Occupying everywhere: what does it mean for politicians (and unions)?
Everyone – regardless of whether they’re involved – has their own explanation of the meaning of this weekend’s 950 worldwide “occupy” protests which have their roots variously in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Greece’s Syntagma Square, Rothschild Boulevard in Israel and Wall Street in the USA. First prize in totally missing the point with breath-taking chutzpah must go to Foreign Secretary William Hague who told the BBC that he could understand popular concern about “too many debts built up by states” – you’ll have noticed how many people at the Occupy events mentioned the need to pay down the deficit and engage in austerity policies (not)!
The numbers involved have not of course been huge (although 950 separate events on a single weekend does suggest some zeitgeist-style expression of shared concerns) and the almost studied reluctance to adopt a manifesto leaves a vacuum that many seek to fill, usually claiming that the demonstrators share the commentator’s concerns. But here are some first thoughts.
The global nature of the protest is undoubtedly an issue of itself, as Paul Mason has suggested on the BBC website: and as he says, it at least suggests the common understanding that if you set up tents in an urban area and express discontent, you will get media attention. There is at least a commonality of some of the concerns expressed – and more clearly than at almost any time since Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, the big banks are in the frame as the main culprit or target for anger. Of course, as anyone who has organised a mass protests knows, the broader the annoyance people feel, the easier it is to get them to protest, so it is almost as unlikely that people will protest this widely on one issue as it would be unlikely that they could coalesce around a single demand.
The avoidance of a manifesto is, I think, more than merely clever ambiguity or vagueness. This is not a revolutionary movement aiming either to overthrow a specific elite (despite the clarity about the target for the anger), nor to achieve anything more specific than a society where equality is accorded higher priority, and where the future is remade as something to be looked forward to. It may, of course, develop into either, or fizzle out as winter hits the predominantly northern hemisphere.
But what the Occupy movement does by its very avoidance of concrete demands is that it poses a very direct question to politicians. And trade unionists. It asks what we are going to do to sort out the problems that the protesters are raising. And in the case of those who have set up tent cities, it gives concrete form to the otherwise unavoidable point that the protesters are ‘not going away’ until those answers are provided.
Since the banks are a key focus of the protests, solutions such as a Robin Hood Tax are a useful example of what might be offered up. It would not only release funding for the sort of issues that protesters are concerned about – public sector cuts (whatever William Hague pretends he thinks they’re after), global poverty and climate change. It would, increasingly saliently, redress the balance in the finance sector between the legalised gambling of high frequency, algorithm-driven speculation and the more popular function of providing finance for investment and housing. The EU draft directive on a financial transaction tax and the Gates report to the G20 summit on innovative financing for development mean this offer is already (almost) on the table.
But politicians and trade unions will need to go much further before the ‘Occupiers’ and their close cousins, the ‘Indignados’, ‘go away’. Wages need to increase rather than profits, so that ordinary people catch up with the rich elite (the 1%/99% divide that Occupy Wall Street drew attention to). Decent work needs to be on offer for future school-leavers and university graduates, as it so often isn’t in the wageless internships of the developed economies and the empty shops and full cafes of the MENA region. And people need the confidence that they can abandon public squares and return to the ballot box as the most effective venue for making decisions about the future of society and the economy.