So. What exactly is the “Occupy” movement all about? What do the protesters at St. Paul’s Cathedral hope to achieve? And how do they intend to go about it?
If you read what I will lazily call “the media” – which for me is almost exclusively online these days – you will find as many answers as there are articles. Every commentator has their own view on what it’s all about, and in the week following the start of the occupation, none managed to convey to me the single overarching vision that motivates people to start a village in the middle of a city.
One word that does recur throughout the coverage, however, is “anti-capitalist”. It’s a word I really struggle with. For me, and I suspect for millions of others who have largely viewed the world through the eyes of the mainstream media, it conjures visions of silly masks, straggly hair, multi-coloured wool, and quite often a trail of smashed windows. The protests that accompanied May Day in 2001, and a succession of subsequent summits all beginning with G, have led to a general perception that if somebody is “anti-capitalist” then they are also “anarchist” and probably “violent”.
The other reason I struggle with the term “anti-capitalist” is that even if it’s clearly defined I don’t instinctively agree with it. Google’s definition of capitalism reads: “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit”. It strikes me that that’s a fairly good definition of a system that for a couple of hundred years has served us reasonably well.
The thing is, I like McDonald’s. Not the corporate structure, but the quarter-pounder with cheese. I like Tesco. I’d rather they didn’t build on school playing fields, but as a one-stop shop for relatively cheap stuff to keep me alive they’re pretty hard to beat. I even like Shell and BP. It’d be great to be able to source my own diesel for the car I love driving, and the petrol for the go-kart that I pay a for-profit company to occasionally chuck around a track, but it seems easier to let a specialist do it, and if they want to make a bit of money from the process then that seems reasonable.
So it’s fair to say that I approach anything describing itself as “anti-capitalist” with extreme caution. Everything I have seen on the telly leads me to believe that anti-capitalists want to tear down every structure that has conspired to give me a relatively warm, comfortable and hunger-free life.
On the other hand, it’s increasingly clear that the picture that comes through the television screen only shows whatever the cameraman points at, so the only way to really find out what’s going on for sure is to see it for yourself. Fortunately, as I have mentioned before, London is an easy train ride away, so last Saturday saw me tolerating the Byzantine fare structure imposed on the people’s railways by a privatised industry….sorry, I mean pootling off to the capital to see the occupation at first hand.
First impressions count, they say, and mine weren’t brilliant. The most visible statement of the camp is a large banner proclaiming “Capitalism Is Crisis”. I had to look a few times to make sure the “Is” wasn’t an “In”, which might have made more sense as a headline, but as a statement of ideology it’s pretty unequivocal. At the time I arrived, an Egyptian activist named Nawal el Saadawi was just starting to address the crowd, on her 80th birthday. As is usual at this type of city centre gathering, the megaphone was hopelessly inadequate, so nobody behind about the third row could hear a thing. However, the sign she was holding read “Tahrir Square WC2”, which seemed a bit over-ambitious, but gave an idea of the message she was bringing.
Around the edges of the crowd listening to the speaker, there were a number of small groups sitting in circles, deep in conversation. I assumed that these were the various working groups referred to on the occupation’s website. I wandered round the camp for an hour or so, looking at the various posters on the pillars of the surrounding buildings and reading the “declaration” posted by the information tent.
Still nothing came across to me more than a woolly notion of “this is bad, let’s do something about it”. Some of the posters were amusing, some were cutting, and there was nothing in the declaration to disagree with. But concrete solutions seemed very thin on the ground.
Out of interest, I strolled round the exterior of Paternoster Square, immediately to the north of the cathedral. This area is home to the London Stock Exchange, and was the space originally due to be occupied on 15th October. Unfortunately it was rather too well-trailed, and the owners had revoked all public access well before the protestors arrived. By the time I was there, this had been reinforced with deep crowd control barriers and security guards on all entrances, although the square did seem to serve as a handy car park for a number of police vans.
Further round the corner, the front entrance to the Stock Exchange was guarded by two more police, but otherwise there was little sign of the nation’s trading centre being unduly disrupted by a protest that was supposed to be occupying it.
When I returned to the steps of St. Paul’s, a selection of protest musicians and poets were providing the warm-up act for the promised “Public Assembly”. The occupation makes all its decisions by means of a twice-daily “General Assembly”, the minutes of which are published on the Internet (or at least were – they seem to have disappeared since the weekend). I was interested to see whether the public version was the occupation addressing the public, or the other way around, because one of the noticeable things about the day’s programme of events was that it seemed to have a booming subtext of “this is us, you can come and see what we do, but you’re not part of it”. I hoped this was not the intention, and the Public Assembly seemed to be the chance to find out.
In the meantime, I watched the people who were milling around. As a very rough estimate, I’d have put the proportion of “recognisable” anti-capitalists at around half of those assembled. And yes, by “recognisable” I do mean wearing the uniform I mentioned above, be it the Mick Aston jumpers or the plastic masks. The other half were, I suspect, very much like me: interested to see what was happening, why it was happening and what might happen next.
It was only when the Public Assembly began that I started to actually understand the whole thing. I don’t know how the speakers were selected, but none of them were “occupiers”. Among others, a mother from Cambridge spoke passionately about how she had lived the capitalist dream and not noticed that the system was screwing the next generation ever further down; an activist from Tottenham explained that the periodic killing of his neighbours and then lying about it wasn’t conducive to community cohesion; and a former financial sector worker whose view was that the whole “game” was skewed to the benefit of the institutions and against society as a whole.
The first thought I had was that this was more of the same. None of the people who spoke had any real connection to each other. Each of their grievances was specific to themselves and their situation. And then I realised that this was the whole point of the occupation. If it’s anything, it’s a focal point. My grievances with life are not the same as those of a kid on a Peckham estate, or a farmer in the Yorkshire Dales, or a Carlisle librarian – but all of us can, in large part, trace their root cause to a system that is completely in thrall to the corporate sector.
I wanted to hear some of the speakers at the scheduled “teach-in” later in the afternoon, and I was particularly interested in the promised “Tour of Corporate Greed” due immediately afterwards. Apart from anything else, unlike the previous week’s blocked invasion of Paternoster Square, the details of its itinerary were unpublicised, which meant the prospect of the police either allowing it to continue or reinstating their notorious kettling tactic, and I wanted to see how things would develop.
So now seemed as good a time as any to duck out for a while, and the Fleet Street branch of McDonald’s seemed as good a place as any for a coffee stop. At this point I hadn’t seen Danny Baker and Paul Merton’s rather excellent debunking of Louise Mensch on Have I Got News For You, but watching it later it served as welcome reinforcement of my growing realisation that it’s perfectly acceptable to be unhappy with the worst excesses of the system without necessarily wanting to tear it down altogether.
I got back to St. Paul’s a bit after 3pm and was a bit surprised to not see an obvious focal point for the “teach-in”, but a quick check of Twitter confirmed that while I’d been away they’d all toddled off to sit in the shadow of the Bank of England (actually technically it was in the shadow of the Mansion House, and quite breezy with it…). I was too late for Polly Toynbee, who was the only speaker I’d actually heard of, but the person who really grabbed my attention was James Meadway.
James is described as “Senior Economist” with the New Economics Foundation, an organisation which “aim[s] to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environment and social issues”. This sounds like the type of guff that appears on so much blurb these days, but Meadway speaks with a passion and articulacy that grabs your attention and holds it. His full talk lasted eleven minutes, and I’m hugely grateful to Jon Cheetham for uploading it in full. If you have the spare time, I urge you to listen here.
If you haven’t time to listen, in summary Meadway told us that the only reason for the “austerity” currently being forced on the country and the world is to ensure the survival of the corrupt financial sector that caused the crisis in the first place. This does seem self-evident to me, but the national narrative since 2008 has led us all away from that line of thinking, and all but convinced us that it’s all our own fault for spending too much on infrastructure and public services and the legions of people who sit in council offices and hospitals doing absolutely nothing all day.
The “national credit card” analogy, so over-used and so inaccurate, has been devastatingly effective in persuading people that the ideological cuts being imposed are unavoidable. The next speaker said some interesting things about bond markets and tax havens, but it was Meadway’s polemic which had really resonated with me, and validated my earlier thought about the reason for “Occupy” and its associated events existing.
The “Tour of Corporate Greed” was due to start from St. Paul’s, so I returned there to find an increasingly large crowd forming around a samba band performing on the cathedral steps. Before long, the shout went out that the Tour was about to begin, and that the band would lead the way. It was pleasing to note that, as well as the maybe 1000 people (and that’s a very uneducated guess) taking part in the march, several riot vans wanted to come along as well, presumably to help with illumination.
As we meandered through the streets to the east of St. Paul’s, led by the samba and some impromptu footballers, pausing only to engage in the ancient ritual of shouting “Pay Your Tax” at the Philip Green-owned Top Shop, the police reaffirmed suspicions that their primary focus was protecting corporate interests by ostentatiously guarding a mobile phone shop.
The march arrived at Bank and collected those who had stayed on to ask questions of the speakers. As they joined, the band turned left and headed up Threadneedle Street. It occurred to me that if this was a tour of financial institutions then it was being run by one of those cabbies who insists that the best way from your house to the town centre is via the railway station, because the meter fails if he drives in a straight line or something, but I figured that they knew what they were doing – they were right outside the Bank of England, after all.
And then they kept on marching, northwards, onto Moorgate and up the City Road, probably parallel with, but certainly not threatening any road housing any institution of significance. The marchers and footballers in front of the band, and the accompanying battalion of police officers, resembled unsure puppies as they stopped to wait at every road junction to see where the march would head next. A man in a silly mask wandered alongside a tall Inspector, pressing him to see if he knew where we were going. If he did, he wasn’t letting on.
Suddenly, as we passed Marks & Spencer, people were running, both marchers and police, up ahead. I sprinted to catch up, and by the time I reached Finsbury Square, maybe eight tents had already been inflated, and more were appearing all the time. Massive poles in the centre of the square housed a protester each and an anti-Vodafone banner. Someone beside me gasped “they’re so quick!”. I took a few pictures, then noticed the line of police forming behind me between the square and the main road. I slipped out in case a kettle formed, and went round the back where it was more sparsely populated.
Within ten minutes the new occupation was established, and the people with the megaphones were using the “human microphone” system to convey their message: that this was a second occupation, that St. Paul’s was staying put but they needed more space, and that they were going to be here for a long time. And then they simply got on with the job of recreating their community. By the time I reached Euston on my way home, Twitter was alive with appeals for supplies, tech equipment, and moral support to build up the Finsbury Square occupation. Far from running out of steam, Occupy London was revitalising itself, and maybe building the foundations of a new democracy.
What did I learn from my day at the occupation? Something which I’d started to realise a couple of years ago.
Remember when the political parties took four days to sort out a coalition after the 2010 General Election? They must do it quicker, was the cry, because “the markets don’t like uncertainty”. The reason the Government must take an axe to the welfare state and public service provision in general? “The markets are nervous about debt and deficit”. Even as I finalise this post, the BBC is making great play of the need to agree a bold Eurozone rescue package “because in financial markets panic spreads like wildfire”.
The thing is, the job of Government is not to make life easier for corporations, markets, “high-worth” individuals, or indeed anyone else. It’s to regulate so that society functions in a way that’s most beneficial to all its members.
That might mean regulating companies or people. For example, if the best interests of society are served by having a competitive market in fast food, set some minimum conditions around employment and safety, and then let competing operators get on with it. We’ll choose the burgers based on flavour, price and convenience – and we’re quite capable of doing so, and have plenty of scope to do so.
Similarly, if it’s in society’s interest to punish individuals who kill others, or injure them, or steal from them, then Government must regulate: by making laws to prohibit the act, and by setting a series of penalties for breaking the laws.
And if you have a person, or a supermarket, or a whole industry, that turns out to be doing what they like, ignoring the safeguards and breaking the laws, then tighten them up and punish those responsible. And if your response, instead of doing that, is to pay them some more money that you’ve taken from the more vulnerable members of your society, and then to ask the culprits what they would like you to do next, don’t be surprised if some of the little people also start to ignore your regulation and pitch a few tents.
My suspicion – my hope – is that the more the Government press on with their current agenda, the more tents will spring up in the more places, until maybe the Tahrir Square analogy is not quite so over-ambitious and “the people” start to force change.
What is the “Occupy” movement all about? Nothing specific, just everything. It’s a focus for the mass of people who have realised, or will come to realise, that the system is not working for them, and needs at the very least to be rebalanced.