How would you define Occupy ?
As an experiment in resistance through communal living to definitions or values established by neo-liberalism. It was not a political party although people expected that sort of response from us. Nor was it simply a protest group with a set of demands because that would start a discourse that neo-liberalism would use to create divisions. The demands were so simple they could not understand them. Treat everyone as human beings and treat them fairly. Stop exploiting other people and using them for profit. Stop controlling and surveilling people. Think of the consequences of what you do, the ways it affects the environment and in the long term for future generations. We tried to show this by doing it, not always successfully by a long way but we did try.
What were you doing before Occupy ?
I was a teacher and performer in music and art. I was also part of Artists Against Cuts and peripherally with UK Uncut.
Why did you participate in Occupy?
I was originally told about it before it happened by one of the organisers who started it.
I was absolutely appalled by the behaviour of the banks in the financial crisis of 2008 and the fact that the financial elites had milked the assets of the British public to finance their losses due to their reckless financial gambling, mis selling of assets and fixing of the Libor rates etc. I could not believe there was so little public outcry and I felt Occupy was the first group to take a stand against what happened. It quickly morphed into a more radical critique of neo-liberalism and the ways society fundamentally organises itself and its relation to the environment and the planet. Once I had begun to do stuff in Occupy I also felt involved with how the camp was run and how we organised ourselves and with the people I met – with the whole spirit of the camps.
What impact did Occupy have on your personal life?
On the good side it brought me into contact with all sorts of people I would not have usually met and I learned to trust that I could communicate with anyone. On the bad side it interfered with my ability to do paid work as I felt so committed to what was happening in Occupy. I also got quite ill in January.
Did Occupy change the ways you think, feel and interact with the world? If yes, how so? What do you feel that you learned (or unlearned) that was unique to Occupy?
I ceased to feel other people were strangers – that communication was always possible. It made me more friendly in my behaviour such that even now five years later I feel I can strike up a conversation with anyone and it will be a positive experience. I did not know how to express my feelings to strangers before so I would have appeared more stand offish than I was. I think strangers sort of expect me to be a friendly now and it always seems like a bit of a miracle to me when it happens – not always of course. I get on with people generally better.
I had had bad experiences with groups but at Occupy I learned to enjoy being in groups and feel positively engaged towards people in a group not just individuals. I got quite upset by rows between people who I both had positive feelings towards. I learned to trust people in groups though of course there were also some rather scarring incidents and terrible behaviour by individuals.
At first I could not speak at any of the meetings. I was in the EWG because I felt it was really important we got a handle on the economic and financial situation. I knew nothing about it before but I felt it was the duty of every citizen to try and understand what had happened. I read a lot and went to talks. I made a huge map of solutions from many sources from the NEF to Participatory Economics to Human Scale development and in the end found in the Commons what I felt was a real way forward.
Gradually I learned to speak at small meetings and then larger ones and to ask questions in public events. It was always hard for me, it still is and I did not always succeed. But I have learned to speak in public to a certain extent from a position of being completely unable to. I feel it is a civic skill everyone should have so everyone’s voice can be heard not just the dominating voices. I think I learned to listen better to people who were dissimilar to myself and to have more patience for other people’s point of view. I learned some of the skills of facilitating a group meeting.
What impact do you think Occupy has had on the economic and political situation?
Haldane said in 2012 Occupy had touched a moral nerve and played a key role in the beginning of a financial transformation – which was quite something coming from a top Bank of England official. On the other hand Occupy was laughed at for its economic views in the Financial Times when an article in it by Occupy made unfortunate connections between the distributed group intelligence of Occupy and the distributed price mechanism economics of Friedrich Hayek – the darling of the Right.
However it is now less ok to pull dirty deals or at least to be found out to be so doing. It has not however changed the fundamental ethos of the City to put profit before all other considerations. They are just more concerned to hide it and to go on ‘greenwash’ offensives linking themselves with socially desirable objectives.
More broadly the idea of an elite gaining wealth at the expense of the rest of society (the 99%) which was the central mantra of Occupy has passed into common parlance such that Theresa May is using that language in her 2016 Tory party conference speech.
The movement that has grown up around Corbyn although it has sprung up within the Labour party has nevertheless more in common with Podemos and Syriza all of which came out of that fundamental change when Occupy articulated – an end to neo-liberal values the desire for a fundamental change that puts human values before corporate profits.
Occupy did not have much of a direct effect but it did change the framework of political and economic thinking. The British people have neither forgiven or forgotten what the banks did and there remains a huge distrust of corporations.
Given the current political and economic situation, what is your view on what people can do to bring long lasting systemic change?
As long as people feel a degree of comfort and they are getting some sort of a deal so they can get on with their lives there will not be a desire for systemic change. People will put up with what Capitalism deigns to give them. British people are naturally conservative and default to a feudal version of society given half a chance. When they are up against it they will pull together. One hope is that capitalism will break down due to inherent contradictions especially since the financial system is unstable to the point of being out of control. Financial transactions are governed by algorithms that can trigger dramatic changes no human is in control of. Finance dominates economics and economics determines political decision making so that any kind of change to the system is at the mercy of market demands – of the ability of a government to borrow. We can see how democratic decisions in Greece were overturned by the market.
So there are three possibilities for systematic change. The optimistic one is that alternatives to capitalism are emerging in a kaleidoscope of possibilities from the Commons which is I believe the underlying form and concept – the DNA to all the iterations. These can be co-operatives, time banking, swapping and sharing groups, local currencies, communal housing, earthships, water and green energy commons, permaculture, food sovereignty, farmers markets, recycling schemes, open source design, art and music and film co-ops. These will provide resilient spaces for civil society to survive in the face of financial and economic melt down (as we saw emerging in Greece) They also all share a respect for the environment built into their DNA. We could all of us remodel our lives so all of its aspects from food to health, travel and entertainment is as far as possible done via Commons structures.
The second one is to resist those policies that we will bring a step change allowing neo-liberal capitalism to increase its stranglehold over our lives or irreversibly damage the environment. I would characterise the underlying structure as all forms of Enclosure – new generation Trade deals, surveillance, genetic capture, ownership of technologies etc. Although they are less harmful in an immediate visceral sense they will break the common bonds of humanity and make human scale development impossible. I prioritise these over immediate alleviation of all the local problems that capitalism causes like tax havens, debt even housing issues.
Foremost amongst these enclosures are the new generation of trade Deals TTIP, TPP, CETA and TiSA etc because these will irreversibly hand over to corporations the legal shackles by which they can run democracies in their interests with no democratic ability to hold them to account. To oppose all forms of surveillance, enclosure of genetic material with patents and information with copyright. To oppose the enclosure of research outputs and technological development by corporations such that we are enclosed by a frame of thinking encoded in the technological imperatives so we cease to understand there are choices. e.g because potentially we could develop perfect humans physically would we want to?
Lastly we should oppose all policies that will irreversibly destroy the environment such as Fracking and Tar Sands oil extraction. We need to oppose a carbon based economy with all the economic ramifications in terms of its relation to currencies, pensions and short term profitability.
Thirdly we could initiate the end of the dominance of Capitalism by 1) Having a form of land value tax that could finance 2) a Universal basic income together with 3) abolishing interest both in the way money is produced by banks and in financial relations within society. This was the conclusion of the Occupy Economic Working group. Money to be treated as a Commons in other words. Transactions would more return to having an element of trust and engagement involved – the opposite of ‘frictionless’ transactions like bit coin that have no social component.
Before Occupy, were you involved in activities related to the reasons why you participated in Occupy? (Activist groups, campaign groups, media platforms, volunteering, research, etc)
I was involved with Arts Against Cuts and to a lesser extent with UK Uncut. But I had been to lots of public protests from the Printers strike to the Poll Tax riot, Reclaim the streets and a one off Reclaim the City event in 2009((?)
Are you still involved in activities related to the reasons why you participated in Occupy? (Activist groups, campaign groups, media platforms, volunteering, research, etc)
noTTIP – anti Free Trade deal organsations in UK and Europe. Commons groups such as Field and Commons Rising
Are you still actively working or engaged with people that you met through Occupy?
What kind of activities are you doing together?