At first, like Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, some of us could confess to having had mixed feelings about the Occupy movement. For me, these may have been caused by distance and time difference getting in the way rather than anything more concrete, although other questions have surfaced about what the protesters stand for and what they could likely achieve. Still, they seem to be annoying the right people, with Mayor Boris Johnson deriding the London wing of the movement as ‘fornicating hippies’ (ironic given the number of notches on his own bedpost). Add in almost no-one’s favourite Blackshirt-lovers at the Daily Mail winding themselves up into apoplexy at the apparent emptiness of the tents (at 11pm, hardly a point at which your average protester would be tucked up with the cocoa) and it becomes easier to see the Occupiers as A Very Good Thing.
Mail-baiting aside, however, there are more positives to the movement. Never has a motley collection of tents garnered so much commentary on what it could all mean and what the outcome could be. Back to Mr Taibbi, who thinks:
This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it.
I think he is right. This is a generation up to their eyes in debt, not because they bought eighteen-hundred dollar handbags, because often they needed the cash to cover the essentials. Such fripperies as a roof over your head, a good education – or in America, healthcare – easily become millstones when the economic dice are so loaded. I see the Occupy movement as an attempt to reimagine life, to try to envisage a world run for the benefit of the many and then bring it about.
Some have decried Occupy for a focus on the economic, when there are other matters of equal importance, however activist Silvia Federici, interviewed on libcom, notes:
…the economic crisis is bringing to light, in a dramatic way, the fact that the capitalist class has nothing to offer to the majority of the population except more misery, more destruction of the environment, and more war.
Occupations, in this context, are sites for the construction of a non-capitalist conception of society…
Sharon Borthwick, writing in The Commune, highlights another important function of the Occupy London site:
There are all manner of signs, some large ones, intricately written with many paragraphs describing their anti-capitalist message. The message is spreading. Londoners are stopping to read these long missives. They are also stopping in the street to talk to each other about how their lives are being run. They are in dire need of these alternative means of information.
The ‘Big Lie’ currently being peddled is that the responsibility for our ongoing economic woes can be laid almost anywhere except where it really should be planted. The disinformation is spreading that governments or irresponsible borrowers or the welfare system was somehow to blame for banks deciding to follow a financial model more suitable to a casino. Now overwhelmingly, it is the elderly, the young and the ill who are paying for the failure of that model, as the ones who created it skip off with the proceeds. Matt Taibbi again:
People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes.
So what could victory look like? It is difficult to say, since few past movements have even got close. They have all ended up co-opted, watered down and bought off in the end. Hopefully this one has a greater chance of success because it is attracting such a broad base, however, that is by no means assured. For now, I think it is enough to have our rulers clearly unsettled by the tents, while they are used to engage in a conversation about what comes next – especially with those who claim not to ‘do politics’ – and to be creating a space where people matter more than money. To that end, perhaps the message should be moving from that of occupying the individual cities to one of ‘Occupy Everything’. At this stage, there is little left to lose except our chains.
The other likely ending for any spontaneous movement is, of course, brutal repression. ten minutes hate will be covering the authorities’ responses to the Occupy sites in another post soon.
Illustration by Barney Meeks