progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

99% Powerful?

Some thoughts on the protests in Western Europe and North America over the banking crisis and austerity cuts, and what this all means for those of us committed to the strengthening and extension of democracy through participation in formal politics.

the City versus the citizens, now the citizens versus the City?

Occupy London may have picked a target which cannot be easily occupied in the form of a privately-owned stock exchange, but a few weeks into the protest, lessons had been learned by the activists. Confined to the space outside St Paul's Cathedral, where good relations with the church soured due to City pressure and concerns about a fall in tourist numbers (and thus revenue), the *form* of the protest was easily dismissed by critics, but the *content* could not be ignored.

There was a great deal of sympathy with the aim of the protest - to call into question the balance of power in the UK between the few and the many, between the richest and the rest. The merits of direct action have been discussed amongst members of the labour movement in the wake of this protest, in much the same way that the UK Uncut sit-ins provoked a heated debate about the extent to which mediated stunts could impact upon political decisions made within and without parliament.

The instant gratification that direct action gives to participants can be intoxicating - however, the Occupy protest involves a less confrontational practice than UK Uncut and has seen many young people learn how to debate with people with opposing views. Reports of protesters engaging in constructive conversations with City workers are particularly heartening - suggesting that this model of activism could lead to participants becoming involved in the long-term process of formal politics, which involves listening and learning as much as expressing your own opinions.

October 15 2011 saw people in cities across the world join with protesters in New York in setting up "occupy" camps to give representation to widespread anger at corporate greed, taxpayer bail-outs of banks, and resulting public spending cuts. Economies such as ours could return to recession and recovery has yet to be felt by millions of young people out of work, and millions more struggle to live with wage stagnation, tax rises, and service cuts.

throwing open Overton's window

In the US, the Occupy Wall Street movement has, since it started its protest camp in Zuccotti Square in September 2011, had the effect of decisively shifting the terms of political discourse in the country. Concerns about the US "debt ceiling", the budget deficit, and the downgrading of the triple A credit rating, had dominated the media coverage of the economy.

Occupy Wall Street put jobs, housing, and living standards on the agenda once again. Income inequality is even an issue which the Republican candidates seeking to run against the Democratic incumbent president Obama.

To replicate the US example, Occupy London and other cities "in occupation" will have to build relationships with trades unions (there have been signs of this with declarations of support for student protests and the general strike) and the co-operative movement (the call for consumer action to switch to consumer-owned financial institutions such as building societies and credit unions, points towards this).

"I trust I can rely on your vote?"

The response from comrades in the Labour Party has been mixed. There is a view amongst some is that it's necessary for the party as an electoral machine to maintain a sterile distance from social movements - this means that the leadership of the parliamentary party should not automatically seek to address the concerns of protesters, striking workers, etc.

This is a view that has a logic. The purpose of a political party is to fight an electoral terrain. But it only makes sense to have a sterile distance if the concerns of social movements and striking workers are not broadly shared by the public. But as we have seen with the Occupy Wall Street protests in the US, leading members of the Democratic Party have tied their legislative agenda with these concerns, precisely because the issues being forced onto the agenda by the Occupy movement are those which concern voters which the Democratic Party will have to win over if Obama is to be re-elected.

Now, since Labour is in opposition in the British parliament, this scenario cannot be replicated here - though it is possible to use the events to reiterate the call for a new political economy. The Fabian Society recently published an edition of its magazine which had "Occupy Middle England" on its front cover - making the argument in feature articles that opinions on financial regulation, corporate governance, and executive remuneration, have shifted in the course of the crisis. (However, the 2012 January conference of the Fabians ultimately failed to convey a sense that they have an "Economic Alternative" to those not in attendance - though this is perhaps not the fault of the hosts.)

Speaking truth to power, distributing power

Labour's leader in parliament has been bold in using press articles and broadcast interviews to point to the widespread unease about the current political economy. However, the broader trades union and co-operative movement can more directly address the Occupy protestors in what can be done to protect ordinary people from the ongoing crises.

Trades unions and co-operatives organise for greater citizen participation in the democratic control of economic and political institutions. The resources exist within the trades union and co-operative movement for a dialogue to take place and decisions to be reached with as great a consensus as possible.

The challenge will be that parliament is effectively cut off from the people, it behaves much as it did a hundred years ago, yet it has ceded powers to the state bureaucracy and corporations. The direct participation of citizens allowed by new information technologies - voting for this or that celebrity, talent competition contestant, etc. - could be applied to the operation of a modern republic.

Bad examples, good potential

That political leaders will try to distance themselves from the people - the better to win the favour of the powerful and thus the unmediated access to sections of the public - will be demoralising to both longstanding activists and newly radicalised citizens. But if this leads to a disdain for intervention in formal politics, for contestation within parliament, the movement for the 99% will not succeed in challenging the power of the 1%.

You only have to look at surveys of public trust in politics, and the dismal response of Labour's sister parties across the EU - when they were in office in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and in a position to implement an alternative with allied trades union and co-operative movements - to understand how serious a crisis of representation for labour could become. By falling into the austerity trap set by the 1%, the Greek equivalent of the Labour Party, Pasok, has seen its support ebb away to the Stalinist and Trotskyist parties, threatening the continued presence of a broad-based party of labour in the politics of that state.

In the ongoing French presidential election campaign, the candidate of Labour's sister party in France has become the front-runner because of his willingness to declare himself the enemy of big finance - but he's not (yet, if ever) running on a set of coherent policies.

The confidence to take on the question of monetary reform - and thus, effectivce financial reform - and to adequately address the need for a redistribution of power in corporate governance, to enfranchise workers and consumers, is currently lacking. But it may yet be found, but as ever, it will be from those with the least proximity to corporate and financial elites.

In other words, ordinary people trying their best to work out "what's going on" and then "what to do?" will be what pushes things forward.

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