Matt Allison looks in to what Occupy London has taught us.
This Tuesday saw Occupy London cleared largely without violence in the middle of the night.
Eye reports suggest that resistance was at a minimum, with only 20 arrests made at the camp which has been stationed outside St Pauls Cathedral since October 15 . It appears for the large part that many of the campaigners were resigned to their fate after their court appeal was turned down and were happy to acquiesce with the eviction process.
So what does this tell us about the nature of the Occupy protest and its achievements?
The scenes on the steps of St Pauls on Tuesday night suggest that the movement had run out of steam; faced with overwhelming opposition from church and state, the protesters felt it best to cut their losses, move on, and regroup for another action in the near future.
I believe the largely peaceful nature of the eviction demonstrates that the protesters think a large part their job is done: mission accomplished now let’s go home as it were.
Cause for this kind of sentiment may seem misplaced, after all, the revolutionary demands emblazoned on flags and banners around the site have certainly not been met. However the story of the Occupy movement is more complex and more subtle than simply trying to enact revolutionary change.
The underlying mission of the whole Occupy movement was not just to bring to account what they see as corporate cronyism on the behalf of our governments and financial systems, but rather to alter the terms of debate in the country about what the nature of our economic and financial system and its relation to actual human and social value.
In this it appears that the protesters have been largely successful.
As one of the many thousands upon thousands who paid a brief visit to the camp since it was established in October (as well as the Bank of Ideas around the corner in Finsbury Park), I was struck by the educated, erudite nature of many of the protestors and the enlightened message they were putting across. I was warmly welcomed, offered food and drink and invited to browse the camps libraries and enter into a spontaneously convened, democratically conducted and very lively discussion about the camps aims and objectives.
I left feeling challenged and enlightened, as have doubtless many others since October.
Herein lies the real value of the Occupy protest at St Pauls: In provoking a crisis of conscience within the Church of England, which culminated in the high profile resignation of two senior members of the St Pauls clergy, Occupy made issues of social and economic justice front page news on a daily basis.
Admittedly the stories carried by the Metro and the Evening Standard were overwhelming negative, but important work was done in activating a popular backlash against the bail-out of the banks with public money and the subsequent continuation of lavish bankers bonuses. I sincerely believe that the public outcry which last month resulted in RBS chief Stephen Hester declining his annual bonus would have been nowhere near as vociferous had it not been for the important work of the Occupy protest camp in infiltrating the psyche of the average Londoner.
The issue is distilled perfectly on the simple message scrawled in cardboard and brandished by many of the protestors not just at this camp but at others in London, and across the globe (where incidentally Police tactics have been far more draconian than here in London). ‘You can’t evict an idea’: a simple parting salvo from the protestors.
They are right, what has been started at the Occupy camp is a process of debate and dialogue about our financial system, its place in our society and its relationship to the greater social good which will long outlive the camp itself.
Bankers, conservatives, politicians- all of whom in the boom years of New Labour would not have thought twice about the huge bonus packages offered to city high flyers now have to rightly justify where money is being delivered in our society and why. I believe this is in no small part on account of the part played by the Occupy camp in raising the profile of the issues of social inequality and the gross excesses of the unregulated financial market.
What is important now is that we do not let this societal change be reversed as the economy gets back on track and memories of the worst days of the coalition fade (providing of course current coalition policies do not tip us straight back into recession).
Secruritized financial system?
In what I believe to be the most worrying development of recent months, the debate over the financial system has been ‘securitized’.
Let me explain what I mean by this. Constructivist theorists concluded that security was not an actually existing state to be acquired or lost. Rather the term security itself had a discursive power. It could be used by governments to take an issue off normal political agenda and meet it with exceptional measures. This was what happened in 2001 when George Bush waged his war on Terror and Tony Blair joined him. A security threat was evoked to justify the blatant disregard of international law and human rights norms which followed.
What we are witnessing in current debates about business and finance is very similar. It is assumed in debates that ‘investment in business,’ ‘economic growth’ are really existing things, either to be prized or squandered, whereas they are in fact , like the concept of national security, a discursive act. Politicians are using terms like ‘anti-business’ in the same way one would deploy terms like ‘anti-Western’: to construe some kind of existential threat to the good of our country. The line of argument follows ‘We can’t begin regulating banks because then they will just move elsewhere.’ And the debate ends there.
What concerns me is that nobody is asking what the actual utility is of vast sums of money changing hands in our capital is, when banks will not even meet their renewed lending targets. As soon as one presses the matter he is ‘anti-business’ evidently out to damage the wellbeing of the country. In this way business and finance is being used as a discursive product to remove these issues from the arena of sound debate and place them instead on an exceptional field of national security. This needs to be resisted at all costs.
To resist securitization on the part of our governments we must subject the concept of security itself to a rigorous critique, asking: What is security? Who is it for? How is it to be achieved? And at what cost?
We must subject the concept of financial security to the same critique. What exactly is a good financial model? Who does it benefit? How is it to be realised? And at what cost? In doing this we expose the gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power which have underpinned the boom years of economic growth in our country. Yes we have attracted investment, yes we have become a global hub for finance, but what has been the actual good of these things to the majority of the population? Increased taxation is one answer certainly, and the foundations of a profitable economy.
But in this age of austerity these two facts can no longer be said to be true. Banks are offering a poor return on the taxpayer ‘investment’ and they are refusing to lend to small business in sufficient quantities. So they may remain in this country and continue to conduct their casino affairs in our capital, but this in itself does not achieve any actual good for our country. The notion of financial security has thus been deployed as a successful discursive act to shelter the city culture from the scrutiny it deserves. We must harness the spirit of Occupy (if not endorse its methods) to make sure that the cultural change which has placed the city culture under the spotlight is not reversed.