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Occupy: this is the end of the beginning


Not long after midnight this morning, the bailiffs finally moved in to evict the tents at the Occupy Camp at St Paul’s. The message is obvious. The City of London does not want a permanent witness to its excesses on the verge of the London Stock Exchange.

It is over four months now since the first mass meetings on those iconic steps. Perhaps it is fitting that the location is best known across the world for the scene in the film Mary Poppins which also features a run on the bank. Now the tour guides will have another story to tell.

The #OccupyLSX camp did not seriously challenge the economic or physical power of the financial élite. But it has dented their once mighty ideological hegemony.  Think back to autumn 2011. The world was still in the warm glow of the fall of Mubarak, and worried corporate and political élites were trying to spin the unrest as a desire of the rest of the world to adopt the neoliberal systems of the West.

Occupy changed all that. On 15 October 2011, protests in more than 900 towns in more than 80 countries took place showing how the struggle against dictators in North Africa is part of a struggle for real democracy across the world. The mainstream media swelled with viewpoints rarely heard on the airwaves. Meanwhile, a nascent infrastructure of alternative media channels emerged, including live-streams, social media accounts with thousands of followers and the impressively compiled movement newspaper Occupied Times. Spaces dubbed the Tent City University, the Bank of the Ideas and the School of Ideas have provided venues for debate and co-learning outside of the usual hegemonic structures, while outreach programmes have brought the debate far beyond the squares. Amongst all this, St Paul’s has gained an iconic status as the world’s longest-running Occupy camp.

Perhaps the major criticism levelled against Occupy is that it has not been clear enough in its demands. To some extent this case is made by people who haven’t made an effort. The most cursory Google search can bring up both the principles decided on the second day and the quite specific demands on the City of London for greater accountability. And so the context was set, so that when #occupytesco started trending on Twitter, a swathe of companies backtracked on their policy of using unpaid labour, worried at the prospect of Occupy visiting them.  

But the point of Occupy is not only to protest. For many participants, Occupy represents an experiment in building a different network of relations capable of bypassing the power structures as they stand. But if this has been Occupy’s strength, is has also been its weakness. Creating new societies in the shadow of the old has its benefits. But to dismantle the power structures of the figurative 1 per cent will at some point mean taking the 1 per cent on directly. 

If we take a historical perspective, there is no need for downheartedness. The movement of the 99 per cent is still young and only in the first stage of building mass consciousness. In order to build the strength to confront the illegitimate élites, the movement must first co-ordinate the infrastructure to do so. That must be the next stage. You cannot evict an idea. And as Occupy court defendant George Barda put it to the BBC today: this isn’t the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen.

Photo: Alan Stanton under a CC Licence

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