Who needs demands when you can Occupy?
Patrick Hayes reports from a debate last night in London where Occupy supporters dismissed the need for politics.
’Do you think you know what the Occupy movement wants?’ That was the question posed by Kevin Marsh, director of OffspinMedia, at a debate last night hosted by the Frontline Club in London. About half of the audience members put their hands up. ‘Irrespective of whether you think you know or not, how many of you support what Occupy is doing?’ Marsh, who chaired the discussion, then asked. The majority of hands went up. ‘Oh now, you see, this is very interesting…’
The audience at the Frontline Club was hardly representative of the general public, as one panellist, Order Order news editor Harry Cole, rightly pointed out. The room was instead packed with the media denizens who frequent the club, as well as numerous bloggers and activists. Yet it is indeed the case that the Occupy movement, which took off one and a half months ago in New York, has managed to generate more sympathy for than understanding of its goals.
In many ways, the Frontline Club audience, with its mix of journos, hacks and cyber activists, represented the heartland of the Occupy movement. At one point, when referring to Occupy protesters as ‘they’, Marsh checked himself, pointing out that for a lot of people in the room, ‘they’ are ‘us’. The official Occupy supporter on the panel, Naomi Colvin, pointed out: ‘We’ve been covered by everybody. Every day… Some of the people from the media team [at the London protest camp] are from a UK Uncut background and they’ve been staggered by the amount of attention we’ve had. And that, to me, [is due to] the incredible support for us in the mainstream media.’
Yet even among this home crowd there was a stunning lack of clarity about the Occupy movement’s goals. Not that this was seen as problematic. As Wikileaks founder Julian Assange explained, the protests are about a shared ‘feeling’: ‘There’s a certain feeling about what is going on and people believe in that feeling’, he declared. ‘And it’s not something that is yet concretely expressed in declarative terms but that doesn’t mean it’s not expressed in other ways.’
Assange was far from alone in playing down the importance of articulating demands. There is an instinctive feeling, a shared intuition, that this is the right thing to do, claimed Occupy supporters who were in the audience. As one put it: ‘Of course, this thing in front of St Paul’s [the cathedral where the London occupiers are camping] is speaking for everybody because everybody on an instinctive level realises that capitalism has actually reached a point where it is unaccountable even to its own people.’
Yet for all the talk of a shared intuitive understanding, when it came to trying to articulate the aims of the movement, things became trickier. Indeed, some attendees were palpably annoyed that they had to engage with this question at all, treating it as something banal. One journalist said the question of ‘what do you want’ is ‘stupid’ because ‘the answer is “we want empowerment, we feel disempowered”’.
The answer is apparently equally commonsensical for Assange: ‘What they want is equality, justice, equality before the law… that’s a very basic thing.’ Another panellist, chartered accountant and self-confessed tax obsessive, Richard Murphy, also pointed out how simple the demands are. The protesters are apparently calling for ‘accountability, transparency, pay your way, do your due, be honest, open and accountable’.
In consciously not standing for anything in particular, the Occupy movement is able to stand for pretty much everything that gushing supporters choose to project onto it – as long as it is banal and platitudinous enough to gain jazz hands – signifying consensus – from the crowd. Who, after all, could be against empowerment, being honest or equality, or any of the other vapid buzzwords many of the supporters reeled out? The demands become so general that they take on a commonsensical air and can be said to be universally desired. As a result, supporters like Assange feel comfortable asserting that while the numbers in the tents are few, they represent ‘some certain hopes and desires the 99 per cent has. The 99 per cent is not all down there, but they all want – or almost all want – them to be there.’
The Occupy supporters in the audience were keen to emphasise that the most important aspect of the movement is its participatory nature. Apparently, you can’t truly understand what they are doing through having discussions about it. No, in order truly to ‘get it’ you have to take part. As one ‘on-and-off’ occupier put it: ‘Come down and see, because you’re all very confused … just come down and see for yourself. There’s free tea and coffee.’
Colvin concurred: ‘It’s one of those things which are quite hard to communicate because it’s a participatory movement and the best way of understanding it is to join in… People criticise us for not having a set of demands which they can rebut; and they’ll feel comfortable with doing that. It’s an easy thing to do.’ Similarly, Assange observed that if the Occupy movement were to come up with ‘one central proposal’, then it would probably end up being wrong.
A young audience member also gave voice to the widespread disillusionment with concrete political demands when he pointed out that there have been lots of protests over the past decade that have had such demands but still changed nothing. She gave the example of the anti-war movement’s efforts to stop the Iraq invasion. Colvin equally dismissed as ‘ineffectual’ the type of protest that ‘involves coming somewhere, unfurling your banners, waving them about a bit and going home again’.
So to avoid having any of their points rebutted or to be proven wrong in the court of public opinion, the protesters have decided blindly to press on, demonstrating against just about anything and everything and hoping a better society will emerge organically through ‘non-hierarchical self-organisation’. As Colvin put it, ‘[W]e’re not putting together a proposal for the society we want to see. We’re setting an example by actually building a society we want to see.’
A visit to the London Occupy camp provides a glimpse into this ‘ideal society’ of obsessive-compulsive recycling, group meditation sessions, drum circles, no-smoking areas and so on. In seeing the establishment of grotty slum-type dwellings in the heart of the world’s most developed, international cities as somehow progressive, they come across as deeply anti-modernity. There is a strong sense that the current system is ‘unsustainable’, that we live in a ‘finite world’, that we need to ‘de-commodify everyday life’. As Murphy put it, while Occupy will liberate people to think differently, the greens ‘didn’t need much liberation to think differently because they already are’. In other words, environmentalism sets you free, apparently…
There were also some voices of dissent at the discussion last night. ‘Occupy-sceptic’ Harry Cole, attacked the narcissism of the protesters and said the protests have become ‘all about them’. ‘It’s become more of a process story, rather than about their overall goal.’ Another panellist, spiked contributor Daniel Ben-Ami, attacked the Occupy movement for ‘avoiding any clear kind of politics, any clear clash of interests, because it’s such a phenomenally conservative movement’. He explained: ‘If you want clarity, what you need to have is political arguments, political struggle and political debate.’
Unfortunately, clarity of demands seems to be the last thing the Occupy movement wants to achieve. This movement makes virtues out of its weaknesses. Unable to win a battle of ideas with itself, let alone the public, it remains deliberately vague, pandering to an intuitive sense that something is awry rather than appealing to people’s intellect. In prioritising emotions and consensus-reaching over rigorous debate and strong leadership, the movement has a kind of amorphous, never-ending feel to it and is more about undirected rage than a proper challenge to the system it deplores. And at the same time, it is deeply conservative, rejecting modernisation and progress. While the protesters may shy away from explicitly articulating this outlook, it needs to be identified, challenged and exposed to the light of reason.
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