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'Occupying democracy:' a moral revolution for social justice

The Occupy Movement, according to the authors, is above all a call for America to return to its founding roots, working on behalf on all people and not just the wealthy, powerful and privileged.

Alan James Strachan Janet Coster
21 April 2012

The moral principle of revolutions is to instruct, not to destroy.

Thomas Paine, 1795

Thomas Paine’s words from Dissertation on First Principles of Government, written 217 years ago, capture the core purpose of the Occupy movement. The movement, at its heart, instructs us to honour one another and to ensure that government policy and our justice system reflect that ethic. It asks us to return to our founding principles.

 Wealth, power and privilege

Wherever people gather there will be unequal distributions of wealth, power and privilege. In terms of social policy, people either tend to side with those who already have these advantages, thus perpetuating the imbalance, or they wish to lessen the disparity.

There are many philosophical justifications for favouring the wealthy and powerful, including the “Gospel of Wealth,” Social Darwinism, Manifest Destiny, God’s Will and “trickle-down economics.” All of these philosophies assert the inherent superiority of those who are wealthy, powerful and privileged by appropriating Darwinism, Destiny, God or Capitalism in a profoundly self-serving manner. 

These rationalizations are a sign of pathological narcissism, i.e., the overvaluing of oneself and the undervaluing of others, that springs from greed, insecurity, fear and the lust for power. This approach to life basically asserts: ‘I will take what I want, any way I can, and I don’t care about the consequences to others.’  It represents the “law of the jungle,” not the law of a civil, democratic society.

These philosophies stand in opposition to the teachings of many spiritual traditions and the dictates of love, compassion and empathy.  They stand in stark contrast to a mature and developed morality, in which the individual is able to see beyond his own self-interests and values the rights and wellbeing of others.

 The “American Creed” and universal human rights

Where can we turn, in our American traditions, for moral grounding and orientation in response to those who insist on the endless accumulation of wealth, power and privilege? 

The answer is clear:  we are being called, as never before, to return to our founding principles, as embodied in "The American Creed.”

When the Founders declared independence, they were strongly influenced by a key concept of the European Enlightenment:  the belief that human rights were universal, transcending the law, and that the law's purpose ought to be to uphold these rights. Thus, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This sentence transformed the Declaration from simply being a list of grievances against King George III into a famous proclamation of human rights.  It has since become known as the American Creed, and conveys the core belief and moral value upon which our democracy is based.

The Declaration was one of the most amazing acts in human history, representing a quantum leap to an entirely different way of valuing one another. No country had yet been founded on such a basis, and the implications reverberated throughout the world.

This American Creed was not a perfect declaration of human rights e.g. it specifies “men” and not “people.”  Furthermore, as the young country began to form, it became clear that, for the most part, “men” referred to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  This contradiction between the 'universality' of human rights, and the actual implementation of them, is one that America has struggled with for 236 years. Nevertheless, flaws notwithstanding, this was the first such declaration of universal human rights.  It heralded a radical break from traditional, top-down power structures, i.e., the monarchies that ruled Europe. 

This democratic ideal would be more fully realized with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which set up a system of checks and balances so that no one individual or branch of government could become too powerful. These documents formally reversed the power pyramid, making it clear that elected officials were to be public servants.

 The heart of the creed:  empathy, human rights, and democracy

In order to value human rights, it first is necessary to have empathy, to see other people as human. This may appear obvious to us now, but it was only in the eighteenth century in Europe that people began to be seen as autonomous, equal human beings.  Prior to that time, many kinds of people, such as servants, slaves, children, women and people without property, were not regarded as autonomous individuals who employed independent moral judgment.

Empathy is key in recognizing human rights and creating democracy. From a psycho-spiritual perspective, recognizing another person’s humanity, and therefore their human rights, is a sign of emotional and spiritual maturity. Society has many ways of ranking people, but the moral value implicit in the Creed, i.e., the self-evident assertion that all people are created equal, tells us that our innate worthiness transcends any social ranking.

The stirring words of Thomas Merton express the heart of the American Creed: “If we ever knew who we truly are, there would be no more wars, no more hunger, no more hatred.  We would simply bow down and worship one another.” 

 The sacred duty of democratic government

A democratic government is defined by its willingness to recognize and act in accord with the unalienable truth that all people are created equal.  This is not simply a political arrangement. It is a moral and spiritual commitment.

Thus, it is the sacred duty of any democratic government - as the servant of "We, the People" - to recognize the inherent worth of every citizen, to “bow down” and treat them with respect, and to use the social conscience intrinsic to the spirit of democracy to act on behalf of the disenfranchised.

In practical terms, it is essential that a democratic government recognize and rectify those circumstances in the political system in which the wealthy and powerful are given special privileges and, therefore, are being treated as more worthy.

 The Occupy Movement as moral revolution

The American Creed represents our ‘wedding vow’ – our pledge to love and to cherish each other. We have strayed from this vow many times. It remains the sacred duty of each generation to renew that vow and give it life in daily and civic engagements.

The Occupy movement arose in part because, for far too long, the spirit of democracy had been violated on behalf of the wealthy, powerful and privileged. The Occupy movement is a moral revolution, and - as Nathalie Fention and Nick Couldry have previouslly explored here -  its core moral intent is to reassert true democracy, grounded in empathy and justice for all. By reasserting the American Creed, the movement is letting those in power know that they are violating the spirit of democracy. It calls upon them to begin acting as true public servants.

Democracy literally means “people power.”  Democracy is our power to wield.  It is power born of our inherent worth and our respect for the dignity of every person, and should never be underestimated.  As Margaret Mead observed, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  We, the People, are awakening to recapture the moral stance that represents what is most precious and inspiring about our nation.  WE are ‘Occupying democracy.’

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Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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