On my way to the Talbot Rice Gallery, I stop off at St Andrew Square to check on the progress of the Occupy movement, a group of people in tents who are still waiting for something to happen…There is nobody about today to brave the rain – the Occupiers must be huddling in their tents. I imagine [the statue of the corrupt eighteenth-century politican Henry] Dundas toppling down upon the Occupiers to wipe out Edinburgh’s anti-capitalist movement in one fell swoop. His final act of infamy. Considering that their interminable political battle will not be over by Christmas, the Occupiers should have really dug trenches rather than erecting tents (November 2011).
Tychy has otherwise avoided writing about Occupy Edinburgh, the superficially anti-capitalist protest camp of about forty or so people which was established in St Andrew Square between October and January. This was partly because the Occupy movement bore too close a resemblance to the Indignadoes, whose siege of Edinburgh’s Spanish consulate I had observed in May, and I did not wish to end up recycling the same commentary. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Occupiers as a more polite British equivalent of the Spanish protesters, with pasty skin and some comparably lacklustre singing.
Occupy Edinburgh was also denied a platform on Tychy because despite resolving repeatedly to walk over to St Andrew Square to meet them, in the end I simply could not face it. A glance over the “minutes” from the last “General Assembly” should sufficiently indicate why:
Possibly a time-span of 28 days but could be much sooner. 3 representatives were selected to attend the meeting with the Council on February 1st.
It was pointed out that this may result in a permanent eviction notice applying immediately on all Council Land.
Feedback on the legal ownership of the land was offered by a young lady who’s name I do not know but it was well received. To hear back on Thursday.
One opinion heard from an onlooker was that the camp looked ‘small and lonely’ and that it gave the impression of a weakened movement.
Imagine having to sit through this. Occupy Edinburgh has evidently equated boredom with bourgeois respectability, thinking that if they made their Assemblies as tedious as the proceedings of a council planning committee then people would take them seriously. As Lenin would have put it, I voted with my feet, and expeditions to St Andrew Square to take part in a General Assembly would always only get as far as the Standing Order or one of the many excellent facilities on George Street.
Occupy Edinburgh’s “minutes” tend to be all about Occupy Edinburgh, the campsite’s rules and activities and provisions, rather than about offering any solutions to the latest capitalist crisis. On the Occupy Edinburgh website, one immediately heads to the page entitled “Policies,” but these turn out to be anything but political policies. There are instead warnings about respecting “emotional boundaries” at the campsite and getting “explicit verbal consent before touching someone or crossing boundaries.” It is probably best that you have a lawyer tucked up in the sleeping bag with you. “My client wishes to know if “you make me horny” denotes explicit verbal consent?”
The local outlet of a global franchise, Occupy Edinburgh are fixated with PR, with promoting themselves and giving the correct impression, but their public image is at once utterly calamitous. Occupy’s claim to represent “the 99%” must be up there with the little jingle that had forever doomed Gordon Brown – that he had “abolished boom and bust” – in being automatically contradicted by reality. Claiming to be “saving the world” will only earn you pity. The schizophrenic is not wrong for thinking that he is Napoleon, but for not having the army necessary to annex Europe. Comparing yourself to the brave revolutionaries of Tahrir Square will only make people embarrassed. The “bankers” may be relieved if you describe them as a sinister oligarchy because it makes them sound like they’ve got their shit together.
If Occupy Edinburgh are ideologically going nowhere, this is readily symbolised by their obsession with staying put. After being banished from St Andrew Square last week, Occupy are now fighting to prevent a temporary campsite from being expelled from the Meadows. Far from challenging politicians or offering a new model of the economy, Occupy are obsessed purely with their own campsite, and with ensuring that it remains standing as an eternal symbol of nothing.
Tychy has always suspected that there was a decimal point missing from “the 99%” whom Occupy claim to represent. To claim 99% support is intrinsically undemocratic, and indeed I think that the only political party which has ever enjoyed 99% support was lead by Robert Mugabe. Only 21 people turned up to Occupy Edinburgh’s last General Assembly. Out of 99% of the population, each person at the Assembly had to represent about 250000 Scots. The responsibility must have been awesome. But to put the number 21 into a suitable perspective, the widely unpopular Scottish Conservatives had a membership of 8500 last year (and even Occupy’s Facebook community amounts to less than half of this).
If Occupy Edinburgh have failed so completely, why do they continue to enjoy such a massively disproportionate degree of media coverage? For example, there has always been a community of skateboarders established in Bristo Square. Like Occupy Edinburgh, the skateboarders are apolitical and they freely admit that they have no clue about how to run the economy. Alas, the Scotsman does not grant them the same coverage as Occupy, and report all of the controversies raging amongst the skateboarders (although they are probably far more entertaining than Occupy’s tortuous legal battles.)
Returning to October, when the tents were first pitched, the people of Edinburgh regarded Occupy with genuine goodwill and they were prepared to listen to what Occupy had to say. Those amongst my friends who do not keep up with contemporary politics were suddenly asking me what the protest at St Andrew Square meant and what the protesters would do. I was wearily aware, however, that the same old characters from the Scottish Socialist Party and “People and Planet” had merely found an eye-catching new way to protest. Before long, a friend who deems himself an “anarchist” told me that he kept meaning to go back to St Andrew Square to retrieve his tent.
Occupy was no longer talking to Edinburgh, and Edinburgh was no longer listening to Occupy. It suddenly seemed deeply insulting to imagine that somebody who had lost their job and defaulted on their mortgage repayments should listen to the advice of a scummy student who was sitting in a tent for no apparent reason. The protest now looked like the latest art installation, mysteriously organized by some faraway yuppie, something which those walking past always see but never look at. By December, the Occupy protest was reduced to a collection of forlorn and abandoned tents, and when the city’s new Primark opened on a freezing morning to massive crowds, it seemed that the wretchedness of the supposedly anti-capitalist protest was now complete.
The historical spotlight had fallen and Occupy had garbled their lines, turning out to be more useless than Ed Miliband, more vacuous than New Labour, more inoffensive than David Cameron. A new political movement, enjoying widespread coverage in the media and the bemused interest of ordinary people, offers the possibility that there is an alternative, that we are not totally dependent upon the current intake of indistinguishable career politicians to lead us out of the recession. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher had demanded that, “If I could press a button and genuinely solve the unemployment problem, do you think that I would not press that button this instant?” She wielded that phrase fearsomely – “there is no alternative” – and Occupy’s amateurish activism and their abandonment of practical politics will leave most of the 99% in the same mind as Thatcher, if qualified with an extra adjective or two. We have only neoliberal politicians. There are probably no sensible alternatives.
We have been sniggering throughout the autopsy, but now that the corpse is dressed for burial, the joking has to stop. We seriously need leadership and ideas. Scotland needs a serious investment in industry and housing and technology and education. There remain vital alternatives. And the optimist is once again back at a crossroads. Perhaps the Occupy debacle has taught them that it is unwise to launch a new political movement, and that one should instead engage with the established political infrastructure, the dilapidated machinery of the Labour Party and the trades unions. Any alternative may be otherwise simply despair.