Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Occupy's 99% = Bottom-Up Participatory Democracy

The Question and Objection to the Occupy Movement

One recurring complaint/ question I have heard from the media, as well as those who oppose or  confused about the Occupy protests is this: What do you all want anyway?  For the rich to pay more taxes?  For an apology from Wall Street? What???  On one hand, "What do you want" is a good question being asked of the 99% protesters.  This is a common question asked whenever there is a movement protesting perceived wrongs.  If you have a problem with something, what is your proposed solution?  However, this is a "top-down" representative democracy approach to problems, rather than a "bottom-up" participatory democracy philosophy. The Occupy movement is a bottom-up philosophical movement.  As such, it is important to understand the difference between these two approaches and why the "what are your demands" question is not really an appropriate question to ask at this moment in time.
Image by Don Ryan/AP, and linked to from: "Occupy Wall Street" @

A Top-Down Approach

From the "Top-Down" perspective, it is expected that a centralized group of people/leaders organize, make demands, form a plan, and encourage the masses to follow the laid out plan.  Like a representative democracy, the followers select not simply the message or the plan, but the leaders they trust to facilitate that message and plan. If the plan or message runs into roadblocks, we can then feel comfortable that our leaders will make the adjustments needed. Power lies in the leader rather than the plan or demands. Thus, this mode of power/problem solving suggests that if we select the right person for the job, those people will act in our self-interest, and not just their self-interest.  In effect, this is the philosophy of a representative democracy since our focus is more on the elect rather than simply the plan of action.  Plans and "party philosophy" is important in this paradigm, but what takes focus are the leaders and their ability to make things right for us.

A Bottom-Up Approach

Conversely, a "Bottom-Up" participatory functions within an opposite paradigm.  Here, people who agree on a general protest idea or grievance, in this case the problems of capitalism and regulation of markets, come together to negotiate and work through the core problems or concerns at hand.  The focus is on the problem, the many possible solutions, and negotiation. The focus is not on absolute leader(s) who will make these decisions for us.  Process before a decided end result is emphasized because people recognize that one plan, one demand, will likely NOT be sufficient.

The Occupy Movement and the Bottom-Up Approach

Within the 99% Occupy Movement, it seems to me that an important fear about making specific demands at this moment is this: one solution will likely only benefit a portion of the population, not solve the root of the problems, whereas the hope is to benefit 100% (no one wishes to harm the 1%) and heal the roots. So, for example, maybe taxing the 1% is a good idea, but it is NOT the only good idea and more investigation is needed.  To reach this goal, we must negotiate over the use of language and action; we must negotiate everyday practices and ethical/social values between our personal self-interest and the interest of the collective (our local, national, and Global Community).  This is a "double process" of consensus, which takes much longer to accomplish then the top-down approach discussed above. This is why I call the occupy movement a "Bottom-UP" movement, and why this global group of people are an example of participatory democracy.

I suspect a plan and demands will come in a more concrete form later on, but right now what we are witnessing is a global discussion process of consensus building.  Such a discussion takes a lot of time and a lot of endurance.  As such, is it a waste of time?  This too is a good question.  After all, absolute consensus is almost always impossible to reach in a small family, let alone a nation or a global community.  But I would argue that the answer to that question is a resounding NO.  Equality in economics, politics, and social arrangements can only be reached through the consensus process. We no longer live in a world were we can allow ourselves to make top-down decisions for the global population.  This approach ends in increased conflict and war and, I would continue to argue, is a good part of the reason we are in the mess we are in right now. 

A Cosmopolitan Movement

The 99%ers are a cosmopolitan group functioning within the tradition of the World Social Forum and participatory-democratic philosophy - it is a new way of thinking.  A way of thinking that must trust wide participation in the democratic process (not simply a process based on voting), and one that must trust the chaos of that process, and the uncertainty of that process.  In the end, I suspect if we follow this approach through, we may end up with plans that support the majority rather than the minority of the population.

For more on cosmopolitan democracy and my thoughts on process (bottom-up), over end (top-down) approaches, you might wish to read: Toward a Cosmopolitical Democracy: Process over Ends.

I would love your thoughts on this!


  1. Thank you for this educational post. I appreciate your point of view, which is one I hadn't previously been exposed to. From what I've seen of the 99%, the only thing they seem to agree on is 'a general protest idea'. That's great for a conversation starter, but I don't have high hopes for a solution being found this way.

  2. Hmmm. . .sounds like they could be advocating for a direct democracy? But then the word "equality" is used and I am shoved into confusion again. Is there a specific ideal government they are espousing? Just curious. . .thanks for the post! I learn something every time I read one of your writings! (Plus, it's SOCIOLOGY! Woohoo!)

  3. +Dangerous Linda. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is nice to have conversations. I am curious as to why you think no solutions will come from this? I suspect there will be myself, since similar global movements have produced changed recently. As for what they agree on, I see much consensus outside of protest - I have posted extensively on this in my last two posts before this one - you might find those helpful in that light. Regardless, thank you so much for engaging. I love conversations on blogs.

  4. +Pamanner, hello there! Always good to see you. Thanks for commenting and stopping by. So, why does equality offer confusion for you in this occupy movement? The issue comes down to income inequality that has risen substantially in the last 30 years, and doubled over the last 10. I do not think anyone is requesting absolute equality, such as we all make the exact amount of money. However, I do think there is a sense that deregulated capitalism has caused harm to the majority of the world - offering the misguided ethic of profit over people. This lack of regulation on companies and the work force causes great harm for the majority of populations: free work states, little regulation of how companies use our natural resources, killing of workers ability to collectively bargain, moving production to other (cheaper) countries, free - trade deals and IMF deals that boosts business at the expense of the worker is causing global harm. in the US, worker benefits, hours they work and pay has been in a massive decline since the 70s, causing many in the middle class to slip into the lower class income bracket - add the cultural encouragement of debt for consumption, and you have a soup mix of hell. The trend is quite clear in this country and globally - causing much harm over the last 30 years. I think this is why the occupy movement has grown globally :) So it is not simply about government or ideal government, it is about how government and businesses effect our economy on a local and global level. Democracy is wanted, yes, but a democracy that is more geared toward popular participation. xoxo

  5. Hi, Rebecca! --

    In answer to your question, "...why [do] you think no solutions will come from this?" I would first reiterate my original comment, "I don't have high hopes for a solution being found this way," which is subtly, but relevantly, different from your interpretation ;-)

    As an artist, I found this body of work very interesting in relation to this topic:

    One thing I've noticed from the 99% is that they are so diverse in their ideas of what this protest is all about. Some openly admit they have no idea what it's about -- they just want to be 'where the action is'. That seems very convoluted and confusing.

    I'm all for conversing -- and I appreciate the conversation we're having right now. Thank you!

  6. Dangerous Linda, forgive me for taking so long to respond - it has been one of those weeks.

    First, thank you for clarifying what you said, indeed there is a difference between my generalizing of your comment and your specific wording. With that said, I do appreciate the link and your thoughts. I just do not see a problem of the diversity of the ideas because they all interrelate to the same recurring themes: Capitalism, as it is functioning now on a global level, is causing great disparity between the haves and have nots and the have nots, the 99%, are losing. This is a clear theme.

    Also, if there was such a mass confusing about this and about the underlining causes for the protests, why are there so many protestors globally? Seriously, this movement has spread everywhere and in every corner of the world. If you speak to the protestors, they know why they are there (the majority of them). There is not confusion in that at all.

    But the news that reports on the protests, do they look at this, the problem of capitalism and the overall objection to how it is working globally? NO. The say the message is muddled. the focus on the few places it has gotten violent. They scratch their heads. Why? I think it is because this protest is in direct conflict with the news corporations self interest. The 99% are also protesting against them. But we watch the new and we are programed to repeat what we hear on the news: what is their message anyway??

    But that is my take on it. But spending a great deal of time reading the Occupy blogs and organization statements, the objections are crystal clear to me.

    I do agree, however, that it will be interesting to see how this all pans out. I have hope myself. Something will be changed, but what, and to what extent, that we shall have to wait to see.

    PS. You so inspired me with the vision board. I am starting mine today.

  7. Good luck with your Vision Board -- very EXCITING!


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