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What Occupy can learn from the 17th century

The dissenters of the 17th century have more in common with the St Paul's protesters than more recen

For 1968-vintage dissenters like myself, the Occupy movement is both exciting and perplexing. It is wonderful to see young people trying to change the world again, but I keep wanting to tell them, "No, no, you're doing it all wrong!"

I was a student at a time when continuing revelations about the Gulag and the suppression of uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia made communism unattractive. But I was still steeped in the romantic lore of the Russian Revolution, its noble proletarians, intellectual vanguard and historic mission, and many young people who rejected Stalinism embraced the equally ruthless Trotsky or Mao. Maybe that's one reason it's hard to come to grips with the Occupy movement. It all seems worryingly good-natured and undirected.

Who are the leaders? What's the programme? What are the demands? Those were the questions I asked Jack, a twentysomething on duty in the Information tent at St Paul's on the day I called, patiently dealing with inquiries from the curious, the tourists, the well-wishers and the slightly mad.

“We all lead in different areas according to our skills," he said. "Our policies are developed through a consensual process." Next to us, a man wearing ski goggles and a tea towel over his face was also giving muffled answers to visitors. "He doesn't like showing his face," Jack explained, adding, "You soon get used to it."

In the 1960s and 1970s many activists and feminists also came to reject top-down political parties and strove for a broad-based non-hierarchical movement. We met in a circle, we took turns to chair and everyone contributed. Our Trotskyist contemporaries mocked us as "neo-Narodniks" or "petit-bourgeois anarchists". We disdained their meetings, where everyone sat in rows facing the speaker. Yet, even so, hierarchies emerged, as described in a 1970 paper by Jo Freeman called "The Tyranny of Structurelessness": "As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules."

Brink of change

Jack found this interesting but pointed out that his generation was raised on the internet, Twitter and Facebook, which are essentially non-hierarchical peer-to-peer structures. In cyberspace, everybody is equal (except those who own the platforms, of course). This, more than ideology, determines the "shape" of the new movements.

After 1968 I became interested in the dissenters of the 17th century, who today seem closer to Occupy than the revolutionary parties of the 20th century. The civil war and advances in printing technology were fuelling similar popular indignation and a search for a more equal social order.
The Congregationalists elected their preachers, choosing whom to follow, a bit like Twitter. The Quakers called themselves the Society of Friends and met in a circle where anyone moved by "the Spirit" could speak. The Leveller debates about democracy, equality and suffrage at Putney prefigured the general assemblies of Occupy. The Diggers occupied the common land at St George's Hill, Surrey, and created a commune. What they all shared with Occupy was a heady sense that change is imminent and inevitable; that "the old World", in the words of Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers, "is running up like parchment in the fire".

Occupy's policies are developed in open-to-all meetings; hand signals convey agreement or disagreement and encourage participation and consensus. The amazing human megaphone of Wall Street was not needed when I was at St Paul's, though. There were only six of us in the tent, discussing environmental economics. The other five were impressively well informed, and I hope they didn't take offence when I suddenly rushed out. It was freezing cold and I needed a pee. Though doubtless superior to the toilet arrangements of the Diggers, the portable loos somehow did not appeal much.

This comparison is not entirely frivolous. Inevitably, the camp at St Paul's has become a magnet for the eccentric, homeless, mentally ill and inebriated. No one is turned away. Like Tea Towel Man and me, everyone has a role. But just as the high-minded Diggers were blamed for the excesses of the Fifth Monarchists and Ranters, who rejected all human laws and advocated nudity and free love, so the St Paul's occupation is blamed for the squalid toilet and drinking habits of the street-dwellers who congregate there seeking food, warmth and a listening ear.

In the 17th century, the church mouthed concern for the poor while colluding in driving them off the commons; today, the very authorities who might be supposed to have a duty of care for this slice of society are using its presence as an excuse to evict the camp.

Marina Lewycka's new novel, "Various Pets Alive and Dead", is published by Fig Tree on 1 March

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars