Does the Occupy/Indignados movement matter? And if so how?

Beyond the fact that it seems to have become a badge of honour for the enlightened well-to-do to relay just how seriously they take it, what kind of attention should we be paying it? The two big questions are whether it has the potential to change policy and whether it tells us anything important about the world we live in.

The answer to the first question is tricky—the protests are unlikely to affect policy directly; but over time the language they use and the problems around which they seek to rally people send a very clear message about how profound and how lastingly the events of the past few years have affected Western Democracies.  Europe will be re-shaped (whether explicitly or not), the United States face serious, structural unemployment at levels to which they are un-used, and an unprecedented rich/poor divide.

When the going gets tough—the hopeful go to Wall Street?

Whether or not policy-makers heed the demands of the protesters, their very articulation says something important: don’t pretend it is business as usual. Policy change may not come from the movement, but change has happened and its magnitude and depth have not gone un-noticed by the public.  The unambiguous expression of this fact is bound to create constraints and pressures on actors both public and private.

The more interesting question, however, is the second one: the movements are enormously important in helping us make useful distinctions about the different types of motivations at play in each of the places where people have ‘occupied’ and mobilised; their relationship to institutions, their fears and how far they’re willing to go push for change—and above all, what kind of change.  This is important as we seek to gauge where the emergence of new threats, but also of new opportunities might lie.

A Global Movement of National Productions

It does truly come across as the movement of the 99%.

Despite their conscious attempt to gather under a global banner (and the media’s willingness to depict them as such), the first striking thing about these protests is how different they look across the world.

Take just the US and the UK as comparison.  Having followed the Wall Street (and other American) ones as best I could, I found myself on Saturday  in the October sunshine near the London Stock Exchange wondering what this Occupy LSXcrowd had in common with the US OWS crowd.

Yes, the slogans and signs had made it across Europe or over the Atlantic,  but the crowd seemed younger here, more foreign students out for a day of witty chanting, lots of people like me turning out for more tacit support and for ‘investigative’ purposes rather than for active protest.  The police effectively blocked access to the London Stock Exchange, the protesters moved on. A few days later, there are a number of steadfast tents, the OLSX had agreed a manifesto (sort of) and a day of strikes is planned for November 30th.

But overall, in its conscious imitation of OWS (itself self-avowedly inspired by Tahrir Square) the London protest feels like ’imitation’ but not in the sense in which it was intended—i.e. an unstoppable wave of anger reproducing itself and gathering force across the globe—but rather as ‘ersatz’ resistance. In part because the numbers just aren’t there, in part because, despite protests in the rest of Europe, the UK’s relationship to Europe (especially at the moment) prevent it from feeling a part of that continental wave and finally, also, because, so far, the trade union movement has not joined in.

But there are other, more subtle factors at play.  A comparison of some of these movements reveals the interplay between historical traditions of protest, the role of institutions and the emotional states to which they in turn give rise and how these will shape the future in each of these countries.

99% = 100% populist

In the US the movement spreading across the country is in an established American tradition of left-wing populism—in this case, part resistance movement, and part protest.  The Occupy movement, at least seen from here, feels both rooted in ordinary frustrations as well as cross-class in its appeal.

Bankers and Wall Street professionals might dismiss it all as the work of young marginals with too much time on their hands, but a look at the videos and interviews, reveals much more of a cross-section of the American public represented in these protests.  It does truly come across as the movement of the 99%.

Its language may be a tad ‘Anarchy 101’ (as gleaned from their web-site: ‘Occupy Wall Street is a horizontally organized resistance movement’, ‘We use a tool known as a “people’s assembly” to facilitate collective decision making in an open, participatory and non-binding manner. ‘Please read this quick guide on group dynamics in people’s assemblies’), but a hint of the People’s Park and a dash of the People’s Party make the OWS movement as believable a populist movement as might exist in the 21st century, inspired by the rhetoric of American workers’ rights protests and the tactics of the civil rights movement.

The paradoxical American mix of ruthless capitalism coupled with radical egalitarianism translates into a constant fresh supply of populist fervour.

The paradoxical American mix of ruthless capitalism coupled with radical egalitarianism translates into a constant fresh supply of populist fervour because, for many, there is no end of disappointment in sight—and it is on the tension between promise on the one hand and disappointment on the other that populism thrives. Lace this tension with the period’s growing insecurity and economic hardship and the stage is set for populist mobilisation.

We see this writ large through the countless ‘RIP the American Dream’ placards that punctuate the progress of the Occupiers. The question is whether the momentum lent the movement by the election year ahead and the support of the trade unions will be enough to sustain it.  Will this current wave ultimately crash with little consequence beyond a historical and ideological contribution to a new generation of citizens? Or will a tradition of populist mobilisation now articulated against much more structural unemployment and hardship finally convert potential into something more long-lasting?

My money is on the latter—American populism is unfolding by the book, but the context in which it is being deployed (on both sides of the spectrum, in fact) has changed fundamentally.  So, even if the Occupy movements don’t change the course of policy, they are in the US part of a fundamentally changed course of history; and they can help us read it.

It takes hope to be disappointed

Analysing current forms of mobilisation and what fuels them accurately can help us tell apart those societies against which the crisis is set against a background of hopelessness and anger (like Greece and Italy) from those where the crisis is set against a background of residual hope in the future and optimism (like the US and Spain).

Anger in the context of complete mistrust.

In the former, institutions are blamed but since little has been expected of them in a long time the blame eventually turns to anger.  I think we’re there, and on the brink of rage for both Greece and Italy. Protest will easily turn to violence as the aim is not resistance in the face of an abuse of trust, but anger in the context of complete mistrust.

In the latter, on the other hand, institutions are still expected to perform and deliver: people have not entirely given up on them; hence the willingness to resist and to press for reform rather than call for outright destruction. As the American case so clearly shows (but Spain is not far behind—indignation, as their movement recalls, is also fuelled by outraged disappointment), for populism to emerge there needs to be quite a measure of hope in the future—hope betrayed, but hope nonetheless.

The UK presents an interesting, contrasting case study: In a context where Europe holds no imagined promise (whatever real promise it may and should hold) and where there is no foundational radical egalitarian creed (indeed where those who once sought it, left to establish it elsewhere), where trust in institutions is low, but inter-personal trust (i.e. between people) is relatively high, the foreseeable future holds more riots, but sparse protests.  Continuity of institutions will be valued over and above everything else, not because of an abiding faith in them, but because of an abiding faith in continuity (not always a bad thing—just rather slows down change even when it’s needed).

Yes, in the UK too there is a sense in which the financial sector has had it too good for too long; Yes, everyone is willing to have a moan about bank bail-outs and giant bonuses, but ultimately, in a country where the crisis is no less severe than in the US, where a double-dip recession threatens and where public service cuts are being felt deeply and will leave lasting scars, fewer people seem to experience outright anger or outright disillusionment.  As a result, waves of violent (but ultimately isolated, self-destructive and ephemeral) riots of the sort we saw in August are what we are likely to see rather than the sustained violence that threatens to engulf Greece or Italy.

As for the heartfelt and organised resistance in the style of the Indignados or Occupy, I am not sure I am all that convinced with its potential to have an impact on policy or mindsets.  This has nothing to do with the commitment of the young people camping out in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, nor with the real hardship that this generation is suffering, but everything to do with context, institutions, emotional conventions, the nature of the recession and the point at which we find ourselves in the electoral cycle.

From miffed to peeved (and occasionally really angry)

This is why the constant, blanket references to people’s ‘anger’ should leave us rather skeptical: there are a lot of emotions coursing through the veins of our societies at the moment; anger is just one of them, and it may not be the most ubiquitous.

And yes, there are instances of very real anger.  Sometimes widespread—young Italians and many Greeks are close to rage.  And in the UK, deprivation and state failure in certain parts of the country on crucial issues such as housing and education, coupled with a glib rhetoric from parts of the current government will continue to ensure that a new generation of young people (and not so young people) will take up the torch of the Brixton riots of 1981, the Handsworth riots of 1985, the Tottenham riots of 1985, and the Bradford, and Oldham riots of 2001— not to mention the August riots of 2011, to name but a smattering.  But in the UK they are the reaction of a significant deprived minority—not those of a sizeable majority.

They are definitely not ‘the 99%’.  And neither are our St Paul’s protesters.  Here I would suggest that we have 5% very angry people, 20% of slightly outraged and the remainder have, as John Cleese would put it, gone from “Miffed” to “Peeved”.

Getting it right to plan ahead

In places defined by anger, it is more important than ever to look for renewal outside established institutions.

This is not about accuracy for accuracy’s sake but about understanding the springs of public action in the societies in which we are invested—in every sense of the term.  Our education and welfare policies, our insurance premiums, the quality of our media, our overall capacity to manage change to name only a few, all depend on us getting this right.  On our understanding of what moves people to action and what doesn’t, what they perceive as a threat, what they welcome as progress, and what they may resist.

In the face of economic hardship and declining standards of living, when are people willing to tough it out and will they turf them out?

Who will sink and who will swim?

Who is likely to refuse to rock the boat and who wants to drown the crew?

Who will build the life-rafts?

While the severity of the economic crisis matters, the perception of the institutions within which it unfolds, their relationship (real and imagined) to the public and the capacity of those institutions to deliver matter more.

So what does the future hold?

This leads us naturally to a few conclusions about what to plan for. In places defined by anger, it is more important than ever to look for renewal outside established institutions.  Greece and Italy will emerge from the current crisis not because of the current leaders but because of those young Greeks and Italians who will mobilise in the wings, who will renew with regional traditions of business, politics, manufacturing and craft and who are, already now, turning the periphery into the new centres.

Nations like Spain and the United States have institutions whose current state of crisis does not translate into long term disaffection from them. The protests reveal healthy expectations and a willingness to put shoulder to the wheel of reform, a desire to make them work for ‘the 99%’.

Placing other case studies (France, with a healthy tradition of populism on both sides of the political spectrum qualifies as an ever-hopeful, some of which is being catered to right now by the run up to the presidential elections and the possibility of turfing out Sarko, despite the downgrading of its status; Portugal, but also the Scandinavian countries) on this grid is an exercise in planning who to bet on for renewal and regeneration.

Catherine Fieschi, 2011


Catherine Fieschi


< Previous Next >