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Occupational hazards: Laurie Penny on the practicalities of protest

As eviction looms at St Paul’s, the protesters are struggling with the hardship of months spent sleeping rough.

They call it the Citadel of Hope because right now they haven't got a lot else to put in it. It is late January and the third national conference of the Occupy movement is being at a Salvation Army citadel in central Sheffield which has stood empty for 12 years. Before the Occupiers moved in, the floor was thick in pigeon droppings; now the bare brickwork is clean, and people from all over the world huddle in coats and blankets, crouched around a space heater under makeshift strip lights, sharing strategies for resisting police eviction and trying to work out what the hell to do next.

Four months after the start of the Occupy movement, which began in Manhattan's financial district and spread like a fever to hundreds of cities across the world, the press has begun to lose interest. There are no other journalists at the conference. No matter how many fluffy, media-friendly new actions the tireless Occupy organisers dream up, from melting Arctic ice on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral to staging mock-trials of former prime ministers at an occupied magistrate's court, they can no longer make editors hold the front page. The political establishment is making its message clear, in the manner of a hostess trying gently to expel the last unwelcome guests at the end of a party: stretching, ostentatiously tidying up and talking loudly about how cold it is outside.

On 18 January, the City of London Corporation won its high court action to evict the main London protest camp from the courtyard of St Paul's. The Occupiers have lodged an appeal, but believe that the tents, the kitchen, the large library and "Tent City University", which has run hundreds of free lectures and full-time courses in economics, could be cleared within days. The Bank of Ideas, the sister occupation near Liverpool Street housed in a building owned by the Swiss banking giant UBS, was evicted last week. As protest camps across the world, including the unaffiliated Democracy Village at Parliament Square in London, are turfed out by local police, even the BBC News website has published an article asking, "Protests: when's it time to go home?"

No going back

For many of the Occupiers, going home is not an option. After braving the past four months, during which the nature of this global resistance movement changed profoundly, many of those who have remained at the camps and squats over the winter cannot or will not return home. Some have been living on the streets for years; others have lost their jobs and homes only recently because of rent hikes and austerity measures. Many are among the million unemployed young adults in Britain, such as 19-year-old Tilly, who moved into the camps after finding she was unable to afford a place at university and who faces a court case for participating in a peaceful sit-in protest last year.

The idea that committed political operatives could be homeless is almost as disconcerting as the notion that homeless people could be committed political operatives. At the beginning of the actions, much of the press mocked the protesters for not being tough enough even to stay in their tents overnight, a slur later shown to be false. No one now could accuse these Occupiers of being faint-hearted: living in a protest camp is a short course in how to manage life outside mainstream society. It's a position that many more of us across Europe and America will find ourselves in as austerity programmes bite. It can feel like an adventure at first, but by the time you get to the hundredth day of sleeping on the ground or in an abandoned building, the process of taking and holding space has become plain old hard work.

At St Paul's, after tea and conversation in the canteen, I am invited into the art tent by Rob, who is 32. He has been living on the streets of London for 12 years. Being part of the occupations has given him back some confidence and a feeling of community. His drawings, complex abstract scratches in primary colours, are pinned to a paint board in a cosy sitting-room space inhabited by several smoking teenagers.

“It's the street people who are keeping the occupation going," he says. "They - I mean, the organisers - need to respect the street people more." When I tell Rob that I am here as a journalist, he asks if I was investigating anything. "I'd like to investigate you with my tongue," he says, putting an arm around me. "Let's make some occupation babies on the floor right here." I grip my cup of tea a little harder.

It would be unfair to note that sexual harassment has become a feature of life in the camps without mentioning that the Occupiers are taking the problem rather more seriously than most public institutions. One group session at the Occupy conference in Sheffield requires local occupations to report back on how they were maintaining "safer spaces" and protecting women and minorities while avoiding blanket exclusion of people whose social skills have atrophied from years of living on the edge of society. This "safer spaces" meeting descends into angry bellowing as young men shout over each other. Over lunch, a more enlightened male activist lamented that this often happens. "We had a simple solution to that at Greenham Common," says an older woman. "We just used to ban you all."

Lunch at the conference consists of tea, casserole and conversations about how the internet will alter the democratic process. You can tell a lot about any conference by the food. The last two Labour party conferences, for instance, offered bland, flabby quiche that managed to be both stomach-turning and insufficient. Occupy food is hot and plentiful even though it comes largely from skips at the back of local supermarkets. The groaning shelves in the kitchens at Sheffield and St Paul's give the lie to the myth of scarcity: at their peak, they were feeding thousands for free.

In Britain, the Occupy movements have become an economy of care, a network of mutual aid for those ground down by the job market, by the housing market, by the free market and all its intricate cruelties. During two weeks of hanging around occupied buildings in glossy, deserted business parks and at windswept tent cities in public squares; of sharing hot, sweet tea and vegetable soup cooked on gas heaters; of being shown around tenderly maintained propaganda installations, what almost nobody I spoke to talked about was the wider economy. Unlike three months ago, I heard few complaints about fractional reserve banking, wage repression or benefit cuts.

There are several possible reasons for this. The first is that the Occupiers may have assumed that, as a young person with straggly dyed hair and a selection of agitational badges on my backpack, I already knew the drill. That is a dangerous assumption. In the past three months, the Occupy movement has grown more insular, dealing with internal difficulties that divert energy from keeping the public message strong. The politics of this movement has also become more ingrained: its anti-capitalist discourse has not disappeared so much as soaked in, like a stain into a carpet.

When I visited St Paul's one recent morning, I found people making artwork and videos, or planning their latest fundraising project - a record label to promote political music and support the neediest Occupiers. For better or worse, Occupy is as much a cultural movement as it ever was a political campaign.

“This particular project was always going to be temporary," says James, 25, an anarchist organiser who was involved at the start of the occupations but who has now "critically disengaged". "To my mind, the eviction notice is an opportunity to consider who the people are who are left," he tells me. "On the one hand, it's the people who have nowhere else to go, and that's politically important. On the other, it's people who become zealots about this movement - those who've left their jobs, their flats, maybe even relationships . . . My fear is that, for those people, when the eviction happens there will be a profound level of trauma."

Designs for life

Traumatic as they will be, the evictions need not signal the end of Occupy. As the last few camps are forcibly broken up, Occupiers all over the world are moving into indoor spaces and squats, with a particular focus on "dead" real estate owned by big banking firms. In the US, the Occupy Our Homes project has been taking over foreclosed houses since early December; in the UK, it is larger spaces that can be converted into social centres.

A ragged-looking banner urging "Occupy Everywhere" hangs from the window of London's newest occupation in Frome Street, Islington, an enormous nine-storey corporate unspace recently abandoned by several City companies. Inside the building, shy, serious people in hoodies are clearing up mounds of rubbish, but outside not everyone is pleased. "They invited me in for a cup of tea but I won't be taking them up on it," says Amanda, who has lived in the area for over 14 years. "They've tried to make a point, which is a point that needs making, but it's been made."

Like most of the mainstream press, Amanda makes the mistake of thinking that Occupy was ever about concrete demands. Rather, it is about retaking psychic and physical space amid the self-satisfied centres of capital. It is about using that space to build tentative prototypes of a new social system, created by and for people failed by the present one. "Occupy was never going to be an agent of change," James says. "It is a portent of change."

The so-called 1 per cent can dismiss as many petitions as they like, but sweeping cultural transformation is the one thing that may yet have them running scared.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood