Monday 6 February 2012

Is the Occupy movement finished?

Remember the media circus about the Occupy movement? As protesters camped outside St Paul's and the Church of England tore itself apart in debates about how to deal with them, capitalism was marching on. The outrage about bonuses and a banking sector unable to sustain long term economic growth in the Western world was supposed to power the protests, yet the demands of the campaigners drew heavy criticism from those who wished for a clearer alternative vision to be set out. 

While a lot of ink has already been spilled on the movement, much of what has been said was a form of reminiscing on supposed parallels to previous reform movements. Comparisons were even made with the civil rights movement in the US. The hyperbolism of these overdrawn similes fell quickly apart as the camp's protesters receded back into their ordinary lives. But the question remains: why didn't it take off as a social movement? 

In a recent book review in The Observer, Michael Sayeau points to a fascinating fact. While disenchantment with capitalism and the mismatch between economic and political power may have fueled the protesters' determination for reform, their social origin may be a clue to why their protest ultimately dissipated. Sayeau writes that the 'core constituency is overeducated, but underpaid and underemployed, despite having ticked all the boxes of late-capitalist ascent'. In other words, their grievance with the capitalist system centred on the impression that, while they were playing by the rules, others who were not reaped the rewards. 

The main impetus of the camps was hence the desire to re-constitute the meritocratic principles which lay at the heart of a capitalist market economy. Essentially, the thrust of their reform was correction, rather than revolution. As the US and other economies move to introduce the much needed changes to their banking system, re-establishing the linkage between individual effort and reward, the campaign was bound to diminish in its fervour. 

The contribution of the Occupy Movement to these reforms will simply be to have articulated the need for changes with a poignant rhetoric. So, despite some illusions of revolutionary grandeur amongst some campaigners to the contrary, the great advantage of a free market democracy over all its alternatives remains its ability to change for the better. 

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