When worlds collide: Occupy and the 99 percent

Rich and poor“Occupy a job” was the terse direct tweet sent to me after I had blogged about my day at Occupy Cardiff. At first, I was furious as I have been in continuous employment since 1965, but once I calmed down I realised this just reflected the fact that the tweeter was making assumptions, but in reality knew nothing about me. And that summarises the problem with the Occupy movement, almost nobody knows much about it or really understands it.

The mantra ‘we are the 99 percent‘ has resonated with ordinary people throughout the western world. People in western nations are confused and angry as they see their standards of living reduced because of the economic crisis of the last three years. Their anger is directed against a tiny number of people and organisations of wealth and power who continue to increase their prosperity and their influence, whilst ordinary people see the deep reduction in their living standards. However, ordinary people perceive no outlet to express that depth of feeling and so the emergence of the Occupy movement has at last provided them a vehicle to carry their anger and frustration with the 1 percent.

Ironically, the ethos of the Occupy movement is actually quite difficult to get alongside. They state general principles of anger and rejection of the conduct of the bankers who caused economic ruin for many people, the huge multinational companies that pay little or no tax and politicians whose priorities include areas like substantial military spending whilst bringing in austerity measures which have hurt people at the most vulnerable end of society the most. However, they are radical because they don’t produce a simple manifesto with a list of demands which ordinary people would find easy to understand and to engage with. As was noted in The Guardian:

“To critics of Occupy Wall Street, one of its most glaring weakness is the lack of specific demands. To many supporters, that ambiguity is one of the main foundations of the movement’s success.”

Two goals documents, The Liberty Square Blueprint and The 99 Percent Declaration  that have emerged from Occupy Wall Street illustrate the diversity of ideologies of participants. The reason is simply that each expression of the Occupy movement is autonomous, and unlike most of society’s structures, is not a hierarchical entity but it represents a group of co-equal individuals, drawn together and united by their shared participation with the 99 percent of society that feels disempowered, disenfranchised and unable to influence the inexorable greedy progress of the 1 percent.

My good friend Steve commented on Facebook,

“If the ‘Occupy’ movement really does represent the ’99 percent’ … it should be no problem for them to accomplish whatever changes they are seeking at the next election opportunity.”

A great idea Steve, but unfortunately the disparate nature of the movement would never be able to stand on a common platform. I attended the planning meeting for Occupy Bangor group, some of whom made me feel decidedly right-wing! The group contained supporters of the Labour Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, anarchists, ordinary Bangor University students and people with no declared political affiliation. I know of church ministers, magistrates and other middle-class people who would not be seen as natural participants, joining the occupation at St Pauls.

Despite the setbacks in Cardiff, in Portland, Oregon and in New York where the police broke up the occupations, there is still a hunger for protest and more and more expressions of the Occupy movement are appearing all over the world. However, this movement will only succeed if it is embraced by a huge proportion of the public at large, something that won’t happen until people can find a point to engage. However, the movement has already succeeded by providing a useful platform for others to build upon. Despite St Paul’s Cathedral’s reluctance to endorse the Occupy movement and Ed Milliband’s over-long silence about the issue, St Paul’s and Milliband finally found some integrity and made positive statements of support.

My anxiety is that this movement has built-in the seeds of its own destruction by having no appointed leaders, spokespersons or manifesto to communicate their important message. Here in Wales 100 years ago we had our own movement, a religious revival in 1904 which impacted the nation hugely, transforming many lives. In 1904 nobody would have imagined that the movement would have all but run out of steam within two years. I would urge those involved with the Occupy movement – which includes me as one of the 99 percent — to learn the lessons of history and ensure that its aspirations are clearly understood, embraced and fought-for by the remainder of the 99 percent.

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