What should the Occupy movements be asking for?

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its worldwide imitators including London’s Occupy Stock Exchange (OSX) are proving a very interesting development in the sustainability debate. At present there is some confusion as to what this movement is, who is participating and what they want. Various quite disparate people seem to be claiming them as potential allies. The situation is of course complicated by the loose structure, different priorities in different areas, and – I believe – quite strong differences of opinion within the movement itself.

I’m going to focus on the UK protest mainly, but leave aside the response of the St Paul’s authorities and the Church of England for now.

So what makes OSX distinctive? It is intended as a far more permanent and organised protest than those we’ve seen in the UK for many years, probably since the Greenham Common camp. It seems to have been learnt that a single-day march or protest, however big, achieves little. Any violence, even by a small minority, generally becomes the story, and enables the establishment to choose to write the issue off. Neither the student protests of last autumn or the summer riots have changed government policy in the slightest.

It’s too early to say whether this change of tactic by OSX will bear fruit. A yet more interesting departure is that instead of coming to the demonstration with a set of prewritten goals (constructed by the leaders of some action group, for instance), they have set up their own consensus-based leadership structure, and determined what they wish to call for by means of collective discussion. This speaks to the kind of localism agenda advocated by various thinkers, for instance the Transition movement for sustainability reasons, the “metamovement” agenda drawing upon the Arab Spring protests as discussed here and, somewhat ironically, could be seen as an example of the Coalition Government’s own Big Society. A question which remains to be answered is how this new governmental structure is intended to interact with the existing one: should it complement and co-operate with it, ignore it, or seek to replace it? (Here, of course, Transition and Arab Spring views diverge totally.)

The second question is what they will ask for economically. From the 1%/99% language it is clear that the discontent is with the dominance of a small minority of the rich together with a strong sense that the current world economic system isn’t working, but there are various narratives this fits into:

  1. a pure complaint about the lack of equality and the consequences of that, as argued by the Equality Trust
  2. that the rich are not taking their fair share of the necessary cuts from the current economic crisis, or that the cuts should not be so deep – a Keynesian approach to getting us back to growth
  3. blame for the financial sector for leading us into this depression in the first place, and now requiring us to fund them. I like Marc Stears’ phrase the failed culture of capitalism.
  4. a recognition that capitalism in its current form is unworkable, which shades into steady-state/no-growth economics. See this article for a good exposition of this view (thanks to Laszlo Zsolnai for pointing me to it) and the links to the work of EF Schumacher and Buddhist Economics.

My perception is that 3 is the majority view in the US, and 2 in the UK, but with substantial minorities spread across the spectrum, and this adds complications to the debate. This CASSE article gives more details (from a US perspective) but the disagreement is one we had at the conference too and failed to resolve: is growth in the economy still possible? If it is, then with greater equality, the 99% can see their stagnating standards of living increase again. If not, then these demands are just not possible to meet, or, to put it in a UK context, cuts are necessary, and the debate becomes one of deciding how to spread them fairly, or managing the decline.

It would be fascinating to learn whether this discussion is happening in the tents around St Paul’s. I haven’t had the chance to visit for myself and find out. It is indicative of the difficulties perhaps that the (provisional) demands of the protesters issued this morning contain very little economics, and instead call for greater democracy of the City of London, together with a commission to investigate corporate corruption.

On first sight I find these a bit surprising. The latter is an issue that needs addressing, but nothing is said that the entire system may need revisiting. And the former I’ve always seen as a historical anomaly of the kind the British seem to be happy to leave around. I don’t see the City of London Corporation as having much real influence over the corporations that occupy the Square Mile (or, increasingly, don’t) and will integrating the City into London as a regular Borough really make much odds? My speculation is that they’ve failed to agree on the economics and felt a need to claim something, so settled on what they can agree with – possibly motivated by anger at the way the protest itself has been treated by the City authorities. (There are complaints that the movement cannot agree amongst itself what it wants, and reports of dissent in the camp – these are hardly surprising, and it is equally clear that mainstream capitalism has never been unanimous on much either!)

If this is where it ends, that’s a shame. I hope there can be a greater interaction between OSX, those who have been thinking the issues through from an academic level for some time, and (though it seems unlikely now) religious and spiritual groups who want to promote well-being instead of economics growth. But we’ll see.

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1 Comment

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One response to “What should the Occupy movements be asking for?

  1. Colin Bell

    A follow-up comment to this on Facebook made the suggestion – which I hadn’t considered seriously before – that the protesters shouldn’t necessarily ask for anything, merely point out the problems and say “you’re the smart ones. How are you going to fix this?” Just read an article by Robert Jensen based on a speech he made to Occupy Austin which makes broadly the same point very well. Jensen argues that we need to analyse what went wrong to avoid making the same mistakes again.

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