You are hereThe Guardian: The protesters seem more adult than politicians and plutocrats

The Guardian: The protesters seem more adult than politicians and plutocrats


With a few nylon tents and some amateurish banners, the Occupy movement has rattled the establishment

-by Andrew Rawnsley

October 29, 2011- The mayor of London demands a law against it to stop tent villages "erupting like boils" across the capital. If you lived like Boris, you too might be a bit paranoid about boils. The prime minister interrupts a trip to Australia to announce that the government is poised to intervene. Meantime, the Church of England is split down the aisle about whether the Christian thing is to embrace the protesters encamped on the doorstep of its cathedral – after all, St Paul was a tent-maker and Christ had a robust approach to moneychangers – or to join forces with the mammonites who run the City of London and have the protest camp evicted. Much of the mainstream media side with the establishment by dismissing them as an incoherent and unrepresentative fringe. Well-paid television interviewers sneer that the protesters are spoilt brats while grand columnists scoff that they will achieve nothing.

Yet they have already done something fairly remarkable. My congratulations to the encampment outside St Paul's for sending almost the entire British establishment into a tizzy every bit as confused as some of the protesters themselves. Amazing what you can achieve by occupying a small, albeit famous, patch of the capital with a few nylon tents and some amateurish banners expressing well-mannered rage about capitalism. You have brought a frown to the forehead of the prime minister, hyperbolic froth to the lips of Boris Johnson, attracted the disdain of a pomposity of pontificators and thrown the state church into something approaching a constitutional crisis. It is twisted knickers time among pundits, politicians and prelates. Imagine what might be achieved if this movement can get really serious and starts taking its protest more directly to the avaricious bankers, corporate larcenists and crony capitalists who are the central source of their discontent with how we live now.

The protest at St Paul's is just one example of an international phenomenon. What began in the Spanish springtime with demonstrations by the splendidly named los indignados has turned viral and global. It is just over a month since the first thousand people turned up at Zuccotti Park in New York to express their rage at Wall Street. Since then, similar movements have come to life in more than 900 cities around the globe. They have camped in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt and on the Plaza del Congreso in Buenos Aires.

The default response of establishment opinion is glibly to dismiss these protests as a passing spasm which cannot achieve anything because the movement is either wildly unrealistic in its aspirations for a new world economic order or too vague in its demands. It is true to say that the protests vary in their tactics and are disparate in their goals. Movements like this are often woven from multiple threads of grievance, a tapestry of dissent which can be both a source of initial strength and an ultimate cause of weakness. But they are loosely united by common themes: fury at corporate greed, resentment at lack of economic opportunity, concern about social inequality and alienation from a conventional politics that appears incapable of doing anything serious to address and redress public discontents.

The anarchic end of the protesting spectrum do indeed sound naive when they cry "smash the system", especially when they are either muddled or utopian about what would take its place. More realistic are those protesters who see their role as "raising awareness". That is a very valuable purpose in itself. Simply by existing, they push these issues up the media agenda and towards the front of the public mind. If it makes it just a little bit harder for financial interests and their friends among politicians to put the argument to sleep, it is a little bit worth doing.

The protesters over-claim when they say they speak for "the 99%", but some of their themes do resonate very potently with mainstream voters. The occupation movement is succeeding where conventional politics of both left and right have badly failed. It articulates a profound public resentment with over-mighty finance and the failure of government to do anything about it. The protesters strike a resounding chord when they complain that financial elites are getting rewarded with special treatment while the punishment for their mistakes is meted out on the rest of society.

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