Street protest “against capitalism” appears to have nowhere to go. The rioters of Athens and Madrid, the marchers of Milan and Frankfurt, the squatters of London and New York can grab a headline and illustrate a story, but then what? With no leaders, no policies, no programme beyond opposition to status quo, they must just sink into the urban background.
Illustration by Joe Magee
Travelling this week from the protest camp at St Paul’s in London to Occupy Wall Street in New York, I found the message as thin as the attendance. These are not the mass movements that have briefly upheaved the Arab world, let alone those that toppled Euro-communism in the 1980s. They needed colossal numbers, the threat of violence and regimes already lapsing into self-doubt and insecurity. Only in Athens have protesters shown a fury, driven by potential loss of livelihood, that is seriously threatening a government.
The scenes in London and New York are engagingly similar. The slogans recall those that have been so ineffective in challenging the outrageously vacuous G-summits, or the no less outrageous American and British wars of aggression, that euphemised as “wars of choice”. There are the usual tents, plastic sheets, naive slogans and obsession with press coverage. Guy Fawkes masks are the fashion. Everywhere is “in crisis”, money is theft, bankers are loathsome and, our old friend, “the revolution will not be televised”.
The iron law of insurrection holds that it must grow in menace or lose momentum. Once it subsides into encampment, it becomes mere scenery. By last weekend, St Paul’s displayed what looked like pilgrims come to worship or the homeless looking for soup. With their tenancy conceded by the cathedral authorities, the protestors face the bind of every invading army: you can establish a bridgehead but moving out of it is the hard part.
New York’s Zuccotti Park squatters, equidistant from Wall Street and Ground Zero, have received the widespread support of New Yorkers and the quiet endorsement of a succession of Democrat politicians. The squatters seem meticulously concerned about being clean, quiet and of good community behaviour. The place is already a tourist attraction.
For celebrities, turning up at Zuccotti has become a publicity must. Susan Sarandon, Jesse Jackson, Kanye West, Roseanne Barr, Michael Moore and Tim Robbins have dropped by. A freesheet ironically demanded: “Where are you Bono, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn?” A new Batman movie is to include a scene shot in the square.
The camp has settled into New York’s ever vital ecology. Donors have stepped forward with “five-star” soup kitchens, “occu-pie” pizzas and a Sheraton chef with a “chez Zuccotti menu” of salmon cakes with dill sauce and “pasta bologna with grass-fed beef”. The New York Post felt obliged to send its restaurant critic to taste the fare.
What the protests have also done is feed America’s gargantuan appetite for paranoia. New York’s rich are, for the first time in my experience, imitating their Russian, Spanish and Mexican counterparts. Personal security firms are reporting a doubling and tripling of business. Goldman Sachs executives are building security gates round their homes after one protester waved the effigy of Lloyd Blankfein, the bank’s boss, dripping with blood on a stake.
Executives are sliding into a third-world miasma of shifting their routes to work, not eating in the same restaurants and censoring their children’s Facebook sites. The New York Times reports a move from “having a cop sitting in your garage to having a whole command system at your disposal”. One firm reports that hedge-fund managers are seeking surveillance checks more from fear of reinvigorated tax collectors than from protestors. The revolution has strange allies.
Measuring the impact of street politics under secure democracies is impossible. In the early 19th century every English riot carried an echo of a French one, and terrified the political class into parliamentary reform. The endemic violence of Belfast from the 1960s to the 1980s drove the province to the political extreme, and evoked neocolonial responses from London. The greatest testament to street power came in 1981 when Britain was hit by one of its periodic bouts of violent looting. The Tory politician Michael Heseltine wrote a white paper entitled It Took a Riot in ironic reference to how hard it was to get colleagues to take inner cities seriously. Whether that made a difference is more doubtful.
The trouble at present is that, while mostly there is general sympathy for the cry that the rich have had it too easy of late, there is also sympathy for the view that belts must be tightened and sacrifices made. This makes it hard to see where the protests can lead, except to further curbs on protest, which takes us backwards. Every British government has found reasons for restricting public demonstrations. Central London nowadays is like an armed camp, the squalor of occasional tents more than equalled by the tat of barricades, fences, plastic cones and ubiquitous armed police. Surveillance is everywhere. Why was a policeman wielding a telephoto lenses outside St Paul’s Deanery last Sunday? Why did New York police use pepper spray on demonstrators in downtown Manhattan.
Governments have seemed immune to calls for higher taxes on the rich. The managers of the euro have drawn no sense of urgency from the marches that have thronged their capitals. Argument in government these days is between interests, factions, lobbies and ministers. As its participants retreat behind ever higher security, the noise of the street is just noise. The banker told “You Will Go to Hell” as he strolls past St Paul’s may feel unsettled, but he smiles at the quaintness of it all.
There are serious gaps in the transparency of modern democracy. Between elections, the traditional mediators between electors and those in power have withered. The “customary associations and little platoons” have dwindled. Power over policy has been removed from parties in parliament and at the grassroots, from trade unions, from the professions, from local government, from intellectuals, even from the formal civil service. These conduits have been replaced by thinktanks and lobbyists working in private collusion with ministerial staffs. When David Cameron in opposition said that lobbyists were “the next big scandal waiting to happen,” he was right. But that was before he came to power.
The cliche holds that America’s constitution is so cumbersome as to make federal government virtually inoperable. All it can do with relative efficiency is fight wars. Britain is moving in the same direction. The elimination of intermediate government and its replacement with interest-group lobbying has brought chaos to health, education and planning reform. It has polluted defence cuts, housing finance and energy policy.
Against these developments, street protest is an understandable cry of public anger. But it is no insurrection and can put no army in the field. St Paul’s and Zuccotti Park are not Tahrir Square, whatever the claims of their occupants. Their protest is more a dull ache of frustration at power being dispensed in corridors rather than streets, at power that is ever further from their grasp.
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Categories: The Western Press