Occupy and kicking out the management

Disgruntled with the management

The Occupy movement arose in part in reaction to what many people viewed as bad management decisions by those in power – bad decisions that led to a financial crisis in which the banks got bailed out but the people didn’t. Some people, particularly those without homes, are still miffed about this.

While many people active in the Occupy movement have what I might see as a weak crique of why those decisions were made (idiots in power, wrong-headed economics, greed) one of the great strengths of the movement has been the desire of people involved to get involved in collective self-management rather than just running begging to the people in power to set things straight.

But today I popped along to the Occupy London site in Finsbury Square and was reminded just how difficult self-organisation is. At the moment people at the camp are struggling with multiple issues arising from the evictees from St Paul’s moving into Finsbury Square. I also overheard a conversation in which someone fell quickly into the idea that labour should be divided between those doing technical tasks and those doing…er, thinking. At the welcome tent a man arrived and effectively asked for endorsement for a campaign in which he was involved, an idea that makes little sense within Occupy structures.

The problems of collective working in our society are often presented as the problem of getting people to stop thinking individually and start thinking collectively. This may sometimes be the case but I would attribute a lot of the problems to something else entirely: that we are used to being managed.

Much management emanates from the world of work but it is also noticeable that there is little difference between the management structures used in corporations and in governments: they are all top-down hierarchies. The purpose of these hierarchies is almost solely the management of resources. We get sucked into this system of management of resources, often with not much more significant a place in it than a barrel of oil.

The reason people do not necessarily notice the extent to which they are managed is that there is no one person telling them what to do. At work they might have a boss but the rest of the time they can ‘do whatever they want’. But the key to the collective management system we are caught in is that it is both decentered and hierarchical. It is without a head and yet is entirely dominated by organisations that do have heads.

We are caught in a network of organisations that control resources (including us) and every last one of them is a top down hierarchy with internally authoritarian working practices. It is inevitable that their ways of working seep into us, from work, naturally, but also from our involvement in other organisations across society, from transport organisations through corporations to governments.

What we deal with when we attempt to escape being managed is our own habituation to top-down management. What Occupy and other social movements strive for is more horizontal or ‘democratic’ self-organisation, but our habits – the management techniques – from ordinary life constantly seep into what we do.

Working together is not difficult because we are too individualistic to work together but because we are used to other people making decisions for us while we work together – we are used to authoritarian collective working. We are used to being caught within a network of hierarchies that shapes every part of our lives. The management is top down but it also schools our thinking because it depends on our complicity with the hierarchies, including our ability to manage each other and our acceptance that certain things should be left to experts we have no control over.

Having learned how to organise within top-down hierarchies but being used to other people taking decisions, we tend to fall back on learned management techniques once the hierarchy is gone. A guy I know who has been politically active for some years has a tendency to say ‘committee’ when he means ‘working group’, because that was what he was used to in older leftist organisation. He always has a bit of a chuckle at people’s annoyance when he makes the slip, and with good reason. He gets confused because they are pretty much the same. In theory a ‘working group’ is meant to be more more part of a horizontal democratic process than a ‘committee’ but the reality is often different – swinging between a complete inability to make decisions and someone taking it upon themselves to ‘manage’ the group.

I’m not writing this to offer solutions to the problem. I don’t think there are quick solutions. I just think we should stay aware of where our ‘instincts’ will lead us – either into paralysis or back to the management systems that we all know so well – if we don’t keep an eye on them. We need to resist the management within ourselves as well as within banks or parliaments.

If it bleeds, we can kill it: a success in the fight against marketisation

Marketisation, at home yesterday

At some point I suspect most people involved in the recent struggles against The Marketisation Of Everything In The Universe have at some point felt that they are on the losing side. While many people remained optimistic enough to stay involved in the struggle, it was difficult to avoid the fact that tuition fees did rise, the marketisation of education continued apace, and although some resistance was offered to the sale of the NHS most of the successful opposition was by doctors on technical grounds – though I’m pretty sure many hid their politics behind the technical objections.

It is therefore a great pleasure to see this week that the government has shelved ‘indefinitely’ a bill to further marketise education, that would have introduced purely private elite universities similar to the US. It is not just a great pleasure, it is a victory, because it appears that the government did not have the stomach for the fight.

Tuition fees rose, despite the protests, despite the strikes, despite the million column inches, and sometimes it felt like we were doing it all for nothing. But this is not nothing. This is something. The government is scared of another fight. I, we, helped make them scared. It is difficult in the middle of a fight, when everything seems to be going against you, to feel you are achieving anything. But even if we don’t win the battles we want to, our resistance can and does win other battles.

It is true that it is a small victory in the grand scheme of things. It is true that many tasks remain, including the public trouncing of the philosophy of marketisation – the idea that those who can pay most should get most and those who have already won should win more – and the undoing of the social damage it has done.

But this is a good day for those involved in the fight. We should feel happy about the grief we have inflicted on the government. And as we gear up for more fights over education and the NHS, we should remember the words of Arnie before he went all governor on us: If it bleeds, we can kill it.

Travel Reports: On whose square a square is

Plaza Murillo

A few days ago I was in Plaza Murillo, the main square of La Paz. It attracts a lot of tourists both from abroad and within Boliva. It is the Bolivian equivalent of Trafalgar Square in London, but it had one big difference from Trafalgar Square. Plaza Murillo was interesting and Trafalgar Square is boring. Families sat around in the Plaza and a small horde of street vendors sold snacks, ice cream, children’s toys and souvenirs. Most interesting of all, people fed the pigeons.

I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square when I was a child. It is, in fact, pretty much the only thing I remember about that family trip to London. Watching the children in Plaza Murillo reminded me that if you are four or five years old, throwing out grain to attract pigeons then chasing the pigeons away, then waiting for them to come back, then chasing them again, is about as much fun as it is possible to have. You can buy pure joy for the cost of a cup of grain.

As many readers will know, some years back the authorities determined that pigeon-feeding in Trafalgar Square would henceforth be forbidden. The reason given for this was that pigeons are unhygienic – a fact that I cannot dispute and that no-one could dispute. Yet I wonder exactly how many people fell ill or died due to that pigeon-feeding death trap through the years. It struck me as just another of those petty, undemocratic acts of control that characterise much of the professional classes in Britain. No doubt some bureaucrat or Councillor got a real kick from effecting change on the streets of London. Perhaps they lie awake at night hugging themselves with joy at the improvement they made to the capital. At last we are free from the menace of pigeon poo!

Meanwhile there is nothing to do in Trafalgar Square, particularly for a child. It is a blank space with a tall pole and some fountains. It is a poorer place in my eyes, but it is no doubt cleaner. The full meaning of cleanliness in public spaces is interesting however, as is the presence of street vendors in Plaza Murillo, and the absence of them in Trafalgar Square. A year or so before I got to Nairobi the authorities there had determined that street selling in a large area of central Nairobi was to be forbidden. Their reason, not hidden behind the obfuscations we are so used to in Britain, was that street vendors made Nairobi look poor. Now of course most of Nairobi is poor (and the former street vendors now even poorer) but now the streets of Nairobi don’t look so poor, which is what mattered to the rich of Nairobi.

Street vendors used to be much more common in Britain, presumably in Trafalgar Square but also beyond that. The main streets of New Cross are also very empty, except for the traffic. I would even call them sterile but for the general air of grubbiness that the Council doesn’t care enough to do anything about. A couple of years ago I met in the Amersham Arms an old man who had emigrated from the Caribbean to London some fifty years ago. He told me how when he arrived in New Cross not only were there many factories between there and the river, but the streets of New Cross were thronged with street vendors.

I don’t think the street vendors evaporated by themselves any more than the pigeon-feeding did. I suspect they were gradually illegalised across the country, except for in certain authorised and lucrative (for the local authorities) locations. No one remarks on it now. We just assume that streets should be empty spaces for walking through. They are minimal public spaces, used only for connecting bits of the city together, and the squares too have gradually been sterilised. They are kept public on the condition that the public do not do anything in them.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Trafalgar Square, where local byelaws prevent all unauthorised public gatherings, over and above the measures in the Criminal Justice Act and Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act that can already turn political demonstrations into criminal acts at the drop of a hat on the wrong side of a barrier. At a recent demonstration the police finally took the control of Trafalgar Square to its logical conclusion, erecting a great steel barrier designed for crowd control in major national crises around the Square to prevent demonstrators entering it. They confiscated banners from people entering the sterile zone so as to convert them from demonstrators into respectable citizens once more.

What many people have forgotten in Britain, perhaps because many people have been comfortable in their private spaces for so long, is that public spaces are public spaces not because the authorities determine they are public, but because the public determine they are public. They are made public spaces by the public taking control of them. The current Occupy movement is a great example of people making space public whether it was considered to be so or not. This is a particularly important lesson to re-learn in the face of actual privatisation of public space – something that has been creeping across the UK for some years now.

In Peru someone told me about another example of a battle over public space, and I think this one can be an example to us all. A few years ago an idiot Mayor of Cuzco decided that he wanted to get rid of the three-hundred-year-old trees in the main plaza of Cuzco. His reason was that they were blocking tourists’ shots of the famous cathedrals around the plaza. No matter that Cuzco was already probably the biggest tourist city in South America, he was going to make it better. The only problem was that the people of Cuzco loved their trees and didn’t want them cut down. So the Mayor sent in tractors in the middle of the night when no one was around and they pulled down every one of the great old trees in the plaza. The people of Cuzco, who were convinced that it was their plaza, spontaneously gathered and stormed around the city in such a rage that the Mayor was forced to escape the city in secret and fly off to Lima. He didn’t return to the city for three months and was never re-elected.

Now I’m not saying we should form an angry mob every time some bureaucrat or politician acts as though the public space is their space but…wait, no, I think I am saying that. I want pigeon-feeding back in Trafalgar Square, and street vendors making our streets look poor and messy again (if we have poor people then we shouldn’t hide them, and anyway the streets are theirs too) so if someone wants to get a mob going I’ll definitely join in. We might even get the right to protest back while we’re at it.

Travel report: on cake and the idiocy of economists

The cafe of free exchange during a rainstorm the next day

As regular readers may or may not know I am currently on the road in South American. Normal service shall therefore be replaced with brief travel reports.

In a small town in a poor part of the Peruvian Andes I was sitting in a cafe eating cake (not, by most standards, particularly good cake – the significance of this will be revealed in a moment). An old Quechua woman, a campesina, came to the entrance of the cafe and sat on the step waiting to be served. The waitress ignored her for a good long time but eventually came over to her and took from her a bag of freshly dug potatoes. In return the old woman received a single slice of cake.

A whole bag of potatoes, probably dug by her own hands, carried on her bent old back, for a single slice of cake! It’s true the cost of the two would be similar back home, but there the potatoes would have been harvested in 2 seconds by a machine. Of course, even if prices were consistent across countries, ‘the market’ is not interested in how the potatoes were grown, harvested or transported.

An economist would say that what I witnessed was free exchange. And the woman had, at a particular point in time, chosen to exchange potatoes for cake. No-one held a gun to her head while she did it. But if you look at the history of Peruvian campesinos and the history of cake, the story looks a little bit different.

Cake is a nice thing and in the form sold in that cafe has spread across the world carried by rich people and the people who cook for rich people. It is something that people want to eat and those with cake-making capital have a certain power over those who cannot afford the ingredients for cake, or the oven in which to make cake.

The history of Peruvian campesinos meanwhile is the history of perhaps the most consistently oppressed people on earth. First the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, then global capitalism. The latter, while less obviously (it depends how much attention you’re paying) or constantly violent than the slave labour imposed under the previous two systems, prefers wi-fi in central Lima parks to installing water to campesinos houses.

The old woman presumably offered a bag of potatoes for cake because that was what she had to offer. That was what she had to offer because of various systems of violence imposed upon her and her ancestors since the beginning of recorded history. Can this – just because the woman wanted cake enough to offer something – really be described as ‘free exchange’? Surely the only people who could make free exchange would be those with a free history, if such a thing existed.

Economics – or the cultish form of it that dominates politics and academia – is full of facile notions like free exchange that take no account of power or history or, for that matter, reality. Economists are idiots. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that they have always had easy access to cake.

What to say when people say ‘Your protest is in my way – I have to…’

Democratic constraints

It is an interesting fact of taking part in almost any kind of direct or protest action that at some point someone will point out, often quite forcefully and using swearwords, that you are in their way. You have, they think, no right to impose on them with your political expression.

Recently I was involved in one of the strongest forms of blocking action: a picket line. Although many people turned back from the line the responses of those who didn’t was interesting. The silliest was ‘I support you but…I’m going in anyway’.

In that situation there was only one way to support the picket: not crossing it. The very point of a picket line is that it makes people make a decision and take an action based on that decision. It defines physical space in a new way and it doesn’t want your good opinion, it wants your support in maximising the effect of the strike.

Another great response given by many people was ‘I have to go in.’ To which the only answer was ‘You really don’t.’ What did it mean, this phrase ‘I have to’? Clearly it was not objectively true – they were not going into the building to feed their baby or to save the world. Some of the mostly immigrant staff doing poorly paid service jobs without any job security had to go in to keep their jobs it is true. But it wasn’t them saying ‘I have to’, it was people who would have suffered nothing except a missed lecture or meeting.

I tried to explain it to people as a priorities issue. ‘I know going in there was your priority for right now, but we’re asking you to re-prioritise for something bigger than yourself.’ I sympathise with the people who were taken aback. You rush around London doing your stuff for the day and it is a bit shocking to abruptly have people in your face asking you to do something different. But it was disappointing when people couldn’t reconsider the course of their day. It felt like what ‘I have to’ meant was the ‘I’ – they couldn’t really conceive of re-prioritising for a collectivity.

As an aside, some people on the picket line shouted ‘scab’ or other insults after those who crossed the picket line. I didn’t think this helpful, not because I thought the individual freedom of those people was the most important thing at that moment, but because politics is about ongoing relationships and shouting insults closes down future discussion.

Meanwhile some people took our very presence personally – were resentful that we were there at all. They could get through into the building but not without talking to us. This they saw as an imposition. In truth our attitudes were far worse than that: we would have closed the building if not for the police keeping the line open. This would be perceived by some as a gross infringement on their liberties.

My experience of doing other protest activities is that people can view even some minor inconvenience as an imposition. They think you have a right to political expression, just as long as you don’t get in their way. As for if you deliberately constrain their actions – as a closed picket line would – that is an outrageous breach of personal liberty.

But let’s look at this in a broader context. Our behaviour is constrained all the time; to be human is to be constrained. And while we take some constraints volutarily to help us live together with people, we are often constrained not-so-voluntarily by the people who pay us and rule us. If our boss says something we do it. Sure, we can walk out. We are free to live in poverty. Thanks. The state creates rules about who can strike and when, and this constraint is what…’necessary’? Or is it a rule that deliberately pits one part of the population against another?

So what is it about certain people and institutions that they are allowed to constrain us while others are forbidden? Because certain institutions have ‘legitimacy’? I never gave consent. Because they have a certain ‘official’ role? Because they have certain power over us (the ability to withdraw our pay) this makes it okay for them to order us around?

Isn’t it at least as legitimate to constrain other people as a group of people fighting for a better way of living? Why is that such a terrible infringement of personal liberty while the word of your boss is not? Part of the reason to engage in direct actions is to expose the ideology of everyday life that creates unexamined ideas like this.

I could go further and say there is a better basis for constraining others during protest than the usual hierarchies have: that is, you are engaging with actual people in a two way exchange. Our constraints are not absolute and fixed, they consist of what is negotiated between people who have equally little power. While the point of the negotiation is not to end all conflict, the conflict that remains has a real basis: the constraint occurs because we have a different vision of the world and this has to be created in physical space.

So here’s something to say to people who are inconvenienced by a protest:

It may inconvenience you. But you have been living in the world created by other people with infinitely more power than us. If you notice our constraints more, it’s not because you live without constraints, it’s because those other constraints have become ‘normal’ to you. Perhaps you’re happy with that, but why expect everyone to accept them? Are you sure you’re such a champion of liberty? We’re not sorry you’ve noticed us. We’re not sorry we inconvenienced you. We are constraining you. But ask yourself, do we leave the ‘right to constrain’ to a few people with power over us or do we attempt to create another way of being between ourselves?

Is the Shard good for London? Or will it simply make a good headquarters for a future totalitarian regime?

shard

The Shard rising

I haven’t been able to join in with the admiration of the Shard going around. A lot of the admiration is focussed on its size, it is true; it is not a particularly beautiful structure. To some people it nonetheless symbolises the advance of progress, the proof that London has still got it. Having the tallest building in Europe on the skyline says something good about London. I have never been able to view it in this way. I have barely even been able to see it as a building.

The Shard is a profit machine. That is why it is being built. That is its purpose. “So what?” you say, this is capitalism, suck it up. But this is a profit machine being built in a particular time and place. Who is it providing more office space for in these grim times? According to the FT in a piece titled London banks ‘will need space of four Shards’ it will be accommodating “a strong rise in demand among hedge funds and private equity firms in the West End, closely correlated to the stock market recovery.” Expanding banks are also expected to be among the main occupiers. In other words, it is being built in anticipation of making the UK even more dependent on a financial sector that just screwed us.

Meanwhile who pays the price for a big concentration of new office space like that? It can surely only make property prices in Bermondsey and Southwark go even more stratospheric. This will be happening at the same time as the cap on benefits and increase in council house rents that is already expected to effect a sort of social cleansing of inner London. So the Shard will help to screw many nearby residents, possibly forcing the poorest out of London altogether. Great.

Oh well, at least it will help increase economic activity in a stalling economy. But for who? Since London is really a tax haven, and most of the money made there gets stored in tax havens, are we likely to see much in tax receipts from the companies working there? As for the profit from the building itself, the point is not that the investors in the Shard are Qatari and will therefore take their profit out of the country. It wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference if the investors were British. That money is not for us. It would leave the country anyway.

Even if we were to reap something in taxes from the companies working there, would it really be worth it when we consider what the next financial crash might do to us? When we consider that not only is the government not interested in weaning us off the finance sector, but they are really, really not going to regulate them either? The Shard is a time-bomb. The Shard is great pointy cock shafting London.

It isn’t an exciting and iconic building. It’s a profit machine. And it isn’t for the likes of you or I. So admire it on the horizon if you like. But to me it does look like the headquarters of our totalitarian overlords, and really, it isn’t that futuristic. Remember, in this country there will be no imposed coup to put the banking regime in place like in Italy or Greece. It won’t be necessary. The bankers are already in charge.

What’s this liberal doing in my head? And why does it think I owe something to society?

Workfare makes us free

This post is one in a series about being a ‘liberal’, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

It is one of those self-evident facts that we should all contribute to society – this is one of the ideas behind the current government policy of forcing people to work for free for large corporations. We will be assisted by society in the course of our lives, the logic goes, and we therefore owe something to society. This view is held by many people but some of those people are not interested in economic ‘justice’ of any kind and I can’t be bothered to address them. Instead I will address this to liberals who might be interested in some kind of increased economic equality but who would still rely on this logic.

The interesting thing about the idea we owe something to society is that what people often mean is that we should contribute to society by having a job (and never mind how pointless or actually unproductive the work might be, right?). Now, there’s an obvious flaw that many people can spot here. A lot of what we might call society is little to do with paid work. Reproduction of the human species, for example, largely takes place outside of the framework of paid labour. Yet presumably it does sort of contribute to society, right?

I am not (I think) moving towards the notion that you having sex is a contribution to the greater good (though it does, in many ways, add to the sum total of human happiness) but here’s a poser: is a mother who never gets a full time job a ‘burden’ on society? You could, rather, make an argument that the mother, doing one of the most important things in society, has an entire world of paid labour parasitic upon her efforts. People have commented that it is probably more common for human societies to regard the production of goods as playing a supporting role to human reproduction, rather than – as the assumption appears to be in our society – human reproduction playing a supporting role to the production of goods.

I could leave the argument there, perhaps add in something about the importance of the unpaid labours of art and love, and we could all reach some vague decision that society has its priorities wrong and has lost its spiritual connection with the essentials of human life. But that would (a) let the liberal in our heads off the hook much too easily, thus defeating the object of this post, and (b) wouldn’t get to the bottom of why ‘we’ might have our priorities wrong.

What is, if we might be so bold as to ask, society? Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in it so presumably we should. I think social interaction is a defining aspect of human behaviour and so, without getting too far into definitions, there is a ‘society’ of some sort. We need it, therefore we must owe it, right?

Except that it isn’t a homogenous entity, this society. It has structure within it, and one of the structures we can spot within it is the economic structure. And we can pretend if we like that all the wealth we collectively produced is produced between each of us, and that money goes into a big pot, and from that pot we get the benefits. And then we have to work out why some people get a much bigger piece of that than others.

‘Because it works’, is one thing people say, and I have posted on this before so I won’t elaborate on the dishonesty of that here. So instead I propose another hypothesis: that the entire economic structure was never designed for the benefit of most of us but for the benefit of a few. To keep it functioning some of the benefits have to be shared around, but that is secondary to the machinery put in place to generate great wealth for a few.

This idea has recently surfaced in the Occupy movement as the system being run for the 1% not the 99%. It is nothing new, and one of the effects of it is that the benefits to you are an expendable part of the system. This is why you can suddenly get poorer (as you probably are now if you live in Britain and don’t run or own a large corporation) even though you are not working any less.

So, much as society in some sense does exist, a homogenous society in an economic sense is a fiction. On some level we all know that the idea we are paid what we deserve is nonsense – our pay is determined rather by our power to ask for it. So the notion that this unfair system of pay leads to a fair system of us all doing our bit for society is a bit odd. The idea that your role is to contribute economically to the economic pool of ‘society’ is based on fiction – particularly when you discover what tax havens are doing in the world. You can’t owe something to a fiction, or if you feel you do you would normally be advised to seek help with your mental health.

Why is it that so many people see this fiction as ‘common sense’ then? I think that those who benefit most from the fake economic ‘society’ are good at justifying themselves, and paying others to persuade us to join in with their justifications. The idea that we owe it to society to have a job is an ideological tool for forcing people into work when it isn’t necessary. Sure, we get some benefits, but they are in the power of others to confer, and they mostly do it when they are scared of being hung from a lamppost for not sharing enough.

And yes, a lot of the work we do isn’t necessary. Once you start breaking down one fiction you often find a lot of fictions hiding behind it. As Western countries ‘we’ (not you and I obviously) have vast pools of excess wealth. And yet we ‘have to’ work. Everyone has to. Or we’ll all die. Or something. The threat is rarely spelled out. But it would be just awful.

It sounds instinctively wrong to say ‘I owe nothing to society’, but in the sense of paid labour we can and should say just that. But this is only a start – we do need each other and I think most people feel this on some level. The challenge is not just to act as an individual against a fictional economic ‘society’ but then to entangle our lives with others in a meaningful society – which will often involve things which go on beyond the realm of paid work. So we may end up feeling we have long-term obligations to people, but they will be willingly entered into, with a knowledge of the power relations involved. Not, in other words, based on fiction.

People often seem slightly put out when I say that I don’t want a job at all, that I wish I could do without one. They think I am lazy, or put it down to my middle class decadence. It’s true that I like single malt whisky and I don’t like paid work. Is this a slap in the face to ‘society’, or to those who want jobs and don’t have them? Perhaps. Or perhaps I think I and everyone else would be better off without a fiction that was designed for the benefit of a few.

At the Poachers Arms: large scale organising

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

It was a Saturday night in the Poachers Arms and the local screamo revival trio Meaningless Fucking Meaning were dominating the ambience of the pub from the occasional stage in the corner alcove beside the fireplace.

Regulars and visitors filled every square inch of breathable space and the bar staff moved around constantly and quickly, making eye contact only with the customer of the moment.

I took my pint of Colonel Despard and squeezed and bounced myself to the garden door. The garden, which is a different shape each time you go there, was yard-like today and filled with people. The noise of human speech, loud as a flock of gulls was, at least somewhat quieter than the rendition of Aristocratic Corpse Longings from behind me.

“I hear the neighbours have called in a complaint,” said the Blairite man standing next to me.

“It’s only for one night,” I said. “I don’t think people should never be inconvenienced by other people.”

“Maybe they’ve got kids,” said the Blairite.

“And maybe they can’t resist using the apparatus of local government to their advantage even though they bitch about the council tax 364 days of the year.”

“A bit late for political talk isn’t it?” said the Blairite (who I had not yet discovered was a Blairite).

“Nonsense,” said a woman in front of us, spinning around. “If you can’t support your political views with four pints inside you then you don’t believe them. Take me. I’m an anarchist and I’ve had six pints and I can still explain that anarchy doesn’t mean chaos but organisation of society without structural violence.”

“I’m a Blairite,” said the Blairite. “But I’ve had three pints and I can’t explain it.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “No one could. This is my first and I have no clue how you could begin to explain it.”

“But I will say,” said the Blairite, “That I don’t think it would be possible to do without the state. If only because some violent minority would get in charge.”

“Very different from now,” said the woman, her eyebrows raised.

“Touche,” said the Blairite.

“But I know what you mean,” I said to him. “I think the existence of the weapons we have now means that you need large scale organisation, if only to ensure the nutters don’t end up in charge. And you need organisation to move resources around the planet in a useful way too.”

“See, a state,” said the Blairite.

“That’s a failure of imagination,” I said, taking a sip of Despard. “Why does large scale organisation have to look like a state? It could be completely different in form, in mandate, in principles…”

“And would your hypothetical organisation mediate disputes between neighbours on noise levels?” asked the Blairite.

“Who knows?” I said. “Who cares? I can sure as hell imagine one that wouldn’t randomly start wars in Middle Eastern countries.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said the woman.

The Blairite hesitantly raised his glass, almost looking over his shoulder as though to check that his friends weren’t watching. “Me too.”

At the Poacher’s Arms: on progress and tedium

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

Last night I found it beside a small railway station on top of a hill. I joined another regular at the bar and ordered a Lochyloch single malt whisky to start the night off. Macy the barwoman poured me a double shot for the price of a single and when I thanked her she looked offended and informed me it wouldn’t happen again.

I got talking to the Regular about this and that, and someone he knew who had once sat on a spiked iron railing and slightly lacerated some essential parts of his digestive system and had afterwards said it was the most interesting thing to happen in his life. I could see his point, I said, ignoring the snigger at the unintentional pun. The Regular couldn’t, and claimed that boredom was a disease, especially when the world was becoming a better place.

“Is it?” I said.

“You can see the data,” he said.

“That depends partly on what you choose to measure,” I said.

“Infant mortality is falling across the world.”

“But,” I pointed out, “It’s not a good measure because billions of dollars have been poured into precisely getting that figure down. It doesn’t mean people’s lives have improved in other ways.”

“But our standard of living has improved,” said Macy.

“For some people, in some places,” I said. “But inequality increased in Britain all through the Labour years. In the meantime things having been happening that are difficult to pick up in the data.”

“Like what?” said the Regular.

“Like a shift in power to concentrations of corporations and a shift in thinking funded by those with the money. I think this means things are going to get worse for most people in most countries for a good couple of decades. What’s happening now is a new thing. It will be hard to stop.”

“What do you think we can do about it?” said the Regular. I know his views on politics. He doesn’t think it a good use of his time. With which I don’t entirely disagree. It isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.

But Macy broke in, “People’s lives are full of other things. Full of the everyday things we have to do. Work, going food shopping, all that stuff we don’t get any choice about.”

“And people will do what they are motivated to do,” said the Regular.

“So we leave it to the people motivated by money to run the world?” I said.

“We’ve got lives to live,” said Macy.

I downed the Lochyloch – a waste of good whisky but I had to fortify myself for a boring speech – and said “But this specialisation is what dooms us. Your job is pulling the pints and changing the barrels. Their job is making millions of pounds and they fuck up the world. The compartmentalisation of roles is screwing us. In the meantime those few people have formed a very effective power bloc and the only way I can see to break it is for the many people with little power to unite against them.”

“But in the end it’s about changing the terms of the debate,” said the Regular.

Macy absent-mindedly poured me another Lochyloch as I said, “In a way, but that isn’t just a matter of persuasion. You have to exert power. You think the directors who got 50% payrises last year while our wages stayed static and lost out to inflation can be ‘persuaded’ things should be done differently? The organisation of power against those in charge and changing the terms of debate are one and the same thing.”

“I get off at 12,” said Macy. “I don’t know what to do to change anything, and I need to be in bed by 1am cos my next shift is at 11am tomorrow.”

“I don’t know what to do to change it either,” I said. “None of us do yet. We’ve got to talk about it.”

“And talk and talk and talk and talk,” said a voice to my right. I turned to see another of the Poachers Arms regulars. “God you three are boring. Can’t a man have a drink in peace? I’m going to order a pint of anthrax to kill myself in a minute if you lot don’t stop.”

I raised my glass. “To the end of tedium,” I said. “Especially mine.”

We clinked glasses.

Some answers to common questions on #occupyLSX at St Paul’s

I thought it might be useful to compile a list of answers about the occupation to point curious people towards. They are the views of one person involved, not of the Assembly.

Why is the camp outside St Paul’s not the stock exchange?

St Paul’s was the meeting place to go to Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is. They are right next to each other. The police blocked the way into the square with solid lines of officers and police horses. There was some discussion about where to go next but in the end the decision was made for us when the police encircled us and prevented us from moving for some hours. So a combination of powerlessness in the face of police force and pragmatism (not wanting to get beaten with a truncheon) led to the St Paul’s site.

Why don’t the protesters move now? You’ve caused a lot of bother to the clergy.

Yeeees. But also no. The clergy caused trouble for themselves when some said one thing (stay) and some said another (go). If you want to work out why this rift became so troublesome, it was possibly caused by the contradiction between wanting to throw the moneylenders out of the temple, and having the following corporate sponsors:
Lloyds Banking Group
Fidelity Investment Managers
CMS Cameron McKenna
London Stock Exchange
Sarasin & Partners
BGC Partners

Jesus? Or money? Jesus or money? Jesus or money? It has been tough for them but I’m not overly sympathetic. If you are, see the benefits of being a corporate sponsor of St Paul’s here.

Why isn’t the protest at Canary Wharf where most of the big banks are?

Canary Wharf is private land. All of it. Even the roads. It has a large jumped-up security team who act like a private police force and the real police respond to their requests very quickly due to potential ‘targets’ in the area. A camp would last all of half an hour. It is disgraceful that such a large part of London is privately controlled but that is a different battle.

Why don’t they all get jobs?

There aren’t any. That’s part of the reason people are pissed off. Try to keep up. One reason there aren’t enough jobs is because the government is deliberately contracting large parts of the economy in near-recession conditions. Not sensible folks. Cutting the public sector to strengthen the private sector is like cutting off one leg to make the other stronger. Silly. Unless your ultimate goal is less taxes for the rich of course…

Why do they have macbooks/drink starbucks/use phones if they are anti-capitalist?

Because they’re all hypocrites of course. Or are they? Two points here. Firstly, some of the occupiers are anti-capitalist and some simply want reform. Secondly: withdrawing completely from a system to live in a cave would leave you very ill-equipped to change it. Most anti-capitalists are not anti-technology, they are just against the organisational and financial forms used to produce the technology. There is a weird lack of logic to saying they should not use particular products of those financing systems. Perhaps they should also not eat, or ride a bike, or live in a house – why pick on Starbucks? The whole system works more or less the same way. You can try to change it or you can live in a cave and eat bats but it would be difficult to do both.

Are you all jobless layabouts?

Some have jobs, some don’t. It’s a bit funny accusing people who are working hard for nothing, keeping a 24-hour camp moving, of being lazy. I know that some people have pulled 24 hour shifts in the kitchens and in other roles. Go and accuse them of being lazy – though be aware that tiredness can reduce impulse control.

The camp seems to have some well weird people turning up. Why not get rid of them so you have more credibility?

Your city is run by Boris Johnson and you’re taking the high ground on people being weird? Anyway, one person’s weird is another person’s radical, and yes, there probably are a few really bonkers people about, but anyone can turn up, and what would it take to get rid of them? Stalinist purges? No thanks.

What are the demands of the occupation? For god’s sake MAKE SOME DEMANDS! No-one knows what you WANT!

People are fighting against a system of privilege and corruption that has developed over several centuries. Learning how to undo that to build an economy that works for everyone will take time. Decades and more. Also, any group of people who have just met (like the occupiers) have to take some time to work out what they can do collectively. It is a slow process. Weeks. Months. Years.

There are some simple things that can be done while the long fight goes on (Robin Hood Tax for example) and many occupiers I’ve met support some of these things. But there are no quick fixes for the fact that our lives are run by unaccountable forces both inside and outside government.

Why not go home now you’ve made your point?

Not everyone is there to make a point. Some people are there to try to discover what they can do with others. Or because they want a place to speak where people will listen, perhaps for the first time, despite living in a ‘democracy’ (you feeling represented there? me neither).

And perhaps, yes perhaps some people want to be awkward. Why not? They’ve just had their economy destroyed by a finance industry that lobbied corrupt governments to let them do whatever they liked. Let’s be awkward about it. I’m in an awkward mood myself. Being awkward seems a good start at this point. It seems a lot better than rolling over and taking it.