The protest literally camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral looks certain to end sooner rather than later. The protestors would do well to simply melt away to fight another day.
It has taken the resignation of St Pauls’ Chancellor Giles Fraser to allow the Bishop and Mayor of London to call for an end to the tent city. Rev’d Fraser is a man of a philosophical background, who put his desire to avoid an ugly confrontation before the interests of the Cathedral. This has earned him both respect and scorn, although in the context of other direct action this year, the decision looks far-sighted.
The protest failed in its initial aim, which was to occupy a privately owned building and suspend the operations of one of the lynchpins of the city economy. Yet it has succeeded in a wider sense, for it has encouraged debate and shown that criticism of capitalism does not have to be an explicit threat to either public order or anti-commercial. Witness the success of Paternoster Square’s Starbucks for a start.
Occupy LSX, or Occupy St Paul’s as it is now painted, is unruly. Moreover, its message is incoherent. Posters have been graffitied and the graffiti graffitied. One example by a follower of Jeremy Bentham read “the greatest happiness to the greatest number.” A fellow protestor, presumably a Kantian, has scrawled over it “this justifies slavery.” (Interestingly, the anarchist movement at the beginning of the Twentieth Century often expressed itself as anti-Utilitarian and it is tempting to see the same factors behind the Occupy protests as behind the communes of the Tolstoyans, albeit greatly sped up). Others are reminiscent of The Life of Brian in their pedantry, but the vast majority are sincere and easy to sympathise with. Appropriately, given the location, a number are religious in tone.
This is a philosophical generation rather than a practical one – where almost half the population looks forward to going to university and is well fed on satire and news, even if not in the traditional forms. At the same time, there are fewer intellectual or political trends capable of exercising influence over mass movements. New Labour uprooted the left wing of British politics from a stupor, while the Conservative Party is overwhelmingly Thatcherite. The work of Michael Sandel, the world’s expert on justice, if there can be such a thing, is almost always open ended. So politics is constrained, and extra political forces lacking in vehemence. Even protestors miss Steve Jobs.
There have been many good ideas to come out of the recession, from the Evening Standard’s campaigns to the work of other charities. Few, however, have come from the government and David Cameron has become not the figurehead of the Big Society, but it’s antithesis. Neither do the Occupy protestors have any concrete proposals as to how to change the world, but that is not the point. If there is one protestor amongst whom this experience is a milestone in a lifetime of good deed, it will have been worthwhile. More importantly, if the Government and the Church are to be seen as anything other than hypocritical at best, or malicious at worst, they should humour the protest as long as it remains peaceful.
Rev’d Fraser is an instinctive liberal it seems, given his four part series in the Guardian on Isaiah Berlin’s thinking. That he has followed through on this principle is admirable, while Boris Johnson’s call for the protestors to go ‘in the name of God and Mammon’ show the Mayor to be no less intellectually confused than the protestors and probably more unimaginative.
A successful recurrence of these protests, when the Government is inwardly distracted by fights over the European Union, would merely serve to exaggerate the democratic deficit implicit in the Coalition. Were it to degenerate into chaos, public support would fade rapidly and a jumpy Metropolitan Police, even with a new Commissioner, would feel obliged to step in. That would probably be a disaster for both sides.
My rather arrogant prescription is for the protestors to go use this experience, go away and think about how they can make a difference. With the news that borrowing is down and British banks are ahead of the curb on EU stress tests, maybe the government could start thinking too.