Occupy LSX, real progressives and fake liberals
Like Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign or Nick Clegg’s appearance in the televised leadership debates, Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) is one of those periodic political events that sorts the real progressives from the fake liberals. As American dissident Noam Chomsky noted in the late 1960s, “Antagonism to mass movements and to social change that escapes the control of privileged elites is… a prominent feature of contemporary liberal ideology”.
Thus, no sooner had tents been pitched next to St Paul’s cathedral to protest neoliberal capitalism and the naysayers were already dismissing the committed souls braving the wintry weather. Using the same political judgement that served him so well over WMDs in Iraq, commentator David Aaronovitch glibly tweeted “The average attendance at Accrington Stanley is 1,656. I wonder if the fans all chant ‘we are the 99%’?” Elsewhere, “sometime revolutionary socialist” London blogger James Bloodworth tweeted “The mainstream media are giving the occupy movement a hearing precisely because it offers no threat to the status quo”.
This contempt for the growing global occupy movement is not shared by the likes of Chomsky, ZComm’s Michael Albert, Michael Moore and John Pilger – all of whom have publicly supported the occupations that have already spread to over 950 cities in over 80 countries. Within the UK, there are ongoing occupations in various cities including Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester and Norwich. Perhaps the most surprising message of solidarity came from the Financial Times, which argued Occupy Wall Street’s “cry for change is one that must be heeded”. Former New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges argues “The Occupy Wall Street movement, like all radical movements, has obliterated the narrow political parameters.” The occupiers’ demand to reverse the corporate coup, Hedges maintains, “is one the power elite, including the liberal class, is desperately trying to thwart.”
The first thing that struck me when I visited Occupy LSX recently was the numerous groups of people sitting and standing, deep in conversation. Sometimes these were groups of activists organising the camp itself but I witnessed four or five intense debates between passing suited workers and activists. Londoners will know talking to a stranger is a rarity in itself, let alone discussing the finer points of Marxist political thought with one.
Numbering what must be over 100 tents, with several more erected while I was there, the camp is a impressive mixture of on-the-hoof organisation and controlled chaos. “Are you one of the organisers?” I ask one man. “There are no organisers”, he replies. Who then, I wonder, has set up the food area, the recycling system, the information point, the first aid tent, a cinema and the library, complete with books on anarchism by Colin Ward and Ian McEwan’s Atonement? The night I visited there was a lecture on capitalism and war by Trevor Rayne from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! aswell as a showing of the documentary Inside Job.
Old and new politics sit side by side. “The end is nigh” warns one classic placard. “No one is anyone, everyone’s someone” philosophises another. The Socialist Workers Party are here selling their wares but so to is a man in a suit and V for Vendetta mask handing out chocolate biscuits. “You can feel the energy – there is something very special about it”, said one young woman making a banner.
So why are people here? “I am a here because I know the financial system is not working for the interests of business or people in London”, Sahil, a DPhil student at the University of Sussex, tells me. Evci, a student at London Metropolitan University and self-identified Marxist-Leninist, has altogether larger aims: “I’m here to protest against the government and the whole system in general and to show the whole world that capitalism can be brought down.” At the other end of the camp a young woman, who asks to be identified as “just a person”, says she wants to see change in the world. “I guess it sounds very general”, she explains, “but ever since I saw what happened on Wall Street and other cities I felt hope and I felt like people are starting to wake up and actually address the things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.” Her key concern is the environment, specifically marine life. “I’m here because I think all of these issues will get addressed through a new way of thinking about economic and political sustainability. All these things need to be addressed, they are all connected. You can’t keep separating everything… We can’t live without the oceans so we can’t keep destroying them.”
The occupation’s initial official statement, agreed upon collectively by around 500 people, is a promising set of demands and positions. “We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable” positions them alongside a growing section of popular opinion in the UK. As does their demand for “an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.” Supporting the student protests on 9 November and the strikes on 30 November will provide important links to sympathetic organisations and provide an ongoing momentum of action. Nevertheless, other than a general reference to the “unsustainable” system, a glaring omission is any mention of climate change. However, Occupy LSX is very much a self-correcting entity, with a message at the information point asking people to get in touch because “we want to get climate/environment emergency onto our initial statement”.
Working under the radar of parliamentary politics and built on participatory and cooperative principles, Occupy LSX is an exciting and arguably unprecedented style of protest in the UK. One wonders what Brian Haw, London’s greatest guerrilla camper and occupier, would make of it all.
Is Occupy LSX too radical to gain widespread support? Not radical enough? Will it be effective or are its aims too diffuse and inchoate? Will the occupation only gain momentum and press coverage through violent clashes with the authorities? Will the campers be able to stand the freezing temperatures? Will the usual lefty suspects exert undue influence? Can we expect a slow deflation of energy, with Occupy LSX becoming another protest that held so much promise but delivered nothing of note? These questions will be answered in the days, weeks and months ahead. Meanwhile, the best way to make sure Occupy LSX is more democratic, more effective and as successful as possible is to support it as much as you can.
Concerned citizens have two choices, according to Chomsky. “One choice is to assume the worst, and then you can be guaranteed that it’ll happen. The other is to assume that there’s some hope for change, in which case it’s possible that you can help to effect change”, he notes. “Given those choices, a decent person doesn’t hesitate.”
*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org http://twitter.com/#!/IanJSinclair