Tag Archives: Utopia

Occupy in The Idler

I wrote this in the Spring, shortly after OLSX eviction. I  just received the printed copy of The Idler (the ‘Utopia Issue’) which contains it. I was tired and emotional when I wrote it, stayed up overnight and poured it all out. I’d write it differently now. But it’s not too embarrassing.

 

As Occupiers pick themselves off the cobbles of St Paul’s Churchyard, dust their shabby knees and peel off the thirteen grimy layers of thermals, they wonder – ‘Was it worth it?’

The Occupy London Stock Exchange camp was a social experiment, a chance to keep that festival feeling all year round, a free lunch (one hundred and thirty four free lunches, breakfasts, dinners and nights in one of the most expensive locations in London, actually), an opportunity to be interviewed by journalists, students and student journalists twenty times a day and to squabble in public while a crowd echoed every word through a ‘human mic’. It was reality TV without the TV but despite its problems and absurdities, this encampment was beautiful, radical and establishment-rattling. It was mediaworthy for at least two months, quite an achievement in a speeded-up-media world. It was also a transformative experience for many involved and, on the whole, a great PR and awareness-raising opportunity grasped with both hands and squeezed, hard.

The Establishment was not only rattled, it was forced to engage with the protesters. The Church, the City of London Corporation, the Financial Services Authority, the Judiciary, the mainstream media and the police force had to recognise the existence of the encamped ruffians. The mantra ‘they don’t know what they want’ became tired after a while and even the Judge, the Bishop and the Telegraph admitted that relevant questions and valid points were being asked and raised.

While bankers’ bonuses and politicians’ cuts were the hot topics that helped to launch the movement in Britain, Occupy is not a single-issue or local campaign. The Arab Spring, Spanish Indignados’ movement and Occupy Wall Street set the scene for mobilisation in London.

Occupy considers the big picture and attacks causes of injustice rather than symptoms. Lobbying, gambling, rapacious consumption, oppression, corruption and warmongering… all these are pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that Occupy hopes to solve. Governments, corporations and financial institutions are in cahoots and the bottom line is a screwed up value system which puts profit before people and planet. Once the pieces begin to fit together it becomes apparent that change is needed on every level – personal, local, national and international – if justice and sustainability are to be achieved.

The ‘anti-capitalist’ label was immediately applied to the protesters and led to one of the first divisions within the Occupy London camp. ‘Are we or aren’t we anti-capitalist?’, eventually led to – ‘well, what is Capitalism?’ There are almost as many answers to that as there are people to ask but on the whole, those who identify with the anti-capitalist label describe capitalism as necessarily exploitative. They see it as a system in which fatcats callously use and abuse the labour of subordinates to further their own greed and gains. Those who identify themselves as capitalists, on the other hand, see it as a system which allows trade, social mobility, entrepreneurship and rewards for hard work. They compare it favourably with failed communist systems. They can’t see an alternative unless we go back to the stone-age.

Many self-avowed capitalists believe that in recent years capitalism has gone wrong and agree with the anti-capitalists that a tiny minority have raked in profits without the corresponding hard work and market success that could perhaps justify such riches. In a pure capitalist system, no bank or business would be ‘too big to fail’. If those in charge made mistakes, they’d lose money and power and status in just the same way that a small business owner would. When governments use taxpayers’ money in bail-outs, capitalism is transformed into ‘corporate socialism’. This is a system so ludicrous that it’s little wonder people are camping on cold city streets across Europe and the US. Put simply, this is a system whereby the wealthiest one percent, drunk on their own power and greed, crash economies leading to suffering for everyone except themselves… then insist we prop them up so that they can carry on carousing.

The row between Occupiers and St Paul’s Cathedral was a blessing, forcing Christians to reassess their religion. “What would Jesus do?” was possibly the best slogan of the campaign so far. ‘You can’t evict an idea’, ‘this is just the beginning’, ‘evict us and we multiply’ and ‘my tent for your bonus’ were also rather good. Jesus was a protester and St Paul a tentmaker; radical vicars made pilgrimages to the tents to make these points. An elderly Christian lady held an all-night vigil in support of the Occupiers on the steps of St Paul’s and was overwhelmed with offers of tea and blankets from the protesters. When Canon Giles Fraser resigned, a frenzied media reported that occupiers and members of the public were in tears on the cathedral steps. Further resignations followed, the reasons ’embarrassment’ and ‘untenable position’.

Quakers, remarkably swift to reach consensus on publicly supporting Occupy, took the moral and spiritual high ground and appropriated the steps of St Paul’s for their silent meetings. Wise elders to Occupy’s stroppy teenagers, the Quakers have not attempted to preach or instruct their younger comrades. Without judgement, without co-option efforts, Quakers sit peacefully beside occupiers, watching them grapple awkwardly with the consensus decision-making and horizontal organisation that works so smoothly in Friends’ Meeting Houses. The Socialist Workers also joined occupiers in the churchyard but being less graceful in their support were politely asked to tone it down a bit.

There was a wonderful acceptance of inexperience in the early weeks at the Occupy camps; of not knowing all the answers, of testing practices and learning from experts, of skill-sharing and swotting. The Tent City Library filled up with donated tomes. Hundreds of inspiring individuals – famous, infamous and unknown – held seminars and workshops in Tent City University. Vivienne Westwood, Alan Moore and Jesse Jackson each shared their experiences with the fledgling movement. Dr Rupert Read, philosopher of economics, recommended we put trust in credit unions (or our money under the bed), and convinced many to rethink their stance on stimulating the economy, since perpetual growth on a finite planet is an impossibility. Read suggested rationing to mitigate climate change, pointing out that barely anyone dares voice the prospect of rationing, for fear of the reaction of a population self-centred and short-termist enough to prefer climate chaos to forgoing the latest gadget or donut. On a lighter note, a certain idler delivered a sermon on the evils of usury, and a rousing rendition of Anarchy in the UK on a tin-can ukelele, while wearing a very fine, vintage-inspired suit. This went down very well.

As time went on and winter set in, the court case City-of-London-Corporation versus persons-unknown-of-a-tented-persuasion dragged on and the Occupy camp at St Paul’s became increasingly reminiscent of a medieval village. The eager students of the golden autumn gambolled back to their real lives and society’s rejects shambled in to take their places. George Barda, litigant-in-person defending the camp, suggested to the judge that poetic justice brought these sometimes challenging individuals into the heart of the financial district to tug at the CoL Corporation’s trouser cuffs. It was a real community under canvas at St Paul’s – simultaneously gritty and romantic – but as time went on it became increasingly dysfunctional.

While some were healed by the unconditional love practised in the camp, others took the piss. Mingling with the activists were twenty-first century brigands and highwaymen, seductive agents provocateurs and masked members of the English Defence League. Journalists stalked through the camp seeking melodrama, or dug into activists’ pasts, or embedded themselves in clammy tents for a fully immersive experience, all of us uncertain whether their aim was to understand or undermine. Through it all the church bells marked time, marked the days and nights counting down to eviction, marked the treadmill of legal proceedings. Each court date was a catalyst for adrenaline highs going nowhere, leading to outbursts of emotion, disturbance and disruption.

As in all medieval communities wizards and poets, seers, thieves, jesters and fools were abundant. Storybook caricatures came to life and played out their symbolism in a real life role-playing game. The fool in particular can get away with anything – but pays that back with his ability to relieve tension through timely application of humour. Some of the Occupy fools were fraudulent and refused to pay, causing others to flag up an unfortunate omission in the camp – half-rotten tomatoes were cheap and abundant at vegetable markets but there was no Occupy village green and more importantly, no stocks.

This autonomous London created on a narrow stretch of slab was Neil Gaiman-esque. Campers were woken by the human alarm clock of feet pounding pavements. They crawled from damp lairs to slip invisibly in and out of shopping centres, cafes and pubs, searching for toilets and showers, abandoned jam scones and hospitable wifi zones. Absurd characters slithered out of cracks in the city and set up home in pop-up tents, howled at the full moon hanging low over the Cathedral’s dome then disappeared leaving only obscure whiffs and new batches of conspiracy theory behind them.

Paranoia, politics and passion jostled for supremacy in the wee hours while daylight introduced a wider range of topics. Every hour of every day in every corner of the camp conversations were held about democracy, Syria, Iran, ethics, war, psychology, ecology, religion, revolution and, of course, the economy. Debate as spectator sport was practised, with human rings forming around conversationalists, a hush descending as everyone… listened. How special is that? “Is this what the Greeks, with their wreaths and sandals, did for evening entertainment?” an English boy asked and a Greek girl replied “It’s what the Greeks are doing right now”, reminding debaters that this isn’t just about St Paul’s, or London. These bubbling-ups, these mini-uprisings, are going on all around the world.

In cahoots with veteran squatters, direct action teams took control of empty buildings. One, owned by investment bankers UBS, became the Bank of Ideas, a post-apocalyptic labyrinth of interconnecting rooms, stairwells, accessible rooftops, derelict basements and underground carparks. Hippies of the Rainbow Tribe wandered the concrete corridors muttering “it’s like Doom, it’s just like Doom”. Others leapt like wild animals in an urban jungle from roof to roof, or organised secret Radiohead gigs and tea-parties in the cellars.

Occstock, a miniature one night festival held at St Paul’s in January, saw punks with snow-frosted pink mohawks dancing beside curious lawyers and bewildered Kosovans. Musicians and poets mingled with city folk, rough sleepers and anarchists. The cobbles were reclaimed for real that night – by Occupy, by artists, by the snow which blurred boundaries between highway and pavement, city land and churchyard. The OccStock message was “We can start to change society for the better by reclaiming our time, space and freedom bit by bit and step by step.” As occupiers shovelled snow at midnight, the smiles spoke to that.

A small Islington square was claimed as a wannabe eco-village while a nearby defunct Magistrates Court became Occupied Justice. Squatters’ rights were claimed at the court and a peace flag hoisted from the rooftop. The Occupy Veterans’ Tank of Ideas pulled into the walled carpark behind and a New Year Cabaret party was held. A theatrical performance saw protesters and party-goers thrown into the cells by a wicked ‘Establishment’ Judge, before reappearing on the grandiose staircase to juggle, dance and recite political poetry to a rapt crowd. This may have been the only cabaret in the world where the hecklers called “Process!” and “Mic Check!”. The grand finale – aerial acrobatics on ribbons strung from a stained-glass dome above the Hall – left the audience awestruck. While such acts of derring do could be discounted as distractions, revolutions tend to be grim and tiring, so a little light relief is difficult to begrudge. Wobbly-legged and vertiginous on the highest pinnacle of the Court’s roof, five storeys above neon-lit pavements and bathed in the lilac-pink of a winter dawn, Occupiers could be forgiven for thinking this was already a new beginning.

Shortly after, black-on-white A4 prints displaying a bold and simple message appeared amongst the tents in St Paul’s Churchyard. My Tent for your Bonus, the posters declared. Was it pure coincidence that the very next day Stephen Hester hit the headlines for turning down a £1 million Royal Bank of Scotland bonus? Perhaps he felt he was missing out on the zeitgeist and fancied a spot of winter camping. Four stalwarts of Occupy carried an erect sacrificial tent through the streets of London and with due ceremony presented it outside RBS headquarters. Despite the presence of mainstream journalists keen to record Hester’s reaction to this gift, the RBS boss chose not to accept it in person. Occupy London enjoyed the jest in the gesture but were keen to point out that the odd bonus rejection does not a new system make.

Idealists became a little disillusioned on discovering that the camps and squats reflected our broken society – especially the grubbier elements of it – all too accurately. Be the change you want to see, set an example, live the Utopian dream… well, it didn’t quite work out like that. As time went on there were squalid instances of addiction-fuelled theft and violence; there was infighting, and unseemly bickering over money, and passionate arguments over the ethics of using a petrol generator to power the revolution. Occupiers are human and imperfect and they bit off a little more than they could chew when they set up an all-inclusive, time-unlimited city centre shanty town.

Despite misgivings on the part of some Occupiers about the viability of longterm camps, a feisty battle was fought in court. Economist John Christianson claimed that the public debate stimulated by Occupy is absolutely necessary and must be given space to continue. Historical use of the area around St Paul’s for ‘folk moots’ was discussed. George Barda struggled to articulate the enormity of the dangers we face on a global scale – climate change, resource scarcity, mass poverty – and to impress on Mr Justice Lindblom the urgent importance of the Occupy message. Litigant Dan Ashman argued that conventional forms of protest have failed, making Occupy tactics vital. Pressing social need and the desperate importance of the Occupy work were the main thrusts of the camp’s defence. These should, the Occupy legal team stressed, weigh heavier in the scales of justice than petty health and safety qualms and the minor inconvenience of pedestrians. Tears were visible on more than one Occupiers’ cheek, as hands waved in sombre ‘jazz’ agreement.

The CoL Corporation appeared somewhat confused about what they were objecting to – was it the protesters, or the vulnerable and sometimes challenging people who’d found community in the encampment, or the physical tents? It was tents they were seeking to remove, enabling the protesters’ QC to raise a chuckle when he asked whether it was the tents getting drunk, making a noise and committing the crimes that the City complained of.

Four and a half months after the encampment hunkered down on the cobbled pathways around St Paul’s the eviction – inevitable despite the justness of the cause, despite references to Magna Carta rights, despite calls to take the case to the European Courts of Appeal and despite rather a lot of ‘Freeman’ bunkum – took place between midnight and dawn on February 28th. Shortly before midnight a flurry of tweets, texts, emails and bicycle-couriered messages conveyed that “…police are massing at London Wall with vans, riot gear… eviction is imminent!” Later tweets included ‘The protesters have built a fortress’; ‘They’re holding firm on the barricades’; ‘It’s not a fort it’s the kitchen shelves they’re standing on, ffs!’; and ‘kitchen shelf warriors arrested for obstruction’. A wonderful piece of youtube footage shows a protester known as Thor being yanked from the shelves by an officer of the court, ‘accidentally’ pulling a bailiff off with him.

With the shanty town gone and after a period of grief, supporters of the Occupy movement began to refocus. Capitalist, socialist, anarchist or none, most of these supporters agree that a tinkering with the current system – shoe-horning in a few extra regulations – is not enough. Radical overhaul is required and will only have a chance of being achieved if Occupiers join forces not only with unions, students and public sector workers but also with business owners and entrepreneurs. Taking a majority of the self-avowed capitalists on a journey into a better future… that must be the goal and it shouldn’t be too difficult when even city workers admit to being jaded by a system that awards 50% pay rises to executives who – like bankers, and unlike true entrepreneurs – take no real hit on the downside. Whether or not capitalism as a system is irretrievably broken, what we have is selfish cronyism which allows reward for failure.

One solution would be to oblige individuals and corporations to devote a significant proportion of their resources, energy and profits to serving their communities. Small businesses and individuals could ‘pay back’ on a local scale; the big boys would have to contribute on an international scale. The penalty for avoidance would be crippling taxation or, ultimately, criminalisation. The energy of the smartest people could be harnessed for social and environmental good and funds could be directed to where they’re really needed. In one version of utopia corporations and banks could be exonerated if they focussed their brainpower and resources on solving (instead of creating) global problems.

Trade is ancient and can be fun. Haggling in markets, creating a product that others appreciate and want to buy, exchanging labour for goods – these things are not inherently evil. If all unethical trading were outlawed we could enjoy the marketplace without destroying the social fabric and the natural world. How to ethically trade? Well, such ideas are not new, and yet they could gain credibility via the Occupy movement. Workers’ Co-operatives, Social Enterprises and Community Interest Companies have ethics enshrined in their constitutions to cover environmental and social considerations, workers’ rights and animal rights. Fairtrade regulators, the Soil Association, Radical Routes and other bodies already exist; these could be networked and expanded to oversee businesses and to alert a fearsome inspectorate (something like HMRC but with more teeth and fewer loopholes)should breaches of ethics be suspected. Fines large enough to act as a serious deterrent could be imposed for a first breach; subsequent breaches if proven to be intentional or due to negligence would result in forced company closure, with assets to be seized and put directly into redressing the problems caused.

If these ideas seem rather prescriptive, perhaps workers’ co-operatives could lead by example, using carrots rather than sticks to demonstrate that caring and trading are not mutually exclusive. Workers’ co-ops are an anomaly. They exist within the current system while embodying its antithesis. Maybe that’s why governments have ignored them. Despite a history dating back to the Industrial Revolution and the existence of over 2000 UK-based workers’ co-operatives, there is no legal definition of a co-op in Britain. Recognition may be about to increase dramatically, as 2012 is the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives.

The UN is pouring resources into promoting the co-operative model as an alternative means of doing business, while raising awareness of how invaluable co-operatives are in reducing poverty, generating employment, enhancing social integration, increasing sustainability and promoting democratic principles… while also strengthening economies.

We’re led to believe that competition is necessary in the market-place; that business is all about cut and thrust and cutting costs; that bosses boss and workers work, the former are worth far more than the latter and the consumers’ role is to get ripped off. Co-operatives challenge those assumptions by enabling people to organise their own housing, work, social centres or consumer collectives and thus to avoid exploitative landlords, bosses and retail experiences. They are set up by members to benefit members, who are all equal. Co-operative principles ensure responsibility to the wider community and the environment, emphasising the ‘people and planet before profit’ message at the heart of the Occupy movement.

A classic image: Protesters carrying banners demanding jobs. Perhaps some left school or college only to find themselves stumbling uncertainly into a no-hope future. Others face redundancy. Some are long-term unemployed, in benefit traps, increasingly unemployable. Jobs are the obvious answer but they’re not always what they’re cracked up to be. Exploitative McJobs aren’t what those marchers really want but “A living wage and meaningful, creative employment that I can be proud of” doesn’t fit neatly onto a placard.

Workers’ co-operatives are an alternative to oppression in the workplace. They are not an alternative to hard work and often require a degree of commitment and responsibility far higher than that demanded in more conventional employment. The payback comes in making ones own decisions, co-operating with likeminded people, being in a work environment that is not all about the money. In a workers’ co-op, the wellbeing of workers, communities and the environment is more important than chasing profit. Sales translate into fair wages and are used to improve both workers’ conditions and service provision for customers. Successful co-operatives often put money back into their communities or environmental projects, donate to charities or support other co-operatives.

The Occupy movement – with its emphasis on equality, transparency, democracy and sustainability – is completely in tune with radical co-operatives. Focussing less on humanity’s competitive nature and more on our co-operative tendencies would go a long way towards addressing some of the issues the Occupy movement is attempting to tackle. Already there are buds and branches of Occupy that could work within the co-operative model. A newspaper (The Occupied Times) and a record label (Occupation Records) may soon be joined by a publishing company and a radical lawyers co-operative. These are just a few examples of why Occupy is not simply a protest or a campaign – it’s a movement for radical change which – as it evolves – is generating practical alternatives to the exploitative and destructive groove that many of us are stuck in.

Transition town activities, eco-villages, permaculture projects, guerilla gardening, indymedia, alternative currencies, barter systems, freecycling and make-do-and-mend clubs are all occurring already. Some are new, some not. Occupy doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel but can shine a light on these initiatives and use them to demonstrate that our desire to live in a world of social and economic justice and environmental sustainability is not a ridiculous fantasy.

There’s so much for Occupy to do. It’s all inextricably connected and while there’s not even a neat soundbite never mind a ready-rolled neat solution, the global movement has added a dash of hope to the grim spectre of an endless austerity age. Occupy insists that things can change, that it is possible to challenge the powerful and that a Tent City, fun though it may be to literally squat on the Establishment’s doorstep like cheeky ragamuffins, is not necessary in the longterm. In the US and Spain, Occupiers have moved away from permanent encampments and are now getting their voices heard via flash mobs, marches, strikes and blockades. Even those who leave the camps and return home to their ‘old lives’ often find that having been part of a radical community changes how they live in the future. Thus protest camps are like dandelions gone to fluffy seed; evictions are a puff of wind and soon… there may be tenacious radicals on every street.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,