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.

At the Poachers Arms: growing numbers

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.

The other day I found it operating from – of all places – the north wall of St Paul’s Cathedral. I ordered myself a pint of Winstanley and watched through the doorway some hippies being friendly to police officers. A man sitting next to me introduced himself and we fell to talking about large-scale organising for a different political system that would give us more control over our lives.

Within moments he admitted to being a ‘Blairite’, a crime for which he seemed unrepentant, but this was the Poachers Arms so I made no comment. In the true Blairite tradition he said he thought that left and right needed to unite in order to change the world.

I suggested that if he meant the promoters of right wing ideology who used their money and power to impose their self-interested ideas on others then I could not join him in his quest for global unity, but if he meant Daily Mail readers then actually I agreed. We then had a discussion about whether you could divide the rich from the comfortable working class or middle class at some particular level of income and decided that you couldn’t. I pointed out that there are, however, reasons why particular people, including powerful people and even those on low incomes, will always support the status quo. It was important to understand, I suggested, that there would have to be movement without having everyone on board.

This bothered him a little, as though he, like the hippies outside, thought that the whole world could sing together in harmony. He didn’t want to pursue the matter though, instead taking a sip of his pint of Cromwell and gazing around for a moment until he hit on a new topic.

My new friend seemed worried about one particular idea he had heard doing the rounds: the idea of bringing other people into the ‘movement’ for change. This was too much like conversion for his liking, and I agreed.

“People will join in large numbers if and when they feel pissed off enough,” I said. “I don’t think there’s much point in trying to persuade them to take action before then.”

“Ok, that’s good,” he said, “Because I was starting to feel a religious vibe around here.”

“I do think that people experimenting with politics right now, without mass support, are important,” I said. “When more people are tired of being made poorer, they will be joining a core of people who already have experience organising.”

“As long as the education process isn’t going one way,” he said.

“Since those people active in politics in this country hasn’t brought about a new world lately,” I said, “I think that everyone needs to learn from each other.”

He raised his glass in agreement. I drained mine and left. Outside the Poachers Arms the police officers were stopping and searching a homeless man.

At the Poachers Arms: consumer power and debt

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.

Yesterday I was sat in the Poachers just across the road from the occupation at St Paul’s Cathedral and over a pint of Very Hairy Badger got talking to a man with an Australian-English accent. We got to talking about how we could organise long-term to oppose the financial and political structures that are currently squeezing us.

His suggestion was that a large organisation of consumers could gain power over banks and utility providers by withdrawing from them, one corporation at a time, until they were forced to restructure themselves, or the politicians were forced to restructure them.

While I half-liked the idea, my response was that consumption is structured as an individual activity and it is very difficult to built collective action around it. For instance any threatened bank/corporation could drop prices and the effort to abandon them would be undermined by people having to maximise their use of their resources as individuals. I also suggested that it would require quite a large amount of people to be involved to really threaten the existence of a bank or corporation and building towards that would be difficult on the back of a distant promise of power.

He accepted this was a problem, but asked whether an idea I had mentioned – that of organising debtors against their creditors – didn’t have the same problem. Aren’t debtors just consumers, after all? And wouldn’t organising around debt suffer from the same problem that it is structured as an individual burden?

As I drank my pint I found I couldn’t immediately disagree with him, but thinking about it afterwards I thought that perhaps debt is not the same as other goods we buy. It is money, not a good, and as such is pure fiction backed up by force, and so it exposes the way our economic system works. Organising around it would reveal the power structures like nothing else. But it would also require long term organising, and could be undermined by people making individual choices they need to make.

As I said goodbye to my companion at the bar we both understood that no problems had been solved. But in the Poachers Arms problems are not just for solving, problems are for uniting around within the embrace of a Very Hairy Badger.

On the deification of utter bastards

A right bastard

I was inspired to write about the worship of not-very-nice people partly by the death of Steve Jobs, well-known bully, censor, exploiter and selfish bastard, and partly by the sight of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T.E. Lawrence on my shelf. I say shelf. There isn’t space on the shelf so it is in a teetering stack behind my door, along with other books that are half-read or on their way into or out of my life.

The interesting thing about Seven Pillars of Wisdom isn’t that it is great literature (it isn’t) or that Lawrence of Arabia did great things in Arabia (well-known, if questionable). The interesting thing about it is that, unlike most biographies of political operators, Lawrence makes little attempt to make his actions or morals more palatable or to sell himself as a man who loves puppies. He makes it very clear what sort of person he is, and he is a bastard. He pushed armies around like expendable cattle, manipulated people, lied, tricked, betrayed, and although he felt bad about ‘unnecessary’ deaths in battle, it seemed as much a matter of technical pride as anything.

Perhaps it is unfair to pick on people in wartime, since it rarely brings out just good in people, but the point is that these people (Churchill for example) were admired as people, not merely for their sometimes dubious achievements. It’s one thing to say ‘This man is a bastard but we need his skills right now’, it’s another thing to then turn him into a hero.

There are, of course, always things to be said in defence of these much-admired figures. As the article above says of Steve Jobs: “He was a polymath, a skilled motivator, a decisive judge, a farsighted tastemaker, an excellent showman, and a gifted strategist.” But, and I can’t help coming back to this, he was also a bastard.

I also, personally speaking, question the need for his products – or rather, they have no relation to matters of ‘need’ at all. Since I’ve picked such an arbitrary historical figure to compare Jobs to I think I’m going to take it even further. Lawrence was involved in a highly dishonest campaign to fight Ottoman Turkey that (a) was never going to give the Arabs the independence promised and (b) had as much to do with maintaining the British Empire after the war as winning the war at that moment. It probably helped get the British Mandate for Palestine that has had such wonderful results since.

It’s not that I want everyone to be nice – in fact I’ve even argued that the niceness of politicians is irrelevant. Besides, sometimes I’m not particularly nice myself and I would never expect it of anyone all the time. I am however suspicous of the claim that some people ‘need’ to behave nastily. This argument is entirely dependent on certain power imbalances – the ones that allow them to be nasty without consequences – being in place and accepted. And I wonder about the causes and the effects of deifying these people who are known to have systematically screwed people over. What does it say about our culture? Or perhaps more to the point, what does it say about the people who decide who is important in our publicly shared culture? They value achievement, clearly, but not just any old achievements I suspect. They value achievements that benefit the right people, and accept unpleasant behaviour as necessary to the system of power because they personally benefit from that system of power.

As for us, those who aren’t the right people, in my experience it feels good to do yourself the favour of rising above the hero-worship of our lords and masters. Instead we can admire the achievements of those who threatened the right people, or admire people who achieved nothing, or not in the ordinary sense of achievement. I admire ordinary people I meet who know how to treat everyone around them with care and respect. One day I hope to be like them.

Until then, I’ll probably carry on being rude to people who admire Steve Jobs.

A Dictionary of Terms for the Shafted: Part 1

A hive mind known to colonise other hive minds

This is the beginning of a dictionary of contemporary working life. I may one day write some further additions to it. Submissions welcome.

Freezing Bottom: the condition of an organisation in which wages are frozen, but only at one end of the salary spectrum. It is not considered polite to talk about it.

Totally Targetted: when an organisation replaces the pursuit of values, or active engagement with real problems, with a pursuit of targets. This is the beginning of the end. The real target is your self-directed working and any notion of cognitive independence from the hive mind. Run.

360 Performance Appraisal: you suck the boss while the boss scratches his moustache over your groin.

Effing Effed: Due to efficiency savings, your newly efficient job role now efficiently covers the work done by three people previously. You are paid the same, or accounting for inflation, less. You know that this ‘efficiency’ reduces the quality of your work but this appears to be of no interest to anyone.

Casualisation casualty: someone whose job and all future job roles have moved from permanent payroll positions to temp or contract work. You are expected to appreciate the flexibility, though it is left ambiguous who the flexibility is for. Say goodbye to buying a house.

Robot Rogered: When a consultant robot is asked to come in and improve things you are considered to have no expertise in – i.e. what you spend forty hours a week doing. These highly intelligent yet ignorant robots will, rather than consult you, apply the stand formula for process ‘improvements’ they apply everywhere, then leave you to sort out the mess. Robots are paid approximately five times more than you.

History is bollocks: moral politics and other fairy tales

Striking workers and police apply 'moral force' to each other

Oh dear, this one’s a bit long and factually based. I apologise for that.

I still remember a series of books in my school filled with morality tales for children. One that sticks in my mind was the story of some kids who, despite being told by their parents to stay away from the railway track, went and played on it anyway and were electrocuted to death. Why anyone thought a 9-year-old kid needed to read tales of sudden death I don’t know but if the aim of those tales was to give me nightmares they definitely succeeded. There was another one about a girl who put a garden fork through her foot because, against her parents’ warnings, she decided to work in the garden on a Sunday. A fork through the foot doesn’t seem like the end of the world now but it was made much more horrible by the fact that it was punishment. Those stories were extreme but Disney does morality tales too so we’ve all been exposed to them.

Morality tales all tend to have one major problem: they are mostly untrue and even actively dishonest. They are not true in a very particular way, in that there is usually little or no connection between the claimed moral cause and the ensuing effect. The girl didn’t put a fork through her foot because it was Sunday. Probably she did it because she was pissed off that someone was trying to impose stupid rules on her so got distracted while forking the garden. It’s easy to challenge the poor causal linking in morality tales. So it’s interesting that we are told a whole series of morality tales as kids that we mostly accept when we get older, even though they have the same basic structure as those specious frightener tales. We tend to take them more seriously because they are called ‘history’.

We are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, that a whole range of important historical decisions were made for moral reasons. Giving men the vote for example, happened because after the upper class cocked up so badly in the form of WWI they saw that there was a moral duty to share power with the people they had decimated. People cite similar beliefs about the institution of the welfare state after WWII. The start of WWII would be another – people vaguely imagine reasons from the desire to defend Poland to the desire to defend the Jews, or the necessity of self-defence. Or how about the Civil Rights Movement? And this is the one that really got me thinking, because there has been a small clamour of voices among anti-cuts campaigners to keep protests peaceful. And when asked what proof they have that peaceful protests works they always cite the Civil Rights Movement.

So, starting from the top, why did men get the vote after WWI. Well, it’s complicated. I suspect the forgotten Great Unrest might have something to do with it. There were even strikes during the war. The British ruling class had to fight while being undermined from within by its own people, who already hated the them so much before the war started that there was some serious revolutionary talk in the air. And they organised their hatred to oppose their rulers.

Similarly it could be said to be fear of the masses that caused the welfare state to be implemented. The 1926 General Strike was still pretty fresh in the minds of politicians, and here were millions of demobilised unemployed men who were pretty pissed off they’d had to go to war at all. Spending lots of money wouldn’t have come top of the list of a broke government’s priorites after the war for purely moral reasons. I’m not saying that politicians are bad human beings (that’s for another post) but they occupy positions that very, very rarely allow them to think in moral terms.

As for why WWII started, the British establishment didn’t give a toss about the Jews. They didn’t give much of a toss about the Poles either. As for the notion it was a war of self-defence, Hitler had not planned to take on Britain and was said to be rather surprised when the invasion of Poland brought Britain into the war. Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and didn’t plan to destroy such a fine example of the superiority of the Aryan race. So why did Britain join WWII? While Hitler didn’t plan to invade Britain, he did plan to build an empire. And as far as Churchill and his class was concerned, there was only space for one big boy in Europe. Britain went to war mostly to defend the empire from a competitor. The moral justifications came afterwards.

And so to the Civil Rights Movement. Firstly, let’s get the facts straight. This was not simply a movement of peaceful protesters against an oppositional state. Read the history of the Selma March and you realise that local and national governments were pitted against each other. The triumphant peaceful marches in the end got the protection of the state. In other words, they had the central government on side almost as soon as they began. The reasons for the central government’s stance? The moral upstandingness of the protesters? Maybe. Or maybe the Democrat party saw a massive voting block that would forever move the vote in their direction. Who knows? But is it true to say it was peaceful protest that did it? Perhaps it helped, but there was a lot more going on, including more aggressive black power politics and political shenanigans in Washington.

Here’s what they don’t like to teach us about history in school: it is mostly about power, not morals. All the above examples are about organised power blocks going up against each other. And the main reason to pretend it was morality that won out, rather than naked power, is that you can then claim that the current state of affairs, the status quo, is a result of a history of morality triumphant. The lesson of the morality tale is: this world we offer to you is a good and moral place, so all you have to do is behave well and a good world will become even better.

It’s a nice tale, but it’s a fairy tale. It may not be as pretty to believe that history is a consequence of power struggles, and therefore the status quo is the result of power struggles, but it is an important thing to believe, because it leads directly to an interesting conclusion: There is nothing inherently moral about the status quo, and if we want to pursue our own ethics, we will have to do so by the use of power. Behaving well so as to generate some mythical ‘moral force’ has nothing to do with it.

Some might go further and say that the idea we should protest within certain respectable limits is about preventing us from generating any power that would threaten those who have power right now. At the very least, lets think about the fact that if your form of protest is approved by those in power, it can’t be threatening their position very much or they would cease to approve of it very quickly.

I wonder if, somewhere at the back of our minds, as we consider asserting ourselves against the status quo, we are worried that, because we are abandoning the moral demands made by a fairy tale history, we’ll get a fork stuck through our foot. Lose your fear of a fork in the foot I say! (Or maybe it was only me that had that fear, but you get my point). If the fork gets stuck in your foot, it won’t be because morals demand it, but through a careless application of force that could happen to anyone. The moral of the story of the girl who worked on Sunday could equally have been: Apply force, but carefully.