Sun 23 Oct 2011
OK, I gotta confess. I have a real problem with the #occupywherever thing. Hang on – put down the stones. It’s not that I don’t agree that it’s undesirable – evil, even – that 1% of the world has most of the wealth in its pockets, or that corporate greed is a huge problem and needs to have a chainsaw taken taken to it. Indeed, you won’t find many people who are as critical of Big Business practices (and even Little Business practices for that matter) as I am. Gee, I’m even up for a protest march every once in a while, if the situation benefits from it.
The thing is, as I see it the #occupy process is just not really a productive way to address what’s wrong in this particular case. More than that – I think it may even be a bad way to do it.(i)
Think about it for a moment. What does the #occupy movement hope to get done? For the most part it doesn’t appear to have any goals as such, other than a fairly general ‘It’s broken and we demand someone fixes it!’ manifesto. Evidently the reasoning is that if you get enough people to get together and shout that loud enough, then something will happen. Well, duh, it IS broken, and it SHOULD be fixed, but stamping your foot on the ground, chanting slogans and incurring the wrath of the conservative authorities is unlikely to achieve much. Sure you get footage of the police being brutish and stupid, but for what? A sum total of howling righteous indignation for being treated badly? The only message to be taken away from that is that the police, when instructed to move obdurate people on, will likely hit them with a stick if they resist. Again (sadly), duh.
If you do a Search™ on “goals of the occupy movement” you’ll see exactly what I mean. You get a whole bunch of links essentially discussing what such goals might be, but nothing much that defines those goals in any concrete terms. There’s stuff like this blog, ranking high on the search, that opines: ‘…the Occupy movement does not need to release a list of demands. Their demands are the demands of the majority of the American people.’ Sheesh.
According to abovementioned blog’s writer (who appears to be fairly representative on a quick scout), among these demands would be:
…raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans , universal health care, corporations are NOT people, money should not equal free speech, and we need to get the big money interests out of our politics. [sic]
In short, we could easily simplify this to be a call for the rectification of imbalances that favour the rights of the few over the rights of the many. In effect, then, the #occupy movement is objecting to a general level of injustice that has existed in human civilizations from the beginning of recorded history.
A protest highlighting such disharmony could be an extremely useful thing in the right circumstances, but the #occupy phenomenon in the democratic Western world is quite unlike the uprisings of the Arab Spring (with which it aligns itself) because many of the governing bodies of the Middle Eastern countries where that particular movement arose don’t allow their populations to have a say in the handling of inequalities. In America (like Australia), though, there is already a way for ‘the majority’ of people to address these kinds of issues: vote anyone who is in favour of a particular inequality out of power. In fact, we’ve nearly ALWAYS had that option, yet the fact is that we don’t exercise it! It is a simple idea and it works like this: if Obama doesn’t agree that there’s an inequality, vote him out! If George W doesn’t agree, vote him out! But – and here’s the crux – DON’T THEN GO AND VOTE FOR SOME OTHER IDIOT WHO ACTS THE SAME WAY! If you do that, you’re not voting to fix the problems of inequality, you’re voting for something else.
What, then, is wrong here? If, as the #occupy bunch contend, the majority of Americans agree with them, why isn’t that majority using their democratic power to change things, as they surely could? This problem is not new. It didn’t suddenly happen last week.
As I understand it, the #occupy movement seems to invoke conspiracy to answer this question: the governments are in on it; they want to keep the people poor; it’s Big Business itself that runs things.(ii) As is usually the case when anyone resorts to conspiracy theories, I think the actual answer is much simpler. I think the answer in this case is that the ‘majority’ of people are stupid. Well, I guess that’s harsh. Let’s say the majority of people are not properly educated, and don’t know how to wield the power they have. They also don’t understand (or don’t want to know) that to get the things they say they want, they’ll have to lose some of the things that they take for granted as ‘entitlements’ and some of the things that make them comfortable. The ‘majority’ of Americans (and Australians) are pretty damned skittish around that prospect. To give you some examples: an inequality of universal healthcare is not fixed by voting for a politician who offers you a reduction in your taxes. An inequality of rich people paying less tax than anyone else is not fixed by not-being-bothered-to-get-off-your-fat-ass-and-vote-in-the-first-place. Inequalities arising from having to deal with the planet heating up are not fixed by racking up your air conditioner to 11, driving a 6 cylinder 4WD and voting for a government that buys that vote with cheaper fuel prices. You get the drift.
What we have here is a situation where 1% of the population may have all the money, but the #occupy movement just represents a different 1% of people who want to get up on soapboxes and shout about how unfair that is. Yes, it sure is unfair, but to observe that is nothing more than a schoolyard no-brainer. The real problem is the 98% of people in the middle and their enormous apathy combined with selfishness and a frightening lack of acumen. It is partially because of them that the wealthy 1% are there in the first place, because they could, if they really wanted to, change that.
I suggest that this is the goal that the #occupy movement should be seeking (in democratic countries, at least): to teach people how to use their democratic power in an effective manner, and to educate them to understand that the change that ‘the majority’ wants, will come at a cost to more than just the wealthy 1% (who SHOULD be taxed more, don’t get me wrong. That is certainly something that needs to be addressed, but they are not the biggest part of the problem – they’re mostly a symptom and an easy target). Unlike much of the Middle East, we have system in place that could effect the kinds of changes we want if we only had the will.
As I write this, police have been called in to disperse #occupymelbourne, the demonstration in my own city. There is a sense of outrage and disbelief, which I share, that this kind of heavy-handed tactic should be implemented here. But I find myself kind of agreeing with the Lord Mayor of Melbourne when he said of the eviction:
Well, we’ve given them a fair go. We’ve allowed them to make their point.
Because, realistically speaking, what were the protesters hoping to achieve, if not this kind of outcome? Were they intending to stay there until the problem of societal inequality was fixed? If not, then what? That they got some kind of guarantee, perhaps, (by… whom?…) that things would be made better? Or were they intending to hang around so long that people got bored with them being there and ceased to notice their presence? You see my point, I trust.
It seems to me that if you can’t clearly outline what you hope to gain by your presence in such a demonstration and there is no definite outcome to be had, you can hardly be snitty about being told to move along after a reasonable show of solidarity (I want to emphasise here, in case it isn’t plain, that I don’t think sending in the police was a particularly sensible thing to do, and I certainly do not hold for one minute with any heavy-handedness or violence from them.(iii) I think the whole thing could have been handled with a lot more diplomacy, but that it unraveled the way it did just adds further weight to my assessment of the protest as an ultimately unproductive mess. Take note governing bodies: using police force is possibly the worst thing you can do in this instance. It’s just pouring fuel on a fire.)
The #occupy movement is painting itself as a revolution, but a revolution to achieve what, in the end? A fair system of government? We already have one of those – it’s called democracy and it is, to date, the fairest kind of governing system we’ve ever been able to devise. If the complaint is that the democracy we have isn’t working so good, then, sure, maybe that’s right. And it’s completely true that we only have the government to blame. But in a democracy, the government is… us. All of us. In a democracy, if the system is broken, then we are all to blame.
- I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but it seems to me that every nutjob and his dog is attempting to use these protests to further their on agenda. If it’s something that pisses off The Man, there’s someone at #occupywoop-woop on a megaphone about it. This is really counterproductive, as any protest organizer knows. What you need with a protest is a clear, easily graspable focus. Protests are not about doing anything per se, but about getting lots of coverage in the mainstream media. If you get that coverage and no-one in television land can tell what the fuck you’re on about, your protest is a waste of time and energy. [↩]
- I’m basing this observation on my readings of the Twitter streams of various #occupy campaigns, which I’ve been tapping into over the last week or so, and on blogs I’ve read. It may be a misrepresentation, and if so, I’ll gladly take on any thoughtful commentary. [↩]
- And that goes for all the #occupy protests. [↩]