I didn’t have much to do with Occupy Brighton. On the day that Occupy London began I travelled up to London to be part of that instead. On twitter the talk was alive with what was about to happen in London. The boast that Block the Bridge had been a warning shot but that ‘they’ had seen nothing yet now seems more of a promise than some idle and ambitious tweet. There were Brighton twitterers chatting away. Most seemed on their way to London, having arranged to travel together already. Not knowing them, I travelled alone. There was some talk of setting up a Brighton camp but it wasn’t very enthusiastic.
A couple of weeks later, on 29th October 2011, a people’s general assembly was held in Victoria Gardens in central Brighton. The assembly decided to set up camp and Occupy Brighton was born. This branch of the international movement had a particularly easy ride because Brighton & Hove City Council is the only one in the country run by the Green Party. The Greens declared themselves supportive of the Occupy movement. Consequently, this camp faced no eviction threat, so long as they remained peaceful. The entire Occupy movement espouses peaceful direct action. The local thieving Tory bastards were outraged that something like this could be allowed to happen and issued press releases accordingly. The camp carried on, welcoming visitors and holding debates. I kept meaning to go but the few times I have been in central Brighton over the last two months, I was on my way back to Occupy London, so I didn’t become involved.
On 9th November 2011, Occupy Brighton released its initial statement. Here it is, for the record:
- This is an Initial Statement but may be subject to change. It has been discussed at open meetings and consensus has been reached on each point.
- We need an alternative to the current system which is unsustainable, undemocratic and unjust.
- We are all unique people living on this planet. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
- Abolish the interest charges on the money creation process.
- We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable.
- We seek an alternative to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.
- We want regulators and watchdogs to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.
- We support all actions to defend our services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing.
- We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must be protected and only go towards caring for people and the planet.
- We demand an end to the unjust wars and oppression supported by our government.
- We demand an end to the police and military brutality both here and in other countries.
- This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!
This statement is actually quite a lot bolder than the initial statement of the biggest encampment in the UK, Occupy London Stock Exchange. It specifically calls for the abolition of interest charges. Occupy London’s initial statement ended with the same words, the general invitation to join in. Whereas in London a large number of all sorts of people did join in, in Brighton most of the joiners were local people with severe drug and alcohol problems. Many of them were homeless. They had, after all, been invited to a camp where food, shelter and companionship was offered. Over time, the numbers of these completely disenfranchised people overwhelmed those who had actually set the camp up.
Eventually I did find myself passing, on 3rd December 2011. I had intended just to take a gentle stroll around and then go home but their general assembly was in progress and a friend from Occupy London spotted me. At that assembly there was a fundamental schism. Essentially the Occupation divided into two parts that evening. On one side there were the genuine activists who wanted to keep the camp a purely political affair by banning the public consumption of drugs and alcohol. On the other side were those who thought nothing of sitting around all day getting wasted and calling that a political protest. Occupy London has had similar debates. In London the general assembly’s decision was clear: drinking and drug taking would be banned but unfortunately no decision was taken as to how to enforce the ban. That evening in Brighton was the watershed moment, when the active got up and went to set up an occupation somewhere else. I never heard where they went. I’ve had a look but they are currently nowhere to be found. It looks like they just got up and left to do something else.
They left the camp in the charge of the wasted and it muddled through, with its protest signs but not really organising itself, until a big storm hit Brighton. It wrecked the camp and broke the spirit of the remaining Occupants, which was hardly surprising since their organisational strength was restricted to tending to their own personal proclivities. Local council workers turned up on 14th December 2011 to clear the debris away. Some of camp’s Occupants helped with the clear up. Unfortunately some of the others set fire to the debris. The fire brigade attended to put the fire out and someone assaulted a fire fighter, pushing him to the ground! The assailant ran off. The violence triggered a change in the local council’s policy on the Occupy encampment, with the council leader Bill Randall declaring that consequently Brighton & Hove City Council would not tolerate another similar camp being set up again. This was pretty much exactly what was predicted by the activists at the general assembly I attended.
The central problem at Occupy Brighton was the failure to exclude anyone. Occupy London has precisely the same problem. A key component of the Occupy movement is that no-one is excluded. This is what distinguishes it from a political party. All over the world, the Occupy movement has boasted that its particular take on direct democracy, using consensus as the method for decision making, is what democracy looks like. In fact, this is not true at all. Democracy requires a defined citizenry. All ancient systems of democracy involved knowing exactly who could vote and who could not. Most of these ancient regimes severely restricted who could vote. Modern democracies allow pretty much anyone to vote but even then there is always a clearly understood mechanism for registering to vote. The universal franchise works because registered voters cast votes for representatives to make informed choices after they’ve had their varying degrees of rational debates.
The current problem with our political democracies is that they are apparently restricted to decision making on purely political and social matters. We have lost control of our economies. That is where the Occupy movement stepped in: the central complaint has been that we have no democratic control of the way in which our economy is run. That was why the first camp was set up close to Wall Street. That was why Occupy London wanted to set up in Paternoster Square, the home of the London Stock Exchange, and settled (rather than fight the police) for St Paul’s Churchyard instead, which is immediately next door. Occupy wants to extend democracy from the purely political sphere to the economic one. Occupy recognises that the financial institutions which run the planet all have headquarters. The key idea that Occupy brought to the political debate was that we should physically protest in the land around these financial powerhouses, rather than outside the political vacuum filled only by politicians arguing about education policy and other issues of little interest to the bankers.
The particular method that Occupy uses for decision taking – consensus – is brilliant for generating cohesion amongst a disparate group of people drawn from many backgrounds but rubbish for taking tough decisions. Decisions taken by consensus are only agreed when everyone either agrees or everyone agrees and no-one vetoes (or blocks, to use the jargon) the decision. If someone blocks the decision, the discussion continues. This system can be wonderfully effective for generating individual responsibility within a precise society organised by consensus. Witness Christiania, the self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood of about 850 residents in Copenhagen which has run on consensus for over 40 years. The political meetings there are said to be very long winded and tedious but the community has held together precisely because everyone has agreed with everything decided. Another by-product of this political system, is that very few decisions of any sort get made. Christiania is the paradigmatic example again: after four decades, there are still only no more than a dozen rules, each of which has arisen to deal with a specific problem. To the outsider this might appear wonderfully simple but in reality, there are many rulers instead. For example, to join Christiania and build a house to live in there, you must obtain the consent of everyone. Consequently, there is much unused land, for the Christianians to meditate in.
Whether this is fair or not must remain a matter for debate. Whether it is the best way to run a country the size of the UK must be severely doubted. The fact is that all large scale democracies require some type of majority voting system. The system must respect minority rights but that does not need to extend to winning their agreement to everything. Although Christiania’s policy making meetings are very much larger than all but a few of Occupy London’s, they do have a defined citizenry. In other words, they do not just allow anyone to wander in and block decisions.
Occupy London has been successful because of its location, its scale and the urgency of the problems visited on the world by the London Stock Exchange, which have triggered an ambition not hitherto seen amongst the UK’s foremost political activists. The movement in London has been neither short of energy nor commitment from some extremely capable people. Together we have generated one of the biggest challenges to the economic hegemony seen in my lifetime. We have created a community space in which genuine debate and conversation has occurred between all the key players. However, despite all that, the movement has to recognise its failings and learn from them, if it doesn’t want to endlessly suffer them. Occupy Brighton’s problems are much the same as Occupy London’s. The longevity of both camps will be decided by external factors because using consensus without a defined citizenry means that no decision to scatter the camp could ever get taken – there would always be someone whose best home was right there. Both camps are being consumed by those whose immediate problems are well below the political and economic barricades; dealing with them exhausts the activists’ resources.
Occupy cannot continue forever. None of the original activists intended it to. There has been much talk of the Spanish camps, which did pack up and leave, but no serious proposals to leave have been made in London. In Brighton, the genuine activists realised that they could not exclude those that they had invited and left themselves. The departure rate of genuine activists in Occupy London has remained a trickle for some time. To some extent the departed have been replaced by newcomers but with the British winter coming, the trickle will turn into a torrent. Occupy London needs to set an end date so that it can hold the politically moral high ground. The trial of the eviction case begins on Monday 19th December 2011. It looks set to continue for longer than the Judge’s time estimate of three to four days. There are two litigants in person who have joined the proceedings, doubtless they will slow the proceedings considerably. However, this extra time does not auger well for Occupy London because of the difficulty of taking decisions according to the chaos of whoever turns up to talk.
As with the camp in Brighton, the London activists need to realise that they are facing a stark choice: to either quit while they are ahead, recoup over the winter and come back in the spring or to get violently evicted. There’s no honour in the violence. Without honour, there can be no real political persuasion.
We already know that various violent groups are planning to join in ‘to defend’ the camp they have not been part of. There will be undercover police officers doing much the same thing. The result of this is that all the people who didn’t join an Occupy camp will see ‘us’ apparently resorting to violence as a last, futile gesture. There is nothing to be gained by sleepwalking into that situation. With the trial about to begin, Occupy London will be praying for a violent storm instead of a stormy eviction.