It is far too early to make hard and fast claims about what the occupations mean, or where they are heading. They clearly relate to one another in complicated ways. Each national context is different and each occupation is different. But their global nature is significant and it is a kind of professional stupidity on the part of journalists and would-be opinion-formers to swoon at the nobility and bravery of protesters in the Middle East while denouncing occupiers in the West. The Egyptian activist and feminist Nawaal El Saadawi has no doubt that the impulse to occupy space and set about the work of social transformation is something that people around the world have in common. She is better placed to know than any number of sleek defenders of the current, crumbling common sense.
The events of this year are setting up a race between these guardians of the established order and its critics. The former want to lock down the social settlement created in the last generation with a mixture of claims about technocratic competence and the use of tear gas. The latter are learning how the economy works, and sharing this new understanding, as fast possible. The scale of what is being attempted is breathtaking and it is forcing a profound change in the field of publicity. Topics that were ignored or systematically misunderstood are finding their way into the sum of things that people know about, and that elected politicians must at least appear to address.
We are only at the beginning of what can be achieved at this stage, and there is a great deal that is uncertain. There is a long way to go, before the sympathetic noises of politicians give way to a programme of systemic change. Much can go wrong. Everyone has their own views on what should happen next, and on what eventual victory looks like. If 2010 marked the first stirrings of a response to the economic crisis in Britain, and 2011 is when a popular critique of hyper-capitalism begins to find effective articulation, how is 2012 to mark a similar shift in scale?
I leave that conversation for another day.
Right now I just want to highlight something that has struck me in conversations with people involved in the Saint Paul’s occupation. A number of people have said that they found the experience of being in the assembly profoundly beneficial. One young woman who suffers from anxiety said that she spent an hour in Saint Paul’s before she realised that she had been symptom-free the whole time. People have had a chance to talk with others about politics and economics, and so about the shared conditions of life. They have been able to acknowledge their disquiet and to situate it in the social realm, rather than in their autobiography or in their brain chemistry. That in itself has been an enormous relief.
Part of the inhumanity of the current order resides in the widespread insistence that individual, rather than the social order, is the proper object of reform. In what amounts to an attempt to suppress our political nature, we are told that we must make ourselves acceptable to what exists, to what is inevitable. But troubles in our lives are not our individual achievement. The language and images, the built environment, the power relations that shape our experience of life, these all form part of what must be considered when we consider the puzzle of our own troubles. Sadness is not a private property.
Similarly, I spoke with a young man who has been involved with the economics working group at Saint Paul’s. He told me that some people had arrived with classically conspiratorial ideas about how the world worked. But after a while they had become much more interested in learning about the structure of the economic system.
Paranoia, like mental distress, flourishes in the absence of a public culture. When ideas can be discussed freely among equals, we can revise and improve overly simple explanations – just as we can challenge unnecessary complexity and technocratic obfuscation. Individuals can change their minds, or shift the emphasis of their concerns, without feeling humiliated. They don’t have to do what many critics of conspiratorial culture demand and embrace the conventional wisdom about politics and economics, with all its absurdities and obvious failure of logic, evidence and common sense.
I am not starry-eyed about occupations and assemblies. And it is far too early to make confident pronouncements about what they mean – their meaning will only be determined by what happens in the years ahead. But there is one lesson that we can take from them – and it is worth bearing in mind, I think.
Public speech is good for us.