'Occupy London urgently seeks direction' — "History has yet to turn again"
An extract from an article originally published in the New Statesman
It was a few days before Margaret Thatcher marched into Downing Street in May 1979, but as far as the then Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, was concerned, the game was already up. "You know, there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics," he told his adviser Bernard Donoughue. "It does not matter what you say or what you do. I suspect there is now such a sea change - and it is for Mrs Thatcher." His pessimism was well founded. The postwar consensus, with its pillars of a mixed economy, strong unions and high taxes on the wealthy, was coming to an end. Callaghan could no longer preserve the disintegrating centre. What became known as Thatcherism - or neoliberalism - emerged victorious.
As I stood in Finsbury Square just outside the City of London, on Sunday 23 October, I could not help but be reminded of "Callaghan's Law". Around me was the first offshoot from Occupy the London Stock Exchange, a protest camp set up eight days earlier. A couple of dozen tents were neatly arranged in rows (apparently to comply with health and safety regulations) and several protesters were dancing cheerfully as a brass band called Horns of Plenty belted out left-wing anthems. It was just the latest addition to the fastest-growing political force on earth: the Occupy movement, which now has a presence in up to a thousand cities. Was this the most compelling sign yet of a "sea change" - of a global repudiation of the neoliberal order that began teetering when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008?
This drive to seize and hold urban space for political ends was born during the Egyptian revolution this year. Unlike the occupants of Finsbury Square, the Egyptian people directed their fury chiefly at a tyrannical regime, rather than the financial elite; but the images of defiant crowds occupying Tahrir Square beamed across the planet have inspired a new generation on every continent.
In May, thousands of young Spaniards, radicalised by a youth unemployment rate that has topped 40 per cent, defied legal bans and seized Madrid's main square during local elections. The indignados (the indignant) took on the political establishment: they urged voters to vote for neither the governing Socialists nor the opposition, conservative People's Party.
The wave of occupations specifically directed at financial centres began nearly six weeks ago on Wall Street, New York. Occupy Wall Street set the tone for all those that have followed: run by open assemblies and working groups with remits ranging from outreach to direct action, and organised primarily through Twitter. And there is the slogan - "We are the 99 per cent" - reflecting a sense that the overwhelming majority are being made to pay for the economic crisis while the wealth of the top 1 per cent continues to grow. You can see why this line of attack resonates in the US, where real wages have stagnated since 1973 and where - under George W Bush's benighted presidency - 65 per cent of economic gains went to the top 1 per cent of people.
"There is no typical kind of person that is attracted to the movement," says Karanja Gaçuça, who is co-ordinating press for minority groups at Occupy Wall Street. "We have professionals, students, unemployed folk, parents with their kids, as well as people who identify as the 1 per cent economically." The basis for unity is a deep-seated resentment at the response to the financial crisis. For Karanja, it is an attempt to take on a three-decade-long consensus based on low taxes for the rich, deregulation and privatisation; to reflect "shifting sensibilities", as he puts it. "There's a paradigm shift whereby people are thinking about the question of fairness and equality, and access from a human perspective rather than from a purely profit perspective as has been the sensibility over the past few decades."
The polls suggest that is true. A survey this month for Time magazine showed that 54 per cent of Americans had a favourable opinion of the Occupy movement; only half as many felt the same about the right-wing Tea Party. Of those familiar with the protests, 86 per cent felt that Wall Street and its lobbyists had too much political influence; nearly eight out of ten felt that the gap between rich and poor "has grown too large"; over seven in ten wanted financial executives prosecuted for their role in the economic crash; and nearly as many wanted the rich to pay more taxes.
By tapping in to these sentiments with clear proposals, the Occupy movement could become a progressive version of the Tea Party, transforming the political debate. And, according to a Wall Street Journal poll, that is the hope of many protesters. When asked what they wanted the movement to achieve, 35 per cent opted for influencing the Democrats the way the Tea Party has influenced the Republicans (the next most popular aim, breaking "the two-party duopoly", registered 11 per cent support).
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