Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Occupy movement has failed the essential test of protest

Unlike the student revolutionaries of the Sixties, the protesters at Zuccotti Park and St Paul's Cathedral have no clear political objectives, apart from vague attacks on the current economic system.

Somebody asked me a week or so ago whether the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York and their soulmates at St Paul’s Cathedral didn’t remind me a bit of my own student revolutionary days in Berkeley. Even though my politics had changed, said my interlocutor, this must evoke a little hint of nostalgia.

No, it doesn’t. And that is not because my political views have moved on. In fact, I would not repudiate any of the causes that I demonstrated for in the 1960s: the things that I stood for then (well, most of them) are things I would be prepared – as we used to say at the time – to put my body on the line for now.

The abolition of racial segregation in the Southern states of America (and de facto segregation in its Northern ones), the right of black US citizens to register as voters, and opposition to American military action in Vietnam still seem to me to be issues on which it was necessary and right to take a stand. The reason that I find it impossible to feel any kinship with the erstwhile campers of Zuccotti Park – let alone their imitators in London – is not because I repent of my own youth, or no longer accept the value of public protest. There is all the difference in the world between what we did then and what is going on now.

The single most important disparity, as my list of the causes I supported might indicate, is that we knew quite definitively what it was that we were demanding. That is, we had a clear conception of what it would mean to win: to have achieved our goal. The Civil Rights movement succeeded – after a campaign of extraordinary courage and perseverance – first in de-segregating the schools in Alabama, and then in getting Congress to pass an Act that made racial discrimination illegal. So those campaigners who went down to Mississippi to register black voters knew that they had not risked their lives for nothing. The young men who burned their draft cards (a federal offence) and then fled the country were aware that they were sacrificing their American futures – but they also knew precisely what would constitute a victory for their side of the argument.

What exactly is it that would count as a successful outcome for today’s protesters? They attack capitalism and want to replace it with – what? According to a press release from the New York branch, they wish to: “Resist authority. Rebuild the economy. Reclaim our democracy.” Really? Resist all authority? That would effectively put an end to any form of ordered society that could protect the weak and ensure justice. more