There are some issues on which I can genuinely see both sides of the argument. Occupy is one of them. Following a conversation last week with a friend and colleague I thought I’d try and offer my take on the protest at St Paul’s. The Occupy movement is – of course – bigger than this one example, but it makes sense to me to examine the one closest to home.
When i talk about examining both sides of the argument, I talk as I have before about the civic and political left, not of left and right, which is a discussion for a different commentator.
The political left have – in several places – criticised the Occupy movement for the lack of clarity in their aims. For me, this misses the main point the movement is trying to make. The civic left are quite right to highlight the complete political failure that has led not only to the credit crunch and global financial crisis, but to almost total paralysis in its wake.
While swift action was needed and taken to stop the crisis turning immediately into a disaster, since then an inertia has settled in. Project Merlin was a damp squib, and while Ed M makes timid gestures towards trying to move away from the current model, he’s so besieged by all sides every time he does so, he rarely gets further than identifying a problem we all know exists.
You shouldn’t have to be an economist to demand that something be done to change our economy. You shouldn’t have to be a party activist to demand that politicians take actions. We don’t demand of those protesting the price of fuel that they solve the thorny twin problems of climate change and dwindling resources so why ask that protestors demanding economists and politicians do better produce detailed policy solutions on this even more complex issue?
The political left are failing to comprehend what it is the protestors are demanding because it doesn’t fit the more familiar pre-2008 model of campaigning which assumed change was only possible within the static framework of a settled, successful capitalist system. Since the crash showed us all the man behind the curtain, protestors are no longer simply trying to stop or promote particular actions or policies. They’re now trying to have a wider, deeper conversation about what happens now the house of cards has fallen.
However, the Occupy movement is equally stymied by those very things that it draws strength from. While it should be recognised that polling reflects the fact that a majority believe it is asking the right questions, it does also need to recognise that you can only question things for so long before you either become irrelevant, are expected to find answers yourself or join with those who will. This should be where the civil and political Left join forces. Sadly, there is little indication from either side that this is a recognised desired outcome.
Equally, the protestors desire to be inclusive has led to them becoming a repository for a rather mixed bag of protests. Even though I accept their desire to start the discussions about the failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism, it’s pretty hard to do so when the message is delivered by people wearing Libertarian paraphernalia such as the V for Vendetta masks. It takes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to protest a lack of adequate regulatory brakes on the worst excesses of human nature as a libertarian. Are they a movement calling for better, stronger regulation – something that can only be delivered through additional governmental mechanisms – or a movement calling for less government? If there are to be successes, a choice will have to be made.
Equally, the Occupy movement is in danger of becoming a meta-protest. A protest about the nature of protest itself. Nearly all of the messaging around the row with St Paul’s have been about the right to protest, distracting from the original intention of the protest itself.
Just as the political left have failed to grasp the reality of just how unstable our existing polity has become, so too the civil left fail to grasp the serious threat to their movement of the simple threat of inertia.
Brian Haw is often cited as a hero of the civil left. But – harsh though this may sound – Brian Haw failed. Brian Haw didn’t stop a war. He lived in a tent for several years, lost everything, and didn’t stop a war. If the civil left fail to come to terms with that most simple of lessons they too could be doomed to the same failure. In the end, because he was always there, Brian Haw became easy to ignore. So while Occupy are right that the law should not time limit their protest, their own desire for effective outcomes should.
The Occupiers will be too easy to ignore if they stay but shouldn’t lose the momentum they have built. If they can come up with some intermediate steps that continue the questioning of what lies beyond market capitalism, that bring those those with a passion for change together with those with the expertise to help design that change, then this could be the moment and the movement it has the potential to be.