Protests tend to be alike. There will be crowds of urban hipsters with the odd trade unionist, ideologue, religious fanatic and career demonstrator thrown in. They are an easy target for conservative pundits because, despite history, we don’t think of street protest as a British thing. To go out into London with banners and placards seems fundamentally ridiculous. The bloggers and national commentariat have had a field day.
Yet there is something stupid and immature about the opposition to the Occupy LSX protest. The demonstrators were kicked out of the City following an injunction. Their camp set up at St Paul’s. Critics claimed the cathedral was an irrelevant target – but St Paul’s is backed by City interests worth £450bn. Then the cathedral closed its doors. Conservative pundits moaned that a great religious organisation had been emasculated by a handful of crusties. In a ludicrous piece for the Telegraph, Dan Hodges whined that ‘the direct action movement, even with its rich and inglorious history of stupid, counterproductive acts of self-indulgence, has somehow contrived to turn a protest against the banks into the closure of one of Britain’s most revered houses of worship, beggars belief… In closing the Great West door, Occupy LSX have succeeded where the Luftwaffe failed.’ In his characterisation of the Occupy movement (‘The right to worship?’ ‘Screw that’) Hodges even implied that the protestors had breached the right to freedom of religion – perhaps forgetting London’s unmatched density of churches, chapels and cathedrals, the omniscience of the Divine, and the power of prayer.
Media lawyer David Allen Green worked near the cathedral and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. It had been the church authorities’ decision to close the doors, on public order grounds you could drive a bus through – and in his article, Green did just that.
I walk past the St Paul’s at least twice a day. I have no particular sympathy for many of the causes promoted by the protesters, but over the last ten days I have been impressed by how the camp, and the protesters generally, have conducted themselves. The camp is clean, there is no significant impediment to the Cathedral steps or any other entrance, and there appears to be no graffiti or other damage. Indeed, one might say it is the very model of how a protest should be done. And it is a daily reminder to the City workers who pass of issues which the protesters do not think should be ignored. To my mind, it causes no real inconvenience to anyone.
A couple of high-profile resignations later someone in the senior clergy realised that a violent mass eviction, Dale Farm-style, may have an adverse impact on the groovy-Cameroony image the Anglican Church has crafted with care for many years, and an uneasy coexistence has been reached.
The barrage of half-arsed satires and lazy comedy continued. The protestors are middle class! They don’t sleep in their tents! Ho-ho-ho! In what has to be the least effective piece of advocacy journalism to date, a Daily Squawk reporter camped out in a demonstrator’s garden. The paper claimed that its ridiculous stunt was ‘striking a blow for the Daily Express’s ‘Boot Them Out’ crusade, aimed at ridding a rabble who succeeded where Hitler failed in closing the Cathedral.’ The target, an ex-Conservative councillor who joined the St Paul’s protest, comes off as sane and reasonable. (‘Why don’t you people sleep in your tents at night?’ ‘Well, we have jobs and families.’ ‘Er, all right then.’)
Another widespread criticism against the protestors was the Facebook poster taunt ‘Ha ha, you’re against capitalism but you drink Starbucks and use smartphones.’ Tory MP Louise Mensch, who I actually have a lot of respect for, used this infantile argument on a recent Have I Got News for You. ‘It was amusing to see the longest queue for Starbucks ever at an anticapitalist protest… You can’t be against capitalism and then take everything it provides.’ Ian Hislop queried this: ‘So, if you buy coffee, your opinions are worthless?… You don’t have to want to return to a barter system in the Stone Age to complain about the way the financial crisis affected large numbers of people in the world.’ The point was: if Occupy LSX were puritans who made coffee from pavement dirt and communicated by string and tin cans, they would have been worthy of ridicule. As it was, protestors were mocked because they were prepared to compromise their principles in a pluralist society.
It always helps to remember the bigger picture. We had a horrendous recession caused by the stupidity of rich people in the financial elite working from a medieval relic in the centre of London where democratic law does not apply. Instead of being given prison sentences for the damage they caused to people’s lives, the bankers are rewarded with tax breaks and January bonuses well above the average wage. The price is being paid by middle and working class people, who are being hammered by a government that has reduced economics to a morality tale. This week it cut off access to legal representation for some of the poorest people in the country. Growth has been minimal and, far from cutting the deficit, we are spending even more on corporate public sector schemes to harass the growing numbers of unemployed into private sector jobs that aren’t there.
Hardest hit are the old, the sick, the disabled and anyone born after 1980 or so (there are entire generations that simply don’t exist as far as this government is concerned). Vulnerable groups are one thing but – and Ed Miliband, for all his policy-wonk awkwardness, does seem on a fundamental level to understand this – everyone is being hurt. Shoplifting is going up. And not shoplifting of luxuries and electricals but basic stuff: ‘Cheese comes a long way top, meat second, then fish and baby milk.’ In County Durham you can find Salvation Army run food banks. A charity spokesman described his service as ‘a collaboration between five other churches, whose parishioners were increasingly aware of families and young people in financial trouble.’ The Big Society in action.
Capitalism is clearly better than anything else that’s been tried. Marx wrote several passages of praise for capitalism, recognising in it a revolutionary nature missing from, say, feudal theocracy. And revolutionary movements often contain deeply unpleasant people who want to replace the market with something ten times worse. But the coalition’s doctrinaire monopoly capitalism failed in 2008 and has still failed. There is no reason we can’t have a dynamic market economy and at the same time ensure that people have a decent income and standard of living. Markets are man made. There is nothing wrong with wanting to regulate the system so it becomes a tool of humanity and not some capricious volcano god. And perhaps one day humanity will evolve past the market and enter a state of happiness, wealth, freedom and co-operation. Sounds naive and idealistic, I know, but so did the minimum wage and the eight-hour day, in other times.
If you join a protest you generally risk making a joke of yourself. Yet the Occupy LSX crowd have a dignity. It’s good to see people get off their backsides and actually doing something. It is the commenters and pundits, stroking their beards and making the same tedious jokes and playing the same bullshit intellectual games, that have become the real fools.