Jan Aart ScholteShimri Zamaret

Interview by Laura Bullon-Cassis, photography by Patrick Jackson for The Global Journal

We are living, we are told, through an ideological crisis, gridlock, or vacuum. If these words have become increasingly popular since 2008 and almost commonplace after the economic debacle that was 2011, they should not be underestimated. The term crisis is telling of the epoch we live in, an epoch of necessary societal redefinition, and compels us to take a historical perspective on the great political, economic – and cultural – paradigms of modernity to raise the obvious question of what comes next. But 2012 is not 1929, 1945 or 1971. The world in 2012 is multi-everything: -polar, -layered… Here comes the gridlock: not only do the one-size-fits-all solutions previous crises generated seem inconceivable nowadays, but the system is now entrenched in far more than politics and policies. It takes place in values and habits, in the consciousness of individuals as much as politicians. 

It may be the term vacuum that yields the most power. Because it creates pessimism and resignation, and because it qualifies those who are engaging politically with the uncommon issues of our time: if we are indeed at a time of ideological vacuum, then the Occupiers and their supporters are merely a symptom of the crisis and the gridlock. Understood as a whole, that was the impression the movement left on most observers: inarticulate, unfocused, and paradoxically un-politicized. Yet perhaps this holistic approach itself is problematic: if 2012 differs from other epochs in many respects, then so should our lens of understanding. In an attempt to gauge the ideological component of the movement, and to enquire into how to approach the phenomenon from a journalistic or sociological perspective, I met with Jan Aart Scholte, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, and Shimri Zamaret, global activist and former Global Politics classmate of mine at the London School of Economics. Two militants, two profiles, a shared involvement in the Occupy protests and in the Building Global Democracy (BGD) initiative, set up in 2008. Our conversation will take you through their definitions, trajectories and political projects.

What is global governance and do we need more or less of it?

Jan: Global governance can be understood in two ways. One, as regulatory institutions and processes at the global level, which today extend beyond the old international organizations to involve many other worldwide bodies. The second perspective refers to the governance of global problems, be they financial, environmental... Yet the governance of global issues isn’t always done through global institutions alone. Global governance also includes nation-states, regional organizations or local governments as they engage with global problems.

Shimri: It will be interesting because we have two different perspectives that we will see throughout the interview. As an activist, I think of global governance as global decision-making, and if you ask me whether we need more or less of it, I would say it depends on what kind of decisionmaking. If we talk about decision-making that is made by unaccountable elites and corporations then I would say we need less global governance. If we mean democratic global governance then we need a lot more of it, because we need to deal with global crises. The manifesto that was endorsed in Occupy London reads: “On October 15th, united in our diversity and united for global change, we demand global democracy, global governance by the people and for the people. Every African and Asian is equal to every European and American: our global institutions must reflect this or be overturned.” We refer to the WTO, the IMF, multinational banks and the UN Security Council as global Mubaraks: these are very strong terms, but it is important to be provocative in order to get people’s attention.

Jan: I agree. However, democracy by itself is not enough. A legitimate system of global governance would also promote justice, moral decency, cultural creativity, peace, and other core values that are related to, but also different from democracy.

Shimri: But if you think of democracy as a process, not as an end goal, then it helps create a counter-hegemonic coalition, which is what we should be looking to do.

Jan: But democracy does not always promote ecological integrity or peace. It may actually encourage the opposite, depending on what the demos believe at any moment in time. We don’t like talking about the trade-offs of democracy, because they raise all sorts of complex moral and philosophical issues. Democracy is an end, but there are other ends beside democracy.

How have you come to personally care about these issues?

 Shimri: For me, it’s a story that starts in prison. I was in prison in Israel for two years because I was a conscientious objector and refused to enlist into the army: my mother says I had too much time to read books there… I started wondering whether my experience was unique or symptomatic of something deeper. It became clear to me that the fact that the UN Security Council is undemocratic is one of the major reasons of why the Israeli occupation is allowed to continue, that war crimes are allowed to happen elsewhere because countries use their veto power, and that a lot of international institutions are also completely undemocratic. That is how I came to think about global democracy: the Israeli occupation and my being in prison was a symptom of an undemocratic system.

Jan: My existence from birth was very globally hybrid and mixed. I was born in the Netherlands, the son of a mother who grew up in the Caribbean, of a father who grew up in Indonesia, I emigrated to the United States when I was four, felt out of place and nomadic there, studied in California and Geneva, then ended up in the UK, from where I’ve worked in 50 countries. I’ve always been very much associated with things global: it was the place where I felt most comfortable in my identity. As for my preoccupation with social change and social justice, it has important roots in my becoming politically conscious during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States: civil rights, second-wave feminism, decolonisation, Vietnam, etc.

Concretely, what would a global democratic system look like?

Jan: Oh dear, you will get two very different answers from us! The debate on global democracy has, to date, mainly taken place in closed discussions among Western political theorists or by activists who use the phrase without having a precise sense of what they mean by it. Do we want an understanding of global democracy that comes from academics who are not talking to practitioners, who only come from the field of political theory, only come from the West, and who are mostly white middle-aged professional males? It is a very curious conversation to be having about global democracy when you don’t actually involve most of the global demos. I think of global democracy as something that happens across the scales of social and political activity: you can do global democracy in your household, in your locality, through your national parliament, the European Union and its processes, global social movements or by engaging the UN. You don’t do global democracy by sitting in your own bubble, in NYC, Washington or Geneva: you have to engage in a transcultural dialogue with people who experience global politics in highly diverse ways. In a global democracy, you would also have to have a massive redistribution of resources globally, as democracy implies equivalent possibilities for all people to participate and control. Finally, I would link global democratic practices in the future to a more ecological construction of people’s rights and responsibilities. So far, we have – dangerously – neglected the relation of democracy to the wider web of life. As for how these principles of global democracy would look in concrete practices, I am not yet sure. However, Shimri and I differ on this point inasmuch as I would urge that we take time (20-30 years) patiently to build up the right institutions, whereas Shimri and many others would say that we can’t wait that long.

Shimri: We need to start the discussion now!

Jan: Many people who want the institutional solution for global democracy right away fall back on democratic ideas inherited from the modern liberal nation-state. So they advocate for global civil society, global citizenship, global human rights and global representative institutions… I am not necessarily against those points, but we should carefully think through whether they are adequate for the task and whether we could also take inspiration from other political cultures.

Shimri: But we don’t have time! The world is in crisis. Also, I worry that often when we say we need time we end up with a discussion that is not concrete.

Jan: Give it time! Discussions of global democracy as a concentrated focus, and in terms of precise institutions, started only in the 1990s. Even the political theorist David Held, a pioneer in global democracy debates, was not yet onto the idea in the late 1980s. The BGD program started in 2008, and by 2012 we have already achieved a statement of quite concrete principles. I think that is pretty remarkable! So give us about a decade or two to set up viable ideas and institutions. If you take ideas of a global parliament to indigenous peoples of Amazonia or the 1.3 billion Chinese now, they are not going to buy it and we will be no closer to global democracy.

Shimri: That is what is great with BGD, because it is a mixture of in-depth thinking and people like me who say “come on, let’s get on with it!” People are in the streets now, they need concrete suggestions! Three suggested models are global referendums, e-global democracy and a global parliament. E-democracy is really taking shape: at Occupy, we are working on the idea of a global square, i.e. a place where people can discuss and then make decisions electronically. Global referendums originate in Bolivia and a lot of social movements in Latin America support them. For example, the global environmental summit in Cochabamba, which is something like a World Social Forum on the environment, called for a global referendum in their concluding remarks. Finally, there is the idea of a global parliament, which is the one that went the furthest: there is a campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly that has support in the European Union Parliament, the Pan-African parliament, the socialist, liberal and green international congresses… 19 current/former ministers and prime ministers support it, as well as Boutros-Ghali, the former head of the UN. These three models are a good way to start the discussion.

Jan: Though there are other very concrete initiatives going on that go alongside movements for global parliamentary assemblies and so on. For example, the World Social Forum is also very much already a “global square” with real effects - it affects its participants’ consumer behaviour, the way they run their households, their voting behaviour – but the WSF doesn’t stand outside the WTO headquarters and say “give us a seat at your table.” Also, we don’t want to be relying too much on the parliamentary angle: we already know from experiments in regional parliaments that levels of public interest and rates of participation in the elections are very low. Not surprisingly, endorsement of the idea of global parliaments comes especially from parliamentarians, as they equate their own processes with democracy. What I would want to see is support for global parliaments from grassroots electorates. However, I suspect that if you conduct a poll on a global parliament in the street here, you probably wouldn’t get too many people on board.

Could you tell us more about Building Global Democracy?

Jan: Building Global Democracy is the initiative of a network of people across ten world regions with enormous cultural, age and social diversity, who come together to explore what democracy might mean in relation to the governance of global problems. We try to do that by asking questions: what does global democracy mean? How do we include all affected people, so that global democracy doesn’t become the voice of the privileged? How do we redistribute world resources to create a more democratic situation? How do we learn to work positively with cultural diversity in global democracy? Of course in such a diverse group of people as BGD you don’t get just one but many definitions of what global democracy is. And that is the way it should be: you shouldn’t reach a consensus on what global democracy is, because democracy means people constantly debating what it means.

Shimri: To me, the most important element of what we do at Building Global Democracy is bringing the global South into the conversation about what global democracy means and how we can advance it.

Jan: If you look at the material on the BGD website and compare it with most of the literature that exists elsewhere on global democracy, it is very different. When you bring people together from ten world regions, in equal numbers, and you meet not in London but in Delhi or Cairo, suddenly those who wouldn’t say anything in a Western-dominated meeting express themselves. I would invite your readers to look at BGD material and explore alternative imaginations and possibilities for creating global democracy. I think they would be inspired. To what extent can activists help “build” this global democratic system?

Shimri: I will give a one-sentence answer: without global civil society it will never happen. If global civil society doesn’t step up to the challenges in creating global governance for and by the people, it will never happen.

Jan: In the first BGD book, Building Global Democracy? Civil Society and Accountable Global Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2011) we carried out 14 case studies of different global governance instruments and looked at what implications civil society activism has had for democracy, for transparency, for consultation, for evaluation, for redress and accountability. We generally found that civil society acting on global issues has helped, but that, to date, these contributions have been much smaller than they could and should be. Also, the “global civil society” that engages with global governance on the whole reproduces the inequalities that we find in society at large: it is North dominated, it is male dominated, it’s urban dominated, it’s white dominated…. So no one should be complacent and think that, just because they are participating in global civil society, they are therefore democratizing global politics.

What about the role of academia?

Shimri: I think the role of academia is to engage with the general discourse, and that people working in research should be doing even more – not to keep the discussion about global democracy in an ivory tower between academics, but to get it outside into the streets, to social movements, to NGOs, and especially to the global South.

Jan: Academics have a role in building global democracy. First, academics are good at clarifying concepts, at exploring alternative understandings of concepts, at stimulating debates about concepts and ideas. On the other hand, academics are not generally very good at mobilizing the public in Occupy protests and the like. Second, academics can locate, identify and publish concrete instances of global democracy promotion, to raise awareness of the many things that people do and can do. Finally, academics may have access to power centers more easily than most social movements, so academics can be a channel for opening up political space for the voice of social movements to be heard, say, in governments, global organizations and so on.

Should we think of the Middle-Eastern revolutions in the same way as the Occupy protests?

Shimri: The Occupy protests and the Arab Spring of 2011 have two elements in common: one is social justice, and the other is reinventing democracy: the financial crisis obviously had something to do with it, and the social media contributed. My favorite signpost in Tent City looked exactly like a London street sign and said “Tahrir Square”: I think the inspiration came from the Middle East, and we think of it as a global wave of protest. That said, the two are very different situations: you cannot compare an Occupy protester like me with someone demonstrating in Egypt, because our lives and the level of oppression we face are incomparable.

Jan: I agree. There has been a roughly concurrent mobilization in a lot of places, and that gives Occupy a somewhat global character. However, not all the participants in these movements are very globally oriented in terms of the networks they want to create and the goals they want to achieve. For example, the recent mobilizations in Moscow are in fact marked by considerable nationalism. But the various movements around the world have shown a common concern about democracy as being problematic in their different contexts. In addition, many people in these movements are conscious of a specifically global problem of democracy, in that the systems and regimes that govern us globally have democratic failings. The anti-globalization movements around the turn of the century, and movements towards a New International Economic Order in the 1970s, were not as acutely aware and articulate about democracy as a problem of global governance, as we are now. That is what makes the current movement distinctive.

Do you agree with the way the Occupy movement has been portrayed in the media?

Shimri: The way the media has portrayed Occupy is very superficial. It is amazing to see how most of the media actually miss what happens inside social movements. The main point missing is that Occupy is the first global movement to actually talk about reinventing global democracy: historically that’s a very significant event. Some people get it, for example Papandreou, the former Greek Prime Minister, but most people completely miss it.

Jan: I would not expect particularly deep, probing and revealing coverage of Occupy by the mainstream media, so I am not disappointed. One thing I note is that on the whole the mainstream media’s reaction to Occupy has not been dismissive, as generally occurred with regard to the anti-globalization protests of a decade ago. There is media skepticism, but it is more in the vein of “these people have their hearts in the right place, but they haven’t thought through their proposals enough.” But the media – and governing elites generally – are not contesting the motivation of the Occupy movement, the idea that there is something to complain about. And that is quite interesting, because in earlier times neoliberals would have replied that history is on course to achieve prosperity and peace for all, that their policies have set a path for progress that should not be disrupted. But now, after the financial, ecological and other global crises of recent years, people have the widespread feeling that the neoliberal system of global market capitalism isn’t working. I think that has kept the police at bay and bred acceptance for the tents of Occupy since the 15th of October. Maybe I am too optimistic, but I do think that the Occupy movement has had more political space than previous protests with similar grievances.

Shimri: It is also transcontinental, for the first time, and not about going to Summit for five days like we used to, but about setting up a permanent place and building continuing networks. And then there is technology: we do global conference calls all over the globe.

Jan: This is me being the older guy: we have seen a lot of resistance in the past. For example, mobilization against structural adjustment programs was big in the South from the 1970s onwards. People in the North just weren’t paying attention to this activism. What is different in Occupy is a new generation of protesters, the democracy focus, and the new tactics that are used with social media and so on. And because it is globally connected in this way, it is also less jetsetty. It involves a lot more people acting within their local communities instead of paying a 1500 pound ticket to Porto Alegre or Bamako for the global gatherings of the World Social Forum.

How diverse are the Occupy protesters and how difficult is it to reach any form of consensus on a global scale?

Jan: I would say don’t expect consensus, because it is impossible to reach consensus on anything more than inane platitudes that don’t lead to anything concrete. The World Social Forum tried to put together a consensus document and it didn’t work: they abandoned the attempt after a year and then declared they celebrated diversity and vigorous debate. The aim should not be consensus, but getting people to think and act.

Shimri: We do manage to get consensus in a few documents: look at the Building Global Democracy or the OccupyLondon websites. The process is definitely very difficult. We’ve had to think about consensus-making processes quite a lot in the last three months, and one of the interesting things about this form of decision-making is that it is very susceptible to new ideas: if you base a group on consensus, and consider everyone equal, people listen to new ideas. Occupy protesters indeed have very diverse profiles. At one extreme, you get people that have basically fallen out of the neoliberal system, and for whom it’s not about the politics, but about survival – getting free food and accommodation in a society that does not provide them. At the other extreme, you find people who have not been impacted by the financial crisis and are here for the politics. Most are somewhere in the middle. It is very, very difficult to organize social movements with this variety of people but I don’t think there is a better way to do it than what we do.

What will 2012 hold for the Occupy movement?

Jan: If someone had asked at the beginning of 2011 what the next year was going to bring for protests, it would have been a very lonely soul that came even close to predicting what actually happened in the ensuing months. So giving any precise prediction of what is going to happen in 2012 would be very brave. In general terms I could suggest that Occupy will need to enact major events in order to sustain the momentum, maintain the optimism of the people involved and keep the interest of the mainstream media. There is broad popular support for these protests; if the movement is organized and carried out in a way that taps into that sympathy, then there is room for the mobilization to continue and grow. But historically that has proved not always easy to do.

Shimri: I think that the call for global democracy is going to continue and become in many ways stronger. Hopefully, we are going to run a big global democracy campaign around the upcoming US elections. There are also talks about another global day of action in May, the first general strike.

To conclude, do you have a message for activists around the globe or for the readers of The Global Journal?

Shimri: I would invite them to check out the Building Global Democracy website (www.buildingglobaldemocracy.org). 2011 was the year that democratic global governance became a popular demand for the first time in history: people who care about it should join in, wherever they are. The crises we face today are global, and if democracy is the least bad system for decision-making, then what better way to address them than democratically?

Two weeks later, on the site of a recently raided Occupy DC, between signs of “a ground-zero Mosque”, references to a failed capitalism, the environment or Orwell’s “1984”, I pondered on my conversation with Jan and Shimri in London and the fundamental misunderstanding between the public and Occupy: what one interprets as vacuum, the other celebrates as the embryonic form of a system that can ease the gridlock and ultimately solve the crisis in a sustainable and just way. I also mentally underlined the value of bottom-up sociological and journalistic approaches that somehow mirror Occupy itself: in paying attention to the anatomy of individual activists such as Jan or Shimri, ideological components of the movement shine through and a wider spectrum of the political debate can be heard. That, too, is democracy.


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(Photo in Frontapage © Neil Cummings)