The other day I dropped in on a “core values workshop” at Occupy St Paul’s. This was the second time I had visited the small tent city, and once again I was struck both by its relative orderliness (who said protest had to be noisy and disruptive?) and modest scale. It had looked tatty the first time, but now it looked tattier, as impermanent structures showed signs of wear and tear. Over the tiny tents the white marble walls and vast dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s Enlightenment cathedral loomed with a sort of arrogant grandeur.
This time there was an additional irony, as the event had been scheduled for 11am on a Sunday morning – the time when the cathedral’s congregation, mostly very smartly dressed, goes in to holy communion accompanied by a half-hour pealing of bells. The sound of the carillon was deafening and drowned out the unamplified human voices in the Tent University (which holds about 30). The idea that this raggle-taggle regiment of somewhat impractical idealists could pose any sort of threat to the established order – as the City of London police, who have bracketed the Occupy protesters with extremists and terrorists, seem to believe – was patently absurd. Having said that, we know that a birth in Bethlehem convulsed the mighty Roman empire.
I went to the event out of respect and friendship for the convener, the psychotherapist Leon Redler. And there was another point of interest; after it there would follow a dramatic performance re-enacting scenes from the Dialectics of Liberation congress that Redler co-organised in 1967 at the Roundhouse. This was one of the legendary happenings of 1960s counterculture, featuring left-field luminaries of the time such as RD Laing, Herbert Marcuse, Gregory Bateson, Stokely Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg. The performance was a prelude to the 2012 Dialekticon, billed as a “rebirth” of the 1967 events and due to take place at Kingsley Hall, east London, on February 12.
Some write off the worldwide Occupy movement as the self-indulgence of hippies harking back to the 1960s; or the moaning of idle layabouts. Here would be a chance to assess whether it is more than that; and further, whether any of the ideas that animated the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation congress still have validity.
Some have complained that there was quite a lot of posturing at the Roundhouse in those heady, warm summer days of July 1967; certainly there was quite a lot of marijuana, and some participants, asked for their reminiscences, say they recall almost nothing. The mood in 2012 is certainly more sober.
Redler began by throwing us a challenge. It was right, he asserted, to criticise politicians, bankers, executives of multinational corporations and others for “behaving ignorantly, irresponsibly, selfishly, cynically” and having “too narrow, short-term and distorted views”. Should we not also ask if “they” are so different from “us”? Perhaps “they are ‘us’ and we are ‘them’”. In that case, if “we’re fundamentally alike ... our sincere inquiries can begin to permeate the system and provoke real and honest speaking and thoughtfulness”.
Nothing could be further from the world of Dave Spart, the bearded student activist spouting Trotskyite gibberish who appears in the British satirical magazine Private Eye. You might think such inquiries would have better hopes of success in a Buddhist monastery than a London street protest, but you could not accuse them of a knee-jerk blaming of others.
The most prevalent criticism of the Occupy movement in the media is that it lacks a clear agenda or programme. This misses the point. What Occupy is doing primarily is opening up a space – which you might call the space of deliberative democracy – as a necessary counterpoint to the often over-managed and media-controlled routines of official politics. What will fill that space cannot, by definition, be decided in advance.
Occupy also answers to the call of the times in ways that official politics mostly doesn’t. We are told there is a lack of “demand” in the economy, but you only have to go for a short walk in any inner-city area in the world to see what the economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “huge unmet needs”: the need to regenerate rundown areas, to care for and look after neglected people and spaces. And beyond my neighbourhood or yours there is the overarching need to retrofit housing and transport to reduce carbon emissions.
How does all this relate to the summer of 1967 at the Roundhouse? The overriding impression from the performance was not of dope-fuelled haze but of uncanny premonition. There was the ecologist Gregory Bateson, 30 years before the Kyoto protocol, warning of the rise of CO2 concentrations and global warming; beyond that, of how “if you follow the ‘commonsense’ dictates of consciousness you become ... greedy and unwise”. There was Stokely Carmichael, 32 years before the Macpherson report, denouncing “institutionalised racism”. And there was Laing, speaking of a “precarious and dangerous and confusing” moment in history when we can trust neither “politicians [nor] scholars”, but when we may “put our trust in something hidden deep inside us”.
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