Occupy the State

Yesterday something interesting happened to me, and I’ve come to see it as a meaningful metaphor from which to learn.

I went to participate in an event designed to raise public awareness about issues of global hunger, child malnutrition and poverty. I was a mere volunteer to put together an installation, and guide and inform visitors. My shift at the site started at 11 am. I didn’t get there on time, and here’s why: key passages and roads in London were closed because Buckingham Palace was having some parade. Tens of thousands were watching, as men with uniforms and funny hats rode horses up and down blocked streets to show off the power of the head of state. That power (and money) was being wasted on self promotion and was keeping me from giving my minute contribution to things far more important than royal parades.

It would be good if all the courageous “Occupy” movements that occupied public spaces, squares, buildings, etc had a set of brother and sister movements that occupied the institutions and positions of the state – not just physically, but professionally. The state is simultaneously an obstacle to meaningful change since it protects power and privilege, but it’s also the most powerful and (if under public control) the most democratic institution from which change can most easily, quickly, and efficaciously be enacted.

The state is the element that separates Public from massive private interests, and it also mediates between them and regulates their interaction. It’s the state, the powerful states, that creates and upholds the laws that create a system of global inequality. The state controls tax policy, controls redistribution, controls massive public funds, controls law and police, international agreements etc. There is a reason why lobbies lobby with state officials and not with librarians. If the state is left unaffected by the recent social movements (like the Occupy movements), then public discourse might change, but policy may not (in fact a look at European politics will show you just that).

Furthermore, political access to the institutions of the state, insofar as it has the potential to modify existing laws and regulations, is the most sustainable and firm way of changing things. A system that relies on consistent commitment form large numbers of people everyday (like the occupy movements) is desirable, but is much harder to sustain. Changing laws and regulations to reflect the democratic will of the people, and not the interests of the powerful, is likely to have more staying power than a strategy based on permanent physical occupations.

The reluctance to Occupy the state has many facets.  One them is a severe and dramatic depoliticization of the public. Dislike and distrust of politicians (justified or not) has made “Politics” a bad word. But, if I were a privileged member of society wanting reign in the public, I could hardly do better than to instill the notion that politics and political parties are a bad thing. “Protest if you must… just don’t take control of those nasty, impure, corrupted  institutions that make and enforce the law – that would be dangerous”.

In conclusion: the fact that the state is an obstacle to change, and also the best and most powerful way to enact it, makes it a prime target for occupation. It’s not the only way, but it’s one of the best. In the end I had to run around several blocks of closed streets and I was late. But I still did many hours of work for the cause of child malnutrition of which I am proud. I wish some of the people I met could be in government with the power to seriously shape policy (and end those ridiculous state parades).

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