#OccupyLondon: not the beginning or the end, but a momentous opportunity

The first weekend of the London occupation felt victorious, as the protesters established their own democracy and showed solidarity with a growing global movement. Even if it is soon disbanded, this is one step forward in an ongoing struggle.
Hilary Aked
18 October 2011

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements.

The sounds of samba echoed under the arches of St Paul’s Corinthian columns. It was about seven o’clock in the evening. There was an odd atmosphere of elation despite the fact that we were being semi-kettled in a space we hadn’t chosen, and the surrounding the square were being steadily supplemented by lines of riot police.

Without warning, they barged diagonally through the crowd, thrashing with batons as they went. People who had been considering leaving resolved to stay and resist the eviction that we assumed was imminent. We became suddenly much more attached to the space we hadn’t chosen.

We waited. Linking arms, shouting at each other to ‘sit down!’ and debating the relative merits of crowd density against diffusion. For at least an hour we waited but the eviction never came – eventually a red-lettered message appeared on the police’s latest gadget, a scrolling LED display sign: “this is not a clearance”. 

It seemed like a small victory. More samba, more dancing, more chants: “That’s not what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like!”

And the first weekend of Occupy the London Stock Exchange was democratic. Throughout the day and into the next there was a culture of organising (through general assemblies and in working groups) and decision-making of the kind employed by ‘Los Indignados’ in Spain. Inevitably, off the page, it worked less than perfectly; it was hard to get agreements and easy to become frustrated. But we live in a country where one of the most powerful politicians – from a party we did not elect – was advised by a man who was never elected but was in the pay of groups linked to the governments of Sri Lanka and Israel, countries with abysmal human rights records. The elite who would have us call this system ‘democracy’ must be either disingenuous or stupid. St Paul’s had a better functioning democracy with a few circulating megaphones and hundreds of “human microphones” last night than all the wealth and history of the nation has created in present day Westminster.

The long view and the bigger picture 

Though Sunny Hundal identifies the occupiers as the “usual suspects”, there were many different ‘types’ of people at St Paul’s, including people who woulds call themselves socialists, anarchists, social democrats and liberals, as well as many unwilling or unable to give a name to their hopes of another, free and just world.

He is right to say that the capital's incarnation, 'Occupy the London Stock Exchange', is at present miniature in size compared to New York's 'Occupy Wall Street', the movement that spawned it, and must grow in strength. But positing ‘Make’ or ‘Break’ as the only two possible outcomes of the occupation is a false dichotomy and one that seems slightly myopic. This is not a protest merely to achieve one relatively short-term goal - preventing the privatisation of the NHS for example (laudable and necessary though those campaigns are). On the minds of those Peoples Assemblies who signed the United for Global Democracy call is nothing less than the demand to overhaul and dismantling all the international financial institutions (World Bank, WTO, IMF) that currently rule supreme. Ambitiously radical yes, but no-one expects this to be achieved overnight.

In his reply to Hundal, Anthony Barnett pointed out the historical context of this movement, namely the decades of destructive free market capitalism that we are still not rid of despite the the fact that the once radical belief that neoliberal policies are detrimental to human welfare nowadays finds voice in the mainstream. It will take years of resistance to change this modus operandi. If that’s what we want to do we need a global democracy, something that is no less necessary because it is hard to imagine right now (though George Monbiot has had a stab at it). Seen as a high point in the ongoing counter- or alter-globalisation movement, the occupations and protests around the world - will not stand or fall on their own. That’s the point. Nonetheless they represent an opportunity to be seized, a chance to politicise the dormant mainstream and change the trajectory of society internationally.

The belly of the beast

Globalisation has exacerbated the growing inequalities in the world, but it has also created commonalities and affinities between people despite distance and demographic differences, linking diverse movements against oppression in its many forms, be it dictatorship or socio-economic marginalisation. We are inspired by the resistance of others and, in replicating it, show solidarity while furthering our own local/domestic/national struggle. Small hints of the internationalist sentiments of the protesters are everywhere. At St Paul's someone had erected a Tahrir Square (‘City of Westminster’) placard in homage to Egypy. A Palestinian woman holding a sign which reads “Occupy Wall Street not Palestine” has been 'liked' by thousands on facebook.

The fact that grassroots organising is happening on a mass scale in the United States - the universally accepted belly-of-the-capitalist-and-war-machine beast - is incredibly exciting. Wisconsin was no flash in the pan. It was a harbinger. 

Because we are serious about our desire for change we have to question our aims, strategies and tactics. James Butler has raised several extremely pertinent questions about the implications of the ‘We are the 99%’ label and asks the occupiers to beware allowing their protest to be co-opted and used to justify an only-slightly-tweaked status quo. We should also concede that currently the London occupation is small – Cameron is far from quaking in his boots. But although individually the occupations and protests around the world are not particularly frightening to the leaders of the respective countries , as a pattern, they are not to be ignored.

Hitting the spot 

Due to the non-violent nature of the London occupation the media are not terribly excited. And as Naomi Klein put it when she addressed OWS, the intention to radically alter the underlying principles of society is “hard to fit into a single media-friendly demand”.

In terms of political consciousness-raising, those participants in the broad North American movement who may not have initially had total social transformation on their minds may well find the policeman’s baton (or pepper spray) a radicalising experience. In London, the occupiers seem sincere, committed and open. They have established a ‘Tent University’ where public lectures will be held each night at 6.30pm. They are asking others to join them and reaching out to community organisations and trade unions.

It would be unwise to dismiss a movement that has reportedly galvanized more than 900 protests in over 80 countries simply because its manifestation in London may currently be less momentous than some had hoped. This movement is one of the high points in the recent history of anti-capitalist movements and comes at a time when the legitimacy of our economic system is at an all time low. In Britain, sympathy for the occupation is extremely high. At the time of writing, according to one poll, albeit of Guardian readers, 87% of the public expressed support.

Counter-globalisation protests have previously chiefly accompanied major international summits (such as the WTO conference of 1999 in Seattle or the G8 summit Genoa in 2001). When the summits ended  so did the protests. But as Naomi Klein points out, in choosing to occupy fixed spaces of concentrated power (the financial districts of two of the world's richest cities) we have chosen our targets well. The shift represents a tactical step forward for the movement.

But if the London occupation or the Wall Street occupation or both ended tomorrow and the right-wing media laughed at the naïve idealism, shambolic organising and youthful irresponsibility of the occupiers would it be a total failure? As Klein says, the most important thing is not to give up and to “treat each other as if we plan to work side by side in struggle for many, many years to come”.

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