To my friends:
I left the campsite of #OccupyLSX a few days ago to go to Barcelona. I’ve found myself spending much of the time I’ve been away wondering: where are you?
Let’s try a thought experiment: in the capital city of your country, a popular protest movement springs up with the explicit aim of confronting the financial system, occupies and maintains an occupation of a prominent public space, captures the media conversation and enjoys widespread popular support. The only possible response is to go down and engage with it.
Yet, of the many astonishing things about #OccupyLSX, perhaps the most astonishing is the paucity of faces I recognise there. This has two sides: the positive side is that the majority of people at the camp are actually newly politicised, and have been driven to take action building on the profound intuition that something is wrong. Here’s the crap side: people who have been involved in extraparliamentary politics for a long time are largely not there, preferring to sneer from the sidelines that the politics of the camp are not sufficient to the ends we would like to see, or that they’re not militant enough, or they’re simply getting things dangerously wrong.
The form of this thought is ludicrous: it proposes that political views are conceived prior to political action, and remain static and immobile throughout it. Actually, the politics of the camp, and the people in it, are in flux – and if you want people to have politics you judge as adequate, whining that they don’t have them from the comfort of the sidelines is useless.
We know about social movements. Above all, we know their failings. We know that social movements can diminish into activist ghettos. We know they get disconnected from the realities of everyday life. We know that they get bound down in internal divisions. We also know that social movements, when they appear, do not bear the form we were expecting, or perhaps even that we were desiring. This last is an important point: the real conditions from which social movements spring will always be partly obscured to us, their form is dictated by the conditions in which they arise, and partly determined by them. It is up to us to go to meet history when it is moving, rather than expecting it to come to us in a pleasing shape.
I am calling this a social movement because it is; I am saying that the protesters by St Paul’s are newly-politicised because they are. They are made up of people whom the ‘left’ in its traditional forms has failed, or never engaged: yes, including the unions, but including the activist left as well. Many of them – housewives or mothers, unemployed or underemployed, secretarial or temporary workers – are those bitten hardest by the changes in work in the past thirty years, without an easily comprehensible political language. If they do not talk about ‘class’ or ‘capitalism’, it is because those concepts vanished over the horizon of popular thought for the past thirty years, or because they came to mean static, historical ideas, perhaps relevant to the past, but no longer describing what we do today.
We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.
As I said, what brought people to the occupation was at base an intuition of something profoundly wrong. What develops out of that is still up for grabs, but it is clear that intuition is widely shared. Most conversations I’ve heard passing the camp have been broadly supportive, even when inflected with standard reservations about making a fuss and things being unable to change. But this negative mode of politics leaves a vacuum: intuition has to lead somewhere, and where it leads is yet to be determined. If we withdraw from the political conversation, then we end up conceding the conversation to a variety of right-wing dipshits, ‘libertarian’ capitalist, Zeitgeist conspiracy-theorists and those who think capitalism can be overcome by meditating and drinking your own urine.
I get that it’s frustrating. The slow work of politics – having essentially the same conversation over and over a thousand times – is not fun. It’s not like breaking through a police line, or marching, or chasing shamefaced politicians around Westminster with an angry mob. It is, however, the most important work we can do. This is a proposal for a kind of interventionism, but not the kind that operates by arriving in a cadre, or seeking to pervert process: it’s one that works from the ground up, by locating a popular movement and engaging it (that is, with the people, all of them, who make it up) with the humility to recognise that it might teach you a few things about how you organise, and about what you think, too. It is called participation.
We all bemoan the walls of the activist ghetto: the same faces, talking the same self-satisfied shit, even enacting the same ritual anger at the isolation and failure of engagement of activist culture. But on the other hand, it’s strange to walk on to a site where you don’t recognise anyone, and where all your previous experience, friendships and networks aren’t there to make life easy. #OLSX is – surprisingly, even to me – very much not the usual crowd. To find the walls of the ghetto crumbling and discovering that, actually, your activist social capital means little unless it translates into doing something – yes, that’s got to be a chastening experience.
Then this is my point: you need to engage this movement, and it won’t be comfortable doing so. I was down there almost continually, and one thing that’s striking is that its representation online bears little resemblance to what’s actually happening in reality. What’s happening is happening there, not on the computer screen. Needling, trolling, or criticising online is all well and good – I certainly like it – but it doesn’t really translate into anything beyond some enjoyable sound and fury.
Lastly, I share many of your critiques, frustrations and fears about the camp: about its slipshod process, about its lack of safe space and treatment of women, people of colour and queers, about the naïveté of trying to build a new politics uninflected by what currently surrounds us, about its hesitancy to engage fully against capitalism, about its softness to the church, about how it connects to wider labour struggles, about the transiency and direction of the camp, about its instinctive acceptance of many activist credos, about its ability to be sustained – but it is a mistake to believe that those are unalterable problems, or ones that can be solved by carping from the sidelines. Engagement means engagement: it doesn’t mean drifting through the camp listlessly, but actually talking, engaging, getting actively involved, it doesn’t mean turning up with your friends to sneer briefly and then fail to speak up, or living in an isolating bubble which dismisses it all as a flash in the pan. It means participating, as an equal. Any movement is what you make of it – I won’t be ceding the ground to conspiracy theorists, or the liberal centrists, or the nationalists. There is a real chance here, and to pass it up without any engagement is jawdropping.
You weren’t born with great politics. You didn’t emerge from the womb brandishing three volumes of Capital with a burning firebrand in the other. You, and I, came to a coherent politics after a lot of work, after a lot of thinking, a lot of conversation, and probably a lot of charity on others’ parts. Have the awareness and the optimism that such a transition should bring you: other people’s politics grow and change too. But if you aren’t there, if you choose to write them off, if you choose to remain in the comfort of purity without getting your hands dirty – well, then you’re working the first part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and what’s worse, you know it.
See you on site.