The movement has been better at saying what it is against than at offering solution
The Independent, Thursday 23 February 2012
When I heard yesterday that another court had ruled gainst the Occupy London protest outside St Paul’s cathedral, I had to think for a moment. After dominating headlines for weeks last autumn, the camp hasn’t been in the news much lately and I’d almost forgotten it was still there.
It isn’t that the economic crisis has gone away, but a raft of other stories has seized our attention, including much more ferocious protests against austerity measures in Greece. When some 20,000 homeless people are sleeping on the streets of Athens, the impact of a mostly voluntary encampment in another country – I know some homeless people are there as well – is inevitably reduced.
The Occupy London camp faces being dismantled after yesterday’s appeal court ruling that the protesters cannot challenge an earlier eviction order. I’m sure the protesters and their supporters are angry about the decision, but I’m not at all clear what would be achieved by remaining in situ. Despite the elevated rhetoric that accompanied the setting up of the camp, its main impact was always symbolic – and that’s lessening by the day.
To begin with, the presence of tents outside St Paul’s was new and striking, pitting makeshift structures against the backdrop of one of London’s most majestic buildings. Once the Church authorities got involved, it was possible to interpret the scene as a metaphor for the struggle between a species of homespun decency and the institutional power of the Church, even if that represented a diversion of energy away from the protesters’ original target, the City. But familiarity has its effect: in Exeter last month, I didn’t even notice the protest camp at the side of the cathedral until someone pointed it out.
The protesters outside St Paul’s say they’ve dealt with the sanitation problems that accompany such temporary living arrangements, although I expect some people who live and work in the area will be glad to see the camp go on those grounds alone. There will always be romantics who disregard such matters and believe the camp offers a devastating critique of greed and casino capitalism, but the political reality is less easy to decipher. I’ve even heard supporters of the Occupy movement credit it with getting the world talking about financial injustice, at a moment when news bulletins were already full of little else.
Occupy London struck a chord because it seized attention at a moment when popular anger towards bankers, politicians and financial institutions was white hot. The removal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was a belated acknowledgement of a public mood that has long wanted to see individuals suffer for the financial anxiety people currently feel, whether they fear losing their own jobs and or see school-leavers unable to find one. But such gestures are problematic, producing a spasm of satisfaction which quickly dissipates.
For many of its supporters, I suspect, Occupy London represented exactly that feeling that something was wrong and somebody ought to do something about it. It gave their anger and anxiety a focus, temporarily dispelling the powerlessness individuals feel in the middle of a huge financial crisis. I was struck by tweets from camps around the country which showed a sense of real community emerging; when people are fed up and broke, everyday life in a camp – setting up cleaning rotas, deciding what to eat, explaining the ropes to new members – has a very high feel-good factor.
The risk is that those activities become an end in themselves. A distrust of conventional politics means that cumbersome pseudo-democratic structures emerge, endowed with grand titles but slowing down decision-making in a way that would paralyse a functioning democracy. These utopian models might work for 30 people or 300, but they’re useless for countries where someone – preferably an elected representative – has to take decisions about more important matters than whose turn it is to collect the rubbish.
If the Occupy movement was willing to accept that its impact has been mainly symbolic, I wouldn’t have an argument with it. Last autumn, the protest outside St Paul’s captured a widespread sense of anger and provided images that cheered people up, as demonstrations and marches have been able to do since time immemorial. (I remember how cheerful I felt on the big march against the Iraq war in February 2003, and look where that ended up.) But it’s been much better at saying what it’s against than at coming up with practical solutions, and that’s one of several reasons why people have lost interest in it.
Direct action is a great way to grab headlines and popularise slogans, which Occupy did very successfully towards the end of last year. But direct action has its limits and, in this country, the movement came up against them some time ago. Other world events –a threatened default in Greece, carnage in Syria – have taken over the headlines, while a growing popular movement against the Government’s ill-conceived NHS reforms has come to the fore in the UK. One of the most important lessons in politics is knowing when to go graciously.