Photo: Bristol MP Stephen Williams talking to occupiers. Flickr: stringberd
The ‘Occupy movement’ has rapidly transformed from an autonomous local protest in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, into a global crusade against the 1% – the rich, the elite, and the decision makers of our world. The catalyst was undoubtedly Occupy Wall Street, erupting with rage against those accused of reaping the benefits of capitalism at the detriment of the working-class, the middle-class, the students, the unemployed, the homeless, and the pensioners.
The ‘Occupy movement’ is global in two respects: one, it is worldwide. From Australia to Italy to Mongolia, protesters have ‘occupied’ major urban and industrial sites in order to object to the financial and social system that they accuse of creating disastrous inequalities.
It is also global in the sense that it is all-inclusive; aside from, perhaps, the bankers and managers on their high-rise balconies that toasted champagne to the Occupy Wall Street protests, everyone is welcome.
So how does Occupy Bristol fit into the global movement? Bristol differs from major economic centres including London and New York City by not having clear and distinct landscapes that you can point to as a site of finance – London has the stock exchange, New York has its Wall Street. What does Bristol have?
Bristol Occupiers have so far been occupying College Green, where the main sites of interest include the inoffensive Cathedral and the Bristol Council House. Locations of power? Sure. But unlike the London Stock Exchange and Wall Street, these have little impact on global events; the Occupy Bristol movement is also far less aggressive, more intent on making its presence known than imposing it on the location.
Does this mean Occupy Bristol is more of a local movement? Not quite. One Bristol occupier, who withheld his name but offered ‘Bob Bobson’ as a substitute, said that the Occupy Bristol movement was primarily about the banking system, a global institution.
Another occupier, Tim, told Epigram that the Bristol movement was “first and foremost a sign of solidarity [with international Occupy movements].” But it didn’t stop there.
“It’s about the bankers, the pharmaceutical companies.”
Although you can’t point to anywhere in Bristol that is a major HQ for any large transnational corporation, that seems to be the point – you can’t really point to anywhere to see the full picture of these companies. They cross boundaries, yet affect people locally. You can’t engage with them on a face-to-face basis.
This may explain the suggested ‘incoherency’ of the Occupy movement. The system they’re fighting against is opaque, complex, and vague. It’s difficult to understand how these things work. What most people see, however, are the stark inequalities not only in third world nations, but also in developed countries like France and the United States.
The Occupy movement is therefore an emotional reaction. It eschews – but welcomes – theoretical considerations; it doesn’t attempt to classify groups of people, and doesn’t try to build a narrative. It plays on that feeling many people have that something isn’t quite right with the world, and the recognition that others share this feeling.
This is how the Occupy movement became so big, made up of groups as mismatched as war veterans, anarchists, trade unionists, students, and small business owners. It has hit the mainstream by being a church so broad that it can attract the commendations of Labour leader Ed Miliband despite the actions of Occupy London against the ‘establishment’ he belongs to.
The Internet ties the movement together, aiding it to grow through Twitter, Facebook, blogs and mentions in online newspapers. Hashtags like #occupyeverywhere and #occupytogether give the movement an optimistic feeling of universality, of humaneness, and of solidarity. There are people watching and caring, and this gives the protestors the confidence and hopefulness to continue occupying in sub-zero temperatures or torturous heat waves.
It is that common idealism that things should be ‘fair’ that draw together varieties of people from across the political spectrum to consider why banks can transfer unlimited amounts of money across borders, why taxpayers money are used to bailout parasitic banks, and why it seems as though the world is developing and getting wealthier, but people feel poorer and unhappier.
It’s this final concern that feeds into everything else. The anti-war protests challenge the nihilism of 24-hour cycles of violence abroad. Environmental degradation confirms the expiration of this world for future generations. The economic system maintains the zero-sum greed intrinsic to the capitalist mentality.
However, despite the broad outlook of the Occupiers, they don’t ignore local issues. Instead, they tie in the problems around them into a global context – a ‘glocal’ perspective. In this way, the worldwide Occupy movement has a central global concern that ties them all – tacitly – through consensus into one movement, yet allows for cultural difference and autonomy.
What the Occupiers criticise is the subordination of local communities to state policy, which is seen as dependant upon corporations, especially banks. The state is answerable not to the people it represents, but the corporations it relies on for economic ‘stability.’
It is unsurprising then that many of the Occupiers see the failings of the welfare state in the UK, and specifically in Bristol, as a sign of the decreasing morality in the way government is run. Altruism and charity are replaced by a fundamentalist commitment to keeping the global financial system in status quo.
Occupiers see the state as betraying their duty to help assist and cultivate the welfare of their citizens.
When asked about local Bristol issues, the primary concern of interviewed Bristol Occupiers was homelessness. But how does homelessness tie into the global financial system? It isn’t just the obvious correlation between financial disparity in a neo-liberal society with homelessness and poverty.
They also see neo-liberalism creating a society where only the wealthy are accepted, only the rich are respected, and only those with financial capital can contribute. When asked about homelessness, Tim responded by saying: “Someone who is homeless out there can be an upstanding citizen in here.”
Occupy Bristol tries to challenge the state, the capitalist system, the banking sector, etc., by showing an alternative – selfless, community-based, and human. But how effective it will be in Bristol, a city that doesn’t appear in the global road map, is yet to be seen.