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Occupy London. Twice.

October 23, 2011

The camp at St Paul's with Temple Bar guarded by police (photograph: author's own).

On Saturday afternoon Occupy London expanded their protest to a second camp in Finsbury Square. While the media have been suggesting (hoping) that the closure of St Paul’s Cathedral signalled the end of the occupation, the opposite is true. The number of occupiers has grown and their resolve has remained firm. Whether or not this will lead to any real change remains unknown but we can be optimistic that the protest will not end to suit the convenience of broadcasters’ news-cycles or the cathedral’s accountants.

The only criticism of the protest which is not simply the spluttering incomprehension of the 1% that any of the little people should dare to complain, is the one that they have no ideas. Of course, anyone who has had any contact with the camp knows that, quite to the contrary, there are far too many ideas. All thinking people know that the current government’s programme of cuts is bad for the economy and only serving to continue the recession. One is left to consider that either Cameron, Osborne, etc are pursuing a deliberately vindictive policy aimed at punishing the vulnerable, the poor and the under-age while lining their own pockets and those of their cronies in ‘Millionaire’s Row’ (as Dennis Skinner describes the front bench) or they actually believe that they are acting in our interests which qualifies them as grossly incompetent (if not actually insane) and unfit to run a stall at a church fete let alone our national economy. As such it is no surprise that the protesters oppose, as all rational people must, the austerity agenda. Beyond this, however, one finds expressed a dizzying range of ideas for reforming the tax system, the financial sector and the banks. It is precisely this wealth of ideas and the movement’s commitment to a fully democratic process which has meant that a workable manifesto has yet to emerge. It is a matter of some urgency that a coherent policy should appear and that, finally, a popular left movement should begin to take shape.

One reason for optimism is that the movement is driven by young people, people who do not associate radical politics with interminable dry discussions about Marxist interpretation, power struggles in trade unions or vicious infighting between Stalinists and Trotskyites. (I overheard an older union activist today express his approval of the new movement’s open debating process as compared to meetings of the old left.) The older heads in the occupy movement are mainly of the generation that grew up during the anti-capitalist protests of the late 1990s. Somebody recently was asking where this new movement had sprung from but he/she had clearly forgotten the May Day protests, Reclaim the Streets and even the peace camp in Parliament Square of just over a year ago. Like everything that seems new, the occupy movement has roots in the past and it is worth bearing this in mind if you hear anyone say ‘where were they when the economy was doing well and capitalism was working?’ (It would also be worth pointing out that the question rests on a false premise.)

The most common ‘criticism’ of the protest comes in the trusty form of the ad hominem attack (first refuge of the clueless). I would simply point out that there are people at the camp who do have jobs and that it is possible for somebody to do a day’s work and sleep in a tent outside St Paul’s. What worries me is the hostility one finds expressed. Why should a peaceful protest make so many people so angry? Many people seem desperate to find reasons to dismiss or ignore the protest and I witnessed today a man white with fury at the idea that anyone should dare to say ‘down with capitalism’ without immediately presenting a fully worked out plan for what should replace it. I fear my attempt to illustrate with historical examples the fact that, for instance, the French and American revolutions pulled things down before working out what to do next had little effect on his alcopop fuelled thoughts. Public reaction, however, has been largely positive and donations from well-wishers mean that the on-site kitchen can provide free meals to not only protesters but also local homeless people.

As well as working out a programme it is vital that the movement can reach out to the rest of the ‘99%’. Across the country there are small local campaigns against library closures, school and NHS budget cuts, and groups formed to campaign in the interests of pensioners, the disabled, workers, etc. If the occupy movement can serve to bring these groups together and convince them that radical change is necessary then it has a chance of really achieving something. This is already being done and speakers representing trade unions, feminist groups, the disabled, LGBT groups and others addressed the crowd on Saturday afternoon. The sight of a vicar (who works with the unemployed of Tottenham) sharing a platform with a representative of the Sex Workers’ Union suggests that this assembly was somewhat more diverse than our ‘representatives’ in Westminster. There has been much rhetoric about the occupy movement providing an ‘alternative space’ outside the system in which openness and egalitarianism could thrive. I must admit that this seemed rather vague and ‘hippyish’ to me before I actually visited. Having been, however, I would say that the feeling of community is palpable. To be in a place in which people feel goodwill to strangers because it is assumed that they share a common cause is quite a relief compared to the class-conscious, status-obsessed, ladder-climbing, dog-eat-dog,  I’m-alright-Jack, kick-them-when-they’re-down, me, Me, ME culture of everyday life. As long as that remains I think people will stay. They know an alternative is possible because they’re living it.


From → Politics

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