I have to first apologise about the vague title of this post, but I found it somewhat resembling the confusion on which direction these occupations might take.
While I disagree with some of what Jacob has written previous to this post on here, I will say that we must remain thinking, all the time, about what we truly want from this new tide of popular activism, and not be too quick to dismiss it as rambling and boring. Jacob mentions the new protestors almost wearing kettling as a badge of honour these days. In other words, if I can put it crassly (apologies): to define the success of their afternoon wank by how heavy-handed the police deal with it (forgive the slight pun). I have a fairly different view, one more long winded, but probably equally crass in places.
I have never been thrilled whilst in a kettle. Its claustrophobic and very provocative, but now that I have been in a few, it has just become monotonous and pathetic. There were many occupiers sat down by police lines on Saturday night, me included, which held the space as the police tried to encroach one step at a time to intimidate and squeeze people out, eventually even bringing in the dogs to bark at us at 8pm. The people who I was talking to nearby, none of whom I had seen anywhere previous, were not displaying pride or childish enthusiasm for a fight, but single-minded resilience. Almost a dull, static resilience which read to me as a simple defiant “no” with no particular “because”.
It did not seem to me that we knew exactly what we were protecting, or what we wanted, but what we did know, or at least what I believed, was that at the most base level, it was our space.
This space is important, because like an unimpressive blank piece of paper, it presents the biggest challenge but promises the ultimate reward or failure. To condescend to people who are perhaps only just getting involved, or who are more languid than one would prefer, or who were passing by and took part, even for a few moments, is failing to recognise or understand what a popular movement looks like, especially at the beginning, in this culture and at this time, with a shadow and burden of a whole international movement looming in the background.
That aside, I have my own preliminary thoughts and reservations about the occupation, but ones born from a consideration of the state complex we are trying to occupy and undo, and not necessarily the occupiers themselves. It has only been two days, and thus, it is too early to prophesise failure or success without being flippant.
In terms of circumstance, we have an often oppressive state with glib politicians who more concerned with rhetoric and vote-swings than fairness, equality and genuine socio-economic progressivism. Couple this with a police force which is rash and sometimes violent, it has the hallmarks of a police state.
On Saturday, it was peaceful and the sizeable police force deployed were clearly unnecessary to all onlookers, partaking or not. Yesterday, the police had only deployed a small fraction of the numbers, with only a few scattered around observing the assemblies and workshops with a half-interested eye.
In these circumstances, a public assembly will always be resisted by the state at first. However, if the occupation maintains its peace, at least at the beginning as it has done so far, the state has no alternative but to desist from any meaningful antagonism as shameless provocation after this period will damage the trust in those services from the public. It will also ruin the narrative of the state being the benevolent enforcer of peace, especially at this crucial time. In the short term, I believe this peace will serve the occupation well to get it functional and operational enough to explore its potential.
Now, and most importantly, what direction can the movement take here?
Representative democracy is now dead, and capitalism has killed it. I scoffed at any suggestion last night of omitting the word “capitalism” from banners or literature, treating it as if it were religious dogma. Capitalism is an idea like anything else, and ideas can and should be heavily criticised all the time. This is not naive PR, it is a sensible and fundamentally important part of a progressive agenda.
Someone mentioned yesterday that we should not refer to “the bankers” as figures of contempt either, but to “the banks” as malfunctioning institutions so that we do not alienate those who we may be able to win over from within them. I disagree. In the same way any culture is only a sum of its people, a workplace is a sum of its workers, as are the reprehensible banking practices of today the sum of the bankers who facilitate them.
To do anything else dilutes the agency these particular workers have as they go to work every day to trade on starvation and droughts while gambling with your pension. Because to be fair, it is not the “good bankers” who seem to be more visible with their work. And even if there are only a few rotten apples, these few were capable of causing a global financial crisis with trillions at stake. The system is broken, and it didn’t break itself. The few bad apples seemingly had the power to bring the world to its knees.
What is taking shape should not only be defined in the long term as a politics of dissent either. Indeed, to define the occupation as a stagnating antithesis or a counter-culture is castrating the principles of proactive deliberation and organisation. It is a common starting point to agree about what we do not want, but we must develop it into, in my opinion, an economy of dissent where what we want is expressed with real practical action, tackling problems many people feel apathetic or hopeless about. Dissent in this latter form by virtue is always practical anyway.
It has to be said, there is a broadening of the occupation taking place which is turning it into a more robust, communitarian space where workshops, assemblies and public speaking events are being organised at specific times to cover media and communication, politics, education, outreach and all sorts of knowledge sharing. It is difficult to gauge how successful any of these endeavours will be, but the level of organisation I have seen after just two days has been quite heartening.
However, let us not kid ourselves. An occupation is not simply a human forum. What the occupation must do is retain an element of spontaneous disruption to public and working life otherwise it will fall into obscurity and irrelevance with the media and the public.
As I see it in this localised embryonic stage here, it can go one of two ways:
First, in conjuring something of a “people’s manifesto” (which might even entail a people’s party movement) acting as a substratum for the ideas and policies which will gradually emerge from the occupation. Following this route will mean trying to quickly and coherently build a formal case against the system. Following this route will also mean formulising key policies which will depend on gaining public support despite no guarantee of even liaising or efficiently communicating with the greater public about them. Having something as formal as a list of demands (which they will be portrayed as, as if we’ve taken the country hostage) can also alienate swathes of people, turning the popular movement into an inwardly popular movement which will caucus off to routinely produce its own literature for future events and protests, remaining in the dreaded limbo between activism and voyeurism.
Second, something which is considerably less sexy, decisive, or calculable, but for me, infinitely more appealing (as I put it to a friend recently): a slow subversive war of attrition and disengagement with the state institution and the corporate economy through a steady knowledge diffusion process amongst the people. What I mean by that convoluted hazy sentence is simply: to do the best to keep things as vague as possible on a formal policy level, but do everything we can to undermine illegitimate authority on a socio-economic level. No flag waving. No grand proclamations. No organisation plugging. No casual leafleting. Nothing that linear or egoistic. No gimmicks. Something porous and accessible, yet not immediately high-flung and far-fetched. Looking at someone or a group and having a conversation together. Regularly. Preferably visibly too – that’s a start. Apathy is the first great obstacle, and it is not a hurdle one can leap over with a funny witticism or a strongly worded slogan, but a long and torturous mountain which will drain one almost entirely in overcoming.
Despite not knowing where the occupation movement here or abroad will end up, there is only thing thing which is problematic today as it was yesterday, and as it will be tomorrow: the absolute danger of not going far enough.
I do not want reform, or a minor rebalancing, or a 0.05% tax on trade transactions, or emergency taxes, or to break up of the banks, or to campaign against “corporatism” or “greed”, or anything mediocre which underestimates the sheer doggedness of finance capitalism and the compulsion of its sociopathic devotees (and the elected stooges) to maintain sovereign control of all acquired and acquirable assets in the private or public realm. Amending it in such ways can make the disease come back stronger and more virulent, like every “good” cancer.
Some may contend even a failure regarding this occupation will still be a positive contribution, like adding a corpse to a growing ladder of resentment upwards and onwards to our true revolutionary goal. Maybe. I wish the occupation here and elsewhere every success. Speaking on the London occupation, there is far too much at stake to be commiserative or depressed about whatever shortcomings it has at this stage. To be honest, there is far too much at stake to not be involved too.