Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Occupy Ambivalence

I have very ambivalent thoughts about the Occupy Placename movements. On the one hand, they're highlighting that there are many areas in which the cosy political consensus does not have the support of the population, in a way that governments don't quite know how to respond to and can't entirely ignore. On the other hand, while the movements aren't likely to fall to party-political co-option, there's a definite problem with default-person co-option, Tyranny of Structurelessness, and so on. While some Occupy groups are trying to explicitly deal with these problems, some are very definitely not - and it makes their claim to be for "the 99%" rather dubious.

Part of the reason for the ambivalence, of course, is that there's no one Occupy movement - other than vague solidarity and similarity in some aims, and a global slogan and broad methodology, there's nothing to connect Occupy City A to Occupy City B. The actions and decisions of one don't directly affect the actions and decisions of another.

So the actions of one group can make me hopeful that this attempt at a revolution might really be a revolution - while the actions of another make me sure that it's just another attempt to reshuffle the people at the top (or as Melissa McEwan puts it, "[...] you're not staging a revolution: You're staging a change in management.")

Differences between the US and the UK

One of the questions regarding the UK protests has to be "why now?". The practical answer - that the US protests, themselves having at least some similarities in form to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions - have been successful and encouraged people elsewhere, isn't sufficient.

But the situation in the US and the UK is rather different. The recent news that the US median weekly wage for 2010 was $507, for instance. On hearing that, I needed context. So, I converted it to pounds, adjusted for the (small) purchasing power parity difference between the two nations, and then started comparing it with the ASHE results for the UK in the same year.

I live in the North East of England. It's a region that's been largely abandoned by successive governments, has high unemployment, high social deprivation, very little incoming investment, and wasn't in good shape even in the boom years. On a regional basis, it has the lowest median wage in the UK.

It also has a median wage - after currency conversions - around 10-15% higher than the US equivalent. Furthermore, the social safety net is more generous, and health care is both free and available.

The US as a whole is noticeably worse off than the worst bits of the UK. It's not surprising that the US is rising up in protest; nor is it surprising that it didn't before.

10% or 30% or 99%

The UK, meanwhile... there are some seriously deprived parts of the UK. But most of these have been hated by governments for years. The protests in the UK - their appearance at this time - aren't about those bits. They aren't about the consistent demonisation of disabled people that has been ongoing for decades. They aren't about the consistent racism and classism that set off riots in the 80s and riots this summer. They're - in many ways - about the worry on the part of the middle classes that they'll end up poor too.

The UK economy is heading into a severe mess, inflicted by the "expansionary austerity" beliefs of the government - and this is making the middle classes less secure. Not unreasonably, they're worried. But the people at the bottom of the classism pile, and the people seriously affected by other marginalisations, have been there for a long time, and failed by our governmental and economic power structures for a long time. People could have come out on the streets to criticise those structures any time in the last decade.

And part of it - part of it - is that just as you can't have a riot by yourself, you can't have much of a protest - the late Brian Haw excepted - by yourself. The success of the US protests gives some of the discontent in the UK the knowledge that they could do this and not be alone. That might be why the Occupy camps in the UK appeared, and stayed. But there have been protests before.

Who are the protests for? Are they for those who were never at the top of society but thought that if they followed the rules they could lead a comfortable mostly-privileged life, or for the rest of the 99% as well, who knew that they'd never get that far as things stood? Are the efforts of the very poor, disabled people, women and [trigger warning] rape victims and other generally marginalised groups to be heard when speaking for themselves considered a part of Occupy, or separate? The answer varies from camp to camp, and even within a camp, of course. But the general trend I'm reading about in the UK is not making me optimistic.

We know best, now rise up and revolt

Claiming to be representing the 99% is rather tricky. That's a lot of people, who, collectively, agree on absolutely nothing. While the wealth and power may be concentrated in a very small group - far smaller than "the 1%" - that doesn't mean that the rest are going to agree, even on the necessity of overturning the established order.

But the standard response to anyone disagreeing with the approach is to point out that they are in the 99% too. It reminds me a bit of the contempt for people who make the "wrong" voting decision that s.e. smith talks about in the context of the US urban/rural divide.

Why assume that everyone below a certain extremely high wealth level should agree on:

  • The current system being unjust (when many of those protesting now didn't think so until it started obviously hurting them)
  • The proposed solution being better

It can't be better for all of the 99%, even afterwards.

If the revolution makes a fair effort to dismantle all privilege, then many mostly-default people are going to take some steps down in relative social position. If they really dismantle capitalism, globally, and end inequality, then almost everyone in the UK and USA is going to take several steps downwards relatively, and probably a few in absolute terms too, at least in the short term.

But if it doesn't make that effort and succeed, why should people other than the mostly-default take part in risky, dangerous, and untested revolution to choose who rules them with contempt1. We already have elections for that.

The assumption is the old socialist-lefty one that classism is so much bigger than every other form of oppression that if you end classism and capitalism the rest will just disappear. It might be necessary to end it, in practice - but it's nowhere near sufficient.


So, yes, ambivalence. The Occupy movements are well-intentioned and in some cases well-implemented. The power structures they are fighting against are deadly and oppressive, and need to go. But there's a tension there between destroying the power structures and commandeering them - and I don't have confidence that those wishing to destroy them will be able to shape the movements.

They're not going away, for now, and the escalation of violent responses from some governments suggest a panic about where they could go next. But where do they go next? Their very existence is achieving something - but not yet enough. Where they go - and what they do - depends on why they want to do it. Which aspects of privilege do they want to defeat and which do they want to accept? Hopefully the answers will become obvious soon.


1 If the rulers are bad enough, the people can become desperate enough to believe that bringing in a new set of bad rulers on a tide of blood can't possibly make things worse. And often, they're right, especially in the short term. But it can hardly be said to be congruent with the original noble goals of the revolution.