds of general assemblies in every suburb and every workplace in places like Australia and the US. While this might be hard to imagine, the benefits of such direct democracy can be seen in those countries most advanced along the path to socialism: Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Every month, in every Cuban workplace, the workers and management hold an assembly where any worker can raise issues. These are discussed and debated and voted on by the entire workplace. Once a decision is made, management is legally bound to implement it and to report to the next assembly how and when this happens. The Cuban level of workplace democracy is something that our capitalist masters could never deliver because the key to their profits is absolute control over “their” workers.

People in Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam enjoy a greater level of participatory democracy in their communities than we do in “advanced” capitalist countries like Australia. They are able to have a direct say in their communities through councils organised at suburb or village level. Direct participation allows people to determine how resources are allocated in their communities for infrastructure and social services as well opportunities to participate in subcommittees and working groups. In Australia we have local councils made up of gangs of competing business people and petty politicians representing the interests of the big corporations. We get to vote for what we think are the least bad of these every three to four years, and that’s the last we get to say about it.

That is not to say that the democracy practised in the socialist countries is perfect, and within these countries there are regional differences in the successful application of this greater democracy. As Occupiers around the world are finding out, direct democracy is not always easy; it requires constant vigilance by all participants to make it function. The challenges are many and require Occupiers to back the decisions they make by collectively ensuring they are carried out, rather than voting and hoping someone else deals with problems. Around the world, Occupations are finding inventive ways to go beyond managing the survival of a camp to ensure they can still support and promote a movement that is rocking the country at the very centre of the global capitalist system.

Transition to a better future

This microcosm should provide an important lesson on the need for socialism as a transition stage from capitalism to a future stateless, classless, communal society. You simply cannot take the broad spectrum of people socially brutalised by capitalist society and expect them to function peacefully and harmoniously in a communal society. Socialism not only aims to logically and progressively transform how we produce the things we need and how we organise our economic relations but also progressively to transform how we interact socially. Many socialists have written on this. Ho Chi Minh in The Revolutionary Road and Correcting the Way We Work wrote extensively about the importance of socialism in creating a new person imbued with creativity, a sense of community, benevolence, tolerance, respect for humanity, a cultured lifestyle and a harmonious relationship with society.

Che Guevara writing on the same subject in Socialism and Man in Cuba described the challenges in creating new consciousness in a post-capitalist society: “I think the place to start is to recognise the individual’s quality of incompleteness, of being an unfinished product. The vestiges of the past are brought into the present in one’s consciousness, and a continual labour is necessary to eradicate them. The process is two-sided. On the one hand, society acts through direct and indirect education; on the other, the individual submits to a conscious process of self-education. The new society in formation has to compete fiercely with the past. This past makes itself felt not only in one’s consciousness — in which the residue of an education systematically oriented toward isolating the individual still weighs heavily — but also through the very character of this transition period in which commodity relations still persist. The commodity is the economic cell of capitalist society. So long as it exists its effects will make themselves felt in the organisation of production and, consequently, in consciousness.”

One thing common to many Occupiers is the vision of a stateless, classless, communal future, but it is important to understand how this can be achieved. The Occupy movement is teaching us that we cannot bring a communal society into being by individual example, nor can we declare a stateless, classless, communal society immediately after the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Only through socialism can we transform exploitative and divisive capitalist production and the society it produces into a harmonious, peaceful, communal society where everyone produces according to their ability and everyone receives what they need.