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Occupy 2012: Laurie Penny

Last in our series of interviews and commentary from the February issue of Dazed & Confused, the young writer tells Dazed why Occupy isn't just political, it's a cultural movement

There’s an election on in 2012, and nobody cares. As the anti-austerity movement cast about for the next steps and the world turns its attention to the 18-month pageant of the American presidential elections, the questions loom large of how, whether and when Occupy will begin to engage with the slick machine for electing career politicians that some call ‘real’ politics. How will Occupy maintain its energy for truly representative democracy, when the media is distracted by big-budget democracy-as-spectacle?

The young people driving the momentum of Occupy are the Obama generation

For many Occupiers, the movement so far has been all about rejection of ‘traditional’ politics in favour of direct action. On my first visit to Zucotti Park in New York City, rummaging through a bundle of discarded sweaters donated to keep the occupiers of Wall Street warm, I found one with ‘Obama 2008’ emblazoned across the chest in faded letters. The young people driving the momentum of Occupy are the Obama generation. They are the generation who were “galvanised,” according to Marshall Ganz, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard, by the experience of working with and for the Obama campaign, and before it the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. They are the young people whose energy and enthusiasm was betrayed by the Obama administration’s paralysis over core issues of social justice.

For young people in Europe, where anti-austerity action has been flaring in the streets for over a year, the experience is much the same. In Britain, many of the idealists who stuffed envelopes and knocked on doors for the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats – anyone remember when they were the radical third-party alternative?– are now occupying public buildings and facing down police violence in the streets.

Aaron Peters, 27, is an anti-austerity organiser in London, and recently faced down charges of obstructing an officer during a protest against student fees. Just over a year ago, Peters was a campaigner with the British Labour party, and was interning with high-profile Westminster think-tanks with an eye on a career in party politics. Then he lost faith in the system. “When the Liberal Democrats sold out, I thought – what the f*ck is the point of all these games?” he says. “They have no power and no principles. My advice to occupiers viz-a-viz Obama would be - don't bother.  If they care about the public good, they should get out of mainstream politics altogether, join the labour movement, work around the concrete material needs of people.”

In Britain, many of the idealists who stuffed envelopes and knocked on doors for the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats are now occupying public buildings and facing down police violence in the streets

In the process of doing just that, Peters has exchanged a model of politics whose ultimate trajectory led to a comfy career in government with one whose trajectory leads, for many, to jail. He says that he regrets nothing. “The most interesting thing was being arrested, and seeing the nature of bare violence with the police in the streets last winter.” For young people like Peters, the experience of police brutality has been extremely instructive, changing entirely their understanding of the relationship between state and citizen. There is always a tang of bitter irony when peaceful protesters, watching their friends pepper-sprayed and arrested for the crime of standing in the street and demanding financial injustice, shout: ‘this is what democracy looks like!’

Across Europe and America, there is a crisis of representative democracy. Much as some of its anarchist organisers might be galled by the fact, Occupy is about reforming representative democracy, not overthrowing it. ‘We are the 99%’ is, at root, a cry for representation – perhaps the first time that a statistic has been used with such threatening ubiquity – and the assumption that a truly fair and just version of democracy can, in theory, exist, is what drives many occupiers to take such risks with their lives and futures, particularly in America. “Representative Democracy?” says Aaron Bornstein, 31, an organiser with Occupy Wall Street. “It’s a great idea. We should try it.”

“We want to take control of our lives.” says Marta, 27, who I met in Madrid’s Puerta Del Sol in October, in the middle of a cacophonous crowd of tens of thousands. “We are controlled by the markets and the politicians who serve those markets, and we are not really free.” In Spain, yet again, most members of the 15-M uprising which swept the country in May were entirely disinterested in the upcoming General Elections. “They want us to die of boredom,” says Marta, speaking of the identikit neoliberal politicians who have monopolised Spanish democracy for over two decades.

 “There are only two parties who have tended to win, and they keep changing the laws to make it more difficult for other parties to be elected. But even if new parties did come up, we know for sure that they wouldn’t be doing anything for us. We have seen for a long time that European and western democracies are not working for people, they are just working for themselves.”

In Madrid, however, I also saw first-hand the problems caused by fetishisation of the process of direct democracy as the implicit alternative. Activists spoke to me despairingly of the 15-M movement’s inability to organise effectively, because of their absolute commitment to the process of consensus, whereby one or two ‘blocks’ can subvert a proposal that has taken weeks to instigate. This system works well in groups of tens or hundreds, but less well in groups that run to the thousands, or tens of thousands. There is a growing suspicion amongst Spanish activists that – to paraphrase the popular protest chant – that’s not what democracy looks like either.

Inertia on the left is certainly nothing new. Many would argue that if you want to see progressive politics failing to  get its act together, Occupy is far from the place you should look first. “Progressive groups have been paralysed because they bought into the idea that they could leave it up to Obama and he would fix everything,” says Marshall Ganz. “You haven’t had the social movements clambering at the gates demanding that Obama fulfil the promise.” For Ganz, and many others, this is one of the most important functions of Occupy. “It’s the first real challenge to neoliberal thinking we’ve seen.  Liberals have always needed radicals. They have to have people out there making demands on them in order to manoeuvre effectively. Effective presidents have always known this.”

Occupy is far more than a political campaign: it is a cultural movement. For the Occupiers, and everyone inspired by their fight for financial justice, legislative changes are less important than the cultural shifts that make legislative change inevitable

The call, particularly on the political right, for Occupy to make demands that can then be dismissed, belies its real transformative power as a cultural movement for fiscal and social responsibility. Already, Obama is beginning to speak a more specific language of social compassion, and two amendments to the United States constitution have been proposed suggesting measures to rein in the influence of corporate money on Washington politics, amendments for which the Occupy movement is right to take credit.

“Occupy didn't do this by voting for anyone, or by threatening to vote against anyone,” says Bornstein, a lecturer at NYU. “Rather, it happened because we demonstrated that there are a whole lot of people who realize that participating in the democratic conversation is more than just picking the lesser of two evils every couple of years.  

“Conservatives and their allies turned a crisis caused by the market into a crisis of public spending. It was an act of political genius,” says British author and commentator Owen Jones, who remains a firm supporter of the Labour party. “The real victory of the Occupy movement is to transform the debate…reminding everyone who caused the crisis.”

Occupy is far more than a political campaign: it is a cultural movement. For the Occupiers, and everyone inspired by their fight for financial justice, legislative changes are less important than the cultural shifts that make legislative change inevitable. Across the world, a generation betrayed by a political elite heartily cannibalising its own future refuses to spend any more energy voting, campaigning or knocking on doors for that elite.