Thursday, 20 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street. Occupy your mind

As deepening economic woes finally bring people onto the streets in
Western capitals, protesters on Wall Street, in the City of London and elsewhere are keen to remind Western leaders that calling on Arab governments to allow freedom and democracy is a call they could well heed at home. For too long, citizens in the West have felt alienated from the political process. But with unemployment and prices now rising steeply while the rich, the bankers, and the corporations continue to get away with outrageously high pay-offs, the people, finally, are starting to fight back. The people, finally, are saying “enough is enough!”

Reports suggest that Occupy is a very diverse initiative with no clear demands, so it remains to be seen whether a more coherent movement will emerge. As Sasha Sethi, a former investment banker put it when interviewed by Sky News, "I think it is fantastic to see a non-apathetic youth here. It's too fragmented though. There are too many voices. They need to focus on some firm intellectual ideas." This, I recall, was the same criticism levelled more than a decade ago against protesters in Seattle in 1999 who successfully brought the World Trade Organisation’s summit to an abrupt halt and promptly claimed “victory” over globalisation. But having succeeded in their aim of halting the WTO, they had no practical plan to follow it up with; no deeper idea of what they wanted and how it could be achieved. Will it be the same for Occupy?

Interestingly, Mr Sethi, our investment banker, told Sky News that many of his former colleagues would sympathise with the worldwide protests. "Bankers are a mixed bunch," he said. "I think a lot of them in their hearts will agree with it." That’s interesting because it elucidates the difficulty the protesters have in branding bankers, or indeed anyone, as “the enemy”. Because, the complexity of our globalised world makes it hard to identify who, if anyone, is really at fault and who has the power to do anything about it. Because identifying the winners in today’s global economy is one thing; identifying who’s actually capable of changing the system that makes them winners is quite another.

We live in interesting times; I would almost say evolutionary times;
times when people’s understanding of the world they live in is struggling to catch up with a reality that has largely left them behind. For the reality today is that power substantially resides beyond the nation-state; the reality is that individual governments simply aren’t in a position to unilaterally influence global events, be it global energy markets, bond, or currency markets. In other words, events now occur in the ungoverned global space, as it were. And yet people’s understanding still operates largely in the national space. It’s little wonder, then, that they still cling to the out-dated belief that the government still has the ability to act effectively. As the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, acknowledged in a recent interview, the underlying problems in the global economy which caused the current sovereign debt and global economic crises, “cannot be dealt with by any nation alone. … They won’t be tackled,” he says, “unless countries, as a group, come together to ensure that the world economy can keep growing.”

The same, of course, applies if nations want to stop themselves being eaten alive by the markets or to reign in poor corporate behaviour. Rather than competing with one another to remain relatively more attractive to global markets and corporations, and so necessarily favouring banks, global investors and the rich in the process, nations need to cooperate to implement robust global rules and taxes to ensure global markets and corporations operate for the common good rather than just for the benefit of the globally mobile few. Until nations learn to cooperate, then, the markets will continue to pick nations off one by one; until they cooperate, the market tail will continue to wag the government dog.

Perhaps Occupy and countless other protest groups around the world need above all, then, to develop a more acute and genuinely global awareness; an awareness that protest itself is questionable when even governments aren’t in control; an awareness that action must be global and not merely local or even national. Indeed, the Euro crisis is showing that meaningful action can’t even suffice on a European level. Only global action—all or virtually all nations implementing an agreement with global reach and effect—can now possibly hope to do the job. Moreover, since governments are stuck in the vicious circle of having to compete with one another, we’d be foolish to expect them to lead the way to international cooperative action.

It’ll be interesting to see, then, whether Occupy evolves into
something greater than the sum of its parts and whether other protest movements, NGOs and concerned citizens around the world can come together in a coordinated way to drive their politicians and governments towards a cooperative global agreement broad enough and robust enough to bring global markets, transnational corporations, bankers, and the mobile rich back under proper democratic control and accountability. The challenge, it seems, is to find a basis for international cooperation which avoids any nation losing out unduly to any other and so makes it in the interests of all to cooperate. The challenge, too, is to find a more effective means than protest for driving politicians and governments towards that objective. These, perhaps, are some of the “firm intellectual ideas” citizens and protesters alike will have to grapple with and find answers for.

Like Mr. Sethi, many of us who still live relatively comfortable lives are beginning to get seriously worried and will sympathise with the protesters who, unlike us, are willing to rough it in make-shift camps in the world’s financial centres. So maybe now is the time for all of us—bankers and street cleaners, rich and poor, protesters and wider public—to start talking; maybe it’s time for all of us to stop blaming one another and start working together to find a way through.

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