What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?
- Paulo Freire
When I was in London last week I visited the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s, then established for more more than four months but under threat of eviction. I wandered through the camp, listening to conversations and taking photos with the idea of creating a photo essay that would give some sense of the camp and its daily routine (see below). There were still a hundred or so tents pitched in front and to the side of the cathedral, along with the larger tents that housed the library, kitchen and other shared facilities. It was a quiet day: some protesters were chatting in their tents, some were engaged in cleaning and other chores, while a couple of guys from Anonymous were in discussion with passers-by at the foot of the cathedral steps.
Last night, activists were told by bailiffs that they had five minutes to pack their tents and leave or they would be obstructing the court order. The eviction began shortly after midnight and the area had been cleared peacefully by the early hours. There will be much debate, now, about the extent of the Occupy movement’s achievement, now that most of the camps here in the UK, in the US and elsewhere have been cleared. Last night, Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s whose famous intervention of 16 October when he asked the police to leave and recognise our right to assemble, was prevented from crossing the police lines to reach the Occupy camp. His first reaction this morning was to say:
Occupy does not herald the beginnings of a world revolution. But it has given many world leaders a good kick in the pants and made them know, in no uncertain terms, the degree of frustration that exists about an economic system that, among its many other crimes, rewards the rich with huge bonuses and penalises the poor with cuts to welfare.
But to St Paul’s, the existence of the camp has been seen too much in terms of a little local difficulty – graffiti, hassle, problems with income and visitor numbers. This is a mistake of perspective that comes about through years of ingrained thinking that the building is the purpose of the cathedral. After a decade-long fundraising campaign to find £42m needed to clean the building, it may be inevitable that the cathedral’s whole administrative infrastructure is bent towards this end. Thus it becomes just too easy to worship Christopher Wren and not the God who spoke of the rich having to give up all their possessions. Which is why the forcible eviction of Occupy will be far more a failure for the church than it will be a failure for the camp.”
Just last week Naomi Colvin and Ronan McNern, two members of the St Paul’s Occupy camp, wrote in The Guardian about the significance of the last four months:
Four months on and we’ve had the world come to visit. Christians, investment bankers, homeless people, trade unionists, Conservative MPs, Jesse Jackson, students, pensioners, Thom Yorke, rightwing thinktanks, Jarvis Cocker, the great and the good, ordinary Londoners, Vivienne Westwood and many more. All have come to Occupy London to explore what they know to be true – that, no, this system is not right – and that we need to talk about the elephant in the room. We’ve forced a political debate about inequality – previously one of the great unmentionables. More than that, we’ve opened up a physical and metaphorical space for conversation in a way that hasn’t happened in decades.
This morning, George Barda, who had been camped outside St Paul’s for the duration, said:
The main thing to focus on is the reasons we are here and not the drama of what happened last night. Millions of people are already suffering from the cuts and they have barely got going. And these cuts are entirely unnecessary, they’re economically illiterate and there is money to pay for the things we need, it’s just in the hands of the people at the top.
Earlier, Barda had argued:
It is gratifying to see all major parties now being forced to engage at least rhetorically with the Occupy agenda, but we have a long way to go for ‘moral capitalism’ to become more than a cover for a subservience to vested interests that so many of the cabinet themselves epitomise.
John Christensen, head of the Tax Justice Network and member of the OECD taskforce on tax and development has called the City of London, ‘the money-launderer’s destination of choice’, saying the Corporation was responsible for extraordinary damage to the interests of democratic society. Occupy had, he said, already had a provable positive national impact by stimulating a debate about the unaccountability of the City and the perilous and immoral state of the economy.
Alex Aldridge writing in The Guardian, asked whether Occupy ‘transform itself from a thrilling five-month PR stunt to a lasting political movement championing the end of profit obsession’?
Yesterday in The Guardian, Gary Younge, assessed the significance of the Occupy movement, particularly in the country where it originated:
The legacy of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is still in the making. Those who believe it came from nowhere and has disappeared just as quickly are wrong on both counts. Most occupiers were already politically active in a range of campaigns. What the occupations did was bring them together in one place and refract their disparate messages through the broader lens of inequality. The occupations were less an isolated outpouring of discontent than a decisive, dynamic moment in an evolving process. [...]
The trouble is (as London’s St Paul’s protesters, whose appeal against eviction was denied last week, can testify) that while this home offered space for debate and organisation … vulnerable to harassment and eviction by the state, it was only a matter of time before they were moved on. [...]
Younge quoted on of the founding organisers of OWS as asserting that the movement was always about values and about reconfiguring the relationship between people and profit so that people are privileged, not profit. Younge concluded his piece:
Its importance doesn’t lie in what it means, but in what it does. It started by changing how people think about the world they live in; now it’s strengthening their confidence to change it.
There’s a long and thoughtful piece on the Open Democracy site, An Excess of Democracy, written by Hilary Wainwright, veteran of struggles from the 1970s onwards. In it, she quotes John Maynard Keynes:
To convert the businessman into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism because it destroys the psychological equilibrium which permits the perpetuance of unequal rewards…The businessman is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society.
That may, indeed, be the great success of the Occupy movement – to at least begin to transform cultural attitudes so that the businessman is regarded as the profiteer. Highly relevant on the morning we learn of tax avoidance by Barclays bank so outrageous that even a Conservative government has had to take action. Wainwright concludes:
In the 60s and 70s, we began to lay the foundations in democratic civil society of an alternative political economy – including a different kind of state. You could say we were rudely interrupted in our work. If we can recover what was potentially powerful and join with new generations with capacities and visions way beyond our own, we can collectively be stronger.
These are the photos I took last Tuesday at Occupy London:
- Signs Of Occupation – Occupy London: another photo essay by Brian David Stevens
- Occupy: reports and analysis on Open Democracy
- Occupy London: Guardian coverage
- Occupy London: movement website
- The Occupied Times of London
- Occupy LSX may be gone, but the movement won’t be forgotten: good piece by Giles Fraser in The Guardian
- The inside story of an action that changed America by Writers for the 99%: review for Nerve magazine