The Occupy Movement From Liberty to London
If you’re part of “the 99 percent,” you’ll understand that sometimes just sitting around not going anywhere takes a lot of effort. In the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, not going anywhere has become a proto-herculean task. The greatest challenge is not the sneering opprobrium of the tabloid press, nor the protracted negotiations with church authorities and the metropolitan police, who hover like hornets around the small tent-city in the middle of London’s financial district. No, the greatest challenge is the cold.
Camping out on the bare flagstones of St Paul’s Churchyard, the cold bites into your spine and makes your joints stiff and painful. Behind an enormous banner reading “Capitalism is Crisis,” the free back-rubs being distributed by an activist who is also a masseuse do little for stinging fingers and wind-reddened faces. In the makeshift kitchen, which has been collecting donations from supporters around the country, you can find mothers with young children, visiting union activists, teenagers with tech skills who have been roped in to run the online live-stream—all sheltering from the gnawing winds howling around the courtyard at the foot of the great church.
Across the ocean, in New York’s Liberty Plaza, torrential rain—and recently, snow—has pummeled the occupation that helped launch the Occupy movement. In late October, temperatures dropped dramatically, just as the New York Fire Department decided, in a fit of bureaucratic sadism, to take away the generators. Occupiers have woken up in the small hours, their bedding soaked and frozen, and jumped straight into unpaid work at the medical station, or in the library, or in the kitchens. They look tired, and ill, and elated.
For all the questions that continue to be raised about the Occupy movement more than a month after it started—who are these people and what are their demands?—one of the most overlooked is: what, precisely, makes hundreds of thousands of people crazy enough to stay for days on end, sleeping and working in the open, surrounded by police poised to arrest them on the slightest pretext? In recent weeks, I have visited Liberty Plaza in New York, the 15th of October day of action in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, and occupations across the United Kingdom, including the protest camp on the steps of Saint Paul's Cathedral. I have walked through the streets of familiar and unfamiliar cities, only to find myself in what felt, every time, like the same space, the same bright, busy haven of dissent. The salient features of these occupations are similar to the edge of eeriness. There are the young people camped out in circles, smoking and chatting. There is the bustling media tent, where serious-faced youth hunch over laptops in nests of looped cables, drafting press releases, updating feeds and relaying messages of support to and from other occupations. There are the comfort areas, where any weary traveler can find a snack, a blanket and a friendly teenager to explain why aggressive market finance does not lead to trickle-down prosperity. There are the large, drawn-out General Assemblies, operating a process of consensus-based participatory democracy that sounds immensely complicated and boils down, in practice, to several hundred increasingly frustrated people waving their hands at each other until they decide who cleans the dishes after the revolution. There, too, are the same faces: the poor boy from the dead-end town with his student dialectic and his eyes hungry for change, the world-weary labor activist excited about the left for the first time in years, the bohemian in extravagant trousers reading revolutionary poetry to the nearest amiable female, the girl in the media tent who knows how to talk to the press, the serious single woman in her thirties chivvying the skinny daughter who she hopes, one day, will have a home, an education and a future. They are trying to live together whilst they claw out space to dream of a different society, and are not put off by the cold, the exhaustion, the constant police intimidation. They are working, as Scottish writer Alasdair Gray put it, "as if they lived in the early days of a better nation."
And yet, there are important differences. In New York, the energy is new, recalling the first occupations, a year ago, in the UK. "This is actually happening!" screamed a placard on the front lawn of an occupied university in London at the time—and it’s that same sense of sudden, miraculous actuality that one sees in the United States. “It is happening. It is a happening," wrote Eve Ensler of Liberty Plaza in October. Pinch yourself: it's real. In Britain and Spain, however, protest has been political reality for over a year, and that changes the nature of what is being done in the protest camps.
The British wing of what has come to be called simply “the movement” has not, so far, been gentle. In London, a city that has seen bank storefronts shattered, government headquarters vandalized and livid red slogans scrawled across the walls of the Treasury, the August riots are still smoking on the edge of memory. The staunch pacifism of the Occupy movement has generated controversy among some activists. But after months of retreat, arrests and relentless tabloid smears, the peaceful energy of the sit-ins at St Paul’s Churchyard and Finsbury Square is lending a new moral focus to the British activist movement - taking on the ancient Cathedral and forcing its authorities to choose between the bankers and the protesters. Cathedral authorities initially demanded that the peaceful anti-corporate demonstration leave its nice clean pavement, but was forced to rescind after many national news organisations noted that a certain notional Nazarene carpenter might not have behaved in the same way, given his documented views on moneylenders and temples. In one of the world's greatest financial secrecy jurisdictions, ordinary people are finally forcing open a space for alternative economic thinking.
In Spain, five months after the massive square occupations in Barcelona, Madrid and other cities that drew worldwide attention to the frustration of the indignados, you can still see “15M” spray-painted on the walls around Puerta del Sol. The “15th of May” movement itself, however, has become fragmented, and while the protest on October 15 was enormous and enthusiastic, it suffered from a lack of direction which is not yet, contrary to popular perception, a major problem in the British or American movements. As the Spanish general election approaches, some factions within the 15M movement have been attempting to hold a “people’s referendum” to decide on collective demands, while others reject the notion of a vote at all, believing that decisions should only be taken in what has become the traditional format of large, consensus-based people’s assemblies. Time and again, activists in London and Madrid told me that they consider political parties to be serving only the interests of the “1 percent,” and the mantra “we are the 99 percent” is, at root, about democracy. The consensus process of group decision-making is a psychodramatic enaction of democratic utopia, in which all voices are equally represented and heard.
The local differences in these occupations are belied by their global context. Opening across the world like magic windows into a possible future, these small protest camps are a global response to a problem that exceeds the remit of nation states. The laws of high finance are cruel and abstract, and they are not laws that ordinary people can defy by breaking them. People cannot forcibly regulate markets or impose transactions taxes on unethical trading, although they can come together to prevent home foreclosures, a tactic that has had some success in the provinces of Spain, where local people's assemblies have continued to meet and enact demands after the May uprising. Instead, the laws that are being broken every day in the Occupy movement are the unspoken laws that govern how people live and think under what passes for representative democracy in the developed world.
To live in an occupation is to live in an alternative economy, where food, shelter and healthcare come free, necessary work is done without material reward, and space is opened up to collectively imagine alternatives to neoliberalism. When commentators deride the Occupy movement for not having demands, they seem to willfully overlook the fact that they are living the greatest demand of all: the demand for space, space to live differently, space to think differently.
Part of the genius of the Occupy movement is the occasionally crude way in which it can manipulate the narrative: the blunt symbolism of young people without futures being beaten, kettled and arrested by the forces of law and order underneath the shadow of the palaces of global capitalism has got the popular press talking and thinking about the totality of economic justice and who the police are really supposed to protect. In these circumstances, with absolute insistence on peaceful protest, any victory any police force hopes to gain by a violent eviction can only be pyrrhic, and this is where the new American movement sets an example for other, more established activist cultures. While US labor unions, NGOs and members of the public have been most speedily and effectively supportive of the Occupy movement, in Britain, meanwhile, the traditional left has been far more reticent to show solidarity.
For those who have grown up or grown old in a society where, in philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s estimation, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” these occupations look like a vision of both. Life is hard but hopeful; occupiers look like refugees from the lassitude of late capitalism. Here there is life beyond the next economic crisis, where human beings can live meaningfully together and begin to consider the possibility of a sustainable future.
In order to imagine that future, the protesters here have proven prepared to sacrifice their own. Quite apart from the police brutality that has left at least one young man fighting for his life, it is no small thing to be arrested, charged or imprisoned in Europe or America, as thousands of peaceful demonstrators already have been over the past year. For young people, it means a black mark on one’s record in an already inhospitable job market, travel restrictions, the death of the sort of neoliberal aspiration that was once all that my generation were supposed to build our lives on. These young people are prepared to sacrifice those aspirations in order that others might dream bigger, and better, of a world where people are more important than profit and the future is not mortgaged to finance the self-serving recklessness of the 1 percent. When we ask, as we must, where all this is going to end, we should pause to honor the implications of that sacrifice. The world is right to be paying attention.