On Saturday my Twitter feed was buzzing with reports from some of my Twitter chums (Twums?) about the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protests. I must confess I didn’t go myself. Not because I have any objection to their aims, but because I don’t live anywhere near London and would have looked a bit forlorn occupying my local Tesco Express.
It remains to be seen whether this new protest will grow like the Occupy Wall Street movement that inspired it. Even so, OccupyLSX got me thinking about popular anger and protest movements.
Lord knows, there’s enough reasons to be angry at the financial sector right now. They created an unsustainable bubble, and we’re all now paying the price. Public services being flushed down the toilet, a whole generation of young people unable to find work…and the Hooray Henries in the Square Mile just carry on giving themselves pay rises. And don’t even think you’ll be able to join the moneyfight yourself. Not unless you’ve got parents willing to support you through a series of unpaid internships, effectively creating a new aristocracy in all but name.
The behaviour of some of those in the City hasn’t exactly assuaged our anger either. I’m not just referring to Fred Goodwin. This Comment is Free article, by a City trader arguing that the 50p top rate of income tax would result in all the financial whizkids leaving Britain for overseas, is glorious not so much for the article itself as for the stream of comments that were left in response. People didn’t become any more sympathetic when they realised he was the author of a book called – I kid you not – How I Caused the Credit Crunch.
(Incidentally, I was so intrigued by the book title that I actually bought a copy. Second-hand, naturally. I didn’t want him to have any of my money.)
All in all, the surprise isn’t that people are angry, more that people aren’t knocking together a guillotine on Paternoster Square.
But can that anger actually translate into meaningful change? There’s the question.
Like many people who are vaguely liberal but not given to waving a placard, my first time on a protest rally was at the giant anti-war march in London on Feb 15th 2003. Depending on whose figures you believe, anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million people stomped (and at times, shuffled, it really did get crowded) their way to Hyde Park, demanding that we don’t invade Iraq. It felt like some epochal moment in history had just taken place. Until the following month, of course, when we invaded Iraq.
I actually stuck around with the anti-war movement until a few weeks after the initial invasion, when the US troops were nearly at Baghdad. God, it was depressing, watching the Stop the War Coalition shrivel quickly from a brief period as a mass movement that genuinely represented public opinion, down to a narrow locus of the usual far-left suspects.
Before Saddam’s statue had even started to topple, I felt that the Stop the War Coalition no longer was something I could be a part of, and quietly departed. It was becoming something of a strain. Have you ever tried to hold a conversation with a member of the Socialist Workers Party while simultaneously trying not to look sarcastic? It’s really hard.
If the OccupyLSX movement is to genuinely represent the anger that people feel about the chaos we’ve been plunged into, then it will need to expand into something more than those usual suspects from the SWP et al. I suspect that may not be easy. Sunny Hundal over at Red Hot Liberal-On-Liberal Action seems to be having similar thoughts.
The problem, as anyone vaguely involved with UK left-activism will know, is that many hardcore left-activists will rather swallow a cyanide pill than work with people who are slightly less radical than them. They will spend their entire time actively trying to wreck pluralistic coalitions.
It happened during the anti-cuts protests and it will happen again. Some have even gone as far as trying to wreck UKuncut (one called UKuncut a ‘populist group no different to the EDL’). These people would much rather pretend they represent the 99% than ever come into contact with the varied opinions of that 99%.
That said, I do wish the Occupiers well, and may yet attend one of their events – because real change does need to happen. When we finally emerge from the ashes of the present crisis, it mustn’t be so that we can just go back to building the next bubble.