Since it started, I have had a difficulty understanding the “Occupy” movement – Occupy Wall Street, its London cousin Occupy LSX, and the many (apparently thousands) demonstrations that have sprung up around the world.
My difficulty was that I couldn’t see what they were for.
I couldn’t see what they wanted.
I’ve also had several conversations about Occupy in the last month, perhaps stemming from discussion of the key events of the year; I think Occupy resonates with many people in the UK – even if we don’t understand it, there seems to be a feeling that it is a good thing.
One conversation – on the back of a couple of articles I read in Rolling Stone – made me think maybe I was asking the wrong questions: I found myself debating with someone who is much more active and has been down to Occupy LSX many more times than I have that it didn’t matter that they had no demands or agenda, that it wasn’t clear what they stood or the fact that they have no identifiable leaders.
The very fact that Occupy LSX is there is holding corporate Britain (and, given their camp in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, spiritual Britain, too) to account is what matters. They are saying “things are wrong and we want change” – not that they have all the answers and know what needs to change, not even agreeing how much needs to change. Their presence in the heart of the City acts as our collective conscience, reminding people – especially those who pace the trading floors nearby – that there are consequences to their actions.
There is a saying: “the markets don’t have a conscience”. Perhaps they do now.
Yet a few other things I have watched and read, and conversations I have had, suggest that those who perhaps most need to change – the fund managers and traders, the corporate expense-junkies – have yet to understand that society has changed and is calling for them to listen, to reflect and to try to understand. For instance, this report shows just how far removed some of America’s ultra-rich are from most people. (As Scott Fitzgerald is [apparently erroneously] reputed to have said, “The rich are different from you and me…”)
Someone working with a large financial institution told me how the people running it were so cocooned that the idea of spending a comparatively small amount – about the same as some of the larger bonuses that get reported – on sponsoring arts and cultural organisations that are suffering from central and local government cuts. This ought to have been a “no-brainer”, but the idea of giving money away seemed an anathema. (They spent over £50m in advertising, according to their last annual report).
I don’t think I have been able to make sense of OccupyLSX, but I guess we still need the conscience that the Occupy movement can make apparent.
(Incidentally, this blog post discusses the role of “leaders” and the context they bring, and what it may mean for the Occupy movement.)