I was busy today, so I didn’t make it down to the occupation as I did over the weekend. Tonight’s blog post is therefore going to be a little bit more theoretical. I’m going to address one of the major criticisms of the movement: that it is aimless and lacks specific objectives. I’ve seen this in a number of places during the last few days, including from some of my more well-informed friends. This quote is from Steeltown Adventure Friends:
One of the main criticisms of the movement – and one of the only ones that I think is a reasonable critique – is that it has yet to formulate a list of demands – or, indeed, a list of complaints beyond “We are dissatisfied with corporations.” Instead, everything revolves around the slogan “We are the 99%” – a phrase that, for lack of explanation, confuses many of those it is intended to represent. This is a perfect example of sound-bite thinking, and that thoughtful, reasonable people employ it tells me that we have fallen out of the habit of demanding more from our politicians, from our movements, and from our public dialogues.
This is a very valid criticism that all occupiers, in all cities, should take very seriously. We’re in uncharted territory with this movement. Never before have so many people gathered together to express so vague a message. There is a strength and a weakness here; the vagueness of the message is what allows for the large numbers, but it is nevertheless an entirely plausible outcome that this movement will accomplish absolutely nothing without a specific articulation of its goals. I don’t consider this likely, but if we want to avoid it then we will have to give constant consideration to where we want this thing to go. Intellectual stagnation should be seen as a greater enemy of the occupations than the most violent police crackdown.
Despite that, however, I remain fairly optimistic about the state of the movement’s demands. They haven’t fully taken shape, but in my conversations at Occupy Edinburgh, I have found that most of the reasons people cite for being there can be grouped into at least one of three broad complaints:
1. Income Inequality-The rich are controlling an increasingly large percentage of the country’s wealth. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in Britain, the United States and my home country of Canada. What’s more, this seems to be a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Recent research suggests that a free market will tend to concentrate wealth in a smaller and smaller number of hands. Without government intervention, the 99% will lose and the 1% will win. We want to see that addressed.
2. Political Influence of the Wealthy- The exact method varies by country, but in most Western democracies you will find that the interests of the wealthiest citizens are awfully well represented in the nation’s political structure. It can be done through privately funded think tanks, astroturfing, or the shameless funding of political campaigns in exchange for favourable policy decisions. This is disastrous for labour regulations, antitrust law, and the environment. All of these tactics are anathema to true democracy. The richest citizen should have no more say in how a country is run than the poorest, and we want to see an active pursuit of that goal.
3. Austerity- Whether you agreed with the bailouts and economic stimulus measures put in place at the start of the recession or not, the fact remains that they cost a lot of money. When that is combined with the decreased tax revenues due to declining economic activity, you wind up with a lot of governments around the world grappling with massive deficits. Somebody has to pay for that. Unfortunately, world leaders have come to a consensus on an austerity agenda that will see the deficit paid down primarily by service cuts and user fees. This isn’t fair because it is primarily the poor who depend on government services, and it is the poor who are least able to cope with their revocation. Meanwhile, the wealthiest citizens have been treated to the same tax-cutting agenda that has coddled them for over a decade now. The wealthy should pay their share of national deficits.
So there are a few common points of agreement, but they remain somewhat nebulous. Maybe they’ll never be fully refined into clear policy goals by anybody within the movement. That does not, however, make these complaints invalid. There is disagreement within the occupation over how society should best respond to these concerns, but there is wholehearted agreement that there should be some kind of a response. The Occupations are therefore more about initiating debate than about ending it. Over the last 3 years of recession, we have seen pathetically little attention paid to these issues by the political and economic elites. We want our politicians to start trying to figure out ways to reduce income inequality. We want to see the introduction of new lobbying rules that limit the influence of money in politics. And we want the debate around paying for the recession to include some consideration of how some of that burden can be placed on the least vulnerable. The occupations don’t have all the answers, but we want to ask the questions.