Simon Jenkins doesn’t get it: protest and nuisance at Occupy London

On Tuesday the veteran commentator Simon Jenkins published an opinion piece in the Evening Standard which helpfully embodied the many varieties of condescension with which commentators have approached the Occupy movement. Jenkins, some of whose columns I agree with, is not the worst offender but his article demonstrates one thing loud and clear: he doesn’t understand how protest works.

“I regard myself as a card-carrying liberal on most things,” he writes (paging Phil Ochs), “but I am depressed when liberalism loses its moral backbone and appeases student idiocy.” He counters with it his own brand of idiocy, or at least blindness. He praises the law-abiding dignity of the 2003 Iraq war march as if unaware that the failure of that march to change government policy in the slightest damaged belief in the power of protest for years afterwards. He insists that protesters use the standard democratic channels as if oblivious to the growing sense that those channels are failing to address the problem. He blusters about the “nuisance” of the St Paul’s encampment as if oblivious that virtually every successful protest in history has been a nuisance to somebody. Nuisance is rather the point. But establishment figures like Jenkins regard protest as at best a novelty, at worst a threat and usually just an annoyance. The headline claims “This camp is not a proper protest.” Well yes it is, just not the one the Evening Standard would like.

What Jenkins appears to understand least of all is that there is an imbalance in mainstream political debate. To most of the media the language of power is smooth and acceptable; that of the powerless is messy and foolish. The well-spoken think tank wonk pushing free-market dogma is presented as the norm; the woolly-jumpered student arguing the opposite is an oddball extremist. When the left, which has far fewer newspapers and lavishly funded think tanks with deceptively bland names than the right, finds alternative outlets it is scolded for breaching etiquette.

Even the language of broadcasters like the BBC, which to the kind of tormented souls who haunt the Telegraph blogs is some kind of Marxist conspiracy, is skewed in one direction. The occupiers are reductively tagged as “anti-capitalist”, opening the door for glib attacks from the likes of Louise Mensch on any protester who has an iPhone or dares to use the local Starbucks. (Full disclosure: I typed the first draft of this blog on an Apple laptop in Starbucks before visiting St Paul’s yesterday. What a bastard.)

And there is little acknowledgment that the current system is faulty. Credit downgrades are solemnly reported as if the credit rating agencies hadn’t thoroughly disgraced themselves by letting reckless banking habits flourish unregulated in the years before the Lehmans collapse. Political decisions are judged on whether they appease or unsettle the markets. Had Jenkins listened to Radio 4’s World at One on Tuesday he would have heard ministers wringing their hands over their powerlessness to moderate unjustifiably high executive pay. Their excuse, heard so often these days, is that the markets run the game. The news actually enhances the sense that if you want things to change then you don’t turn to your government — you attack the all-powerful markets.

Hence the Occupy movement, which exists because of the sense that playing nicely doesn’t work. For decades we have been fed the line that the free market is a marvellous self-regulating machine that fosters competition and generates rewards for all. But the concept of “wealth creators” rings hollow when the only wealth they seem to be creating is their own. Competition, supposed to drive down prices, drives top-level salaries ever upwards. The idea that high pay is simply a fair reward for hard work, and that it benefits society as a whole, increasingly feels like a con job: a stick-up.

Due to age and temperament, I’m of the marching-and-voting tendency but I understand why for some people that’s not enough. Jenkins mentions the scale of popular anger towards the banks as if it erodes Occupy’s case rather than enhances it. He thinks that because it’s well-known that the executive class is running a racket where failure is rewarded at the top while ordinary employees and pension-holders take the punishment, then there’s no need to make the case on the cobbles of St Paul’s. He gives away his lack of understanding by accusing the occupiers of treating it as “fun”. They may be enjoying the experience but that’s not merely fun: it’s empowerment.

One of the most striking early insights into the August riots came from a rioter interviewed on Newsnight who said that it was the first time he felt truly empowered. For one night he wasn’t beaten down and impotent; the streets were his. Now looting’s a shitty form of empowerment but that desire to feel less like a victim of a system you cannot change is real and valid and surely even Jenkins would agree that camping outside St Paul’s is a more constructive way to express that desire than setting fire to cars, or indulging in the self-aggrandising antics of the black bloc. Jenkins, as a newspaper columnist, has no idea what it is like not to be heard. His opinions are aired and discussed. It’s surely not that much of a leap of the imagination to consider that in a time of crisis dissenters may want to have more of a voice than a vote every five years.

So when Jenkins tells the occupiers, with patrician hauteur, to “depart in good order” he is attempting to define the limits of protest from a position of power, as if the right to protest can be granted or withdrawn at any time, like a five-minute free swim in the school pool. Jenkins is writing for a paper which has made its position perfectly clear, warning on yesterday’s front page that the occupation might damage the Olympics, the Lord Mayor’s show and the Queen’s Jubilee. The implication is that the church, the royal family, the tourists — they matter. You’ve had your fun, now fuck off before the Queen gets here.

But protest is a human right and a British tradition every bit as important as the Lord Mayor’s show — maybe, whisper it, even more important. Instead of feeling like mugs forced to suck it up and tolerate Occupy, the public should be proud that such a thing can flourish. The fact that, despite persistent smears like the discredited heat-vision story which purported to show rows of tents left empty overnight, the public is so far broadly sympathetic is encouraging.

I went to St Paul’s yesterday afternoon and found a benign, creative, self-regulating community: Glastonbury on cobbles. There’s an information tent, a First Aid tent, a kitchen, an art gallery, a library, portaloos, recycling bins, messageboards, even a cinema. A girl was handing out copies of the Occupied Times newsletter. A circle of middle-aged men and women were singing The Times They Are a-Changin’. Everywhere I walked I overheard people engaged in political conversation, from full-time occupiers to curious passers-by to gents in suits with poppies on their lapels. What I didn’t see, despite what some would like you to think, were noisome drummers (who plagued Occupy Wall Street last week), anti-semitic conspiracy theorists, litter, vandalism, aggravation or Louise Mensch’s pernicious “fancy tents”.

If you enjoy taking cheap shots at hippies you’re in luck — a sign outside one tent pleaded, “Please donate incense!” – but it’s not just about the spirit of the 60s anymore than it’s just about the Anonymous contingent in V for Vendetta masks. Political action, from mainstream parties to marches, is about feeling less alone and this is an extreme example of a functioning community bonded by its ideals. The occupiers are striving to make their deeds match their words and create their own temporary society. Ideas are being thrown back and forth. Factional disputes have been held in check. In London, at least, it has been relentlessly civil and peaceful. The recent showdown with the drummers at Occupy Wall Street filled me with respect for those attempting to keep the occupations running smoothly without laying down hard rules. Yes, it’s inconvenient for some local traders and St Paul’s staff but you know what? The ongoing financial crisis for which nobody has been taken to task is pretty fucking inconvenient too, and at least Occupy has only cost two people their jobs.

The departure of church officials is something nobody at the camp wanted. If it were a protest against the Church of England it would already be acclaimed a triumph, but this was not the confrontation they were looking for. It’s a great shame that because of London’s geography and land ownership there is no more neutral site, equivalent to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, for the occupation. Unfortunately, just as the media only tends to report on demonstrations when violence breaks out (not much has changed since police charged antiwar demonstrators in Grosvenor Square in 1968 and the next day’s papers fretted mainly about the welfare of the horses), it’s the method rather than the message that continues to dominate the coverage.

But news of a possible deal with the church and the Corporation of London proves that the occupiers are very far from being naïve troublemakers. To quote a “Dear General Public” letter taped to a fence at the site: “We are not some ‘special interest’ group. We are you.” Read the whole thing below. Not quite “student idiocy”, is it?

Certainly Occupy, in every city, faces many challenges. How long can it last without losing public goodwill? How long can it continue to duck demands for a clear agenda? How can it avoid dwindling to a whimper? But this is a brave and painstaking experiment in consensual democracy and part of an honourable, centuries-old tradition of British dissent. To tell them, as Jenkins does, to pack up and go home is to say that the experiment is unnecessary because the current system is working just fine. As many people know all too well, it isn’t.

Note: The Occupationalist is a remarkable unfiltered, real-time document of the progress of the Occupy movement worldwide.

11 Comments

  1. We know what the “occupy movements” want. The only problem is that they are paralysed and conflicted when it comes to action. It is this paralysis that must be addressed before the movement can mutate into a political movement. See The Occupy London Movement for a full analysis.

  2. A fantastically put together post. Well argued and gets the message of those at Occupy across so much better than it’s been reported in a lot of media.

  3. Dorian, I agree with so much of this, and the points that you raise are spot on. I really don’t like how many of the media are taking pot shots at the protest.

    The one thing, however, that prevents me from fully getting behind the protestors (and is perhaps what the media is sensing) is that everything seems so ad libbed and decided on the hoof, right down to the improvised location of the camp once Paternoster Square was blocked off on the first Saturday. No one seems really to be able to explain what the protest/protestors are actually hoping to achieve (beyond “fixing democracy”), or how they were hoping to achieve it – like John says, above, it’s a problem with action, and that makes everything seem so aimless and futile, which in turn makes the media see the whole thing as frivolous and fun, as you point out.

    With previous big protests there was a specific goal, but here there’s no war, legislation or development that they’re trying to stop- and when the organisers are asked for clarity or coherency, they say things like this (via the Guardian, last week http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/23/way-forward-99-occupy-london):

    “Our response to systemic failure is not to propose a new system, but to start making one. We’re in the business of defining process, and specific demands will evolve from this in time… We have common concerns about the relationship between government and the financial system. But, in a way, the core message of OccupyLSX (and the Occupy movement in general) is about the way we, as individuals, understand democracy.”

    Is the idea really to build a new society from the ground up, one that will replace the current one? If so, I deepy admire such a lofty goal, but without wishing to sound too sensible, is that kind of thing remotely doable? And while I’m all for idealism and romanticism, is such dreamy rhetoric going to garner the kind of mainstream support that will get lots of people on their side?

    • I understand your sentiments, but this:

      “The one thing, however, that prevents me from fully getting behind the protestors”

      quite frankly, should not even be a factor. As the above declaration in the photo states, “Get Involved”.

      I’m not having a go, I’m saying that even the language you use shows that you’re still viewing the protesters as people “to get behind”, rather than seeing them as “more of you”. If the lack of direction is an issue for you, surely, instead of seeing it as an obstacle to your participation, it would be better to try and remove said obstacle by getting down there and providing your own input?

      The more people get involved, the more focused the movement will be, and the more said focus will be refined. As the declaration says (and it frequently frustrates me that people don’t employ this more when thinking of such bodies as unions), “We are you”. You have the right to protest, and you have the freedom to see this as your struggle too.

  4. Even though at considerable length, extremely well said.

  5. Previous big protests with a specific goal haven’t worked.

    They haven’t worked because they are no threat to anyone. Big deal, so a couple of Class War types chuck bricks at McDonald’s. Let ‘em do it and everyone will tut over their Daily Mails and nothing will change.

    So why not try something ad-libbed and new, something that doesn’t involve that same old tedious script of kettling, a bit of violence, a few bad apples, burned Socialist Worker placards, blah blah blah? Why not just ad-lib something and see where it goes? Why not try to make finding a solution your goal, rather than starting off by telling everyone what the solution is and that they must all do it straight away or you’ll spray a mohican on a statue?

    I have no idea where this protest is going but it has already achieved an awful lot.

  6. this is the first thing on the occupy movement I’ve even felt remotely inclined to read! I am going to read it again and get a bit more up to speed.

  7. Delighted that the debate here is carrying on without me. Nothing to add except to say thanks for the comments and that I’m more inclined towards Lucy and Ben’s POV than John and Sam’s.

  8. Very much enjoyed reading that, Dorian. Similarly I enjoyed Suzanne Moore’s piece in G2 today which was also supportive of the OccupyLondon movement. Here in Dublin there is the (much smaller scale, obviously) OccupyDameStreet protest. As was the case when I visited the 15-M camp in the centre of Madrid during the summer I did at first find myself feeling the usual weary cynicism; a feeling that this was just the usual types again, alternative-lifestyle types spouting hot air. But I appreciate that such a response is not good enough. I agree with the majority of the Occupy protestors’ various statements about the state of democracy, the economic system and their ethical positions, so I want to get involved. But, certainly in Dublin, it has been difficult to figure out exactly what can be done, what can be achieved by pitching a smattering of tents in the small space outside Ireland’s central bank. So today I approached various protestors and asked for practical advice on what I could do. I didn’t get many clear answers and left feeling a bit disappointed. I know it’s a new movement, and that it’s finding its feet; and I realise that it is unfair to expect people to have all of the answers or indeed well-worked out answers to any question I could throw at them. Nevertheless, I have felt that the movement is being held back by a lack of clarity and this has stemmed the movement’s popular appeal somewhat. It ought of course to have mass appeal – it is an occupation on behalf of “the 99%” after all – but I think a lot needs to be worked out at this stage. As you can possibly tell from the rambling tone of this comment I’m still trying to work out how I can support the protestors through anything other than words at the moment (my job prevents me from camping out with them, and even if I were free to do just that I do wonder in what way it helps). It will be interesting to see if the movement grows, but for the moment it seems that some cities have worked out the organisational side of things better than other cities have. The OccupyLondon group’s admirable behaviour in the face of legal threats from the council and St Paul’s Cathedral has in many ways set the benchmark. If the Occupy movements become emblematic of another way of running things, adverts for a compassionate, generous-hearted alternative to the ugly neo-liberal capitalism we’ve become used to, maybe things will pick up.

  9. The way to change things is to utilise the power the government have unwittingly provided us – online democracy. Their petitions & plebiscites that brought about the disclosure of suppressed information about the Hillsborough disaster. Imagine the time when we the people decide that rather than sign up to get the talking shop of Parliament discussing an issue, we discuss it ourselves and vote on it as a population and bypass our elected representatives entirely. If they try and shut it down, they look as desperate as Mubarek in clinging on to power in the teeth of popular will. We CAN govern ourselves without elected representatives, our will to be expedited by the existing Civil Service. Of course a major flaw of this is the complete disengagement of the public with politics and awareness, so on this factor and this factor alone I applaud Occupy for at least trying to focus public attention to real issues and thought. But unless there is an uplift of that back throughout all organs of society, I remain unconvinced. We have the means to seize power relatively bloodlessly. But I’m sure we won’t take the opportunity.

  10. [...] (But if they do leave, will they have left a lasting impression or will corporate self-interest be as avaricious and omnipresent as ever?) [...]


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