Occupy London. Vacate Liberalism

June 8, 2012

While the occupation at St Paul’s outlived most in the US, the movement here remains in the shadow of Occupy Wall Street. For OWS, the eviction of the camps turned out to be a blessing. Instead of focusing on site management and internal politics, occupiers were given an opportunity to shift tactics and look outwards, focusing on new directions for the movement. Meanwhile, the occupations in London rumbled on defiantly, but vital energy was expended on their upkeep. The occupation of physical space increasingly divided ‘occupiers’ from sympathetic members of the public, resulting in an exclusive lifestyle. We had created a ‘social’ without the ‘movement’, while in the US, Occupy remained an accessible wave of public outrage.

Had the eviction of St Paul’s come earlier, things may have been different.

Post-eviction, the allocation of funds became more of an obstacle than an enabling force. Camping enthusiasts at Finsbury Square thought funds should go exclusively towards maintaining occupations, while others wanted to adopt different tactics, spending on outreach and direct actions.

In the run-up to May, the majority of General Assemblies were attended by only a dedicated group of ‘core’ occupiers, determined to keep momentum in the hope that the energy of last October would return. M12 saw a good turnout, with around 500 people taking part in the action, but compared to Indignados in Spain, OWS and the student movement in Canada, it felt like more of a final whimper than a resurgent roar.

Same Name, Different Movement?

The relatively modest stature of Occupy here compared to the US isn’t all of our own making. Until the Tory government shreds it completely, Britain still has the remains of a welfare state, which takes some of the sting out of revolutionary sentiment. It breaks the fall into extreme poverty, while in the US there is no safety net. Despite the US government doing more to stave off mass unemployment in the wake of the global financial crash than our governments have here, the foreclosure crisis and continued absence of free healthcare means that Americans are literally on their own. Stateside, Occupy provided both community spirit and, at times, genuine resistance to the consequences of neoliberal ideology, when occupiers defended homes from foreclosure.

While OWS moved on from occupying to the more radical actions of blocking ports and taking back community centres, Occupy in London repeated the same symbolic protests, rhetoric and tactics. Like a river carving its way deeper into the landscape, it reinforced a well-defined identity instead of bursting its banks and flooding the plains of wider society. There has been too much self-affirming, inward-looking debate and, most of all, forging of a safe image. ‘Safe’ doesn’t inspire in a time of record youth unemployment, increasing poverty and ransacking of the NHS.

Despite a more radical outlook and greater numbers, they have encountered many of the same problems on Wall Street as we have. Numbers dwindled, attempts to inspire a mass May Day strike failed, and a lack of political space was a problem we didn’t have here, but as winter passed and key issues were addressed, energy was rekindled.

Writing in the Guardian recently, David Graeber described how OWS benefited by ridding itself of parasitic liberalism and financial burdens. “When OWS re-emerged in the spring, the abandonment of the liberals, the drying-up of the money, have become an almost miraculous blessing.” Here in London, we have yet to abandon the (mis)guiding light of liberalism.

The Liberal Branding of ‘Occupy London’

At some point after the eviction of St Paul’s, OccupyLSX and OccupyFS were discarded in favour of ‘Occupy London’ as part of an undemocratic “rebranding push”. This shift was subtle but stiflingly significantly. Now, all ‘Occupy London’ activities fell under a central PR managerial umbrella, and while anybody could do anything in the name of Occupy in the US, actions in the UK must be prescribed.

As a brand, ‘Occupy London’ has appeared corporate, measured and polished. Lacking the permeable messiness and dynamism of the wider global movement, it instead looks exclusive and apart. From the outside, ‘Occupy London’ feels like a members-only club, failing to live up to the promise of the Statement of Autonomy to make “caretakers” of those who wish to participate.

The liberal mindset shaping the press image of Occupy in London is determined not to scare people away by appearing ‘too radical’. The ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ banner in front of St Paul’s was removed early on as part of an effort to stop the mainstream media using the ‘anti-capitalist’ label to describe occupiers, and a recent ‘Global Occupy Manifesto’ (which was put together by a self-appointed group not representative of the movement in any meaningful way) didn’t mention the word ‘capitalism’ at all, after reformists ‘blocked’ the term.

No similar efforts were made to remove signs from St Paul’s expressing liberal sentiments, or links to the questionable Zeitgeist movement, and ‘fluffy’ actions like handing out flowers escape scrutiny because they are harmless. That people might be alienated by pointless actions lacking a political message isn’t deemed worthy of consideration. Any movement needs to attract people, but the aim of Occupy should be to draw people to the radical and new, rather than to fall in line with what is already populist, offering no agitation to the status quo.

Filtering anything too far from the normative liberal consensus has marginalised revolutionary energy in favour of liberal symbolism and indecisiveness. As Slavoj Žižek wrote recently in the Guardian: “The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support them, but are already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, they will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture.”

We must be wary of people aiming to perpetuate Occupy indefinitely, forging indispensable roles and wages for themselves at the expense of radical, systemic change. While we ought to resist the pressure to make concrete demands or decide on a single, precise focus that would edge us towards becoming a lobby group, a never-ending movement would represent failure.

Moving Forward

Graeber finished his Guardian piece with: “The words might be diplomatically chosen, but there’s no mistaking what tradition is being invoked here. In endorsing a vision of universal equality, of the dissolution of national borders, and democratic self-governing communities, nurses, bus drivers, and construction workers at the heart of America’s greatest capitalist metropolis are signing on to the vision, if not the tactics, of revolutionary anarchism.”

For Occupy in London to reignite, we need to reassert our inherently anarchistic values of horizontalism and non-hierarchy. Decentralisation is key to avoiding exploitable power-points, and allowing working groups total autonomy. We must also stop turning a blind-eye to self-appointed managers whose closed meetings and branding strategies are more in keeping with the corporate world than a movement seeking radical change.

Occupy has protested against monopolistic corporate media almost as much as financial inequality, but in the mainstream media, our representation is less democratic than the Tories’, who at least rotate who appears on Question Time. The same names and faces consistently represent Occupy London on panel discussions and in the press, seemingly at odds with the ethics of a horizontal movement. We do not need to be legitimised by the corporate press, who will amplify our message as long as it remains harmless, and gag us whenever it is right for their product. With citizen journalists, livestreams and self-made media, we can tell our own story in our own words. During the first weeks of OWS the US media simply pretended it wasn’t happening. By the time we arrived at St Paul’s, we already had the world’s media telling our story for us.

Much has changed for Occupy on both sides of the Atlantic since then. Social movements can take years or even decades before realising their true potential. While global economics remain volatile and social unrest is rife around the world, it would be wrong to assume that there are no embers amongst the ashes of OccupyLSX.

As Graeber put it, “Occupy is shedding its liberal accretions and rapidly turning into something with much deeper roots, creating alliances that promise to transform the very notion of revolutionary politics in America.”

Maybe it’s time we followed suit.


By Steven Maclean (@Steven_Maclean)