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Democracy is a horizon we must always struggle towards

Time and again, rebellions, wildcat strikes, debtors’ revolts and urban uprisings have bent the will of recalcitrant authorities. But history also shows that there are no shortcuts

On 30 November 1999, 40,000 protesters successfully shut down a ministerial meeting at the World Trade Organization. The “Battle of Seattle”, as it became known, grabbed headlines and spurred a movement that quickly spread across the world at the start of the new millennium, from Quebec City, to Genoa, to Cancún. Critics dismissed the wave of protests as the product of “anti-globalisation” activists. But the movement was never about turning the clock back on globalisation: its objective was global justice.

Two decades later, we are seeing a resurgence of mass protest: demonstrations in Chile against the legacy of increased living costs, privatisation and inequality; the thousands of Iraqi men and women demanding a dignified life; the street protesters in Hong Kong calling for democracy; and the climate strikes that have swept across the world. The context may vary, but many of the issues raised by the demonstrators in Seattle reverberate through these uprisings: corporate globalisation, elite corruption, the exploitation of workers and the environment, a lack of political rights, and the nature of democracy itself.

But the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Seattle also serves as a painful reminder that it was once the left that offered the most compelling critique of the dominant economic order. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a political and intellectual void opened that the right has stepped in to fill. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and other nationalist populists like them have railed against transnational financial agreements and promised to help regular people “take back control”.

The problem, of course, is that their protectionism is mostly bluster. Like all plutocrats, they seek a world where money and goods are mobile, and people (especially immigrants) are not. By ignoring the global justice movement the first time around in the late 1990s, politicians imperilled us all.

Today it is frequently said that we are living through a moment of political crisis. The word for crisis, like the word democracy, comes from ancient Greek. It means the turning point in an illness – the change that indicates either death or recovery, two stark alternatives. It’s fitting, then, that two divergent possibilities lie ahead in the democratic West: on one side, the path towards  more egalitarian societies, underpinned by wholesale transformations of economic and energy systems; on the other, a nostalgic, ethno-nationalist right-wing backlash.

I have long argued that democracy has never truly existed. Instead of being something we once had and only recently lost, I see democracy as a horizon people must continually struggle towards. It is an ideal that must be deepened and expanded. The people massing in public squares and on subway platforms in Santiago, Baghdad, Hong Kong and, on a smaller scale, in New York City, where protests against police violence broke out in early November, are attempting to do just that.

What makes democracy so elusive is its inherently contradictory nature. Working towards a more democratic society will involve balancing a range of opposing values: freedom and equality, conflict and consensus, the local and the global, the present and the future. Democracy also requires weighing spontaneity and structure. Open revolt and rule-making, insurrection and statecraft – both sides are necessary in order for progress to be achieved.

Democracy is messy. Time and again, rebellions, wildcat strikes, debtors’ revolts and urban uprisings have bent the will of recalcitrant authorities. But history also shows that there are no shortcuts: sudden outpourings of discontent have to be expanded, managed and advanced by the hard, slow work of organising for change. We should celebrate the contagious energy of mass demonstrations and street confrontations, while also channelling their fervour into focused, strategic efforts that have a chance of being longer-lived.

This is the lesson I learned in 2011 while involved in Occupy Wall Street, a viral and leaderless protest not dissimilar to the global justice movement (indeed, many veterans of the Seattle protests could be found in New York City’s Zuccotti Park). Long before the police had cleared the last encampment, it was apparent that a movement that refused to make demands of public officials or entertain the prospect of trying to take power would never achieve its aims.

And yet, even if Occupy was destined to fizzle out, it served a crucial purpose. It forced a conversation about capitalism and class in America and set the stage for a left-wing insurgency around Bernie Sanders that has shaken the Democratic Party.

My hope is that, two decades on from now, someone’s not writing a piece about how this moment of political crisis and mass protests was a missed opportunity. Like the global justice movement 20 years ago, the climate justice movement and the international wave of democratic uprisings are calling attention to the problems that ail us all. In order to win, they’ll need to be unruly while also seeking to rule. May this generation not look back and say it didn’t try. 

Read the rest of our world in revolt series here

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question