October 27, 2011

Occupy (my attention)

Posted in London, Politics, Society at 11:56 pm by Paul Sagar

A friend – who happens to be both left-leaning and employed in City finance – sent me a text:

“Not that I’m against it, but what is the stated reason for the St Paul’s protests? Just awareness or do they want something specific? Normally there’s a reason – Uni fees a very valid one – but this just seems like a bit of a moan. The timing seems odd, even if it is jumping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon. It’s been two weeks though, who has that much time?”

I sympathise.

Recently, I’ve become utterly bored by day-to-day politics. Paradoxically, this has afforded me some insights.

I don’t really know what Occupy London Stock Exchange (OLX) is about. I haven’t had the time or inclination to find out. Because I don’t really care. Because I am uninterested in the repetition and tedium of daily political debate and exchange. I’m interested in politics (hence why I’m doing a PhD in it), but then I increasingly think that’s really something else. What I’m certainly not interested in is the daily outrages and accusations; the ranting; the tribalism; the he-said, she-said; the bla bla bla ad nauseam .

Which itself wouldn’t actually be so bad, if people were quietly conscious that they were being hypocrites and opportunists in pointing out the hypocrisies and opportunisms of their enemies. What I have no time for is the pathetic sincerity of the daily outrage. “Oh, my political enemy has done something nasty and underhand! How outrageous! How shocking! I am so appalled! Something Must Be Done!”


I don’t really know what OLX is about. It seems a bit silly. And that’s an interesting perspective coming from me, given that a year ago I was involved in the Cambridge student occupation, attended quite a lot of demos, and was generally Pretty Interested In Daily Politics.

But it may be instructive, for precisely that past, to observe just how off-the-radar OLX is to me. Somebody busy with their research (which is not much like having a real job). With teaching commitments. With Friday nights. With the football season. With time on my hands. With left-wing views. With a tendency to read the news.

If I don’t register OLX, how much do you think it gets through to people working 40+ hour weeks? With kids? With bills and mortgages to pay? Worried about job security and inflation? Who don’t have time to read the paper? Who aren’t particularly left-wing?

Of my friend’s text, however, what really stands out is his closing line: “It’s been two weeks though, who has that much time?”

When I used to box at a gym in Southport, a post-training discussion once turned to the TV series Big Brother. The general conclusion was that not only were all the contestants freaks, but they were Not Like Ordinary People. Why? Precisely because they could swan off for 10 weeks without worrying about work. For most in the discussion, that was enough to discredit each and every contestant. The BB housemates weren’t from the real world. The world where kids and mortgages ruled out such summer sojourns. And that bred both a fairly obvious contempt, but also an underlying if mild resentment.

Leftist activists might endorse OLX with passion. Many of them are out there right now, proudly taking part, braced against the cold by the sincerity of their views. But activists should remember that goldfish bowls create visual distortions, in both directions. And like it or not, dissimilarity quickly breeds contempt.

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  1. Franlydie said,

    Similar things were said about women at Greeham Common – that their place was at home, looking after their children (and husbands!), yet part of me is thankful at least SOMEONE was protesting on my behalf whilst I was looking after my family in the comfort of my own home and with a regular income from the job I didn’t want to risk losing…

  2. Heather said,

    I live in Berkeley, CA and can’t comment on OLX can comment on how Occupy is different than Berkeley fee protests.

    1. The people involved- at Occupy homeless and downtrodden are joining hands with students and those who have always been politically engaged.

    2. The General Assemblies- everyone can have a say, putting their heads together on equal footing

    3. community building- suddenly there is a community in the park with an ongoing kitchen feeding everyone, people talking to each, playing music

    4. teach-ins- people come to learn and to teach and generally share knowledge

    5. ongoing movement with an ongoing base- so that people can keep coming back

  3. Phil said,

    I think the fact that it doesn’t have an explicit goal, other than staying, is one of the most disruptive & indigestible things about OLSX (and Occupy… in general). It’s telling that the ‘official’ reaction isn’t to call them extremists or hooligans, deny their right to protest or challenge the substance of their views, but simply to ask them to go – “all right, you’ve made your point, but enough is enough”. Which is precisely why they should stay. (Even the attempts to discredit them revolve around their occupation of the space – by suggesting they’re not staying overnight – rather than talking about what they’re doing there.)

    It’s a space where something interesting could happen, & where for the time being business as usual isn’t happening.

  4. Kamo said,

    Greenham Commom became a joke because the protestors stuck around long after the purpose of the protest had gone, long after the point had been made. That’s when things start to backfire, unless your hardcore zealot to the cause, it just looks like they’re doing it because they’ve got nothing better to do, and in the case of the swampy camp at St Paul’s it’s not really annoying the target of the protest (I believe the local Starbucks is doing a roaring trade), it’s annoying ordinary people who are being affected long after any point has been made.

  5. Heather said,


    You say OLSX is a place where where something interesting could happen. The nature of the Occupy movement facilitates people who want to make something happen coming together, talking about it, forming a working group to hash out details, and then perhaps bringing a proposal to the General Assembly if they want to draw on the resources of the greater Occupy movement. So, if you want to see something interesting happen, why not go down to OLSX and try to find some like-minded people to make it happen with?

  6. James said,

    Very true. I have no idea what the hell these people are protesting about, beyond the rage most of us feel towards government and the financial sector in general. That’s a perfectly valid emotion, of course, but without concrete criticisms and proposals it’s just meaningless and futile.

    I also wonder who they are that they can afford to swan off indefinitely to set up camp in London. I’m in a similar position, in that I’m notionally interested in politics and usually have a lot of time on my hands, and if even I don’t know what they stand for, and view them as suspect even with my not-very-onerous work commitments, then what chance does your average bear with kids and a mortgage have?

    Most people just don’t have the time because, as you say, they have to live in the real world, and this breeds resentment when the protest is without clear objectives.

    On a more academic note, this was the general feeling I got when reading John P. McCormick’s new book, Machiavellian Democracy, where towards the end he proposes that lottery-winning citizens sit for a year on a government oversight panel. My first thought was, what about their jobs? And are people who are willing and able to take a year off work at random really the type you want on a government oversight body?

  7. Heather said,

    I seem to be writing half the comments here, but have to address the question of who the Occupy campers are. Many of the ones I met are unemployed and homeless. It is exciting to see them have a voice and become collectively political.

    One more comment on the purpose of having the camping sites that don’t just disappear after the protest. They facilitate people talking to each other and a continued dialogue and effort in way that a 1 day protest does not. Since everyone knows where the Occupy sites are and they are very inclusive in nature, they draw in people who had not been politically engaged before. In this age of people sitting home alone by their TVs and computers, I don’t see how we could have meaningful change without people coming together as they have in the Occupy movement.

  8. Shuggy said,

    Dunno, Paul. Like yourself I haven’t followed the ‘Occupy’ movement very closely but I don’t really think the ‘ordinary people are too busy working’ line should be given too much weight. There’s a 101 things that I don’t do because I’m too busy working but it doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. Fact of the matter is, most political activism is done by people with way too much time on their hands…

  9. [...] Sagar points out that one of the reasons why people might find it difficult to identify with the cause of #occupylsx [...]

  10. Charlie said,

    The protests are about 40 years of growing inequality – a trend that, if continued, will return us to a state of neo-feudalism, with the privatisation of health and education and the end of welfare next on the list. Try David Harvey’s Neoliberalism if you can find the energy. If that doesn’t interest you – or others who can afford to complete Phds in a subject that don’t interest them, it probably says more about you than the protesters.

    It’s the uninterested majority that are allowing this to happen.

  11. formula57 said,

    The lack of coherent focus in the protest makes it difficult for any onlookers to empathise and too easy for the phenomenon (for it may be no more than that) to be dismissed as overly self-indulgent. Yes, we all know there are great problems – setting up camp in a public place to the distress of the non-involved is not a useful response, however, and it has the look of futility.

    Your warning “ that goldfish bowls create visual distortions, in both directions” should be heeded. Two Cathedral operatives – with the appearance of decent, honourable men – have had their livings jeopardised in a way they never should have been. Blame may be indirect, but it will attach in harmful ways to the OLX.

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

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