What can activists learn from how OccupyLSX fared?


10:53 am - March 12th 2012

by Leo Barasi    


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There are two ways of looking at how the country saw Occupy London before its eviction at the end of last month.

The first is that the principles of the protest were surprisingly popular. We saw in October an ICM poll that found a majority sympathetic to the protesters’ aim of ending ‘a system that puts profit before people’.

Fewer than two in five said that the protesters were naive in looking for an alternative to capitalism.

A new YouGov poll has reinforced this.

Asking simply whether people support the ‘aims’ of the protesters – not spelling out what those aims are – the result is an impressive 17-point lead for those supporting the protest against those opposing its aims:

The surprise isn’t that the country thinks that the current economic system is unfair. We already knew that there is an overwhelming view that those who play by the rules don’t get rewarded.

What is impressive is that Occupy London succeeded in tapping in to this. Despite not making specific proposals for reforming the economic system, and having their message diverted by fights about tactics, the protesters’ desire for something better than the current system was recognised and shared by a large proportion of the population.

But the same YouGov poll also finds that 71% think that it didn’t achieve much or anything at all.

This seems harsh. While difficult to measure, one likely success is that the protest prompted media debates about whether the economic system can be reformed, which created political space to consider it in a way that hadn’t previously existed. It may also be true that the protests inspired and informed new activists, who will continue to fight for economic and political reforms.

Opposition to the tactics
But while the protests may have achieved some things, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the tactics of Occupy London got in the way of its achieving more.

YouGov found that two-thirds support the legal action to remove the St Paul’s protest, and other polls showed similar approval for ending the protest. The widespread view seems to have been, “Ok, we agree with you, but you’ve made your point and now you’ve become a nuisance”.

Yet, this was inevitable from the moment the protesters found themselves camping outside St Paul’s, and it exposes competing objectives in the movement.

If the protest was intended to provide a space for democratic debate among activists, or even to be a mothership for other protests, it made sense for it to run indefinitely. But if that were the case, there was no reason for it to be in a location as prominent – as annoying – as St Paul’s.

On the other hand, if the protest was intended to spark a media and political debate, holding it in a controversial location like St Paul’s was a great way of getting publicity.

But once the initial headlines passed – and the story inevitably became about the camp attracting people with mental health problems, or the conflict with the Church – trying to run a protest indefinitely at St Paul’s increasingly distracted from the protesters’ message.

Protest camps will continue long after Occupy London becomes a hazy memory, but there are lessons from the tent city at St Paul’s.

From the movement’s perspective, a positive conclusion is that it demonstrated public support for discussion about alternatives to the current system. But there is also limited patience for those who would disrupt everyday life for months on end to make their point, even when their message has a receptive audience.

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About the author
Leo is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He manages communications for a small policy organisation, and writes about polling and info from public opinion surveys at Noise of the Crowd
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Reader comments


The answer is probably to see tactics as tactics rather than principles, to be adhered to only for so long as they’re working well.

As you say, Occupy were successful in forcing their issue on to the agenda, and opening up political space for their concerns to be discussed. That’s intrinsically valuable, as a necessary pre-condition for achieving their broader goals.

After a few weeks of that the best thing might have been to declare victory and leave. They could then go off and come up with some new tactical ideas, thus keeping the movement fresh and vital, and returning with something equally eye-catching next time.

Occupying space is just a tactic, after all. No more than a means to an end. Energy used up holding on to that space after December might have been more productively spent elsewhere.

2. Man on The Clapham Omnibus

The occupy movement showed many things ,the resilence of the City of London,well versed in centuries of control,the conservatism of the judiciary and finally the rapid conversion from Jesus to Judas of the clan of St Pauls. When it comes to polls and the reaction of the great British Public I have to say I am compleatley underwhelmed.
I personally saw the tatics and principles as spot on but unless these issues are picked up in the political sphere nothing is going to change. In 2008 we had a banking crash which has devestated the economies of numerous countries. Has anything changed? Yet it is precisely those individuals and corporations which retain and manage the worlds finances who welded the axe against Occupy. That is the value of polls. Get a life!

Still not sure what their aims were. I do know that Occupy Totnes wanted the end to the fractional reserve system of banking. Fairly sure they didn’t achieve this.

All the Occupy movement needs to do is to quote the prescription in the New Testament:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. [Matthew 25:29]

It was Disraeli who made an issue of One Nation Conservatism and he was the grandson of immigrants to Britain. He wrote:

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” “You speak of — ”said Egremont, hesitantly. “ The rich and the poor.” [Sybil]
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/bsurface_01.shtml

The Primrose League was founded in 1883 to promote Disraeli’s vision of One Nation Conservatism but the League was disbanded in 2004 because of failing support.

It’s hard to think of a poll more biased in its wording than one which asks if you oppose a system which “puts profits before people”. What’s remarkable is that, according to the article you linked to, only 51 per cent of people said they did oppose it! 49 per cent apparently think it’s ok to put profit before people!

The only explanation I can think of is that people were reluctant to appear to support the Occupy LSX protesters.

Having said that, I found the rest of the post very thought-provoking. Perhaps the key point for protesters is to continually make it clear that they are attempting to build a better society for everyone and to avoid giving the impression that they are in opposition to the rest of society. The conflict between Occupy LSX and the church was great theater but many people, even those who are not in any way religious or cowed by tradition, might struggle to identify with people who appear to be fighting against St Paul’s Cathedral.

6. Shatterface

Asking simply whether people support the ‘aims’ of the protesters – not spelling out what those aims are – the result is an impressive 17-point lead for those supporting the protest against those opposing its aims:

That means 83% don’t support their aims, even though they don’t wnow what they were, opposed to 17% who support their aims, even if they don’t know what they are either.

This is why we need to abandon this planet and start again elsewhere.

7. paul barker

It was another flop in a long line, demos, occupations, strikes theyve all been flops. When are your part of the left going to stop living in 1945, 1968 or 1984 & move into the present ?

8. Man on Clapham Omnibus

@4
I think the last thing anyone needs is a dose of religion thanks Bob, particularly from the Church of Enland. Paradoxically ,what the rest of your comments have to do with anything probably only the Lord knows .

I have to agree with @7 on this. The big question is why demos,sit ins etc have virtually no effect on social or political life. Is it perhaps the issue of power? If so how is that changed and do polls have any relevance in that process.

@8 Clapham: “Paradoxically ,what the rest of your comments have to do with anything probably only the Lord knows .”

I thought folks might like to be reminded that the failing tradition of One Nation Conservatism converged with the message of the Occupy movement. It’s not for me to say why the tradition of One Nation Conservatism has failed but I think we should note that it has and inquire as to why.

I’m one of those people who was totally fed up with the Occupy people, even though I agreed with much of what they might have said. Occupations are a bit of a pain in the arse, and are overly confrontational IMO, and set things up in a ”for us or against us?” stand off. There are so many small things you could critiscise Occupy for, but the answer will come back ”so what are you doing?” – and there is this (cynical?) idea that even if it was all a contrived provocation and bloody annoying ….. that weighing everything in the balance, it ended up as being positive, because it did manage to push its agenda forward into mainstream consciousness.
Maybe in the same way as the SWP brazenly hijack every protest they can, because they think that overall – as a tactic it actually pays dividends, and people become more open to joining the SWP because they see them around so often.

A few things that grated with me were:

*The jazz hands.
*The repeating back what a speaker was saying (that’s so middle class).
*Not admitting that yes of course, tents were often empty at night, because it was bloody cold and miserable there at night and people were coming and going on a shift system.
*Allowing the silly crusty trypes to be so prominent and holding out for the police to put the whole thing out of its misery when they finally cleared it ….. but still have those last images of Occupy as being people resisting the police right up to the end..
*And those bloody annoying Guy Fawkes masks. That’s not a good look.

Apart from that, I agreed with many of the Occupy aims.

11. Man on Clapham Omnibus

@9

I understand now. Unfortunately One Nation Conservatism has always been a contradiction in terms. We have never all been in it together and I am not so sure that that was what occupy was campaigning for.

What can activists learn from how OccupyLSX fared?

That if the target of your ire has the law stacked against your occupational protest, forcing you to protest elsewhere, then camping on church grounds nearby will ultimately make that the issue. I imagine more people know it as ‘Occupy at St Pauls’ rather than ‘Occupy London Stock Exchange’, because the former has the benefit of being an accurate description. Not to mention the resultant arguments with the church which were only ever going to be counter productive, no matter how much you bash them with their own theology, because combating the excess and irresponsibility of the City was the aim, not debating the Church on the merits of the continued occupation.

“What can activists learn from how OccupyLSX fared?”

That there is nothing better designed to put off the broad mass of the British public than a set of sanctimonious, whining, hypocritical, bobo middle-class students who think that they’re the vanguard of the wadical wevolution. Even with an utterly biased question on whether one supports a system that “puts profit before people” (NB, there is no indication in the question that anyone thinks Western-style capitalism with a welfare state does do this), no more than half of the people could be found to agree. The other half would have agreed but didn’t want to give the satisfaction to the noisy self-righteous gits blocking St Paul’s.

14. Charlieman

@12. Cylux: “Not to mention the resultant arguments with the church which were only ever going to be counter productive, no matter how much you bash them with their own theology, because combating the excess and irresponsibility of the City was the aim, not debating the Church on the merits of the continued occupation.”

Not to mention, further, the impossible position presented to Giles Fraser which preceded him quitting his job. Successors of OccupyLSX must surely recognise that you do not undermine the insider who supports your cause. My best wishes to Giles Fraser in whatever he chooses to do now.

Cylux identified that OccupyLSX was a misnomer. The Greenham Common Women were women who protested outside the RAF Greenham Common air base. All words in the name are apposite. OccupyLSX did not occupy a capitalist establishment; two words beginning with the letter C may politely be applied to St Pauls, Conformist and Conservative.

15. Charlieman

@10. damon: “I’m one of those people who was totally fed up with the Occupy people, even though I agreed with much of what they might have said. Occupations are a bit of a pain in the arse, and are overly confrontational IMO, and set things up in a ”for us or against us?” stand off.”

I have been on the one off demo in support of a cause. But I am not a crowd type, especially a crowd that might be hijacked by the SWP. I am not much of a collectivist, more of a collaborator to achieve something useful. If a friend leans on me, I’ll spend an afternoon getting filthy recovering prams from the canal.

There’s an awful lot of stuff that I don’t comprehend: drunken house parties, most especially; I can get drunk at home without having to socialise with “house party” people; and their night is improved by not meeting me. Amongst the stuff that I do not understand is that poor people are incentivised by low wages/high taxes, whereas rich people experience the opposite.

Note to self: Must remember to get rich.

To abolish the word ‘activist’ from supposed and intended mass politics and mobilisations because its elitist and conveys an impression that ‘activists’ dont have jobs, are mostly middle class do-gooders, self-rightious and dont/cant relate to the vast majority of people. Whether that impression is fair or not is a different issue, but I cannot see how most people will see leadership or inspiring, mass directed politics from people who dont look like them, dont do the same things as them, live in a tent for 6 months and call themselves something different from people: ‘activists’.

It presents the idea that being politically active and aware is something thats full time, rather than an everday, banal and even mundane fact of most peoples lives. Nothing of any real political note will ever be achieved by a minority political group. To create change, and perhaps revolution, it has to be mass orientated, mass partcipated and mass led.

Scrap ‘activist’ as a word, because it has too many negative connotations and is isolating from the true holders of political change and power, the masses, ie you and me.

17. Alabaster Codify for 10nn

Despite agreeing almost totally with the general aims of the Occupy movement, like others have said above, I find many of the ‘activist’ types incredibly annoying and off-putting. No one likes an over-privileged middle class whiner – no matter how well-meaning. And a note to any activist reading this: don’t talk to anyone you meet in the street as if they are thick as two short planks with no understanding of the issues. They may have been aware of these things before you even entered secondary school, never mind University.

So everyone agrees but no one much will join them. Weird. Quite unlike the Poll Tax and miners’ strike when loads of normal people got involved. Lots of activists tried to associate with those causes but they didn’t last long, I began to get the impression that if they weren’t ‘important’ to the issue, or in charge and directing stuff, they lost interest.


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