Gulliver’s General Assembly
I should here observe to the reader, that a decree of the general Assembly in this country is expressed by the word hnhloayn, which signifies an exhortation, as near as I can render it, for they have no conception how a rational creature can be compelled, but only advised, or exhorted, because no person can disobey reason, without giving up his claim to being a rational creature.”
—Jonathan Swift, from Gulliver’s Travels (Part 4)
The classes for my study abroad program in London ended on December 19 of last year. On the same day the lease for my dorm room expired, I moved to the flat of another journalism student I’d met earlier in the semester and slept on his floor.
Since October 15, the first day of the Occupy London protests, I’d spent a relatively large amount of time observing and writing about the movement (while still reading the real news about it in the dailies). But after making a friend with considerable clout as a result of so many visits to the main camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, I finally thought about pitching an original story idea to an online music and culture publication based in the UK.
A group of the protesters had, about a month prior to my own relocation, moved into and taken over an abandoned office block belonging to UBS, the immensely rich and influential Swiss bank. My friend, who is a journalist himself and now works to uncover injustices taking place within the City of London Corporation, was at that point living in the basement of the building, which had been quickly renamed the Bank of Ideas. And since the squat had not been receiving much press in December but was, I felt, still vital to the movement — and considering my own housing issues — I accepted his standing invitation to sleep there. That became my pitch.
I would live in the Bank of Ideas for one week as a member of the Occupy community. About 30 people were residing there by the end of the month. I would observe and comment on the nature of daily life in the building, as well as give a sense of the direction in which the protest as a whole was heading as 2012 approached. Above all, I hoped to gain a new personal understanding of the movement and its constituents — one that only total immersion, down to the most mundane functions, could bring.
My support for Occupy London up to that moment had been a mix of what I can now call legitimate reasoning and naïve excitement. I was attracted not only to the idea of bringing massively corrupt financial institutions to justice, but also that of being among people who were simply acting against the status quo, whatever that is. But what I was most captivated by was the concept of the general assembly — the movement’s egalitarian decision-making process to which each member of the community could contribute freely. I believed, upon choosing to enter this new environment in late-December, that my appreciation for this process would only increase once I gained the chance to become more intimately involved in it.
The idea for my piece was accepted, and so I moved from my classmate’s floor to an air mattress laid out in a spacious and debris-filled office in the basement of the Bank of Ideas. My work began immediately; aside from the other observations I took into account, I attended the general assemblies steadfastly each day, one in the morning and one in the evening. And what I saw at those meetings ended up depressing me in surprising (or, in hindsight, unsurprising) ways, as well as removing the mask of weird idol worship I’d unconsciously placed over the whole face of the Occupy movement.
Essentially, the general assembly — which, of course, has ancient roots — was in this case being implemented as an alternative form of governance. It developed only as a means to facilitate the overriding goals of a massive protest. And it fit perfectly the modus operandi of Occupy, in that allowed all comers, regardless of background or status within the movement, to voice an opinion or declare opposition. But, in providing what seemed like a faultless process, it too quickly became not a means to achieving the next step, but an end in itself. The longer I stayed at the Bank of Ideas, the more I realized that the people around me were more focused on reaching consensus on petty issues than about finding out and disseminating new information relevant to their cause. The general assembly, based on a sense of reason and equity that the protesters believed to be lacking in modern democracies, had become too effective, and for the wrong reasons. And once the process had cemented itself, it was impossible to challenge the structure. How could one? It would be like disowning the movement and its underlying principles.
But I wasn’t the first person to realize this. Jonathan Swift, perhaps with a vision of something like Occupy in mind, beat me to it by almost 300 years.
Back here in the States, I was academically compelled to revisit Gulliver’s Travels last week. While reading Part 4, in which Gulliver is stranded on an island populated by the Houyhnhnms — a race of highly intelligent horses, capable of both speech and intellectual reason (so much so that, soon enough, one finds them to be obviously narrow-minded) — I was struck by the description of their own decision-making process. It was also called a general assembly, and it exuded the same dogmatically negative qualities as the ones I found at Occupy.
What’s even more interesting about the comparison is the fact that, like me upon my first visits to the camp at St. Paul’s, Gulliver is immediately entranced by the rational wisdom and peacefulness of the Houyhnhnms. Although he never ends up feeling the sense of disillusionment I did, the general assembly still leads to trouble for him; as a result of a vote at the great meeting, Gulliver is forced to leave the island and return to the “savages” of his own kind.
Swift describes the general assemblies as a kind of utopian minimalism; governance that is called to meet every fourth year in order to fill any needs a certain tribe might have in terms of supplies or food. It’s perfectly effective, of course, in suiting the society of the Houyhnhnms. As Gulliver relates: “Wherever there is any want (which is but seldom) it is immediately supplied by unanimous consent and contribution.”
But, even though the general assembly is really only mentioned in passing, we can see its faults alongside the mental limitations of the Houyhnhnms and their culture. Not only are they wise beyond compare in terms of everyday affairs, they also fail to comprehend anything that lies outside their ability to rationally perceive and study it. And although they decry Gulliver’s descriptions of humanity as images of idiots, they themselves fail to show the openness needed to integrate him into their community. Above all, as Swift notes, there is never any need for a Houyhnhnm to compel one of his fellow citizens to do anything, since the rule of reason is so absolute that it has become an end rather than a means to happiness: “…because no person can disobey reason, without giving up his claim to being a rational creature.”
Swift was trying to tell us something about perceived societal solutions that, for all their political and cultural knowledge (for some of them, that is), the members of Occupy seem to have missed. It’s that good solutions come with a cost to be weighed; that an approach of pure reason taken to its extreme can make its citizens blind to further development, both as individuals and as a community. And no matter how attractive that rationality might seem at first, a closer look — especially in times of transition or uncertainty — tends to reveal a lack of inner focus that simply serves to take the place of all the problems that particular worldview seemed once to have fixed.
The most dangerous part of it all is the fact that, much like in today’s socioeconomic systems of the mainstream, there’s no way out once the process has become ingrained. Once consensus becomes the decision itself, it’s hard to recapture the reasons for which that decision was sought. But even the illusion of true justice will always be a hard thing to turn one’s back on.