The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, ‘in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions’. ‘Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square,’ she went on, ‘to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions.’
Once you have reduced the Tahrir Square protests to a call for Western-style democracy, as Applebaum does, of course it becomes ridiculous to compare the Wall Street protests with the events in Egypt: how can protesters in the West demand what they already have? What she blocks from view is the possibility of a general discontent with the global capitalist system which takes on different forms here or there.
‘Yet in one sense,’ she conceded, ‘the international Occupy movement’s failure to produce sound legislative proposals is understandable: both the sources of the global economic crisis and the solutions to it lie, by definition, outside the competence of local and national politicians.’ She is forced to the conclusion that ‘globalisation has clearly begun to undermine the legitimacy of Western democracies.’ This is precisely what the protesters are drawing attention to: that global capitalism undermines democracy. The logical further conclusion is that we should start thinking about how to expand democracy beyond its current form, based on multi-party nation-states, which has proved incapable of managing the destructive consequences of economic life. Instead of making this step, however, Applebaum shifts the blame onto the protesters themselves for raising these issues:
‘Global’ activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout: ‘We need to have a process!’ Well, they already have a process: it’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.
[Extract. Appeared in LRB Blog on October 28th 2011.