Although initially sceptical, since spending time with the protesters at Occupy Sheffield, I have become an avid supporter of the Occupy movement. I have the utmost respect for the protesters’ courage in taking action against injustice and for weathering both the harsh British winter and disparagement from critics – many of whom are the very people the movement is trying to benefit. Although I count myself as merely an ‘armchair protester’, I have become alarmed at some of the glaring misconceptions about Occupy and what it stands for. The movement is certainly not beyond criticism, but this article attempts to bust some of the common myths…
There appears to be a common perception that the vast majority of protesters are unemployed. Obviously in the current economic climate, and with a worsening homelessness problem, a number of protesters are unemployed or homeless. However, the significant majority of protesters have jobs and are giving up their free time outside of work to populate the camps. Taking Occupy Sheffield by way of example, I was encouraged to meet individuals from such a wide range of professions including solicitors, engineers, entrepreneurs, business consultants and many more. Furthermore, far too often derogatory terms like ‘tramps’ or ‘hobos’ are used in relation to the protests. Such terms are not only offensive to both the protesters they are aimed at and the homeless people they reference, but they also reveal a staggering ignorance of the issues and individual stories of people affected by homelessness.
The protests only involve a few people in tents
I’ll just respond to this at a local level for now. I’ve been informed by one of regular protesters that, since starting on 5th November 2011, Occupy Sheffield has averaged around 10-15 overnight protesters sleeping in tents. Is this the extent of the protest? Of course not. Over the past couple of months thousands of individuals have visited the camp to spend time occupying (even if only a few hours), offering their support or engaging in public meetings and discussion. Online, many ‘armchair protesters’ like myself are busily using social media and amateur blogs to raise awareness of the issues and potential solutions. So even at a local level the protest comprises a significant number of individuals and cannot be dismissed as the actions of a few radical individuals.
The protesters are hypocrites
The protesters have been frequently criticised for being hypocritical – condemning the capitalist system and corporate greed whilst procuring goods from the unethical businesses which are the focus of the protest. While, from my discussions with the protesters, I can see that the vast majority have made significant efforts to reflect on the physical goods they own, it is inevitable in this society that all individuals are part of the capitalist system to a certain extent. It has become almost impossible to do otherwise whilst living within mainstream society. And should we really expect people hoping to change a system to live outside of the system? Is it not more effective to change something from the inside? So taking this issue in isolation then, yes, incidents of hypocrisy can be highlighted – but this ignores the bigger picture which leads me on to the next myth…
Actually this one is true. Kind of. If you look at the figures it’s more accurate to say that the protest represents the 99.5%. The bottom half of the 1% starts to include, for example, wealthy but well-meaning doctors, solicitors or small (ethical) business owners etc who are of course not the focus of the protest. But obviously this division is very crude anyway and is not intended to be a hard and fast rule. Ignoring the technicalities of the slogan, does the protest represent the vast majority of ordinary people i.e. those who are not uber-wealthy? To a large extent, yes. Clearly the sample is skewed towards more politically engaged, left-leaning individuals however it is certainly representative of a significant cross-section of society. It comprises both the wealthy and the poor, the highly educated and the under educated, supporters of all political parties and individuals from a vast range of social and employment backgrounds. It’s not a perfect representation of the 99.5%, but it’s not far off.
The movement is anti-capitalist
This is a vast over-simplification of what the movement stands for. The only thing I can discern the movement is ‘anti’ is anti-inequality or anti-injustice. The majority of protesters with whom I have spoken do not expect, nor desire an end to capitalism, rather just that the system is amended so that it benefits the population as a whole, rather than just the tiny minority of the richest and most powerful individuals. The movement, in my opinion, is protesting about many different things, not one single issue. To name but a few, these include: modification of the tax system to end tax avoidance, tightening regulation of financial institutions, limiting of monopoly power, reduction of corporate lobbying power, ensuring that everyone contributes their fair share to resolving the crisis. However, as I said in my previous article about Occupy (see here), I believe above all the movement is pro-representation, pro-transparency and pro-accountability – three areas our political leaders of all parties are failing us in.
The only alternative to our existing system is communism
I’ve often heard ludicrous remarks like “if the protesters don’t like capitalism they should move to North Korea.” To suggest communism is the only alternative to our capitalist society is quite simply farcical. In fact ironically, communism, historically in practice, shares many of the traits of our current system – wealth and power is controlled by a small number of individuals. There are many alternatives to our current system across a whole spectrum of possibilities. Just one I’d like to highlight now (as it’s my personal favourite) is social democracy which has seen Scandinavia achieve the highest living standards in the world. Yes, social democracy does require citizens to pay higher taxes but in return the citizens receive the very best in social security, healthcare, education etc and inequality is significantly lower than in other comparative economies. The key difference is that they measure welfare rather than focusing on a blind pursuit of GDP growth.
The movement only criticises and offers nothing constructive
See my earlier comments about whether the movement is simply anti-capitalist. In my experience the movement is offering a wealth of constructive solutions to the issues faced by our crumbling society. Yes, clearly it is being highly critical of those individuals and businesses which bring about inequality – this is necessary in order to achieve its aims of raising awareness and educating the public. But the protest camps are intended to be used as a forum for people to come together and discuss positive solutions. Many are being offered. Check out Occupy Sheffield’s initial statement to see for yourself exactly what the protest is aiming to achieve.
The protest has achieved nothing
This is probably the big one. Even supporters of the movement often fall into the trap of saying it is all futile and will achieve nothing. Well I argue that it already has achieved a great deal. The protest, which was initially just a small number of individuals outside Wall Street, now has camps in over 900 cities across the world (see the Guardian’s crowd map below). The protests have received widespread media coverage helping to raise awareness of the issues amongst countless numbers worldwide. The movement’s supporters are not counted in hundreds but rather in millions. The media, which was initially also sceptical, is now increasingly supportive of the protest as the authorities use ever more illegal and unethical tactics to evict the protests (see this for example). So the protest has undoubtedly achieved a great deal. But don’t take my word for it – Channel 4 News recently nominated Occupy amongst the most influential people of 2011. It’s hard to get a bigger endorsement than that.
But will the protests go on to bring about radical change to our political and financial institutions? Who knows. But I look forward to finding out. The Suffragettes, the African-American Civil Rights Movement or more recently the anti-war protesters, to name but a few, were politically charged groups who, in their context, were seen as misguided and ineffectual. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, we see that they brought about real, tangible change.
As I often like to do, I’ll end this myth, and the article, with a quote. Take it away Margaret Mead…
You can read my initial post that I wrote after spending time with Occupy Sheffield here.