The Real Battle of St Paul Cathedral: The Occupy Movement and Millennial Politics

The Real Battle of St Paul Cathedral: The Occupy Movement and Millennial Politics

St Paul's Cross in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral is the ancient meeting point where the citizens of London would gather to decide matters of common concern. It was at the Cross that Saxons, Normans and others held a folkmoot in 1066 to decide how to respond to the invading army who were marching up from Hastings. They committed together to defending the city and eventually were able to negotiate a settlement with William the Conqueror, one which allowed them to maintain their rights and civic freedoms so that London was the only part of England that was not feudalised. So there is a certain irony that those who inherited the legacy of these civic institutions and freedoms, namely the Corporation of the City of London, are planning to evict the participants in the Occupy movement who are using the same location for a latter day folkmoot. But then the Corporation now represents those who benefitted from the biggest transfer of assets from poor to rich since the Norman Conquest.

But there is also a striking contrast between those who gathered at St Paul's Cross in 1066 and those who are encamped around it today. In 1066 there was a clear enemy and a clear set of demands. Many complain that the Occupy movement lacks any such clear programme. Yet this is to misunderstand the nature of the Occupy movement for whom the process is the programme. Demands are formulated but these are secondary. What matters is the transformative experience of participation.

What is created around the Cathedral and in other Occupy sites can be characterised as 'temporary autonomous zones' or TAZ's. These TAZ's are meant to give people an experience of direct democracy, including not only the experience of autonomy, but also of the free exchange of ideas and a spontaneous social order in a space free from control by capitalist corporations or state authorities. The primary point of focus is the daily General Assembly where all matters are decided, anything can be proposed and anyone can take part. The primary point of the Assemblies is not necessarily to come up with ideas to make the current system work better (although these might be raised as well) but to give people the experience of a completely different space and time so that they are freed to see the oppressive nature of the current one. As the initial statement by Occupy London put it: 'This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!'

The Occupy movement can be viewed as a millennial politics that seeks to embody the end of one space and time and the experience of a new space and time, one beyond the current liberal-capitalist order of the West. The invitation of the movement is to enter, if only for a day, a different vision of the future. Utilising both an intensive (and at times interminable) commitment to consensus decision-making and through embodying imaginative alternatives to a neo-liberal vision of globalisation the hope is that different constructions to the current political system, patterns of property ownership and capitalist modes of production and exchange can be generated.

The power sought is not political power but the power of imagination. David Graeber, in his extensive ethnography of contemporary anarchism, out of which the approaches used in the General Assemblies, states: 'Immanent in activist practice, I would say, is a theory that the ultimate form of power is precisely the power of imagination. It is this power that creates sociality and social form; the experience of concocting a chant and witnessing it become a collective project becomes an immediate experience of such power. But this power is a sacred force that can only, possibly, be represented by ridiculous self-mockery.' This self-mockery is represented in direct actions through such things as the use of huge puppets, dance and street theatre which constitute a kind of symbolic warfare that aims to re-frame reality in terms other than those defined by the representatives of the state, most notably the police.

All of which brings us back to the Cathedral. For what is a Cathedral meant to be but a place where people can come and experience a different time and space, can live, if only for a moment, in a vision of a different future, and thereby have reality re-framed? The challenge for the Cathedral authorities is not one of how to deal with the health and safety issues the encampment raises, but whether its Christian vision of the end of days has anything to say to that embodied by the protesters on its steps. One place the clergy might begin is with the classic treatise of millennial politics: the book of Revelation. In Revelation, along with the millennial time of peace and harmony, there is a Day of Judgment when 'Babylon' and all its ways are damned.

Benjamin Disraeli identified London as a 'modern Babylon' in his 1847 novel Tancred. His account was part of a widespread nineteenth century sentiment that viewed London elegiacally through the prism of the great Biblical motif of imperial power: a prism encouraged in part by the discovery of the ruins of the original Babylon and the transport of artifacts from that ancient city to the British Museum. London, like Babylon and Rome before it, was simultaneously the centre of things and embodied the system as a whole. It thus stood apocalyptically under judgment. Like all imperial centres, it is awe inspiring and capable of producing things of great beauty as well as decadent and damned.

As with the depiction of Babylon/Rome given in Revelation, the City of London stands for and is implicated in a whole system of production, domination and degradation. Long after Great Britain ceased to be a global centre of trade and industry, the City of London has remained a command point in the global financial system. It has more foreign banks than any other financial centre. While New York is the largest financial centre, London is still more important in terms of international finance. As Nicholas Shaxson argues in his book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, the Corporation of the City of London is central to creating and perpetuating a spider's web of tax havens or 'secrecy jurisdictions' around the world that serve as feeders into the City.

These 'secrecy jurisdictions,' exist half in and half outside the regulatory frameworks and political systems of Europe and America and have been crucial to the development of economic globalization yet largely hidden from view. Because they are states of exception, banks and business, as well as despots and drug dealers, can do there what they cannot do at home: which primarily involves privatizing profits and socializing costs through shifting their profits to zero-tax havens and their costs to nation-states who not only pick up the tab when things go wrong but provide the natural resources, infrastructure, education, medical, political and legal systems which are the condition and possibility of making the profits in the first place.

The basis of the City of London's exceptional status go back to the Norman Conquest and the ways in which, over the centuries, it has created for itself a space outside the legal and political institutions of the rest of Britain. The City is in effect a medieval commune whose ancient rights, privileges and customary practices have formed the means through which to assert and consolidate an exceptional status which was then deployed to uphold and push forward a neoliberal vision of economic globalisation.

It is to be hoped that the same Spirit that seized John of Patmos to condemn the imperial system of Rome in the book of Revelation might seize the canons and clerics of the Cathedral to condemn the system of domination in which the City of London plays such a catalytic role. This would surely be the basis of common ground with the Occupationistas. The differences between them should rest not in what they are against, but in how much they are willing to invest in human efforts alone. The Occupationistas largely look to a project of salvation achieved through political changes, whereas the Cathedral is meant to represent a vision of salvation that raises a question mark above all schemes which depend upon human effort alone.

Rather than a face off between clerics and campers, the real battle is with the denizens of the Square Mile and Wall Street and their vision of the future. The bankers like to position themselves as the hard-headed realists facing down the fantasists and utopians encamped around them. Yet as well as spreadsheets and data sets there is an equally utopian and anarchistic vision guiding many in the financial services industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

If the Occupy movement bears the mantle of one form of anti-statist, anti-capitalist school of anarchism that stretches back to the anarcho-syndicalism of Proudhon and Sorel, many of the bankers seem driven by an alternative stream of anarchism, what Murray Rothbard, a student of Ludwig von Mises - the grandfather of neo-liberalism - called 'anarcho-capitalism'. This stream is equally anti-statist but pro-capitalist. It is no less a millennial vision of the end of history than that embodied in the TAZ or witnessed in the worship at the Cathedral. It sees the best of all possible worlds as an apolitical socio-economic realm that spontaneously organizes itself and provides material prosperity for all through the free decisions of individuals in the marketplace. In this vision it is government and regulation that must be resisted and defeated if the new time and space when there will be prosperity for all is to be ushered in.

What we have in the contest between the Corporation, Cathedral and campers is a conflict between rival visions of the ends of history. As the current financial crisis heralds the end of one time and the transition to another, the question we should all be asking ourselves is whose vision will guide our future?


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