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11 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 4:12pm

Occupy London was a degree in politics for the streets

Five years ago, protestors set up camp on the steps of St Paul's. 

By Ian Taylor

Five years ago this week, a relatively small band of protesters jumpstarted the London branch of the worldwide Occupy movement. What began as an attempt to stage a protest outside the London Stock Exchange in response to the greed and incompetence of the banking sector that had resulted in the 2008 crash, turned into a five-month long encampment on the only public land nearby – outside St Paul’s Cathedral. This was quite different from anything that had gone before. 

Most protests that capture the public’s imagination involve hundreds of thousands of people marching from A to B brandishing placards, with very specific demands. Think “Stop the War” or “End Tuition Fees”. Occupy did things differently from the start. 

The numbers involved were not particularly high – around two or three thousand people at Occupy’s peak – and they never actually marched anywhere. But what they may have lacked in numbers they more than made up for with commitment and sticking power. Hence their determination to stay put in the camp they set up at the end of the first day.

In place of a set of demands, Occupy’s most famous slogan was a statement of identification – “We are the 99 per cent”. The phrase entered the language, but it also left questions about what they actually stood for. Even sympathetic commentators were frustrated. But those who made such objections missed seeing what was truly valuable about the encampment.

When I spoke to a number of Occupiers recently, they were keen to stress that rather than address the symptoms, they were trying to get to the heart of the matter and address the underlying economic causes of our problems. These are complex issues that defy easy slogans. What drove the protesters onwards was a general conviction that the current economic model of neoliberalism only worked for the benefit of the few at the top, at the expense of the vast majority of people both here and around the world. In so far as Occupy resonated with the general public, it was because this disgruntlement and anger at the way the economy operated was – and remains – widespread. 

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The Occupiers aspired to learn about how, and why, capitalism operated as it did, before proposing alternative ways of doing things. In short, they wanted to figure things out for themselves. This spirit of wanting to self-educate was there right from the start, and was the other factor that made Occupy unique. Naomi Colvin, who served as a spokeswoman for the camp, explained:

“From the very beginning, when just a few people were there, people were sitting down trying to set up general assemblies. It was like a ripple.

“This was what they were really interested in doing. They weren’t going to be at a demo and wave placards about. They were there to sit down with everybody else and have a discussion about what was going on. That was what people were really interested in.”

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There was also a “university tent” on site – a miniature library of donated books, where anyone who wanted to could go to read, including about issues relevant to the camp. 

Many of the former Occupiers who I’ve spoken to said they learnt a lot about economics, banking and finance. When taught at school, these subjects can seem trapped in worlds of jargon, and yet they feed into so many of the social problems we face. This includes, of course, the problem of homelessness. The Occupy camp came to learn this very directly, when several dozen homeless people gravitated towards the camp. Looking after and incorporating the homeless into the camp certainly proved a challenge, not least of all because many had drink and drugs problems. But at the same time, it added to the diversity, the inclusiveness, and the range of perspectives within it.

As filmmaker Chloe Ruthven, whose documentary The Trial of London tells the story of the camp, explained, Occupy was “the only place” she’d ever been where “people from all walks of life could sit down together and discuss issues”:

“You really would get the homeless person who’s been on the streets since they were 16 with a history of crack and heroin addiction discussing in a way where they are not judged, where they were listened to with somebody who has a PhD in economics from Oxford.”

Other Occupiers who I spoke to also hailed the inclusiveness and the non-judgemental nature of the dialogues within the camp. It contrasts markedly with the often less than open dialogue at, say, Socialist Workers Party-dominated public meetings. 

Another obvious point of comparison would be university seminars, but there are limits to higher education’s demographic inclusiveness. Meanwhile, the desire to change the world and come up with new ideas that may once have burned bright within our universities, now merely flickers away.

The camp outside St Paul’s was, then, an inclusive educational space, a place of public discussion, where people strove to work out a better way of doing things. Idealistic? Utopian? Perhaps. But get rid of that, and we have only hardened realpolitik, and the indifference which follows.

Ian Taylor is a university teacher at the Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University.