Tuesday, 20 December 2011

#Occupy: My heart is with you but where is your head?

Alternatively: "The blogpost where I briefly articulate why Occupy makes me ratty"

The thing that annoys me about the Occupy movement is its woolliness. Here are the new hippies - people who want peace and love and equality, but beyond that either can't agree on what they want or don't want anything else at all.

When I was 19 I went on a massive anti-war rally in London (Sat February 15th February 2003) against the invasion of Iraq - up to 2 million people, certainly over 1 million.* Afterwards, my mother looked at the pictures and news footage of people holding signs like "No war!" and "Peace" and, always wonderfully cynical, told me it was hard to take them seriously with such empty, catch-all slogans. Being 19 I said I couldn't understand what her problem was - everyone wants peace right? Nobody wants war, right?

The Occupy movement makes that anti-war rally look like a 10,000 word essay. The primary difference in my mind is that the anti-war rally, like many that took place all over the world over that day, had an aim. It was loose and populist and woolly, sure, but the unifying aim of everyone who went on those marches was that the US and UK should not unilaterally invade Iraq on the basis of lies. Beyond that - deposing Hussein, involvement of the UN - was a mess of different opinions, but everybody was expressing their opposition to the Iraqi invasion in the manner it was done.

What does the Occupy movement stand for? Equality, fairness, corporations and the rich to pay their fair share - but does it get any more specific? Well yes, in a way, but no, if you mean the whole movement. Naomi Wolf bemoaned the mainstream media's assertion that the Occupy movement "doesn't have a message", because if you just actually ask them, Occupiers will give you hundreds of messages. Well - that's kind of my point. Occupy only exists as a worldwide movement because of its flimsy lack of specific concrete demands. The more particular and specific your demands are, the less popular it is; Occupy is barely even a "movement" in the sense it's held together by little more than well-meaning ideals and a Twitter #hashtag.

When it comes to actually making changes, there is a worrying dismissal - even a touch of arrogance - of the mainstream political channels of making laws and changing the world. "The SYSTEM doesn't work for us", they say. "Why should WE deal with a SYSTEM that's given us these problems in the first place?" Well, maybe have a care for the Labour Movement at the start of the 20th century which brought maximum working hours and humane working conditions to the working class. Or the Suffragette movement which brought women the vote. These were achieved, after long struggle and sacrifice, by people who achieved radical change within the democratic system of their nation states. Is democracy broken? Is politics corrupt? Well they certainly aren't perfect, but compare the UK to Iran or the US to DR Congo, and you might find that actually yes, we have functional liberal democracies which allow public opinion to change the law and the way our countries are governed.

I wouldn't describe Michael Moore as an arrogant man - I like him, his work and his role as a social commentator. But it was dismaying to watch him give this arrogant dismissal of the mainstream system of politics, democracy and government in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC's Newsnight. Paxman asked him if the movement just wanted individual fixes to our capitalist system, or wholesale rejection of the capitalist system. Moore replied that Occupy doesn't want to tinker, it's not interested in minor fixes to a flawed system - Occupy wants to get rid of capitalism as we know it.

Really?

I expect if you ask all those people camping in the Occupy protests what they want - specific changes in order to make the world a better place - and you collated them and worked out what they all had in common, you'd find that actually, what Occupy wants are very ordinary, mundane fixes to our current capitalist system of monetary exchange. They want big corporations to pay higher taxes, and loopholes closed for the super rich (1%). They want a transparent system of funding for political parties and a fairer more representative system of government (I'm just assuming here, given the US's electoral system is even more diabolical than the UK's). They want government-funded healthcare for the poorest (well, except in Europe where we already have it) and for a stop to continual privatisation of state-owned assets and services, particularly those which provide cheaper services for the poor.

These are not exceptional demands, and they are certainly not things you can only achieve by killing the grass in public spaces.

I really want to want to be out there with Occupy. Even the nice people in Occupy Wellington, who've holed themselves up in the tiny grassy section by Civic Square - possibly the only place they can stay for any length of time and without getting into trouble with the law, because hardly anyone usually hangs out there and it's not a major thoroughfare for the public.

I'm not pleased by the violent forced eviction of Occupiers we've seen in the US, or anywhere really, and no-one should be - but the sympathy lies in these people being well-meaning pacifists subjected to unnecessary over-the-top violence, not that they are being removed from a public place they have no democratic mandate or public permission to take over.

The whole purpose of Occupy - as it started with Occupy Wall Street in September - was a sit-in protest of the financial institutions that seem to control our lives more than the democratic processes which should do. Now, the Occupy camps have moved to parks, squares and spaces outside local/city authorities - why? Because if they actually occupied financial institutions or property they'd be turfed out in 5mins flat. What on earth does St. Paul's Cathedral and the Church of England have to do with the Occupy movement? Nothing, except that a) it forced the Church of England to take a political viewpoint in full glare of the media, and b) the Church of England and St. Paul's Cathedral, like civic authorities, are both too woolly and fearful of public opinion to actually enforce trespass notices without fear of negative reaction. Financial institutions, banks, stock exchanges - they don't have to worry about it and they wouldn't wait 5 minutes before calling the lawyers in, if not the police. This is partly why I'm cynical of the Occupy "protest" - if it really was a protest, shouldn't people be physically occupying stock exchanges and the IMF rather than camping out indefinitely making DIY "universities" and "finding solutions" in whatever public spaces they won't get chucked out of?

Occupy has achieved some things. The speed of its spread as a global "movement" has been astonishing (arguably the start of truly global protests that begin and spread by social media**), and the spectacle has broken into the mainstream news and media where isolated protests could/would have been ignored. European leaders are also considering a tax on financial transactions - the "Robin Hood Tax" - which has been broached as a campaign for well over a year (in England at least) but failed to make any political traction until now. Of course you could say it's easy for European leaders (as in, non-UK leaders) to be happy about this since most European transactions occur in London. But it's a tangible change, and for me a welcome one.

However. Occupy as a political/social "movement" with aims and ideals has a lot to live up to if it actually wants to change anything, rather than camping out and avoiding the Normal Real World(tm).

To tie it up, a final, related note:

The recent NZ general election didn't deliver a shocking result, but it did shock me. Without even asking anybody, I saw 3 completely separate people express how they weren't going to vote because "there's no real choice", "no-one represents me", "it won't change anything" etc. etc. Not only are these largely bogus arguments in New Zealand which has an excellent MMP voting system, far better than the typical "democracies" of the UK and US (and actually free and fair elections unlike the shoddy farces we see in Russia, Iran, many African countries, etc.). I was shocked because these are liberal, left-leaning, outspoken, intelligent and educated people. I expect apathy and ignorance from a certain section of society when it comes to politics, whether it's the UK or NZ or anywhere really. But to have these people, who genuinely had everything to vote for against a National-led government which wants to sell off state-owned assets and mine conservation land (not to mention all the rest, e.g. rising inequality in tough economic times etc. etc.), to have these people turn around and say "the SYSTEM doesn't give ME what I want, I'M not going to vote until the system changes for ME" was very distressing. And this is the attitude I see coming from the Occupy movement, which doesn't want to engage with the political process, and doesn't want to stoop to the level of taking the fight to politicians, left or right, and thus achieve real practical gains for the poor and less well-off through our democratic processes.

[I've written this post largely without proofing it, and I've largely given up searching for links and sources like proper blogs do - think of it as an opinion piece rather than journalism. So hey, if you disagree and want to say so please do, but don't get too angry. Likewise if you agree, try not to take the side that all the Occupiers are jobless smelly scum, because that's clearly not what I've written nor what I think.]


*The week after, a regular in the pub I worked in said - and I quote - "I bet they're all fucking vegetarians!". I hate that ignorant man, whose name I never knew, even to this day.


**There are similarities with the Slutwalk movement, which really is a movement, but noticeable differences too - Slutwalk spread largely because of the mainstream media which covered its birth in Toronto, whereas Occupy has spread in spite of the mainstream media. I remember seeing Twitter updates and even watching largely uneventful live video of Occupy Wall Street in early September, and scratching my head as to why major news organisations weren't covering a major sit-in protest in the US's financial centre. By the time they were finally covering it, Occupy movements in major cities around the world were already gearing up.

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