Remember, remember… the Occupy movement

Tonight is November 5th and in Britain that means it’s “bonfire night”, or “fireworks night”, or, perhaps more properly, “Guy Fawkes Night”. Fireworks are exploding all around me as I write, and yet strangely most people in Britain have very little idea who Guy Fawkes was, or what the so-called “Gunpowder Plot” was really all about. And I must confess that I am similarly ignorant when it comes to the important details of the case.

When younger, I even believed that Guy Fawkes was being celebrated on November 5th; the British being a people renowned (or at least believing themselves renowned) for cheering on the valiant underdog who presses forward in spite of the incredible odds stacked against them – Scott of the Antarctic’s misguided adventures making him the very model of a modern British hero – and what better underdog than Fawkes himself, taking it to the entire British establishment with just a few barrels of gunpowder and a damp tinderbox? Attempting the impossible with only the covert support of a merry band of trusty but evidently suicidal comrades!

So fireworks night, when I was a child, had naïvely appeared like a tribute to Fawkes’ audacious and so nearly successful (if we accept the propaganda) overthrow of the ruling authorities, that ended in his martyrdom. Fawkes being sentenced to be publicly hanged, drawn and quartered – which happens to be the other part of the story that just about everyone in Britain still knows. For some reason it simply didn’t occur to me that the burning of his effigy on bonfires throughout the land was actually a celebration, not of his doomed but gallant attempt, but of his capture (along with his fellow co-conspirators) just in the nick of time – the fireworks bursting not in mimicry of the gunpowder in the plot, but in mockery of Fawkes’ failure to ignite it.

Had I been born and raised in Northern Ireland, where sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics still persist – instead of in a sleepy Shropshire village close to the Welsh border – I would undoubtedly have understood the real significance of November 5th a good deal better and much earlier than I did. A very close friend who had lived in the province later pointing out to me that “Burning the Catholic Night”, as he preferred to call it, was something perfectly well understood by those on both sides of the religious divide.

And then there is the famous rhyme:

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

This was something I, like most Britons of my age, had once committed to memory. Learning the lines in school whilst also hearing them so often repeated outside of school. And since we are free from committing ourselves to any daily pledge of allegiance in Britain, this is just about as close as we ever collectively came to swearing any kind of national oath. A verse with an underlying message that is both stark and abundantly clear, at least when you stop to think about it: reminding us all that once upon a time, long, long ago, a few desperados attempted to overthrow the government and look where it got them.

So why mention any of this? Well, exactly twelve months ago to the day, something remarkable was happening in my home city of Sheffield. A small band of disillusioned strangers were getting ready to set up a makeshift protest camp outside the cathedral. Thus the Occupy movement that first sprang into being with the Spanish Los Indignados in Spring, re-emerging in Wall Street in mid-September, before spreading so rapidly from city to city and state to state, had suddenly sparked a response across the pond in Britain. A global protest movement was beginning to take shape, and not before time.

For some weeks, I deliberated. Keen to support those taking to the streets, but reluctant to camp down in the bitter cold and join in the overnight vigils. Instead, I visited the camp on a number of occasions, especially in the early stages, although as the weeks wore on, began to feel that my visits were more like intrusions. My lack of all-out commitment turning me into an outsider, whilst inside the canvass enclave, a shared hardihood was quickly bonding the 24/7 occupiers into what increasingly felt like a clique. Not that I blame the people living on the camp for this, since it must have been extremely hard for them dealing with the cold and discomfort whilst others like myself occasionally came by and then, just as quickly, departed again. Rushing back to the warmth and security of our homes.

But as time passed, I also wondered what it was that the mainstay of the Occupy Sheffield camp thought their continued presence on the city streets would ultimately achieve. Certainly, it showed that they had tremendous conviction and were deeply committed to the cause, proving their mettle by battling against the worsening elements day and night, but in the face of mixed public opinion was this really the best way to spread the bigger message and bring others on-board. I never really thought so.

And the message exactly? Everyone understood very well that the demand was for ‘change’ – and so probably the majority in Sheffield were already broadly sympathetic to that stated aim. Change has rarely been so urgently required and for this reason there are a great many people, especially as you move North in this country, who have long been crying out for a more radical change in political direction – but precisely what kind of change were those in the Occupy protests calling for? This was simply never made clear enough, as it so easily could have been, with no programme outlined nor strategy agreed. All of these important details being considered too much of a straight-jacket apparently. But then, as I wrote at the time, there were many problems with the whole approach taken by the Occupy movement.

The Occupy Sheffield encampment lasted little more than a couple of months, snuffed out by cold weather and, I think it is fair to conclude, a disappointing lack of progress. Which was really the way with the Occupy movement more widely: starting off as a genuine grassroots uprising, it would soon become partially co-opted (certainly this was attempted in America) but mostly, was either crushed by police assaults (again this was very evidently the case in America) or else it simply fizzled out due of its inherent looseness of structure and lack of obvious, purposeful direction. So the steady demise of Occupy has been saddening, but only what we all should have expected.

If, in future years, the Occupy movement is remembered in any popular historical context, it will only be because a far stronger movement arose from its ashes. In such an event, one feature of those future accounts, aside from descriptions of the tent cities themselves, will probably include mention of the Guy Fawkes masks. And it’s strange to think that such a quintessentially British anti-hero somehow became imported back to us from America, albeit radically shape-shifted after his silver-screen renaissance in the film “V for Vendetta”.

Already used as a disguise by hackers in the group Anonymous, the Fawkes mask was quickly adopted as representing the anonymous 99% percent and worn by many on the streets in the Occupy protests. And it lent the movement a somewhat more subversive air than it truly warranted; Fawkes, in the film, having been recast as the faceless man in the mask who, though righteous, is more or less entirely nihilistic in his comic book rampage against a despotic future government. His first act being to blow up the Old Bailey, and his last (here comes a major plot spoiler – so be warned… because you’d probably never guess!) to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Two well-aimed strikes that entirely obliterated our national emblems of Justice and Democracy, which are, after all, still the only places where those of us in the 99% get any representation at all.

Was this the kind of revolution those within Occupy were really seeking… no, of course it wasn’t! But, if not, then why adopt the masks? Symbols being of utmost importance, as those with real power understand very well – and the reason our culture is altogether saturated with flags, banners and logos of every description.

So although powerfully evocative, I regard the adoption of the Fawkes mask as a mistake, and as a mistake, one that accidentally revealed a deeper truth about the movement itself: that from the outset the Occupy movement was, like the man in the mask, suffering from an excess of anarchism. Seeking to rebuild the whole of society from the ground upwards, and yet without offering any real alternatives. That like Fawkes and his rag-tag gang of four hundred years earlier, Occupy hadn’t stood the ghost of a chance in any case. In its methods, rather than in its aims, Occupy having been poisoned by a terminal dose of utopianism. And that unlike Fawkes, the Occupy protests never properly got beyond the stage of wishful thinking.

Not that I am advocating violence of any kind, because I certainly do not – believing for both moral and also more pragmatic reasons that violence should only ever be a last resort in any situation, political or otherwise. Indeed, violence of different forms is what we are all confronted by – the direct violence of pepper spray and taser, or the more insidious violent assaults against our hard-won economic rights and individual freedoms. Our adversary (the same one that Eisenhower famously referred to as the military-industrial complex, although perhaps better renamed the financial-military-industrial complex) having armed itself to the teeth and constantly ready to resort to violence at the first hint of any trouble. So the struggle we face will become near impossible to win if it ever means trying to fight fire only with fire. Fire being the element ‘the powers that be’ always understand best.

It is, however, imperative that we directly confront the corruption we increasingly find all around us. So Occupy was important and if only because it first galvanised and then channelled our growing dissent – aiming it more precisely at the unfettered power brokers in Wall Street and the City of London. It was mistaken, however, in imagining that such widespread public outcry alone might somehow be enough. This was always the biggest fault with the original Occupy movement, and the reason I think that it never grew above a certain size, and will never, in its current form (since pockets of the movement still exist), develop into the full-blown mass movement that is required.

This November 5th happens to fall on the eve of the US elections, elections that amply illustrate not only how desperate the immediate situation is becoming, but also how badly the Occupy protests (not to mention the thoroughly co-opted Tea Party protests) have failed in the longer term. Now you may say, as many in Britain do say to me, that we should leave it to the Americans to worry about America, and trouble ourselves with what’s happening closer to home. My primary objection to such a disinterested position being straightforward: that whatever is happening today in America will come home soon enough. Britain more than any other country (Israel excepted) marching to the beat of the American drum – or more correctly the Anglo-American (aka Wall Street and the City of London) drum. Full-steam ahead and with the rest of the western world expected to follow – and destined to follow, if we all continue to allow our destiny to be decided for us.

So what can we expect this time around in the US election pageant? Well, neither Obama nor Romney are about to change anything of significance, or at least not in any helpful way. They are both well known sell-outs to the same special interest groups that have taken control our societies, and for this reason their stated policies are so inherently similar that there has been little worth debating at all – the presidential debates serving mostly to debase the proper meaning of the word ‘debate’.

Whatever happens in tomorrow’s election, those in Wall Street and the City of London will continue to be very well served because, as Nomi Prins wrote recently, “Before the Election was Over, Wall Street won”:

Before the campaign contributors lavished billions of dollars on their favorite candidate; and long after they toast their winner or drink to forget their loser, Wall Street was already primed to continue its reign over the economy.

For, after three debates (well, four), when it comes to banking, finance, and the ongoing subsidization of Wall Street, both presidential candidates and their parties’ attitudes toward the banking sector is similar – i.e. it must be preserved – as is – at all costs, rhetoric to the contrary, aside.

Obama hasn’t brought ‘sweeping reform’ upon the Establishment Banks, nor does Romney need to exude deregulatory babble, because nothing structurally substantive has been done to harness the biggest banks of the financial sector, enabled, as they are, by entities from the SEC to the Fed to the Treasury Department to the White House.1

Click here to read more of Nomi Prins thorough-going analysis.

That said, I don’t doubt that Romney, if elected, will be more dangerous than Obama, since Romney has candidly told us as much. Intent to push harder and faster in the same old directions, Romney becoming president will be much like a return to Bush, but this will be like Bush after a decade of Bush.

Coming in as a fresh face and determined to push on again with a freshly laundered neo-con offensive of more wars and less freedom. And whereas Obama was bad in pretending to be different from Bush, Romney will be worse again, and if only because he won’t be burdened by having to pretend so much: “hope and change” having ceased to be any part of the mainstream political discussion now taking place in America.

Of course, the ballot box has ultimately failed in America largely because the political system is stitched up between two parties. Third candidates being almost totally excluded from entering the debate, and not just because of the relative lack of financial backing (the big money having already been spent on the Obama–Romney spectacular), but also more directly in that access to the televised debates is tightly controlled by a non-profit organisation called the Commission on Presidential Debates:

To qualify for the debates, candidates must “have demonstrated a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly-reported results [as of September 21].” Of course it’s almost impossible to earn the support of 15% of the electorate if you don’t have regular access to network television or to the debates themselves.2

Click here to read more about why you probably didn’t hear anything from Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. All three had qualified for the ballot in enough states that they could, at least technically, have won the election, but whatever alternative they may have been offering was easily suppressed by other means. And when the ordinary course of democracy has been captured so completely in this way, then mass dissent becomes the only answer.

But if we, the 99%, are to successfully resist what is happening to us then we must learn very quickly from the failures of Occupy to help us move forward to the next stage. And we have to recognise that up to now all of the major protest movements have failed, or at least stalled (I gather that Syriza may still offer some small hope of a rescue of Greece).

Iceland stands out as the only exception to the rule. In Iceland the people won the day and the banks were prosecuted, but then Iceland is such a tiny place that, at least in terms of setting any precedent, it may very easily be disregarded as a uniquely special case. We ought nonetheless to applaud their victory, rather than (as I sometimes hear) deriding their people for not settling up on their debts – the debts were never theirs in the first place – which is perhaps the most important point that many still fail to appreciate about this crisis we face.

We must endeavour to turn this tide quickly, or we will soon lose everything that we still hold precious. The screws are about to be seriously tightened, and not just economically, since the ongoing economic collapse marks (and to some extent masks) what is really the trigger for the greater oppression to come – and if you still doubt this, then please take a moment to meditate on the implications of the NDAA indefinite detention bill that Obama so deceitfully passed into law late last December.

As the people are forced ever deeper into debt by banker bailouts and QE-infinity (as QE3 is also known), we will, by degrees, also be forced into servitude by other means. Compelled in the name of national security to give up on the rest of our inalienable rights and freedoms. And if we fail to resist by peaceful means, then eventually we will be left with only gunpowder and plot (and both in rather short supply I imagine) – a very messy and unreliable means for the re-establishment of any system of fair democracy and true justice.

*

Additional:

On August 25th, James Green, a community producer for Occupy Brooklyn TV, interviewed Norman Finkelstein, political dissident and world renowned scholar on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. They discussed his new book about Gandhi, which he has dedicated to the Occupy movement, and also talked about the Occupy movement more broadly. Here is an extract from the interview as transcribed in the late September edition of CounterPunch:

Like any good movement, the Occupy movement has to conduct a serious self criticism and look at what it did right and what it did wrong. At this point it’s pretty much disappeared. And that’s just a fact. I pass Union Square nearly every day and it’s a very sad sight now. When I go to Union Square the main occupants of the square now are the Hare Krishnas again. Well with all due respect to Hare Krishnas it was much more inspiring when the center stage was occupied by the Occupy movement. And that’s no longer the case. Last night when I passed it was the Hare Krishnas on one side and it was the young fellows doing their gymnastics to music on the other side surrounded by crowds of people. Well the Occupy movement is gone. And there has to be some serious reflection on what went wrong. Serious self criticism.

I think that people like Bloomberg, they’re complete thugs. No question about it. But on the other hand it must be said that they are politically savvy. They don’t get into those positions of power, in the case of Bloomberg both economic and political power, by being anybody’s fool. And they recognized that the Occupy movement had reached a point of extreme fragility. And that you can go in with the bulldozers, knock out the whole thing, and effectively eliminate it. They recognized, which I have to say I did not, that the fruit was ripe for the picking. They could get away with it at that point. And then the question is why. What happened? What went wrong? And I think there are two things, speaking as a strict outsider – and I always have to enter that caveat, two things which seemed to be wrong.

Number one, Gandhi’s great skill was as an organizer. He dug very deep roots in the Indian masses. He was not speaking from the outside. He was among them. He lived like them. He dug deep roots and he was careful, methodical, to the point of tedium, organizer of every detail of his movement. Most of his collected works consist overwhelmingly of letters. And he’s watching where every nickel and dime goes. This is the people’s money. Nothing is going to be wasted. Nothing is going to be squandered, let alone no one is going to be cheated. No one is going to get away with thievery. So the first rule is you have to dig very deep roots in your constituency. I’m not sure how successful the Occupy movement even initially was at that. I got the impression – it’s a superficial impression but nonetheless even surfaces tell something about reality – let’s say when you were in the Boston Occupy. There seemed to be a sense of “We the encampment.” Us versus them. Namely the world outside. We were the enlightened ones and surrounded by the corrupt society. That’s not how you build a movement. It has to be among the people. The moment it becomes us versus them you then become an easy target for the bulldozers because nobody cares.

The second thing which everybody said, [former editor of CounterPunch, Alexander] Cockburn put it as the – I don’t remember the exact adjective he used – something like the incessant speechifying. That the Occupy movement never got beyond the speechifying to Where’s the Beef? The ability to not just synthesize a slogan [i.e., “We are the 99%”], which was brilliantly done. But then we have to move from synthesizing a slogan to synthesizing a demand or a series of demands with the same criteria. Where is the consciousness of people? What’s the furthest you can reach them with, or their incipient consciousness? What are their demands. Obviously a demand like, nationalize the banks, no – people were no where near there. But demands like, if you had four demands. One, a moratorium on student loans. Two, a public works program. Three, a major increase in taxes for the rich. And four, something on the mortgage crisis which is hitting so many people badly.

If they had synthesized four simple demands and worked from there I think there were prospects. But they never made the transition from the slogan, which was excellent, to the demands. OK, what do you want? And it felt like we were stalling there. Exactly why it didn’t happen I don’t know. I’m not on the inside. Exactly why it didn’t happen, I can’t say. But I think personally the least significant factor by a wide margin was the police repression. The police repression was relatively minimal. And it didn’t require more than minimal. Because they wisely assessed that now was the moment to strike. It would work, and it did. The movement vanished. It is a source of wonder how it so quickly disappeared from sight.

Click here to read the full article in CounterPunch.

1From an article entitled “Before the Election was Over, Wall Street won” written by Nomi Prins, published on her own website on October 23, 2012. http://www.nomiprins.com/thoughts/2012/10/23/before-the-election-was-over-wall-street-won.html

2From an article entitled “Why are there only 2 Candidates in the Presidential Debates?” posted on October 3, 2012 by allgov.com http://www.allgov.com/news/top-stories/why-are-there-only-2-candidates-in-the-presidential-debates-121003?news=845846

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