New Internationalist

The occupation will not be astroturfed


Late last month activists occupying the grounds outside St Paul’s cathedral read that Maurice Glasman approved of their decision to focus criticism on the ‘City of London Corporation’, on the Guardian website.This came as a surprise to many. First off, the camp had made no such decision. Secondly, this leak to the press contradicted every principle on which the occupation is based.

This diverse group of occupiers have sought to democratize the square mile ‘state within a state’ that is the City of London Corporation, but not by focusing their attention on a single issue to ‘campaign’ for. Instead, they have created a  model of true, representative democracy – a method of decision making which demands that everyone is listened to.

This lengthy, fluid, and evolving means of building consensus determines the occupation’s aims at any given time. Within this process, there are many people formulating ideas, which then are discussed, developed, rejected or agreed by the entire group, openly. Leaking documents, spin, and triangulation have no place in this scenario.

Enter Blue Labour. This is a vision of Britain dreamed up by Maurice Glasman, a theologian and philosopher. The mantra ‘faith, flag, and family’ underpins an intellectual fantasy exercise that gives Labour a new policy springboard, but without changing their economic approach. This emerging ideology has so far led to Labour questioning gender equality, so they can avoid addressing either their economic failures or the rolling back of the welfare state, and playing on social divides which are volatile in times of declining living standards. Blue Labour thinking is a by-product of the very same economic dogma that occupy movements universally oppose.

Glasmans’ ability to respond so quickly and eloquently to a document being passed around for signatures at midnight before publication raised suspicion in the Occupy camp. It transpired that Glasman had visited the camp a week before, and subsequently followed up contact with an activist he met there. John Milbank writes that Glasman was endeavouring to persuade the occupiers to focus on the City of London.

Following Glasman’s interest in this particular issue, the occupiers reported a change in the decision-making process around the Corporation of London debate. Unlike the carefully inclusive discussion which would usually characterise debates here,  occupiers felt that night’s discussion had been ‘railroaded’. Many of those in working groups and general assemblies had been ‘reassured’ that the document about the Corporation of London had been approved by journalists and ‘credible people’ outside the camp.

The population of the occupation changes in size and anyone present is part of the decision making process if they choose to be. It just so happened that someone who worked closely with Glasman on the formulation of Blue Labour, appeared at the Sunday evening General Assembly, where the Corporation proposal was voted on. Another associate has also spoken at assemblies.

The suspicion at Occupy is that Blue Labour thinkers have actively sought to set the agenda here. Many at the camp are well versed in the short history of ‘astroturfing’ – or simulating a grassroots movement – and attempts at co-option. In the past year, Ed Miliband’s astroturfing techniques (learned from the US Democrats) have enjoyed some success. Initiatives like Netroots and  co-ordination of the political blogosphere are two examples from his leadership campaign.

This breed of politics does not work in a changing, leaderless organisation where consensus is needed. The experience is part of a steep learning curve for the occupiers, but one activist told me ‘it is to be expected at this stage in the occupation, it’s one of those things’.  There is little chance of Occupy London being passed off as a grassroots Blue Labour camp any time soon.

A Labour Party member I spoke to, who had been at the Edinburgh occupation said the thing he had found most interesting had been that ‘It’s about people and a common goal .The interesting thing is the organization and consensus.’  His comments are something that those involved in this muddled attempt at co-option would find novel, but could learn from.

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