My visit to the St. Paul’s occupy camp

Lately I’ve been reading Adorno on a variety of issues. I’ve also been reading up on theories of history and progress. I found an interesting connection with something contemporary in my reading of the latter. Slavoj Zizek stated in numerous places that pace Francis Fukayama, events such as the Arab Spring show evidence of what Fukayama called the “End of History”.

I’m by no means an expert on the philosophy of history, but the idea of a universal narrative seems to gain currency in the current social and economic affairs of the world. To posit theories of universal history through narratives of progress, peace, or dialectics was seen as metaphysical speculation. Such a programme was presumptious of a notion of a universal history or, depending who you read presuming certain facts about human nature. However, a Globalised economy, news media and globally connected spheres of locality (glocal) seems to make social science and Hegelian thought uncomfortable bedfellows.

Why am I thinking about this? Usually because I read about all kinds of philosophy on a casual basis, alongside more careful readings of Kant and Adorno (and at present, essays by Hitchens). The notion of history, or progress was strongly on my mind because I visited on four occaisions the Occupy St. Paul’s camp in the City of London, which, strangely enough, is an area based, in the city of London (if you don’t understand that last sentence, don’t worry: the City of London is an immensely complicated thing).

I follow lots of people on my personal Twitter account, and follow lots of stories on numerous RSS feeds. If there’s one thing that is widespread today, it is dissent about the legitimate rule of governmental authorities. Lots of people have tried to characterise this movement, one prevalent meme which is coming across (at least initially) was the phrase ‘we are the 99%’. There have been some extrapolations on the more technical side of analysing the datasets relating to economic and social inequalities in the US from blogs such as Sociological Images, however this grassroots campaign is not really motivated by datasets.

So what is motivating the #occupy movement? (n.b. in the age of social media, hashtag [#] is being used outside of twitter contexts in ways derivative of the social media outlet). If there is one thing that can be said to generalise them, perhaps it is that it cannot be generalised. There are mainstream depictions of these protesters around the world as anticapitalists, perhaps socialists. London Mayor Boris Johnson referred to them as ‘Crusties’ (people [usually white] who have dreadlocks, which has other ideological baggage associated with it) in a talk earlier this week. I’ve heard some of these protesters referred to as ‘career activists’. One of the posters in the St. Pauls’ site said “‘Hippie-crits’ go to Starbucks”.

As someone who likes to take a backseat in observing these things, I find it very hard to make generalisations, and then I was reminded of an insight from Adorno that the problem with philosophies before the 20th Century were their ‘totalising’ element. Theories which tried to explain everything, failed. So, instead of trying to write to you some opinion of what I thought characterised it all, I won’t bother.

The invested interests who have come to occupy and put literature and advertisement (sic) are varied. Off the top of my head, i’ll list a few:

  • The RMT (a union) has put a large poster complaining about cuts in public spending
  • The Socialist Worker set up a stall
  • There are posters about Islam, which do not seem to have direct bearing on the site, but are (I think) put there because it will get lots of attention as people like me walk by.
  • There are posters which have a few words about what is going on, and state that people such as the officials of the Church of England and Parliament are liars or hypocrites, and then go on about something which isn’t really relevant to the cause: such as illuminati conspiracies (David Icke posters have been defaced and seen as highjacking the occupy camp)
  • There are religious and spiritual messages, some of which make Abrahamic allegories between current affairs and the character of Mammon or Jesus
  • There are posters about missing persons or people who are in dire need of fundraising for an operation etc
  • There are posters about related campaigns, events, talks nearby: such as an anarchist book fair, talks on feminism
  • There are posters about the cuts to specific public services
  • There are posters which use a heavy amount of rhetoric and are made for the explicit point of raising emotions among people who agree with them already. Many words like ‘plutocrat’ or ‘democratic’ or ‘neoliberal’ are thrown around the camp. I feel something distasteful about when people of political persuasions do not define these terms, but simply assert them in constructing a case for their views. It violates the fallacy of ‘begging the question’.
  • There is a first aid tent, and a ‘safe space’ tent, which I think, is for female protesters and those with children. There is a tent providing counselling, a tent with a piano (I was so tempted to play some blues!). There is a tent providing provisions of food. There is an information tent and that is linked to the ‘Tent City university’, which is a highly organised set of events, talks and discussions.
  • There are posters distinctly about Marxism, or evocative of the old ‘Communism vs. Capitalism’ which reflects an outdated pre 1989 discourse. It is interesting how Marxism/Communism/Socialism are lumped together as an ideological opposite of capitalism. These kinds of terms and distinctions show the lack of rigour or systematic response of alternative points of views to current affairs. Or to put it in another way: it shows a starvation and desparation of ideas.
  • There is a Banksy art work consisting of a monopoly board, very fitting.
  • On one occaision there was a ‘speakers corner’ style moment with a fellow and a large sound system beside him on a trailer

There are lots of very positive things happening as a result of the St. Paul’s camping campaign. There have been ‘satellite’ movements going on around London, such as Finsbury Square and an occupation of the former UBS building. Participation among many disparate groups. How many punks and anarchists have stood beside pensioners and parents with children before?

There is something almost Christian about what is going on. People are united under all kinds of stripes, all kinds of interests, all representing a universal dissent about the status quo. There are many people who support their cause, but for various reasons have no voice, or an opportunity to camp. There is not much discrimination in the sense that for some of the more refined protesters, they pray too for the bankers. Perhaps the real success of the movement is how it has embarrassed the Anglican church in how Christ-like the movement is.

I noticed another deformed irony in my last visit. There was a sign which said something like ‘we are in solidarity with Greece’, and from my angle, there was the beautiful architecture of Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece, the Cathedral itself. The Baroque is an advancement of the ideals of sculpture established by Classical Greeks, taking the High Classical to its logical extreme, geometries and patterns, columns of marble evoking piety to a higher power. There’s nothing more allied to the Hellenes than a Baroque building except maybe a Roman copy or a Renaissance building, or it seems, a civil disobedience, a tradition that goes back to times of Solon.


Civil disorder in London

The ancient Athenians were well aware of the notion of civil disorder. I’m often one not to comment on social issues (normally because I feel some things are too soon to make decent judgments about) but this issue has befallen my doorstep, and I don’t mean that in only a figurative manner. It’s very scary in London right now. Where I am living in SW London, things are an attempt at ‘business as usual’, but the smell of smoke getting into my home, and the smell of burning that resides in the streets is menacing.

My first thoughts are with my family, and my friends in London. My second thoughts are about gathering as much intel as possible. This gets in the way of the job I’m currently working (as it’s based in the City, and involves travelling through Clapham), and I am also worried about the implications of this event. This is a terrible event going on, and I just hope that it doesn’t get worse. From my observations, there have been a variety of opinions on this issue:

  • The police are simply not present in certain areas (Croydon, for instance)
  • The reaction to the police activity is not enough (ie. they want more forceful measures against the looters – tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons)
  • There is a growing acceptance that a military intervention is justified – this is acknowledged by the Met Police and Home Office as (at present) not a viable option
  • Some facebook friends and twitter users take the consensus that VIGILANTE counter-violence is legitimate against looters.
  • There is a distinct sense of disgust at the mob mentality, some of the videos shown show the complete lack of sympathy on part of these looters
  • Some people are apologetic about their disgust, as they afraid to say many of the looters they have seen are predominantly black and minority ethnic groups in the areas they have seen, many of them are afraid to say that they want the police to be hard on these people. This kind of apology reflects the potential sea change in the political consensus, namely, to right-wing issues of how police are held back by administrative tasks and ‘political correctness’ instead of upholding public order,]
  • Similar to the above notion, this is seen as ‘chav’ mentality, and an oppurtunity to demean the perceived working class archetype. The notion of a chav is spurious anyway, but that’s another topic. Working class scapegoating doesn’t necessarily explain the violence in Ealing.
  • This is seen as a reaction to the overly strong austerity measures of the UK government. This is what you expect from youth unemployment and the lack of oppurtunities and social mobility.

My view is this: reactionary vigilante counter-violence is just as bad as the looting. The police will not acknowledge a difference between targeted deliberated aggressive violence against looters from the public, and the looters themselves. Morally speaking, they are both as as both bad: two wrongs don’t make a right. The implications of this event will be worse than what is going on right now, and right now: it’s really bad. Demonising so-called ‘chavs’ doesn’t really do anything, and this aggrivates social tensions between communities. Perhaps the most telling thing about this event is that these looters acted to appease their consumerist fantasies: items such as televisions, clothes and jewelery are aspirational. This is material aspiration’s sick conclusion. In addition, this event is opportunism, the looters should not be seen as the ‘other’, they are everyday people who join in the oppurtunity for a free lunch, or television as it happens. They say in liberal discourses that security is not worth the coin of liberty. Liberty is not worth the price of a pair of trainers from JD sports; voiding security is not worth a ‘free’ iPhone.