The Occupy Movement: Not Anti-Capitalist but Anti-Fundamentalist

03/11/2011 15:37 GMT | Updated 01/01/2012 10:12 GMT

One of the problems of the recent rash of Occupations by the Occupy movement, quite apart from determining what space they should actually be occupying (as in the London, St Paul's Cathedral fiasco) is the difficulty in discerning what the Occupiers are protesting either in favour of, or against. Many, especially in the right-of-centre media have decided that these are anti-capitalist demonstrations (note this example from today's Daily Mail in the UK).

This categorisation is politically convenient, for those of the right, because it supports the view that anyone protesting about the way we appear to be running our economies and societies is an opponent of capitalism and therefore either an un-reconstructed socialist or proponent of a brand of economic management not seen in the West since the 1970s. This, of course, is not true. There is not a problem with capitalism, per se, and very few of the protesters are claiming as such. The problem is the variant of capitalism we have pursuing for most of the last 30 years. This variant is economic neo-liberalism or free market fundamentalism - the belief that free markets (in-so-far as those can ever really exist) are the perfect form of economic and social organisation that can do everything from setting the price of onions in the shops, to managing global trade, to delivering a system of public education or healthcare. This is absolutely not the same thing as capitalism.

This fundamentalist ideology has become established as the global economic orthodoxy, despite its transparently obvious failings, but it has never been given a genuine political expression and thus why democracy struggles to rid itself of this damaging extremism. There are three reasons for this. First, if you give it a political expression, no-one will ever vote for it. Second, placing this idea beyond the reach of politics is a means by which those who benefit from it can continue to benefit irrespective of who is in power. Third, it allows any form of government, no matter what political complexion, to be portrayed as The Problem.

Governments have sometimes attempted to pull elements of this ideology into the public sphere, but whenever they do, they have to give it a heavy disguise. British Prime Minister, David Cameron's 'Big Society' is one such attempt. The Big Society is about turning the business of government into a vast contracting opportunity for the private sector - an idea that would enjoy virtually no democratic support. However, Cameron is able give the idea an attractive, comforting, gloss - talking instead about handing power back to the people, eliminating bureacracy and empowering communities. So attractive, in fact, that many of the left wished they had invented the idea.

All that the Occupy movement is trying to do is drag this free market fundamentalism out of the shadows and into political debate. And all the Occupy movement is calling for is a new idea to confront it. An idea liberated from the failed economic dogma which has been used as a facade behind which established interests have advanced themselves for the last 30 years, immune from the inconvenient interference of democracy. Crucially, almost no-one is proposing resuscitating an idea which harks back even further to the socialist inspired economics which decided that the State (rather than Big Business) was the answer to all our problems.

We need something that recognises that competition in free markets is good for setting the price of onions, but not good at providing a system of public health or education. After all, winners and losers is fine when is a question of Asda versus Tesco (or Eton versus Harrow) - but we don't want a public education or health system of winners and losers. Critically, this needs to be an idea which is subject to public debate and the process of democracy, not something which is bundled past us under heavy disguise.

Note: I live in the English County of Suffolk. The Conservative-led Suffolk County Council recently tried to outsource all of its functions and turn itself into what it called a Virtual Council. In order to draw attention to the insanity and deep unpopularity of this idea I established this blog and a more extensive version of this article appears here under the title 'The Story of The Big Society'. Suffolk County Council has recently announced it is abandoning its plans to create The Big Suffolk Society although I can't claim it was my modest digital efforts that caused this!