Paternoster Square is not Tahrir Square, but OccupyLSX’s Goals are Clear

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on November 8, 2011
Posted Under: Capitalism,Civil Liberties,Democracy,GreenFeed,Protest,Revolution

Last week’s seminar at the Frontline Club asked a very pertinent question of the Occupy London movement pitched outside St. Paul’s. What do you want? I was surprised to see from the show of journalistic hands that the majority in the room did not know exactly what the protesters are camped out for, though, given the lineup of speakers included accountant turned campaigner Richard Murphy and Julian Assange, fresh from court after losing his extradition appeal earlier that day, it was less surprising that the majority supported their broad aims.

Self-confessed occupy sceptic, Harry Cole, one of only two voices of dissent on the panel, accused the protesters of possessing an overwhelming mismatch of ideas.

“If you’ve got a movement that is calling for a realignment of capitalism, having speeches about climate change and Kurds within the space of 10 minutes, it’s not working,” Cole said.

More baffling opposition came from Daniel Ben-Ami, who described himself as of the left, but lost me when he called the protesters a deeply conservative movement loved by the establishment.

It fell to Murphy to give the most passionate defence of the movement, offering a rare charisma I had thought was bred out of accountants at playschool.

“The message from Occupy is you guys have got it wrong,” Murphy said. “After 30 years of neo-liberalism, which has actually suited both left and right in many ways, we end up with a social movement which is actually saying hang on a minute, what this is about is creating a geography of dissent. A space where people can say we are looking for alternatives ideas because our right to dissent, our right to even think has been crushed.”

“Yes it’s messy, but so is reality,” Murphy added.

Assange, confessing he had “had a bit of a busy day”, played up the importance of new forms of media and criticised the role of the mainstream press as the reason movements like Occupy were not in place five years ago.

“We now have ways to bypass the mainstream press,” said Assange, whose own means of bypassing the mainstream press, Wikileaks, has already helped topple governments, “pouring oil on the fire” that fuelled the Arab Spring.

From the speeches, particularly that of activist Naomi Colvin, and from contributions from the floor, it was clear that Occupy, despite the disparate groups that came together to form it, knows what it wants. A stand against cuts and tax avoidance and for the reform of a broken capitalism; a stand for the world’s poorest against the excesses of the world’s richest.

After my lunch breaks spent at the camp and marching on Westminster, swapping caps between journalist and protester, I find it hard to see why anyone could accuse the movement, messy and messianic as it is, of not knowing what it wants. They are persistent in their cause and assured of their politics – turning on, tuning in and dropping out in true radical spirit – and in that I can only wholeheartedly support them.

Equally, when Colvin talked of government not working in the interests of the general population and of her concern with financial services out of control, I found it hard to disagree. What worries me slightly, however, is the tendency of some protesters to link the movement to the Arab Spring.

“It’s one manifestation of a global emancipation movement that began with Egypt and Tunisia,” said Colvin.

Those make for stirring words, powerful, pretty, but also pretentious. It’s a pretention exemplified for all to see in the sign sitting opposite St. Paul’s reading ‘Tahrir Square EC4M’.

I can see what Occupy is trying to do and in showing solidarity with the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the millions oppressed across the Arab world yearning for freedom from the yoke of dictatorship, they have a noble cause.

But where are the bullets and the cavalry charges? Where are the arrests, the beatings and the killings? I do not envy the Occupy protesters shivering in tents towards Christmas. But Paternoster Square is not Tahrir Square and they are not putting their lives on the line trying to get into it. I’m sure no one in the camp means to belittle the struggle for democracy in the Middle East, or lay claim to a struggle as dangerous, but as destructive and exploitative as modern capitalism is, as immiserating as its failings have been for the most vulnerable people in this country, the Arabs paid in blood for their emancipation, while the St. Paul’s protesters have been given a protected space by state and church – at least until the new year – in which to air their rightful grievances. To forget that, or to elevate a lengthy unseasonal politically charged festival to the status of a fundamental struggle against a sovereign that is trying to destroy you for speaking out against it, smacks of pretention.

That said, what they have done, in creating a space for discussion and democracy, linked with movements across the world, with a clear sense of what they are for and who they are against, is create a powerful symbol that politicians cannot afford to ignore.

As Sun Tzu famously wrote, “if know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles”. I suspect there will be more than a hundred battles ahead. Capitalism will not be over by Christmas and the camp may be gone by Easter. But the Occupy movement has tapped into a mood that stretches much further than a few hundred tents outside a famous London landmark. And, if indeed they do this once speak for the 99%, then that mood is not going away anytime soon.


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