Public, Principled Dissent and the Occupy Movement


The  Occupy Movement most notably, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy The Stock Exchange, are often criticised because they seem to have no easily definable goals. “What do they want?” the critics cry.

But this is to assume that any political protest must be focused on specific legislative or regulatory change and/or defined by pragmatic aims and objectives. However, this in turn is to buy-into the particularly limited model of legalistic, representative, parliamentary politics as the only possible model of political discourse and action.

The same type of accusations are often made about acts of cultural activism such as protest songs and political theatre. “Political theatre never changed anything”, the critics sneer. But again they are suggesting that a protest song  political theatre has to directly give rise to a change in specific legislation for it to be regarded as successful.

Indeed, many activists themselves buy into this definition becoming increasingly disillusioned when their actions do not bring about immediate and directly linked legislative or regulatory change.

I would argue that this response entirely misunderstands the moral and socially transformative function of political dissent. Public and principled political dissent is part of a dialogical process of cultural transmission through which communities and societies decide, over time, what type of power structures and personal behaviours and practices are morally acceptable. In order to change society you first have to change attitudes, only then can any legal or structural changes follow.

It is surely undeniable that the aggregate of all the protest movements and cultural activism of the 1960’s were together responsible for significant changes in attitudes to personal sexuality, religion, class and social mobility. A whole range of oppressive social and political ideas were successfully challenged in the 1960’s, sometimes by changing the law but firstly and more significantly by changing the moral, social and political attitudes of the majority.

I would argue that any protest song, political play, political graffiti, march, rally, demonstration or occupation is a success simply by virtue of it’s existence; simply by existing it expresses the freedom of those involved to express their political views and is a sharp reminder to those in power, and the observing powerless, that there are those who are prepared to fight publicly against oppressive power.

The Occupy Movement is important because it is a direct, principled and public challenge to the hegemonic free-market ideology that has dominated the Western world since 1979. Any such public challenge has an important politicising impact on others who become inspired by example and/or intrigued enough to explore the issues underlying the protest. Even those who are opposed to the protests are forced to justify their own ideology and by doing so forced to engage in a discussion with the media and the general public.

The Occupy Movement, and the student protests of last autumn and the public service pensions actions of the summer and all the other actions expressing principled dissent, do not have to change ‘legislation’ in order to change the world. By their mere existence they are already changing the mind-set of citizens, governments and bankers, who are recognising the depth of the anger felt by many millions that the poor are being asked to pay the price for the excesses of the rich. At the very least the way the Occupy movement has spread across the globe has startled many governments, corporations and financial institutions into re-examining what they think they can get away with.

For over 30 years the free-marketeers have believed that the political battle was won, that the collapse of the Soviet union had brought about the end of political history; capitalism was triumphant and they could do what the fecking hell they liked and screw the rest of us.

And for most of that time it seemed that most of the population had actually internalised this theory; “There is no alternative“, “What can we do?”. But since the crash in 2008 many millions have started to doubt the TINA narrative and have decided that there has to to be an alternative.

If nothing else the Occupy Movement will make it harder and harder for Corporate Execs to convince their shareholders that they are worth the tens of millions in remuneration and bonuses they currently receive; if nothing else the movement will act as a constant reminder that there are those who oppose the current system.

Indeed, without public displays of principled dissent the powers that be would be perfectly justified in assuming that we all agree with what they are doing. Public principled dissent is important whether it succeeds or not. Many of those who marched in 2003 against the Iraq War subsequently expressed disillusion because it “didn’t change anything”, i.e. the war still happened. Are these people seriously suggesting it would have been better if the march hadn’t taken place? If Tony Blair had been able to claim the support of the British people because no one had mounted any large-scale public principled dissent to the war? Of course not! Indeed, much of the subsequent moral disgust at Tony Blair, George Bush and the warmongers has come about because of that march and all the others like it. I agree that this will not be of much comfort to the millions who have died as a result of US/UK aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan but it is not politically or morally insignificant that millions of UK citizens publicly expressed our principled dissent to that war.

Similarly, the Occupy Movement is an expression of principled dissent to a global economic system that allows millions of third world children to die of starvation, while millions of children in the West eat themselves to obesity and an early grave. To publicly express principled dissent to such a system is an aim in itself, the occupations do not have to have legislative or regulatory aims and objectives to be justified in making such a stand.

The revolutions of the 20th Century have shown us that there is never going to be a time when the progressive “war is won” and we have achieved “heaven on earth” through socialism, communism, anarchism or anything else. Whatever the ideological colour of the government, oppressive power is always going to have to be resisted.

Some on The Left make the mistake of becoming disillusioned because political activity doesn’t bring about universal justice, peace and equality across the world – in their own lifetime. But surely the 20th Century taught us that these are simply unrealistic expectations. On the other hand even a cursory look at social history shows us that it is justified to expect that through the power of solidarity and principled dissent social progress can be achieved – against all the odds.

The 40 hour working week, the living wage, the ‘weekend’, improved health & safety at work, free health care and education, employment rights, equality before the law, unemployment benefit, libraries, the public highway, the right to roam, the right to organise – all these fundamental aspects of modern life were only achieved in the last 150 years through the sacrifice and determination of men and women like those currently occupying the centres of cities all over the world. I for one applaud them and will be doing all I can to help sustain the camps – whether there are narrow legislative or regulatory outcomes or not.

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One response to “Public, Principled Dissent and the Occupy Movement

  1. OK go ahead but be polite about it.

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