Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy LSX

While flitting around London, I recently found myself passing by Occupy LSX, the protest camp which has controversially straddled St Paul’s Cathedral for the last month or so. From what I had gauged from the news this was a group of activists pushing a mish-mash of causes without any particularly clear message or aim. Drawing the sympathy of some, labelled an inconvenience by most. Why not check it out?

I arrived just as the weekly “open assembly” began. Before the steps of Wren’s cathedral, a spokesperson explained how this forum would work, though of course that anyone who disagreed with the system or concept of the forum should pop their thoughts in a pigeon hole in the info tent for the collective to consider. People were free to address the forum as they wished, but should queue to do so. As each topic was discussed the reasonable sized crowd were encouraged to show the collective sentiment via hand signals. Fluttering upwards hands gesticulates support for the motion, crossed hands signals disagreement.

The topics I stayed around long enough to hear were indeed wide ranging. From the standard “bankers are bad, power to the people” stuff, through specific criticism of US environmental policy to anti-war messages. I had sympathy with some of the issues raised and very little with others. Part of the problem was that different messages were so diverse, co-mingled and yet at times fundamentally divergent that they left me with no clear idea of what the collective thought or wanted apart from perhaps the very vague theme that the world is on the wrong tack. Maybe that is enough.

While the lack of clarity of aim or message starves this movement of any likely tangible success (e.g. a change in government policy on a specific topic) they do serve as a useful reminder that the status quo should not be taken for granted, whether it be for better or worse. There is definitely something in the under-swell of dissatisfaction which is showing itself in similar protests springing up in cities all round the world. People feel disaffected and unrepresented by the current system. But as I listened I could not help but think that, whereas it is better to speak up against a perceived wrong than keep quiet, if you do not put forward workable alternatives people stop listening.
Unfortunately there seemed precious little in the way of viable suggestions (a number of people held up Marxist signs, but the mass social experiment of the last century does not leave that with much mileage). Many simply seemed to say capitalism is wrong. Globalisation is wrong. We should change this. Start again…etc. etc.

Yes, there are big problems with these phenomena, but to preach against them in such absolute terms while listening to your iPod seems a little misguided (I am told that the collective of the camp paid tribute to the recently late Steve Jobs – slightly odd since he was a capitalist pin-up).
Pondering what I had heard, I took a walk around the camp and found it upbeat and just about functional. It smelled a bit and the multi-recycling bins were full, but at least they were there along with a shop, tea and first aid tents. It is a real pity that this movement has so interrupted the working of St Pauls (and I do find a little odd that this was the chosen spot with all the more obviously capitalist establishments parked all round the place), but I have to admit a mini tent city at the floor of this vast stone building is quite a spectacle.

On my way out I took one more look around the crowd which dispelled any lingering question I still had over whether this was the sapling of a mass movement to really change things. More than anything it resembled a diehard of summer festival goers who refused to retreat with the oncoming winter. Amongst them I am sure there are a few die hard revolutionaries with the determination to make things happen, but most seem to be hanging about for an interesting ride. Nice to feel special for a while. And do you know what, provided they do not get in anyone else’s way (or block health and safety required exits), good luck to them.

Debate strengthens a good system and lays bare the need for change in a bad one. There are strong questions to be asked of the current order of things, but I am just not sure this collective is asking the right questions in the most effective manner.
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