An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Maybe the chap with the dog on a string has a point

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What the Occupy movement offers the left is the space and imagination it desperately needs to envision a world beyond drab deference to financial oligarchy, and the tools to build it. Anyone can contribute, so if you’re unhappy with the way the demands have been put together, get down to Occupy London and join in the General Assembly. Your voice will be heard and respected, and they’ll even give you free tea and biscuits.

Oh yes, this is Unnecessary Role-bait alright. The glorification of flakes and kooks, a self-congratulatory dismissal of two centuries of represenative democracy, tweeness elevated to social comment. If I was any sort mealy-mouthed centrist I’d be posting a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the occupation, picking holes and splitting hairs, mocking the naivete of it all (albeit in an extremely reasonable way).

I don’t especially recognise the failures of democracy that Occupy claims to be counter-acting. Nor do I have a lot of time for utopian views of the world of any political colour or stripe. And I especially resent the above author’s belief that not only would the Occupy movement not be able to advance their political programme (such as it is) through the ballot box but that that effectively gives them the right to proclaim separation from our political system.

Nonetheless, I find myself not feeling as quite as much antipathy towards the occupiers as that might all suggest. Partly it’s because I am increasingly interested in (to use what are undoubtedly loaded and pretentious terms) power and powerlessness. The analysis of the crisis facing America’s working middle class by Elizabeth Warren struck a chord:

“It’s money and power, the only two things we are talking about here… There are many who are rich and powerful who say the system works fine as it is,” she continued. “America had been a boom-and-bust economy going into the Great Depression—just over and over and over, fortunes were wiped out, ordinary families were crushed under it. Coming out of the Great Depression we said, We can build a structure that makes us all safer. And notice, it’s from the end of the Great Depression to the 1980s that we built America’s middle class. That’s when we got stronger as a country. That’s when that big, solid, boring, hardworking, play-by-the-rules group in the middle emerged and defined what America was. You still had the ability to become a billionaire, but the center stayed strong and, notice, provided opportunity for growth, opportunity for getting ahead, opportunity that your kids were going to do better than you did. That was what defined America. And then we started, inch by inch, pulling the threads out of that regulatory fabric, starting in the 1980s.”

This is not about anti-capitalism, nor is it really about the search for “good capitalism” or other grand theories about what would constitute a ‘good’ society. In the first instance, it’s about straightforward solidarity with ordinary people and a very particular problem that needs to be solved:

“There’s been such a sense that there’s one set of rules for trillion-dollar financial institutions and a different set for all the rest of us. It’s so pervasive that it’s not even hidden. [my italics]”

What Warren and the occupiers are both suggesting is that this is a crisis of legitimacy which means that a bunch of old Etonians telling you to take your medicine are going to be laughed out of the room. (And let’s not even mention what the guys who helped screw it up first time round are offering). Paul Mason suggests that the iconography of direct action and anarchism is now being adopted in aid of that most ordinary of concerns – avoiding speed tickets. An isolated case maybe, but it’s not too much of a reach to see the powerlessness that Occupy proclaims stretching much further.

And it’s not just powerlessness, but, for want of a less dramatic word, hopelessness. Andrew Sullivan has probably found the person who has expressed this best in banner form:

As Chris Dillow explains, Britain, America and Europe are at the mercy of a economic storm our politics appears ill-equipped to deal with.

What we have here, then, are two narratives between which there is an almighty gulf. There’s the economic narrative of the crisis. And there’s the party political narrative, which blames bankers’ greed, neoliberal economics, regulatory failure or Labour’s profligacy – all of which are only incidental features.

This, I suspect, helps explain or justify why there is so much apathy towards party politics, even amongst the most intelligent.

And even if it were so-equipped, the potential policy prescriptions would certainly not be mistaken for a ray of sunshine:

As for what could be done to change this, I would recommend that politicians stop pretending to have ways of getting us out of the mess, and focus instead upon how to more equitably distribute the hardship. A first step here would be to stop stigmatizing the unemployed.

In a similar vein, Hopi Sen:

Curiously, instead of practical steps to address our crisis, we offer the electorate only a casual indifference to their pain or the hubristic belief that a political cast of the hopeful and the self-confident can, by dint of policies they barely explain and mechanisms they do not seem to know how to work, somehow transform our national prospects.

Ordinary people not only feeling powerless, but seeing their personal circumstances suffering, and their own opportunities and those of their children rapidly diminishing as a material manifestation of that powerlessness. Where does this end? I suspect for a great many ordinary people, it ends not with them camping on the steps of St Paul’s, but with them living lives of quiet desperation and uncertainty with no knowledge of when or if things are going to get better.

And if that’s the case, is protestor-chic and consensus-based direct democracy really any less mad than the hope that some politician is going to offer a way out of this mess?


Written by samelliot

November 3, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Cynicism, Democracy

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