Building a real democracy movement    


Every day millions of people struggle against the conditions capital imposes on society. People are confronted by economic and social injustice, environmental degradation and the threat of war. Popular democracy appears as people begin to act together to organise protests, demonstrations, strikes, occupations, or revolutions. The appeal of democracy is universal because it offers the prospect of people governing themselves and determining their own future.  


Capital and Democracy are fundamentally opposed. The power of money confronts the power of people. Should money or people rule the world? Capital concentrates more power in the hands of the minority (‘the one percent’). Democracy seeks to mobilise the power of the majority (‘the ninety-nine percent’). Both are engaged in a long protracted world wide struggle for power which will decide the future of humanity and the survival of the planet. 


In the last twenty years the struggle for democracy swept across Eastern Europe, Russia, South Africa, Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Palestine etc. Liberal or parliamentary democracy holds out the promise that the ‘will of the people’ will prevail and civil liberties will be secured. However, the experience of liberal democracy has shown that financial and corporate power continues to rule. Around the world people are increasingly disillusioned with liberal democracy which cannot resolve the issues of economic justice and a sustainable life.


Capital in crisis


The financial and banking crisis in 2008 spread out from America, the UK and Europe. In Iceland 2009 this led to riots and protests and demands for a new democracy. A constituent assembly was set up to draft a new constitution. The crisis spread to Greece in May 2010. It took on a new dimension with the protests in Tunisia in December 2010. In 2011 the Arab spring, especially the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo, enabled the Egyptian pro-democracy movement to use occupation with revolutionary intent. 


These struggles inspired protests in Spain beginning on ‘15 May’ organised with the ‘Real Democracy Now’ [Democracia Real YA] group. On July 14, eight Israeli students put up their tents in Tel Aviv protesting against exorbitant rents and mortgages. By August Israel faced the largest street protests in its history. In September 2011the Occupy movement began in New York when ‘Occupy Wall Street’ set up camp in Zuccotti Park. The central slogan was “We are the 99%”. By October 2011 the protests spread to 95 cities in 82 countries.

Democracy’s opportunity

The Occupy movement was one of many responses to the crisis of Capital. Spontaneous action caught the authorities off-guard. Now they have regained their composure and control. Consequently Occupy faces a major problem of converting itself into a more ‘permanent’ organisation with long term goals and strategies or accept defeat and move onto the next protest campaign.    

We do not, however, have to invent a new strategy or aims. We need to understand the contradictions and hence alternative pathways within the movement itself. The future of Occupy is already inside the movement itself. Three objectives stand out: – real democracy, economic and social justice, and a sustainable environment. It is not that they are opposed to each other. It is more a question of strategic priority and hence emphasis and linkage.

Egypt, Spain and America 

The occupations of Tahrir Square, Puerta de Sol, and Zuccotti Park, indicate the different choices. In Egypt people saw democracy as a means towards economic justice while the political elite saw it as a threat. In America democracy seemed less important than economic injustice and corporate greed. ‘Democracy’ was not an aim but something which had existed but was now undermined by banks and multi-national corporations. The same illusions can be seen in all liberal democracies including the UK.

In this respect Spain stands between political-Egypt and economic-America. The painful experience of civil war and the Franco dictatorship is not far behind. The republic was crushed. But liberal democracy was restored as an add-on to the Franco-state in the form of constitutional monarchy. In Spain the value and limits of liberal democracy are more widely understood. Here the slogan ‘Real Democracy Now’ came to prominence. The aim of Real Democracy transcends the division between dictatorship and liberal democracy – an aim for the world. 

Although the US movement began with economic focus on Wall Street, in ‘Scenes from Occupied America’ Rebecca Solnit identified the two issues at the centre of the movement - “economic justice and real democracy”. She says that by “living out that direct democracy every day through assemblies and committees” the movement is “winning through people power”. (Occupy Scenes from Occupied America Verso 2011 p149). New York Occupiers, like Marina Sitrin, urged people to take the real democracy route. “Soon, I hope, in our plazas and parks, our neighbourhoods, school and workplaces, we will all be saying something similar: Real Democracy!” (Occupy Scenes from Occupied America Verso 2011 p11).

Movement – campaigns, parties and actions

Real Democracy is the means by which people-power can implement economic and social justice, and a sustainable environment. Without it the people can protest against injustice and ecological disaster, but like King Canute, we cannot stop the tide of Capital lapping over us. Occupy has a future primarily as an international movement for real democracy. It has to win the argument with the ‘ninety nine percent’ that real democracy is the road to economic and social justice and a sustainable environment.

A movement is not a single organisation. The environmental movement for example has a range of parties, campaigns, think-tanks and direct action groups. There is the Green Party, the Alliance of Green Socialists, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Climate Change, Climate Camp and more. The trade union movement remains the prime focus for struggles for economic and social justice. It has many organisations, publications, and campaigns gathered around it. 


In contrast there is no recognisable Real Democracy movement. Occupy should become the catalyst for a Real Democracy movement with a range of real democracy institutions, parties and think-tanks. Occupy should be first organisation to take real democracy seriously, but eventually one voice within a broader movement. We should not try to ‘own’ or control such a movement but play our part in building it.  


A shortened version of this article appeared in Occupy Times

Steve Freeman 



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