'Occupy' camps force debate on finance system


WORLDVIEW:WHEN RADICAL sociologist Naomi Klein addressed the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan last week, she echoed in a rhetorical question what many have asked of Ireland’s passivity in the face of the recent economic crisis. The baffled TV pundits ask why they are protesting, she said. “Meanwhile, the rest of the world asks: ‘What took you so long?’"

Now the tented camps, inspired by movements in places like Argentina, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, and Athens, have sprung up in public spaces in as many as 1,000 cities around the world, including Dublin . The young self-described “99 percenters” are protesting mainly against the banks and the financial system, which they hold responsible for the crisis; against poverty and inequality; and against the powerlessness felt by the majority of society.

They point to the fact that in the US in 2008 the average income of the top 1 per cent of earners was $1,137,000, that of the rest, a mere $31,000. Or, as economist Paul Krugman blogs about New York’s financial sector – where the average salary in 2010 was $361,330, 5½ times that of the average in the private sector in the city – “it would all be hilariously funny if these people weren’t destroying the world”.

Critics and commentators have been puzzled by the movement’s wilful determination so far not to articulate a programme of demands, preferring instead vague slogans about the system not working and the rich being asked to pay their way. It sees itself as a leaderless, democratic, moral voice, a cry of rage: time and others will fill in the gaps.

No problem, however, for the US right, which, in best McCarthyite tradition, has filled in the blanks with a will, describing the peaceful, largely incoherent and determinedly non-ideological groups as socialists, anarchists and hippies.

Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, has denounced “mobs” and “the pitting of Americans against Americans”. The Republican presidential candidates have weighed in, with Mitt Romney accusing the protesters of waging “class warfare,” while Herman Cain calls them “anti-American”.

Spending some time on Thursday – day six – at the decision-making “assembly” of Occupy Dame Street, I was struck by the degree to which, rather than the “big issues”, the campers’ preoccupation was with discussing their own democratic consensus-based and leaderless decision-making – everything from the distribution of leaflets to the cleaning up of the camp is decided through a painstaking search for unanimity. It was as if the camp in itself was the programme, an end in itself, a model of their co-operative alternative form of society.

And just as important as a programme is visibility, the fact of protest as an encouragement to others to engage.

In Dame Street a suggestion that the group should incorporate an anti-capitalist message in its brief manifesto was rejected: for some that is part of the analysis, for others a step too far. If it is to emerge as part of the programme it will be slowly, through the laborious process of building unanimity. It has to be said, however, that as the movement grows it will become more and more difficult, a challenge the group will sooner or later inevitably have to address, with perhaps a dilution of the consensus method.

In the weeks before its launch on September 17th, the New York activists seemed to veer away from the “language of demands”, one of their number has written, “in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically”.

The crucial thing was to start a debate and Occupy Wall Street has successfully fuelled a conversation about reforms of the financial system and such issues as a transactions tax that has reached far into the Democratic Party and progressive organisations and unions.

And the Dame Street group’s insistence that those who join must leave their political party behind will also frustrate those on the traditional left who would like to associate with them.

As for this old lefty I found myself enthused by their idealism, frustrated by their naivety, exasperated by their directionlessness and disorganisation, and buoyed by the sense of rediscovering among young people a belief that, as Tom Paine put it, “we can begin the world again”. All, perhaps, in equal measure.

Will the Occupy movement last and spread? I don’t know. It is an important phenomenon with a growing reach that speaks of the deep hurt in our society. But as media writer James Rainey warned in the LA Times,perhaps in vain, journalists should resist making instant judgments about what the protests represent: “Sometimes the most courageous story is the one that says: I haven’t seen this before. I’m not sure what it means. I don’t have a clue where it is going.”

“There’s something happening here,” Krugman writes. “What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people.”

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