Occupy London protesters in Liverpool Street underground station (Photo: HeardInLondon/Demotix/Corbis)
Today in London, New York, and cities throughout the world, the Occupy movement will attempt to launch a "Global Spring" of protests against economic inequality. Making the one-year anniversary of the 15-M Movement, when indignados took to the streets in 58 Spanish cities, these demonstrations, and other planned events through May, may determine whether Occupy will help or hinder the growing opposition in Europe and elsewhere to the politics of austerity.
London's contribution to today's International Day of Action is a "Meet the 1%" tour of some of the financial institutions “who gambled with our pensions and savings, created financial nonsense to make money out of thin air, paid hundreds of thousands to wine and dine with our ‘elected’ representatives, were bailed out, evaded billions in taxes and secured 40% of the world’s wealth for themselves".
Participants have been invited to bring a tent, so it is an easy guess that they are planning to stage a physical occupation as part of their commitment to direct action --- though it is unlikely to be the beginning of a permanent encampment. The experience of St Paul's Cathedral, where the message of the protesters got lost among concerns over health and safety and the social responsibilities of the Church, might deter the estabishment of a the central focus of their campaign. Instead, the language around the tour is creativity: “Come dressed as your least favorite banker, tax evader, corporate tycoon, politician, vampire squid, and company CEO. Bring stickers, monopoly money, caution tape, placards, faux awards, pots, pans, bullhorns, conches, tents, stereos, war horns or any other 'random acts of kindness' you like.”
Quite what impact this carnival parade style of direct action will have is debatable; most of the buildings the demonstrators aim on visiting will be almost empty on a Saturday. But Occupy London see today's event as just the start of similar protests designed to build support for their objectives of a fairer economy. On Tuesday, the target will be the British Bankers Association, the group that lobbies Parliament on behalf of their members. Attendees are again urged to:
Be creative! Form your own guerilla theatre group, come in fancy dress, and turn the BBA into something beautiful. Bring glitter, stickers, banners, posters, balloons, and noise makers of all kinds! Guerilla garden – bring seeds and garden in any space available! Foreclose on the BBA! Be ridiculous! Dress as a radical clown and put on a show! Deny them any peace and quiet! Bring drums, instruments, pots, pans, sound systems of all sorts – make your presence known!
For the moment, Occupy's call in Britain for a fairer economy and a more democratic politics is not gaining much traction. The reasons for that are many, but foremost is the problem that, even for those who support their message, there is no political means of expressing that desire for change.
Still, their theatrical use of direct action tactics, whilst not novel, is different. If Occupy can 'make their presence known' this summer, and keep the issue of an elitist-controlled political and economic system in the spotlight, there is a chance that they can begin to influence the political landscape. It might not be Occupy's vision, but the reality is that reform in Britain happens through the ballot box --- and slowly.
Occupy's main strength is in its constant questioning of the right of the 1% to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. There is a growing sense in Britain that an elite, aided by a political class of public school boys and girls who all went to Oxford and live in a Westminster 'bubble' of privilege and entitlement, have lost touch with the rest of the country. See, for instance, George Monbiot's attack in The Guardian on a “government that supports the privilege of a plutocratic class", with his call for the closure of all private schools for perpetuating this elitist system of rule.
This is not a criticism reserved for the coalition government, but for the Labour opposition as well. And it is supplemented by the impression that Britain's current crop of politicians are just plain incompetent.
The incompetency argument is not hard to prove. In British politics, one hard and fast rule is to back the police force as an institution. This government,however has decided to decimate the service. So Police Federation of England and Wales Chairman Paul McKeever has condemned the announcement by the Home Secretary Theresa May in March:
[This] demonstrates the contempt this government displays towards police officers. Previously Mrs May promised to always back us and to support us. These were clearly just hollow words; meaningless soundbites in her early months in office. Theresa May has forced the hand of police officers across England and Wales to call for a ballot on whether they want industrial rights. They no longer have any trust or faith in the Home Secretary or this government.
Alan Johnson, a former Home Secretary in the previous Labour administration, appeared on the BBC on Thursday after 40,000 off-duty police officers marched through London protesting the government's reforms of the service. He was incredulous that senior positions in the police were opened up to direct entry for university graduates, instead of retaining the working-class roots of the force through the principle working your way up from the front line. Johnson predicted that this blunder by the Government would be the biggest issue of the next election.
A serving police officer remarked about the effects of encouraging direct entry:
Divide and conquer!! That’s what this one is all about, setting up a two tier system such as the Army with a ‘Them and Us’ culture, the officer class or ‘Ruperts’ as they are affectionately known in the military, supervising serious incidents, which could affect you and your family. A snobby, fresh out of University, green behind the ears Inspector, making decisions that will affect you and yours when you call the police, because you have been the victim of a sexual assault perhaps, something which you may want kept confidential, and dealt with efficiently.
It is this divorce from reality displayed by the elites --- for the US example, see Alex Pareene's America's Idiot Rich --- that makes Occupy London's strategy of creative ridicule of the 1% so intriguing. There is ample material to mock, and, while the "tactics of frivolity" have not always been successful in the past, this use of satirical humour by Occupy could encourage more people to listen to their underlying message.
These two days of global action are followed next week by protests in the US, at a NATO meeting in Chicago and a G-8 summit at Camp David, that promise to be less light-hearted. The G-8 conference was moved to Maryland because of the greater security available at the Presidential retreat, and in Chicago, the police have spent $1 million on updated riot gear. There are even uncorroborated reports that some of the police in Chicago see this NATO demonstration as the chance, as their earlier colleagues did in 1968, to beat a few protesters with billy clubs.
Last week electors in Europe signalled their dissatisfaction with the politics of austerity, and the elites who are trying to implement them. Barring a miracle of an economic recovery, politics for the near future will revolve around that austerity --- or thrift as the British government are now trying to call it.
This week the success or failure of Occupy, and their affiliated groups, to draw attention to growing income inequality will help determine their relevance to these coming political struggles over the world's economic future. Can they deliver on their promise of a Global Spring?