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Occupy needs to act more radically

11 January 2012

The protests at St Paul’s and elsewhere should adopt bolder tactics, says Brian Cranwell

Unfocused? The welcome tent on the edge of the Occupy London camp

Unfocused? The welcome tent on the edge of the Occupy London camp

When Occupy London camped outside St Paul’s, I hoped (like many others), that this was a prelude to a campaign against the finance houses and banks, a base providing a public arena from which to launch various activities against their excesses. I am not among those who think that we can do without capitalist enterprise, but I believe that financial manage­ment can be carried out with integrity.

Instead of action, however, the occupations at St Paul’s and elsewhere appear to have become ends in them­selves. The Occupy movement in the UK is now an exercise that has failed both itself and those who hoped that it could change something. It has lost the initiative, and become institution­alised. It is doubtful whether the financiers whom it wants to influence ever give it more than an occasional thought.

This failure stems mainly from the lack of specifics in its targets. Its biggest mistakes are in focusing on vague general issues (banks, capital­ism), and in having no other effective strategies to keep the movement alive in the minds of the public.

Such principles can also be applied to protests on other subjects — for example, health care, or a service such as the police. As a positive example, whether or not there is public sympathy for trades unions’ protests over pensions and retirement ages in the public sector, nobody is in doubt about the objectives of their demon­strations.

In his book on community action, Rules for Radicals (Vintage, 1972), the US activist Saul Alinsky comes to similar conclusions about the need for focus. He also identifies two further tools for success: embarrassment and ridicule.

In the mid-1960s, in a North American city, groups of well-meaning people held demonstrations outside the offices of a notorious slum landlord, joined by many of the residents of the slums, most of whom were black. Nothing changed.

Then a community organiser suggested that they change tactics. They moved to the smart neigh­bourhood where the landlord lived, and occupied his lawns and those of his neighbours. Within hours, the neighbours were phoning him to complain: “We don’t give a —— whether they are right or wrong, get those —— people off this street and talk to them.” He did. They achieved more in 48 hours than in the previous months.

If Occupy London were to occupy the streets and lawns of the stockbroker-belt houses of those from whom they want changes, they would, of course, run the risk of arrest, but they would have certainly upset them, and, more importantly, their neigh­bours. Arrest also plays into the hands of protesters, as it demonstrates their commitment.

The essential elements in a ridicule strategy, Alinsky says, are that the action is so outside the experience of the Establishment (the haves) that they do not know how to react. Also, it is often something on which the law cannot take action. He argues that while the have-nots have little money, they do have the advantage of numbers.

He emphasises the use of tactics that people will enjoy. For instance, he prompted a trade union to protest by bulk-buying tickets for a concert at a hall funded by a company that refused to discuss union recognition. The union then spread a rumour that the ticket-holders would eat only baked beans before the concert. Police or stewards would have been powerless against the noise and odours.

Alinsky recognised that the usual forms of protest would achieve no­thing. For example, expecting people to boycott particular companies, when they need their services, would be a waste of time. Also, sit-ins can rarely keep up impetus for more than a few hours, as participants start to think about getting home, and numbers dwindle.

Information from sympathetic insiders in some of the targeted financial institutions could provide the Occupy protesters with material for embarrassment and ridicule. Publicity about a loss-making investment, or one that proves unethical, can affect a share price.

Having hundreds of sympathisers converging on a targeted bank, open­ing small accounts, and then closing them soon afterwards, costs staff time and money. Information about the over-indulgent use of ex­pense accounts by managers also gives the opportunity to embarrass and ridicule, and is lapped up by the press.

The knee-jerk responses of many haves to such actions is predictable. Alinsky refers to such people as “Have a little — want more, do nothing.” They profess a commitment to social change and ideals of equality and opportunity, but then discourage effective action to achieve this.

Their slogan is: “I agree with your ends, but not your means.” This acts as a smothering blanket to any fire of action, casuing some activists to hesitate, wondering whether they are doing the right thing.

Meanwhile, the haves appear as humanitarians, and are happy as long as so-called radical actions are at the level of letters from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. As Alinsky puts it, the spiritual life of the haves is a ritualistic justification of their possessions. But, as he also argues, the real action is in the target’s reaction, and, if this is properly guided, it will be a great strength to any protest.

Such actions must also be ones to which ordinary people can relate. The jargon of economics and talk of billions are not issues that most people can take in. They are too big. But something such as executives’ paying £80 for a dish in a restaurant, on an expense account — this is communicable.

Change means movement, and movement means friction. Occupy is stagnant in Britain. Some participants will recognise this, but cannot find a way out of their boredom without losing face or searching for a way to bring their questions to action.

The Revd Brian Cranwell is a retired priest in the diocese of Sheffield, and a former management consultant.

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