Protests have two aims: to garner publicity and air a grievance. The Occupy London Stock Exchange movement has succeeded with the former but not the latter. It's the failure to substantiate a coherent complaint that is the movement's weakness. "The 99%" is the only enduring idea and "anti-capitalism" is the movement's sound bite mantra. These ideas may be compelling but they lack any substance.
Criticisms that the Occupy protests fail to offer a viable alternative to the political and economic status quo miss the point. It's only once people start complaining that we can ask them why. But with Occupy London, the question that remains unanswered is, what are they complaining about?
The official line is that the occupation provides the space and time for the occupiers to distil their complaint. But with the novelty of the occupation wearing thin and the prospect of an eviction looming, the movement risks losing all political momentum.
The vague initial statement, the closest Occupy London has come to clarifying its position, was dismissed by all the occupiers I interviewed as the lowest common denominator. When I asked occupiers what they would change about the statement I was told repeatedly that there were too many causes and that none could be prioritised.
"This movement is about peace and harmony over fear and greed" is what one occupier insisted whilst Luka, the occupier I first met, aimed to awaken the human consciousness. What will this awakening achieve? "An evolution." How can you tell if and when evolution has taken place? "The human consciousness will be awoken." Is it this sort of rudimentary circularity in the reasoning and the arguments of most protesters that is precisely the problem. A lack of a coherent strategy risks rendering the occupation a mere visual reminder of some grievance, seeking some change in some way.
The failure of the movement to articulate its basic terms is compounded first by the effort to avoid stigma, second by a lack of strategic direction and third by over-generous sympathisers.
The effort to avoid stigma is a major strategic flaw. Many occupiers I met were reluctant to define their positions. I offered some deliberately provocative suggestions and started with the biggie "anti-capitalist?" Few rose to the bait and occupiers were similarly unresponsive to "anti establishment" and "contrarian."
"I'm not anti-anything, I'm free" is the type of vacuous answer I most often got.
The effort to avoid stigma also manifests in a reluctance to declare an agenda. Protesters scoffed at the idea of reform but bristled at the suggestion of revolution. "No one here has answers" Luka admits, the protests are an attempt at "engaging in dialogue." The occupations provide the forum in which that conversation can be had, I'm told. Understandably, the occupiers don't wish to appear as political activists with an axe to grind. But the movement now finds itself in limbo between making a stand and talking things out.
The absence of any strategic direction also deprives the occupation of all political clout. "Politics is a smokescreen" is what I'm told when I question an occupier on the counter-intuition of a political movement refusing to engage with politicians. For many occupiers the fact of protest is enough. Patrick Kingsley explains that the camp is both a demand and a solution, that by the non-hierarchical structure and the participatory democracy, the protesters are leading by example.
The lack of direction is one compensated for by optimism. The movement is "what change looks like" and "this is the start of something big" are captions almost everyone repeats. Despite the sincerity, I can't help but be cynical. The reality is that peaceful protest needs to be large in scale if it's to succeed. Occupy London has attracted more sympathy than is has support and in international terms, the occupations are too politically and geographically disparate to mark the beginning of a shift. If anything, Occupy London is part of a movement of movements.
The occupation's complacent supporters must bear some blame. The expectations are too low and the approval too generous. Observers are satisfied by the fact that the occupiers are there, that they could be bothered, that they're "at least doing something." But these supporters fail to recognise the apathy inherent to their 'something is better than nothing' attitude. This lazy admiration needs to solidify into active agreement if the movement hopes to effect a change.
For those of us politically sympathetic to the Occupy movement, the desperate lack of substance is deeply disheartening. Simon Jenkins' dismissal of the Occupation as "mere scenery" has some force. The movement risks sinking into the urban background' because of its failure to identify in sufficient detail why it exists. Protest is necessary but it is not sufficient; it is a means not an end and this end is in desperate need of definition.