We might feel disappointed at the fizzling out of the 'Occupy' protest in London, but we shouldn't complain. It has been the embodiment of the standards and practice of protest in this country. It is an education if we care to look.
Here, protest is peaceful, proportionate, action is non-violent, and struggles for justice rely on the forbearance, restraint and decency of the 'Authorities' - in 'Occupy's' case, on the civic side: the police and the state, and on the sacred/property/business side: an embarrassed Church of England.
Proportionate protest? Proportionate to what? We adhere, as civilians, to our own local standards of behaviour and low levels of risk, not to those of the people we struggle to protect. So what do we achieve? 'Occupy' became, by default, an exercise in publicising the machinations of global business. Does our approach, as we plump for marches and the occupation of neutral territory, render us worthy and courageous, but ineffectual? Street action courts publicity, but, on its own, in isolation, what does it publicise, finally? Transience? Impotence? This is an evaluation, not a denigration. The way forward is a mystery.
Much global big business is, sort of, based here in the wealthy west. The companies may be incorporated in thin air somewhere, but the people who own, control and run them have, like those in global finance, got to live somewhere, and they tend to be cosmopolitan. What is the point of conspicuous income if you don't have anywhere to 'splash out and treat yourself'? These people work at cornering resources of cheap labour, energy, water, food and raw materials, manipulating capital for specious gain as they speculate in shortages and debt - they offer the tools of repression and domination in places which come to be known, euphemistically, as 'trouble-spots'. 'Occupy' has publicised this very well.
What, however, is 'proportionate' in the places where the activities of our local global operators do the most damage? The separation of non-violent and violent protest becomes problematic. In these places, and we clearly support this: Aung San Suu Kyi, burning shopkeeper or monk, hunger strikers, or kids facing high velocity rounds with placards, here, 'peaceful protest' means choosing to suffer for change - that's violence - rather than to inflict suffering for change - that's violence. Unfortunately, those whom we idolise for their courage and sacrifice have no direct access to the power mongers, the capital mongers, who are far away, safe and sound. If these protesters survive, they get sidelined or sucked into the elites which are in thrall to the same commercial villains - as in South Africa, where 'the rainbow nation' is a trick of the light from the gated rich, old and new, pissing on the poor, as ever. The capital edifice is left intact to tighten its grip on the 'haves' and 'have-nots' alike.
At least we are sufficiently circumspect when we bang on about democracy - our 'representative democracy' - that we don't mention how we've been unable to stop this global abuse through our parliament, and that the new lands of toppled dictators are going to have one hell of a job plugging democracy into their tribal, ethnic, and sectarian environments. In these situations, plugged-in-democracy favours domination by external forces like the IMF and its cohorts, and favours conservative entrenchment, as in Egypt, mirroring troubled Europe, Britain and the USA.
Here is the crux: Change happens through the imperative for change, not the request. Our street protest, our best attempt to change government policy, is our blindness to their deafness. We can't sway that many votes. We are not a representative democratic movement, a parliamentary pressure group. 'Occupy' has been a tiny minority, despite broad armchair sympathy. Political leaders really don't have to give a toss. Should we now be talking directly to our counterpart tiny minority, the upper echelons of global businesses - rattling their cages where they live, rather than pleading with politicians to do it for us, putting the boss elite on the spot, making acceptable standards of behaviour very clear? Now there's a thought: to make the abusers, who confuse loopholes with ethical behaviour, into pariahs, to make banking very personal indeed.
That would require a lot from us, a deeper form of commitment. We should be aware that we risk brutalising ourselves, losing our way back to our old, our normal, moderate selves. Damaged lives, just like the people we watch sequentially on tv in their uneven struggles against a succession of despots. They pay high. We pay low.
Perhaps the biggest challenge here will be for the pacifist, who feels only able to lobby and march, to 'walk the walk' and 'talk the talk'. It is a big and pragmatic step for them to declare and maintain solidarity with those who accept that more is needed, that someone also has to 'do the deed'. Pacifism, here, happens to be cheap and safe. Realising that we are part of one movement is not. Again, solidarity is the source of the imperative for change. Can we occupy that space together? And can we resolve the contradiction brought about by our privileged lives? When faced with horrific abuse we Brits display an embarrassment of moderation in our protest.
Pete Wright was bassist for Crass from 1977 until 1984.