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Remember Remember the fifth of November

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…

So the old poem goes. Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, that peculiarly English commemoration of the failed attempt by said Mr Fawkes to blow up Parliament, an act of political terrorism celebrated by… well… blowing things up: the smell of gunpowder across London tonight will no doubt be thicker than Fawkes could ever have hoped for. I will most likely celebrate in my own quiet way by watching, yet again, the film V for Vendetta, that wonderfully dark cinematic poem, based on the graphic novel Alan Moore and David Lloyd, depicting the slippery path from Thatcherite neoconservatism to fascism.

The film made famous the Guy Fawkes mask, worn by the complicated hero of the film, and finally worn by the masses on the streets of London to symbolise their unity against their oppressive society. It should be no surprise therefore that the mask has found a new life in the global “Occupy” movement.

One could get the impression from the media that this movement is either about violent anarchy, or about lazy complaining people with nothing much to say. In London they are said to be defiling an important public site, and in other parts of the world they are simply engaging in pointless destruction of property and wasting the taxpayer’s money in policing and so forth.

The media is rarely an accurate measure of these things. I attended a trade union parade earlier this year. About half a million people were there. The bulk of the media presented this event as simply a bunch of overpaid and ungrateful public sector workers complaining about their overly-generous pension schemes, subsidised by the hard-working private sector workers who had even worse pension prospects. Of course, the march was nothing of the sort. Yes, public sector pensions were one of the issues they were protesting about. But only one of many. They were also raising their voices against the brutal slashing of important public services, inequity in incomes across society, the unaccountability of the financial sector to those who are carrying the cost of their bailout while the bankers continued to reward themselves more than generously, and so forth. I am not a union member, but I attended the rally because I share a concern with all of these issues.

A big issue of that day was the demand for the introduction of a Tobin Tax – the so called “Robin Hood tax”, which takes a tiny percentage on all financial transactions between banking groups. The intent of such a tax is to provide some compensation for “externalities” (or third-party effects – the effects on those not involved in the transactions), and to provide a (very, very small) disincentive to speculative trading, which feeds market volatility and carries significant destructive effects. Of course, this tax is now being openly promoted by leaders in the EU (under the name of the “financial transaction tax”), but the idea has been around for a very long time. The UK Conservative government has characteristically responded to the EU proposal by saying it is a good idea but they would only do it if everyone else did it too, which is simply a way of saying they have no intention of ever implementing it. Needless to say, the UK Conservative government didn’t respond at all to the same proposals made at the union rally. And the media, at the time of the rally, presented none of the true flavour of the day, preferring to portray it as just another whinge by the unions. Much the same is happening with the “Occupy” protests.

Interestingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man who, regardless of your religious views, is often worth listening to, came out this week in favour of the Tobin tax, and suggested that the “Occupy” protesters would do well to articulate their demands more clearly. While his statement on the tax is welcome, one might wonder whether he would do even better to actually meet with the protesters and hear their concerns before he judged the adequacy of their articulation. Much has been made of the protesters defiling an “important” religious site in London (they are only next to St Paul’s because the law prohibits them from occupying the ground right next to it outside their intended target – the London Stock Exchange). But if one were to ask the question “what would Jesus do?” surely the answer would lie in the tents outside the church rather inside than in it.

Watching the BBC’s show “Question Time” over the last few weeks has been both interesting and frustrating. For those not familiar with the show, this is a weekly show featuring a panel of politicians and political commentators that respond to questions from a studio audience. One panellist voiced the view that the protestors were just the children of the bankers who they professed to oppose. The clear response to my mind is “so what?” The greatest moral progressions of the last few centuries have come about when children explicitly rejected the morality of their parents. How else could we ever hope to reduce racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds? Family is, after all, the great transmitter of prejudice. Another panellist complained that the protestors went home at night to their comfortable homes. Again, so what? Is exposing oneself to pneumonia a necessary precondition of political protest? Must the protestor suffer to make a point? Yet another panellist, describing the protesters as being “anti-capitalists”, observed that some protestors were drinking Starbucks coffee or using Apple notebooks. But the blanket term “anti-capitalist”, like most “anti-whatever” labels, is all too often used to silence discussion and debate and impose a hegemonic viewpoint. These protestors are not, on the whole, against capitalism per se – they are opposed to the balance between capitalism (and markets) and the other dimensions of society.

So we may suspect that the media is not really doing their utmost to connect the “Occupy” protestors with the general public and present a fair and balanced view.

Karl Marx believed that the downtrodden of the world would recognise their common plight and unify in solidarity to overthrow their oppressors. Marx was right about many things, and wrong about many others. Of the things he got wrong, this is perhaps the greatest. It is the easiest thing in the world to pit the weak against the weak, and the hardest thing for them to find common cause. Throughout this current time of great uncertainty, the story has been one of divisiveness. Public sector workers are pitted against private sector workers; local-born against immigrants; old versus young; protestors versus non-protestors, even though, if the cases were properly articulated it would be found that they share much the same concerns. Markets thrive on such divisions. Those with common cause are orchestrated to compete with each other for jobs rather than cooperate to find more effective solutions.

William Gibson, in a beautiful phrase in his book Spook Country, described the people of the United States during the reign of George W. Bush to be in a state of Stockholm-Syndrome with their government. Their fear of terrorism led them to sympathise with those who would take away their freedoms. Something like this is happening now: fear and uncertainty divide those with common cause and place them in opposition to each other as they fight for scraps. Labour Unions are often accused of blackmailing society. But in the last few years we have experienced what is effectively a strike of Capital, without anything like such commentary. The politicians, fearing capital flight, are in their own state of Stockholm-Syndrome with their captors and funders. We happily attach onerous conditions to welfare for the poor (one must not riot, one must take any job no matter how awful or intrusive, etc), but the corporate welfare of bailouts has been meted out without any such conditionality. It is quite extraordinary, and a sign of how deeply we are caught in our traps, our fear and our insecurity, that so few people have in fact taken to the streets.

What, then, of democracy? Democracy, that place where citizens meet as equals and deliberate in the search for common and agreeable solutions, is needed more desperately now than ever. As Gandhi said of western civilisation, it would be a very good idea. There was a brief moment this week in Greece where it seemed that the home of democracy would exercise that principal, but in the end market pressures prevailed and the people were denied their voice. It was a parable for the greater problem of the Eurozone – the excess of market power combined with the lack of democratic accountability. Free markets and democracy are, as some like John Gray have noted, rival systems.

So today, on the day commemorating Guy Fawkes, I will not be advocating the destruction of the Houses of Parliament. I will, however, suggest that it is high time that these buildings are put to their proper use in the service of a truer democracy. Would that tonight the streets of London, of New York, of Oakland, and in every other city, be filled with the face of Guy Fawkes, and behind each mask a person demanding a fairer, more democratic, society. To quote V: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

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  1. November 20, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Wonderful post, thank you so considerably for sharing. Do you happen to have an RSS feed I can subscribe to?

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