When I was a teenager I went to the barricades.
Out the door
It was in Pittsburgh, probably late in 1983. The mill hunks chanting beside me were angry because their astonishingly highly-paid jobs had disappeared. The people carrying a well-made mockup of the MX missile were angry because we were all going to die in a fiery nuclear holocaust. I was there because I was angry at the idea that SDI was going to unbalance MAD by disrupting deterrence. (Ruth Austern's dad had told me this.) Also because I didn't want to die in a fiery nuclear holocaust. And because Reagan's people were in the pay of the Saudis, and he was foolish and too old.
My conversion to Reaganism came after President Ronnie's second landslide, the night he and the Blessed Margaret bombed Tripoli. I seem to recall going out on the town that night in Toronto in my dad's old army jacket with a camouflage scarf around my neck feeling not at all concerned that Reagan was selling us out to the Saudis or getting us blown up by the Russians.
Of course it wasn't Reagan's fault, or Thatcher's. Jimmy Carter had paid with his job for Lyndon Johnson's and Dick Nixon's spending; just the way Barack Obama is going to pay with votes for the Bush tax cuts. Reagan didn't make the steel mills of Pennsylvania uncompetitive; Thatcher didn't make the coal mines in Yorkshire uneconomical. But when we hit the barricades we blamed them because that was their job.
The stagflation and the recession that made the early eighties so miserable is all clouded over now. So many years of bread and circuses since then have let so many of us forget what it was like when entire cultures and ways of life disintegrated. The hunkies of Homewood, the English miners and all those who have been crushed by change fade into muted memories. It's odd that in America old Ronnie has become a secular saint and Baroness Thatcher is still hated by all right-thinking people.
And today they're back to the barricades. For years the bread and circuses kept them happy. Expectations rose and rose, pushed higher by the borrowed reality of government spending and personal debt. Then, family silver sold, the governments insolvent, the banks tottering and depression deep; we all crashed.
The legacy of social democracy that arose after the Second World War has so far saved us from bread riots and hoovervilles in the rich West, and so far a certain consensus has avoided the term "depression". Instead we talk about "the current economic climate".
In America they blame Obama, in Canada they blame Harper and in Britain we blame Nick Clegg. And everyone blames the fat bastards who have got through the depression so far with their bonuses intact. So it isn't any wonder that the people left without jobs, or the people in work who have been taking pay cuts against inflation for years, are irritated. When I say irritated I mean angry. And with crudely-lettered signs, each different from the next, they've gone out to make a point.
The Church of England has been shocked to discover that years of right-on social action haven't exempted them from occupation. Saint Paul's Cathedral (which Mary Poppins fans will recognise as the haunt of that poor old lady selling birdseed) has been occupied by protesters in tidy tents. There is talk of a general strike. There are rumours that capitalism has ended. The bulls in Oakland have popped some tear gas and fired some baton rounds.
Compared with the sort of violence that comes after major sports events in North America, however, these occupations are peaceable. They're protests in the genuine sense of airing grievances.
The point they're making is that after years of having their expectations raised, they're very unhappy that they've crashed. They're poorer than their parents. They have no prospect of earning a good day's pay for a good day's work. They're going to have to slave at part-time jobs in Wal-Mart until they're 90 to pay the baby boomers' pension bills. I can understand that. I remember that Monday night in 1987 when my friends and I all watched our gold-plated futures in investment banking disappear in the stock market crash.
When Tony Blair, the arch-Baby Boomer, became Prime Minister in 1997 he wanted half the population to go to university. Universities sprung up, teaching whatever people wanted to study, until the system was fiscally and academically bankrupt. When Bill Clinton, the arch-Baby Boomer, became President in 1993 he wanted everyone in America to own a house; and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made sure that they could have one, until the system was financially and morally bankrupt. And now all the promises have come home to roost.
When I studied European history at school, my teacher Charlie Szabo had been a veteran of the Hungarian Revolution. He knew all about revolutions and the way they were caused by rising expectations. The truly miserable don't revolt, he said. They're too miserable. They have no expectations. The ones who revolt are the ones who had expectations that were disappointed.
So I understand why people are out there occupying this place or that.
But what are they going to do next?
Unless occupying Wall Street is going to lead to bankers swinging from lamp-posts via violent revolution there has to be some translation of passion into policy, and that doesn't happen under canvas. There's a current trope that voting never achieves anything. Without debating that point, it's certain that sleeping on pavement achieves less.
The Occupy narrative is a static narrative. As Occupations multiply they attract media attention (and scorn). Easily done: the Occupations are by definition metropolitan and static. But they are accusative and not dative: they show no motion towards a goal. On the cold, blue days of January what will be the message of occupation?
I'm not camped out on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral occupying the City of London. It's cold and miserable out there. Anyway, I'm enough of an academic to have low salary expectations. Most of all, though, I know that change doesn't come from sitting out in the cold. It comes from working to make things better. If 99% of the people in London or New York or Oakland or West By God Virginia want to make the world more equitable, they should come inside, get warm and get working.
This post evolved through discussion with Phil Hultin, Deedee Cushing, Ruta Muhlberger, Jenise Calasanti and Masha Neplechovitsj