Columnist and author Owen Jones traces the Occupy London movement and last week's protests back to the economic downturn and the cuts, unemployment and social discontent that followed
Peter Hitchens is a right-wing columnist who doesn’t mince his words. Taking a break from berating his usual targets (the EU, Muslims, the BBC – even David Cameron gets a bollocking for being too left-wing), he’s given Occupy London a kicking. “Every crank, dingbat and fanatic in Southern England has found his or her way to the camp by the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral,” he complained in his Daily Mail column.
Since the first tents were erected and the first banners unfurled in the grounds of St Paul’s, the protesters have endured their fair share of derision and mockery. But given the desperately unfair circumstances we all face, it would be somewhat more odd behaviour if people confined their frustration to yelling at Newsnight. We’re three years into an economic catastrophe cooked up by the people at the top; the biggest cuts in nearly a century are now underway; the bankers at the centre of this mess are still getting their bonuses; and, while the average Briton suffers the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s, top company executives have enjoyed a pay rise of 49% over the last year. And yet those particularly riled about being made to pay for a crisis they didn’t create are dismissed as cranks, crusties and semi-crazed dreamers.
What’s fascinating about Occupy London is that it’s far from some isolated one-off: it’s just one occupation among hundreds of others across the world. Young Spaniards sparked the current movement off in May: the so-called indiganos (the indignant) occupied the square in Madrid in a collective vote of no-confidence in the political establishment. In turn, they had been inspired by the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who had swamped Tahrir Square in Cairo in the February revolution against Mubarak’s dictatorship. But it was the occupation of Wall Street in the United States that really kick-started Occupy on a global scale. The rallying cry is that “We are the 99%”, because at the centre of the movement is the belief that the overwhelming majority of people are being made to pay for the economic crimes of the ever-powerful top 1%.
But despite these foreign influences, Occupy can’t be separated from a new youth politics with roots in this country. Last November, 52,000 students marched through London against the hiking of tuition fees; the leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) had predicted less than half that would turn up. It culminated with the storming of Millbank, a now iconic event among young radicals. Thousands of newly politicised young people felt exhilarated by this show of defiance, and a wave of university occupations and student protests followed.
What is striking about the new student movement is that – formally at least – it rejects the concept of leadership. You can hardly blame them. Many students grew up with the disappointments of New Labour, ended up voting Liberal Democrat only to be betrayed, and felt let down (to say the least) by Aaron Porter, the technocratic former President of the NUS, who distanced himself from the greatest upsurge of student radicalism since the 1960s. To many of the student radicals, leadership is just another word for betrayal. Instead, all decisions are made by consensus: that is, activists indicating their agreement with decisions using a simple sign that, to outsiders, looks like “jazz-hands”. It had long been a common approach by environmentalist activists, but student radicals made it mainstream – and Occupy is run along the same lines.
Ever present in the minds of Occupiers and student radicals alike is the legacy of the anti-war movement. Up to 2 million marched against the Iraq war but – as is frequently raised at meetings of British radicals – the invasion happened anyway. It’s seen as an indictment of the strategy of the so-called ‘A to B march’ – turn up, demonstrate, go home. That’s partly what’s given the impetus to Occupy: the strategy is that protests have to be made impossible to ignore.
Occupy doesn’t offer a direct challenge to the power of the economic elite; but it has certainly transformed the debate. Questions that the media likes to ignore – like the nature of capitalism – are being discussed in newspaper comment pieces and radio phone-ins. The Tories have turned a banking crisis into a crisis of public spending; Occupy reminds us of the real villains. And it has broad public sympathy, too: one poll showed that, while 38% felt the protesters were “naïve” because “there is no practical alternative to capitalism”, a whopping 52% thought that “the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people.”
Both Occupy and the student radicals should be seen as different – but overlapping – wings of the same movement: indeed, on the latest student protest, held on 9th November, activists attempted to march on the City in solidarity. While there are Occupiers from a range of age groups, younger activists are particularly prominent outside St Paul’s.
It’s not surprising that young people have taken the lead in the protest movements that have sprung up under Coalition rule. There’s the obvious: one of the Government parties promised the abolition of fees, but instead the cost of a university education has been tripled. But students in particular are often the first to move because – frankly – they have more time on their hands than working people; they are not dependent on a full-time job for sustenance; and they do not have responsibilities like keeping a family fed. With less of a stake in the system, there are fewer consequences when it comes to take off their gloves and fighting back.
But it’s also a symptom of a perfect storm hammering British youth. Unemployment has now hit one in five among 18 to 24-year-olds; what work there is available is often in the form of low-paid, insecure, poorly regarded service sector jobs; there are 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists while private rents soar, leaving a generation without the prospect of an affordable home; cuts are hitting youth services; and, as well as the trebling of tuition fees, the Educational Maintenance Allowance has been abolished. For the first time since World War II, the promise that the next generation will be better off than the last has abruptly ended.
Occupy and the student radicals are just two symptoms of a generation without prospects. As an ideologically charged austerity programme reshapes British society, the ranks of this so-called “lost generation” will only grow. But so too will the protests, occupations and strikes. A new age of revolt is upon us.