Occupy London makes proud its boast to fight against the 1% and most of the country is on their side on that score. The problem this particular protest encampment faces, after holding their ground physically for more than two months in St Paul’s Churchyard, is not how to get the message across. It is how to recruit more people to activism. With the onslaught of Christmas, the primary consumption festival of capitalism, the problem becomes more acute than ever. There are now less people on that hallowed ground battling against the death star of the London Stock Exchange than there were in the early days. Campaign fatigue has set in, social problems have set in and the winter cold doesn’t help.
Although five thousand people turned up on the first day and thousands turned out for several weeks, the numbers are now down to the small hundreds. The camp lacks political leadership. It still organises bold and ambitious events but these are increasingly only taken up by the converted. Early high profile backers, such as the clergy in St Paul’s Cathedral, have fallen away. This is hardly surprising. Whereas the Occupy movement has much to complain about, it does not properly address its own internal problems. Instead it pointlessly continues to debate them.
To begin with many people were needed to establish the camp. I’m pleased to have been one of them. Large numbers of people were required to physically hold the ground, to occupy. As time has gone by and the Occupationists have proved that they are not rioting or disturbing the peace in any way that the police could seriously complain about, large numbers were not required to hold the space. Had the authorities launched an eviction attempt in the first few weeks, doubtless many thousands would have arrived to defend the camp. Certainly we had people ready at all times to get themselves to the City in that eventuality. Instead, the City played a waiting game. It cannot be congratulated on having any political wisdom for this; it was more a case of muddled strategy born out of inexperience of persistent popular protest. They haven’t had to deal with anything on this scale for centuries. As the encampment continued and other spaces were occupied too, there was a sense of direction and motivation but the fact is the activists were spreading themselves more thinly, rather than recruiting more people.
Less people have been attending on the ground because of two reasons. Firstly, increasing numbers of activists have dropped out. Partly, this is down to sheer burn out. For myself, I found it increasingly difficult financially to travel to London and live in the Churchyard. Other people became exhausted from other factors, such as constantly repeating debates about the direction of the camp with people who essentially already feel that it has achieved everything they want – a place to live, with free food and companionship. We’ve lost key activists because of our inability to exclude people who settle disputes with violence. We’ve created a culture inside the camp that anyone who goes to the police to complain of physical assault is some kind of traitor. Yet this movement never intended to be anti-police! In the early days much effort was made to get the individual officers of the City of London police force to see us for what we were: peaceful refuseniks engaged in mass civil disobedience. We worked closely with them and won them over, to begin with.
The second reason that numbers have fallen away is the failure to recruit. Occupy London will not recruit newcomers when the social problems it has created and refused to deal with are so well known. Not everyone has read about them in the Daily Mail or the London Evening Standard, although plenty have. You only have to visit the camp to see them for yourself. Occupy London fails to recognise that its many visitors talk to their friends. As one of my commentators (Jim Jepps, commenting on my post about Occupy Brighton) recently said, “… frankly, the 99% don’t tend to hang out in soup kitchens for people with profound social problems. They sympathise with them but don’t want to introduce them to their kids.”
The genuine activists in Occupy London realised the inevitability of this situation some time ago. Unfortunately they were hamstrung by their insistence that every voice be heard, with the result that the people whose activism is restricted to taking from the camp’s social provision shouted them down. The debate about how to cure the problem has been raging for weeks. It’s not a complicated debate. There are three basic options.
The first option is to do nothing and continue the camp as it is. Everything’s fine, say the advocates of this option and anyone who says otherwise is either a police spy, an agent provocateur or just a member of the 1% in disguise seeking to destabilise the camp. The advocates of this option are blind to the fact of the falling numbers. They’ve found a great new place to live and understandably want to keep it intact. They cannot see the likelihood of continuing social disintegration or widespread emigration from the camp because they cannot see much beyond the next day. Often they cannot see beyond their next can of special brew. These people are not genuine political activists. They have severe personal problems and need help. Unfortunately their voice is equal to everybody else’s, because that is a founding Occupy principle – every voice will be heard, regardless of whose it is. That principle combines badly with another founding principle – that no decision can be made until everyone agrees about it.
The second option is to quit the camp. This is known as the exit strategy. There has been much debate about this idea and it carries a certain credence. The example of the Spanish arm of the Occupy movement, known as 15-M or the Indignants, is often cited. The Spanish movement carries much influence around the world of Occupy because of the vast numbers of people who were recruited. Theirs was truly a mass movement. RTVE, the Spanish public broadcasting company published figures estimating participation in this movement to be between 6.5 and 8 million people. Occupy London was blessed to have Spanish activists in its ranks on the first day and when they made suggestions as to how to get the camp established, there was universal agreement. The Indignants have ended their protest encampments. They set a date to quit and celebrated their decision with a week of partying before leaving. Then they tidied up after themselves. A large number of the activists in Occupy London would like to adopt an exit strategy so as remain in charge of events and be able to return in bigger numbers at some later date. This is my preferred option.
The third option is to adopt what is known as the Amsterdam Model. Occupy Amsterdam faced the same problems as Occupy London because it insisted on including absolutely anyone who wanted to turn up and take the free food, company and shelter. They split their encampment into two separate sites. One site provided what might loosely be described as social services: food, accomodation and welfare but on the whole the party scene was not tolerated. The other site provided for the political purposes: debating, library facilities and general assemblies. By making this division, the social problems were separated from the political recruitment ground. The troublemakers were contained and, to some extent, left; probably because hanging around a campsite with a lot of well meaning folk who insisted that this was not a place of protest was a lot less exciting than other places they had to go to.
Over the last three weeks or so, the debate between the genuine activists inside Occupy London has shifted from preferring an exit strategy to adopting the Amsterdam Model instead. As I said, this isn’t a complicated debate. It doesn’t take long to make a decision about it. Yet Occupy London’s internal organisation is so tortuous that this simple decision, which could easily have solved both the recruitment and the fatigue problems weeks ago, has been allowed to drift. Last night, after much wrangling on the ground and in secret chatrooms on the internet, a proposal in favour of the Amsterdam Model was finally put to the general assembly. The meeting began just after 7:00pm and was still continuing after 10:00pm. No decision was taken! Unsurprisingly, universal agreement could not be obtained, even with the meeting dragging on and some people leaving before the end.
Some activists are charitably saying that some people needed more time to let the idea sink in. Certainly it is a radical rethink of the nature of the Occupation but how much time do people need to think about something as simple as this? If Occupy London cannot take swift decisions on simple matters like this, it will not recruit more people to the idea that we’d be better off running society according to Occupy’s basic principles. Imagine how Occupy London would cope with any sudden and serious policy challenge! The planet regularly suffers crises which require large-scale interventions. This morning we awoke to the news that the government of the Philippines has decided to commit immediately the bodies of thousands of drowned people to mass graves, without identifying them first, to halt the spread of disease. There are so many instances of emergencies that affect us all that there’s nowhere to even start listing the problems which general assemblies working by consensus would never be able to cope with.
Many people in Occupy London do not accept that their internal method of organisation is unsuited to the problems of the wider world. Those that do, persist with the belief that it is suitable for organising protest encampments. Certainly it does have a fantastic advantage over more traditional political organisations: cohesion. Having everyone agree with everything decided keeps the movement together. That is why, today, with the High Court eviction case brought by the City of London Corporation beginning 65 days after Occupy London began, there are still hundreds of people involved. 86 people were prepared to give witness statements to defend the Occupation. Few of these people will be under any illusions as to the outcome but their will is strong.
Despite this remarkable cohesion, the stark fact remains that the Occupation has suffered problems which you wouldn’t want visited on anyone: fear of violence, deep seated paranoia and chronic indecision. The debate as to the best method to organise the camp continues – it will be debated again this evening at another extraordinary general assembly. Whether a decision can get taken remains to be seen. My bet is that it will be decided tomorrow but that many people will continue to vote with their feet. They will simply walk away from the mess that they have inadvertantly created.
It is often said that a political movement’s worst enemies are within. Occupy London’s worst enemy is indecision. General assemblies run on consensus breed it. On the first day of the Occupation I began to organise the legal team. The internal organisation of the team has changed much since I wrote that post. It would have been far better to exclude people rather than let pretty much anyone join in but that would have broken Occupy’s founding principles. I believe much of what I have done has been decisive – I’m that kinda fellow. Certainly we are more prepared for this particular court case than anyone expected us to be. Our legal strategy throughout the Occupation has been far better than the City’s. Witness our destruction of the pathetically misconstructed Health & Safety complaints raised against us by St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the High Court’s task is not to award brownie points for which side’s legal team has performed best. The High Court will be assessing the facts on the ground as of the dates that the witnesses give evidence and in relation to the legal issues brought by the City. If Occupy London had got its act together some time ago, its witnesses could have presented a far more attractive case to the High Court. With no fixed end date and internal disorder, no sensible judge could allow the Occupation to continue.
Many will say that I am betraying the movement by writing these words now. At the same time, they will hypocritically defend the right to free speech and genuine debate. This is a plea for a decision on the available options. Occupy London needs to choose when it leaves and do it with style, rather than squander the political support it has mustered. If it chooses to set an end date, that date will have to be within the next month because it doesn’t have the resources (financial, people and propaganda) to sustain itself any longer. Before it leaves, it needs to reorganise itself so that it is no longer the cause of social disorder; the Amsterdam Model may well be a route to achieve that. If it can manage to make these decisions by tomorrow, then its witnesses stand a chance of persuading a judge to decide to allow it to continue until its chosen end date. This window of this opportunity is closing very fast. The decisions need to get taken before Occupy London’s witnesses tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the world.