Before visiting the Occupy London protest at St Paul's yesterday, it had occurred to me that the defining feature of the financial, and with it political, crisis was the complete absence of a serious alternative. No vision for the future has taken hold. As our mainstream media overflows with tales of impending doom, in mainstream politics the silence is deafening.
It was with hope, then, that I wandered through the protest camp in search of the really big ideas that would fill the void. Several hours later, however, I left with a sense of dismay.
The group of about 500 has been camped at the steps of St Paul's Cathedral in London's financial district since Saturday. On Sunday they released an official statement arguing that the current system is unsustainable, that corporations have become too powerful and that we need structural change to distribute resources to the many, not the few.
To the enlightened observer, there seems very little to disagree with. In fact, far from a hotbed of radicalism, the atmosphere at the camp seemed mild. Of the twenty or so people I questioned, I found nothing that wasn't being openly discussed in most national newspapers. The diagnosis is clear: politicians have ceded power to global capital, allowing an unchecked elite to profit from unprecedented gambles, and left the taxpayer to foot the bill for their mistakes.
Less obvious is the prescription. Of the twenty I spoke to, almost all said that they had come to St Paul's to devise a solution together. One racked his brain before listing Joseph Stiglitz, Tim Jackson and Herman Daley as possible architects of a new system. Another was handing out copies of Socialist Worker, but most people winced when I asked if they'd define themselves as Socialists, Marxists, or Anarchists. The issue isn't that there are no ideas at all, it's that, even here, none have gathered any real momentum.
In Westminster the situation isn't any better, and it's hard to see a champion of new ideas emerging soon. That the problem was exacerbated on New Labour's watch has shredded their credibility in opposition, whilst the Lib Dems are trapped in a coalition government which is inevitably Tory led.
What is perhaps more strange is that the malaise is not confined to the UK. A paralysis seems to have gripped the West in its entirety. It is now over three years since the iconic collapse of Lehman Brothers, which made the scale of the problem clear to all. In that time, unemployment has soared and nations have been burdened with unimaginable debt, but no major new movement has gained traction, or captured our collective imagination.
It could be argued that the Occupy movement has chosen to defy easy categorisation, and simply represents a collection of concerned citizens, eager to show contempt for the system as it stands. I got the impression, though, that the disparate responses weren't so much a positive choice as a reluctant admission that nothing really powerful or compelling has yet taken shape.
I still hope that the protests change that, and that the fragmented ideas can coalesce into a tangible and credible vision for our future. Until then, they stand dangerously close to the politicians, waving placards with their shoulders shrugged.