‘Occupy’ is a response to economic permafrost
In February I wrote a blog called “Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere”. With the global Occupy protests yesterday it is still looking quite accurate. But it’s now clear there is a 21st reason. And a 22nd. We’ve had nine months of political paralysis. And people have begun to feel the economic permafrost setting in.
Even in America, where the protests are bigger and have a bigger penumbra of liberal celebrities and writers to give them salience, the initial response to Occupy Wall Street was to ask: what does this mean for the Democrats? Will Obama’s ratings improve?
It’s a pointless question. Most people involved in such protests have switched off from mainstream politics: they believe it’s a rich-person’s club and totally impenetrable to reason or pressure. In Britain they have no intention of “raising demands” on Labour in opposition.
In fact they revel in their diversity; it was true in Syntagma and it is true at St Paul’s - if you ask 50 people why they’re here and what they want you will get 50 answers.
But these protests are a powerful signal worldwide. Their mere existence shows that people are determined to “think globally” about routes out of this crisis - at a time when economics is driving politicians down the route of national solutions. However marginalised they are politically - and in some countries, above all America and Greece, they have broken out of marginalisation - it is still a fact: in 1931, as the remnants of Globalisation 1.0 collapsed, there were no mass international protests against austerity. There were plenty of national, and indeed nationalist ones.
What is absolutely clear however, is what they are determined to do: it’s much bigger than any single-issue campaign or cause. They mean to limit the power of finance capital and build a more equal society, while rejecting the hierarchical methods of the parties that once claimed to do so. In this sense the movement is a kind of replacement social democracy; a mirror image of the besuited young people who populate the think tanks of Labour, the SPD, the US Democrats etc.
Occupy Everywhere, then, is the kind of movement you get when people start to believe mainstream politicians have lost their principles, or are trapped by vested interests, or are all crooked.
That’s the answer to the question “what”. The answer to why now? Basically we are in danger of a global stagnation - it was HSBC’s economics team that described it as a permafrost. It poses the question “who pays for the banking crisis” very acutely. And large numbers of people are now realising it is going to be them, and more painfully, their children. As in Greece, in that circumstance, for every protester camped in the freezing dawn there may be many more quietly fuming in their living rooms who feel the same way.