Anti-capitalist protests: a pointless trend or the foundations of an alternative system?

The demonstrators occupying St Paul’s, as well as similar protesters in Wall Street and throughout the world, have seemed to capture the headlines for all the wrong reasons. First they were branded as hypocrites for consuming capitalist goods, as if owning a mobile phone or buying a coffee from Starbucks automatically disqualified them from any criticism of the current economic system. The purchase of one flavoured latte, so the argument went, clearly amounts to a complete endorsement of unbridled capitalism, therefore undermining any argument for a fairer and better regulated global economy. The implication is that anyone concerned about the excesses of the free market should strip to a loincloth and revert to a barter economy if they want their views to be taken seriously

Next the protesters were derided as lazy frauds, with infra-red images showing that many of them appeared to have left their tents and gone home to the comfort of their beds during the night. The demonstrators responded that these images were taken during the evening when many had gone out to the pub, but not before the damage was done to their reputation. Even worse, the subsequent closure of St Paul’s seemed to show just how callous the protestors were, impinging on one ofLondon’s most significant landmarks and tourist attractions. This view conveniently ignored the way in which most Cathedral officials had allowed and even endorsed the protest until they realised the affect it was having on visitor numbers and revenue. These attempts to belittle and demonise the protesters have served to obscure their message, portraying them as irrelevant troublemakers whilst ignoring any of the issues they are justifiably concerned about.

However, whilst the right-wing media has been quick to label the protestors as nothing but a bunch of hypocritical, lazy, and inconveniencing hippies, many on the left side of the spectrum are also doubtful that the movement could serve as an effective force for change. They bemoan the fact that the movement has no real sense of leadership and that the protesters have failed to articulate any clear aims. It has also been pointed out that claims to represent ninety-nine percent of the population are easy to make when demands are so vague that no-one could possibly disagree with them. This rhetorical ambiguity then contrasts with the precise efficiency of the St Paul’s protesters when it comes to logistical organisation, with the setting up of a kitchen, library and a list of health and safety regulations. For some it appears that simply maintaining the protest for as long as possible has become the biggest priority, rather than outlining any precise political objectives or demands.

At first glance this comes across as yet another example of the lack of meaningful political engagement which is supposedly characteristic of the modern era. Admittedly, some people have protested about the financial crisis as if they were protesting against the Iraq war, ignoring the complexity of the issues at stake and treating it as if it were a simple yes or no, ‘them against us’ debate. Placards with catchy slogans such as “jail the bankers,” “bankster terrorists,” or “we are the 99%” may sound good, but they don’t bring us any closer to tackling major issues such as how to regulate global finance or how to create a more equitable form of capitalism. The widespread adoption of the mask from ‘V from Vendetta’ perhaps best symbolises this shortcoming, with elements of the anti-capitalist movement beginning to resemble a popular internet meme which has got out of hand.  Critics point out that the protests lack the political direction and ideological substance to pose a real threat to the status quo, and that whilst they may have raised a lot of pertinent questions they haven’t provided any of the answers we so desperately need.

But perhaps this isn’t the point. Just as buying a coffee from Starbucks shouldn’t prevent someone from condemning corporate greed, not knowing all the answers shouldn’t prevent someone from voicing their doubts about the current system. One of the most striking aspects of the global ‘Occupy’ movement has been its diversity, showing just how many people are dissatisfied with the way things are. Regardless of age, ethnicity, or professional background, people the world over have come together to challenge the assumptions upon which the current global economic order is based, while countless others sympathise with their cause. They may have no overarching leadership or shared manifesto, but they do have a mutual desire to try and create a more just world. And whilst some have resorted to mindless slogans such as ‘eat the bankers,’ many have engaged in productive discussions about how we might actually go about changing things for the better. In sum, whilst the ‘Occupy’ protests may not have given us a neat, pre-packaged solution to the present crisis, they may at least help to spark a meaningful debate about how the current system could be changed. That way, when we look back on these protests in years to come, they might be seen as a real turning point rather than yet another pointless and forgotten fad.

London Student Volume 32 Issue 4 p.11 (7/11/11)

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