39: Sabbatical III – St Paul’s Protesters

15 December 2011

My editor, Sid, took me down to St Paul’s Cathedral, where since mid-October there has been a camp of people protesting against capitalism, among other things. It was a grey and overcast day, with occasional drizzle. The camp is a reduced version of what one finds at performing arts festivals – around 10 white, framed gazebos, scattered amongst a hundred two- to four-man dome tents. A bloke with a cart was making a good fist of keeping the place clean. No one seemed to be doing any harm.

In the open space before the cathedral, a born-again Christian, equipped with a megaphone, was talking about how faith had transformed his life from one of drugs, crime and chaos, into one of meaning, structure and love. Another fellow, also with a megaphone, was taunting him about genocide in the Bible.

We walked around looking for someone to talk to, went inside some of the gazebos and hung-out at the tea area. I introduced myself to a few people but, other than the lady manning the info desk (Emily, just helping out for the day), it was difficult to find anyone with anything to say. Most residents wouldn’t even share their names. Were they under surveillance? Or just paranoid?

Lacking engagement, I got stuck into some of the literature. The camp newspaper, The Occupied Times, had articles denouncing attempts to cut government spending (‘… stand up against the cuts which are destroying our lives’), alongside articles bemoaning the fate of Greece – a country in live meltdown because its politicians weren’t brave enough to tackle government spending. On posters, pasted on nearby walls, the prose got darker: diatribes about ‘Zionism’ edged perilously close to straight-out anti-Semitism.

A lot of people were sitting around doing nothing, which is a shame, as in my experience, things get done when people do things, and win battles of ideas by having ideas. There was more intellectual action in the coffee shop adjacent to the camp, where Londoners wearing suits were busy holding meetings and working on laptops.

The only people with interesting things to say that afternoon were the ones I’d arrived with. Sid’s interpretation was thus: there’s a broad spectrum of opinion regarding our current economic problems, and what to do about them. At one end of that spectrum you’ve got the nastiest, more-for-me, recesses of the finance world, inhabited by boring materialists with no social conscience. At the opposite fringe, you’ve got the St Paul’s guys (‘aimless malcontents’ was his exact phrase). Lucy, Sid’s photographer mate, was dismissive of the whole thing (‘I was at Dale Farm. They’re often the same faces’). She’d just come back from north Africa, where ideas actually have changed the world, and was bursting with colourful stories about six-year-olds holding Kalashnikovs and the pictures she’d taken of Muammar Gaddafi’s corpse.

My narrative of the protest is as follows: The people of the democratic West have become comfortable with levels of public expenditure trending above economic growth, and the capacity of their economies to support that expenditure. However, because debt markets (the mechanism by which public spending is smoothed across time) are sufficiently abstract that people don’t generally understand them, governments are incentivized to take unsustainable and irrational actions, such as relentlessly borrowing against future tax receipts to fund immediate consumption.

Now public spending needs to be adjusted, people don’t want to hear it. The manifestations of that unwillingness to engage with economic reality include the proliferation of single-issue groups (to whom any reduction in their pet area of expenditure is outrageous and unthinkable) and groups with a vague sense that life shouldn’t be this complicated, like the one camped at St Paul’s.

Their literature is full of avowals that if some other problem with the world economy could be fixed (tax avoidance, irrationally high pay for executives, poorly designed incentives for banking professionals, systematic risk in the global financial system), long-term public liabilities could endlessly rise above productivity improvements, and the demographic realities implicit to this phase in Western economic history would simply go away.

The hysteria in their language (‘Fight racism. Fight imperialism. Smash Capitalism.’ reads one sign) is telling. We now live in a society where anything outside smooth two and a half per cent growth rates is characterised as a disaster. In the 19th century they dealt with slavery. In the 20th century they dealt with two world wars. Our generation has to deal with a few years of stagnant growth in public spending, and everybody freaks out.

It would be helpful if there was more realism about the historical context of all this. Due to a series of poor strategic decisions, growth in Western countries will now stagnate for the next few years. That’s deeply regrettable. But per capita GDP isn’t going to go into reverse. Living standards won’t fall over the long term. The shift in economic power to Asia is a relative, not an absolute, shift: it’s Asia getting richer, not the West getting poorer, and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of grinding poverty is rather a good thing, overall.

The underlying trends which have driven the incredible improvements in living standards over recent decades (technological progress, a more integrated and networked world, and ever more efficient business practices) haven’t gone away, and the future remains exceedingly bright. The next generation will live longer, healthier lives, in even more enlightened societies, with access to ever more fabulous technology (although they’ll retire later). Over the medium and long term, social programmes will continue to become better and better resourced, just as they have been doing, inexorably, for the past two centuries.

It is irksome that the protesters self-identify as (and then crow about) being an enlightened, justice-seeking majority, then fall back on absurdly simplistic narratives, where our economic problems would disappear if the one per cent of evildoers just stopped being selfish. There’s nothing enlightened about being anti-maths, or proposing that public policy be based on fantasy. That way lies the road to ruin.

A sign on one tent reads ‘[W]e would like to thank you all for your kindness and patience whilst we diligently try to work with you to explore the possibility of a better social contract in this, our wonderful, liberal country.’ Amen to that. I can only admire the spontaneous good intentions of the whole thing, and overall the camp is a noteworthy addendum to the cultural landscape. But it was lamentably wishy-washy and a bit dull. So we decamped to the pub to look at Lucy’s pictures from Libya, where people are looking to the future, not fixating only on the present.


More stuff on the planetary economy >


Click here to see Lucy’s website, including those photos of the Colonel. She’s a freelance press photographer working in news, media and events. One of her pictures from Libya has been chosen by The Guardian, G2 for their photographs of the year.

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2 Responses to “39: Sabbatical III – St Paul’s Protesters”

  1. The Editor Says:

    let’s face facts, most impassioned youngsters who make a noise trying to change the word (as essential as that is) generally feel a little embarrased by a portion of their actions by the time they’ve picked up more experience and developed their world view.

  2. Peter McDade Says:

    An excellent analysis Peter, demonstrating once again the importance of viewing our current difficulties in the appropriate context.

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