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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Red Zone dissatisfaction

The Arab Spring, protests in parts of Europe, in Israel, and now the Occupy Wall Street movement (which has spread well beyond New York and is starting here) all have at their core significant dissatisfaction with the unjust and undemocratic processes that operate in their countries. Each centre of dissatisfaction is different in circumstances, degree and detail, but at the core is a common connection: the way things are done do not take the people into consideration. Many currently protesting in the residential Red Zones would see the similarity to their situation.

In a recent article for the US based Foreign Affairs website (here), authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri traverse recent events from demonstrations in Cairo through to the Wall Street Movement. Their finding is that part of the protest is about saying "we are here" - because those in power or with influence take no notice of the population at large. Those demonstrating want to participate; that is their concept of democracy.

Reading the article it is not hard to think how a very similar political act is playing out here in Christchurch, where those with power and vested interests (government, council, insurers, investors, developers) are trying to steer recovery in the direction of the purposes that best serve them. In doing so ordinary citizens are being ignored and politically dis-enfranchised. From the article we get:

"One obvious and clear message of the protests, of course, is that the bankers and finance industries in no way represent us: What is good for Wall Street is certainly not good for the country (or the world). A more significant failure of representation, though, must be attributed to the politicians and political parties charged with representing the people's interests but in fact more clearly represent the banks and the creditors. Such a recognition leads to a seemingly naive, basic question: Is democracy not supposed to be the rule of the people over the polis -- that is, the entirety of social and economic life? Instead, it seems that politics has become subservient to economic and financial interests."
Is it harsh to say that our politicians are like their brethren elsewhere - more interested in representing narrow private interests than the country or city that are supposed to be their constituencies? Probably not. At the national level financial bail-outs, and general support to big business, has been associated with a history of a light touch on the controls of anything to do with organized money. In the absence of proper restraints organised money and it's businesses have been able to do almost as they wish without paying the price - the price is paid by the public.

In the area of earthquake recovery, confidential arrangements with insurance companies, secrecy over the state of the land, failure to provide a suitable mechanism for dealing with disputes (land zoning, insurance assessments), and blind subservience to market forces when the playing field is not level, would suggest it is a continuing state of affairs.

Local government deference to the requirements of developers and investors, a lack of openness with intentions and decision making, and overt attempts to prevent support and advocacy services being provided to those in dispute with insurers, suggest a similar distorted situation exists at the local level too.

So far the Red Zone protests have stuttered, and failed to gain momentum. Fortunately for politicians what underlies the protests is not widely understood. As with the financial crisis, the issues of public versus private good, and of private profit and public loss have not raised their heads sufficiently, or widely enough, to ignite a critical mass of criticism or objection. Why is this?

From the outside, Red Zone protests may be seen to be merely about how much money is enough. In fact it is about:
  • the validity of government undertakings (restoration of equity),
  • the right to contest arbitrary government decisions (creating red zones, adopting a valuation method that is unfit for the purpose, declaring properties Red Zones without providing the evidence, creating Red Zone options without public notice or participation, offering appeal processes that are not explained and don't yet operate - all "rules" that did not exist in law when the earthquakes happened, and smack of retrospective law making),
  • the integrity of businesses (insurance companies and agencies: their contracts and their conduct),
  • the right for all to have a level/just playing field when dealing with bureaucracies and big business.
 
    The Occupy movement has arrived in New Zealand. It is expressing solidarity with those protesting in the United States, and dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in New Zealand. At this stage Occupy support for Red Zoners is localised, however the localised Red Zone plight is a prime example of much of the complaint at the core of the Occupy and earlier movements. Perhaps there can be a joining together with Red Zone protesters for mutual strength and support. The failure of Red Zoners' cause will be a failure of the Occupy cause.


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    Foreign Affairs articles:
    The article by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Foreign Affairs, 11 October 2011, The Fight for 'Real Democracy' at the Heart of Occupy Wall Street is available on-line at foreignaffairs.com here.  The article is not a hard read.

    Another article at Foreign Affairs, Why Occupy Wall Street is Not the Tea Party of the Left by Sidney Tarrow, provides another interesting insight to the same issues, although this time in the context of the civil rights and women's movements (here).
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