Occupy: illusory radicalism?

Sunday 21 October, 5.00pm until 6.15pm, Conservatory

From its beginnings in New York’s Zucotti Park last Autumn, there is little doubt that the Occupy movement has been highly successful at grabbing a lot of media attention. Indeed such has been the focus that not only did Time magazine see fit to name the ‘protester’ as its Person of the Year 2011, the American Dialect Society chose ‘occupy’ as its word of the year. And while there has been some criticism of the various occupations in the US and the UK, the coverage has been largely favourable. One commentator praised Occupy for ‘yielding a massive period of political creativity’; another argued that, thanks to Occupy, ‘protest is cool’, and political activism ‘revivified’; and the Church of England’s Giles Fraser, former Canon at St Paul’s, went so far as to declare that if Jesus had been alive today, he’d have been camped outside St Paul’s with the protesters.

But what exactly is being celebrated in the Occupy phenomenon? Some supportive commentators praise the leaderless, non-hierarchical decision-making process employed at the Occupy camps; others hail the protesters’ use of social media; and still more admire the sheer perseverance of those prepared to camp outside throughout the winter months. Yet has there been too much celebration of the Occupiers’ means at the expense of scrutinising their ends? Indeed, in the case of Occupy, has the act of protesting become more important than the point of protesting? Does Occupy represent the transformation of protest into a lifestyle?

Not that the politics of Occupy is completely obscure. At its various locations, it has issued demands for tighter regulation of banks, a reduction in the level of inequality between rich and poor, greater transparency when it comes to political lobbying, and, more broadly, an attack on greed and overconsumption. Yet given these positions and sentiments, what does Occupy say about the meaning of radicalism, indeed, anti-capitalism today? After all, almost all mainstream politicians in Europe and the US talk darkly of corporate avarice and bankers’ greed. And while reducing inequality formed the centrepiece of US President Barack Obama’s state of the union address, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been busy attacking capitalism for its lack of morality. If Occupy is radical, what does that say about the nature of radicalism today? Is the anti-capitalism of Occupy not quite as radical as some would crack it up to be?

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Ian Chamberlain
writer and human rights campaigner; former activist, Occupy London Stock Exchange; blogger, Solidarity Bank

Professor Natalie Fenton
joint head of department, co-director, Leverhulme Media Research Centre, Goldsmiths, University of London; editor, New Media, Old News: journalism and democracy in a digital age

Brendan O'Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

George Pitcher
journalist; Anglican priest, St Bride's Church, Fleet Street; author A Time to Live: the case against euthanasia and assisted suicide

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos
lecturer in sociology, University of Loughborough; author, The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: From New Left to Occupy

Joel Cohen
communications manager, BeyondMe

Produced by
Joel Cohen communications manager, BeyondMe
Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos lecturer in sociology, University of Loughborough; author, The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: From New Left to Occupy
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