Occupy London: a ragbag of political conformists

The occupiers think that by eschewing leaders and ideology they become immune to dogmatic thinking. The precise opposite is the case.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

In the increasingly whiffy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, amid placards declaring ‘The End is Nigh’, apparently a new kind of politics is being born. Young women talk about ‘politics starting again’. The media cheerleaders of the Occupy movement claim it represents ‘a substantive change not just to the nature of modern politics, but to the way in which it is done, demanded and delivered’. From New York to Madrid to Tokyo, the inhabitants of the so-called tent cities proudly declare themselves ‘citizens of a new world’.

Is all this occupying really the start of something new? No. And not only because on the rare occasion when the protesters issue a coherent demand they end up echoing ideas we’ve heard a thousand times before. (Their call for tougher independent regulation of the financial industry was pilfered from the Financial Times.) More fundamentally, their globally contagious protest represents the death agony of something old rather than the birth pang of something new. What we’re witnessing is the demise of the progressive left, but – and here is the Occupy movement’s twist – that demise is dolled up as something good, something positive, where instead of addressing the vacuum at the heart of modern left-wing thinking, the occupiers make a virtue out of it.

Around the world, the occupiers are adapting to the decayed state of radical left-wing thinking, moulding themselves around the organisational and political disarray of the left. All the negative things about the left today – the lack of big ideas, the dearth of daring leaders, the withering of organisational structures – are repackaged as positives. Leaderlessness is transformed into a virtue, the enabler of a fairer, more consensual form of politics. The absence of overarching ideology is sexed up as ‘liberation from dogma’. Even the thoughtlessness of the Occupy movement, both in terms of its lack of deep thinking and the way it has spread across the globe in a fairly thoughtless, meme-like fashion, is turned into a good thing: this is ‘unthought’, declares one observer, where creeds emerge ‘without much articulation of why they’re necessary, [almost] as reflexes’.

Time and again, the Occupy movement makes a virtue of vacuity. Consider its celebration of leaderlessness. A placard at Occupy London says: ‘We have no leaders.’ Writing in the Washington Post, a supporter of Occupy Wall Street says ‘this is a leaderless movement’. The celebration of leaderlessness is meant to sound radical, proof that these people don’t need a Trotsky-style orator to tell them how to think or what to do. They’re free-spirited creatures who, in the words of the BBC’s resident Wannabe Marxist, Paul Mason, are ‘independent of any democratic structures and party hierarchies… living the dream of a communal, negotiated existence’.

Yet leadership isn’t simply about charismatic men bellowing instructions to crowds of nodding bods. Real political leadership represents the embodiment of an ideal, a goal, which people subscribe to and are willing to fight for. In eschewing leadership, or rather in celebrating the objective reality of a lack of decent leaders, the occupiers are actually turning their noses up at idealism and political purpose, at the very basic idea of having a goal and a strategy for achieving it. Indeed, the Washington Post piece says the wonderful thing about this ‘leaderless movement’ is that it doesn’t have ‘an official set of demands… there are no projected outcomes, no bottom lines, no talking heads’.

Here, we can glimpse what the celebration of leaderlessness really represents: an accommodation to the dearth of visionary thinking on the modern left. The great irony, of course, is that far from this leaderless movement being a hotbed of original, out-there thinking, ‘liberated from dogma’, there’s an extraordinary level of political conformism amongst the occupiers. They actually acknowledge this, but once again it gets sexed up, turned from an obvious fault into a ‘new way of doing politics’, a ‘reflex’ or ‘unthought’. One sympathiser writes about the phenomenon of ‘thought contagion’, where these protests are being ‘memetically reproduced’ around the world. The idea that this movement is really a meme – a meme being ‘an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person’ – is now repeated everywhere in pro-Occupy literature. Some even cite Dawkinite theories of the ‘Meme Machine’ to explain the speedy spread of the Occupy movement.

That the occupiers are happy to discuss themselves in evolutionary biologist terms, as a contagion, is remarkable. Here, they’re making a virtue out of their lack of political consciousness, borrowing phrases from tomes on culture and evolution to try to make their inability to decide what they’re for sound like something sexily ‘reflexive’.

The phenomenon of ‘thought contagion’ – where we see the same ideas, slogans and even public-speaking methods being adopted in all the occupations – is actually a consequence of the occupiers’ eschewing of leadership. Far from liberating them from dogma, their refusal to organise, to lead, to draw up and distribute coherent demands makes them susceptible to all kinds of lazy thinking. Where a group that knows what it is for is, to a certain extent, insulated from external pressure, sustained by its own inner logic and principles rather than being constantly remoulded by faddish thinking, the fantastically amorphous Occupy movement is shaped and reshaped, like putty, by whimsy, style, the needs of the media.

So, at the St Paul’s camp there was much uncritical parroting of utterly mainstream ideas, from the demand that we have a ‘knowledge economy’ instead of a manufacturing one (copyright New Labour) to the notion that material aspiration causes mental illness (a bizarre idea born in academia and since embraced by political leaders). The thing that the occupiers imagine makes them free from bourgeois ideas that have apparently invaded the masses’ brains – their rejection of leadership and ideology – actually makes them susceptible to being clobbered by new received wisdoms.

The most striking thing at St Paul’s is the protesters’ obsession with ‘process’. All they talked about was the process of organising the camp: how to recycle, contact the camp doctor, engage with the police. Unable to say what the occupation is for, they have become myopically obsessed with simply ensuring that it chugs along, that it stays put. And of course, this existential stasis also gets sexed up. As one radical reporter puts it, a ‘common theme’ in the various Occupy camps around the world is ‘the fetishisation of form and process over ideology’. A Guardian commentator implores the occupiers to ‘resist the pressures to clarify their aims’ and instead to ‘dig in and fortify their camps’. He reckons the occupiers shouldn’t give in to the ‘nutter multitudes’ – that’s you and me – who want everything to be pigeonholed.

This is a see-through attempt to repackage serious ideological disarray as a daring refusal to bow to the external pressure to define one’s objectives, to stake one’s claim. The irony is that the Occupy movement has actually allowed itself to be utterly defined by external forces, becoming impressively conformist in both its outlook and its style. Every mainstream eco-piety finds expression in this movement. David Cameron-style demands for the punishment of bankers are here, too. Placards bombard you with trendy buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘empathy’. The low-horizoned thinking of the decadent modern bourgeoisie is widespread in the camps; indeed, according to Der Spiegel, top European politicians are ‘firmly on the side of the demonstrators’. When Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto, they aimed to make ‘the ruling classes tremble’. The Occupy movement, having made a virtue of its own shallowness and lack of big humanistic vision, merely makes the ruling classes smile with patronising approval.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today