Occupy London: The End of the Beginning

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A man meditates while the OccupyLSX camp around him is dismantled in the early morning hours of February 28, 2012. Photo: Andrew Winning/Reuters

Not long after midnight this morning, bailiffs finally moved in to evict the tents at the Occupy camp at St Paul’s Cathedral. The message is obvious. The City of London does not want a permanent witness to its excesses on the verge of the London Stock Exchange. It is over four months now since the first mass meetings on those iconic steps. Perhaps it is fitting that the location is best known for the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” scene in Mary Poppins. Now the tour guides will have another story to tell.

The #OccupyLSX (Occupy London Stock Exchange) camp did not seriously challenge the economic or physical power of the financial elite. But it has dented their once mighty ideological hegemony.  Think back to last autumn. The world was still in the warm glow of the fall of Mubarak and worried corporate  and political elites were trying to spin the unrest as a desire of the rest of the world to adopt the neoliberal systems of the West.

Occupy changed all that. On 15 October 2011, protests were staged in more than 900 towns in more than 80 countries, showing how the struggle against dictators in North Africa is part of a struggle for real democracy across the world. The mainstream media swelled with viewpoints rarely heard on the airwaves while a nascent infrastructure of alternative media channels emerged, including live-streams, social media accounts with thousands of followers and the impressively compiled movement newspaper, The Occupied Times of London. Spaces dubbed the Tent City University, the Bank of Ideas and the School of Ideas provided venues for debate and co-learning outside of the usual hegemonic structures, while outreach programmes brought the debate far beyond the squares. Amidst all this, St Paul’s has gained iconic status as the world’s longest running Occupy camp.

"Capitalism is Crisis": The #OccupyLSX camp before it was routed. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP

Perhaps the major criticism leveled against Occupy is that has not been clear enough in its demands. To some extent this case is made by people who haven’t made an effort. The most cursory Google search can bring up both the principles decided on the second day and the quite specific demands on the City of London for greater accountability. And so the context was set, so that when #occupytesco started trending on Twitter, a swath of companies backtracked on their policy of using unpaid labour, worried at the prospect of Occupy visiting them.

But the point of Occupy is not only to protest. For many participants Occupy represents an experiment in building a different network of relations capable of bypassing the power structures as they stand. But if this has been Occupy’s strength is has also been its weakness. Creating new societies in the shadow of the old has its benefits. But to dismantle the power structures of the figurative 1% will at some point mean taking the 1% on directly.

If we take a historical perspective, there is no need for downheartedness. The movement of the 99% is still young and only in the first stage of building mass consciousness. In order to build the strength to confront the illegitimate elites, the movement must first coordinate the infrastructure to do so. That must be the next stage. You cannot evict an idea. As Occupy court defendant George Barda put it to the BBC today:

“It’s not the beginning of the end. It’s the end of the beginning.”

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen.

A version of this article originally appeared on New Internationalist.

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