By Tina Bakolitsa for Occupy Times
In the 39th episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Jean-Luc Picard, the captain of the starship Enterprise, finds himself in the unique situation of having to confront his future self. Through a recovered video log, this future Picard is shown to have arrived from a few hours ahead in time, after abandoning both ship and crew, having saved himself with a shuttle while the Enterprise falls into an energy vortex and is destroyed. Biologically out of sync, the future Picard is unable to talk to his present-time double, so can explain neither the reason for his actions nor provide the solution to their predicament. He serves only as a warning from a future in which the wrong choice was made. With the Enterprise already trapped inside the vortex and the destined destruction approaching rapidly, Picard has to figure out a new course of action that will allow everyone to survive.
Activists and thinkers around the world have likened the Occupy movement to a signal from the future. Reverend Jesse Jackson described occupiers as “canaries in a coal mine”. Chomsky talked of a “reflection of tendencies that could become irreversible”. For Žižek, the protests of 2011 are fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential. In these fragments, Žižek also recognises the circular structure of a science-fiction story involving time travel: the signs from the future come from a place that will become actual only if we follow these signs.
Between October 2011 and February 2012, general assemblies held at St Paul’s courtyard ratified a number of statements: United for a Global Democracy, Initial Statement, International Statement, Corporations Statement, Economics Statement, City of London demands, Homelessness Statement. While addressing a range of ostensibly separate concerns (democracy, environment, economics and housing) these statements are coherent in their recognition of having a common origin in capitalism. Through this understanding, the statements warned that international financial institutions critically undermine democracy, and that an economic system based on infinite growth yet relying on finite resources can only lead humanity and the environment to destruction. They criticised the current austerity measures as being detrimental to present and future generations. They called for the abolition of tax havens and complex tax avoidance schemes, and for the accountability of banks and financial institutions. They demanded public transparency of all corporate lobbying, including the activities carried out by the City of London, and called for politically independent and effective regulation of all financial practices.
All Occupy warnings and critiques have since received ample validation. A series of scandals emerged throughout the year highlighting the urgent need for accountability in the banking sector, from honours and executive bonuses received by bailed-out bankers (Stephen Hester, Fred Goodwin) to LIBOR rate manipulation, mis-selling of payment protection insurance, swap mis-selling and money laundering. Corporate tax avoidance was another recurrent theme, with major UK companies cutting deals in Luxembourg, company directors ‘exiling’ themselves in Monaco, and Vodafone and Google facing questions about their tax records. On a global scale, tax avoidance was recently estimated at £13 trillion. For comparison, the UK national debt currently stands at just over £1 trillion. And that’s only taking into account tax avoided by exploiting differences in cross-border tax rules (offshore tax havens). Additional tax avoidance schemes have been uncovered. Meanwhile, almost 50,000 became homeless in England alone and temporary accommodation rose by almost 50%. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK recession looks set to continue well into the foreseeable future, challenging assertions that public sector cuts and taxation hikes would boost the economy. As for regulators being effective and independent of the industries they regulate, both the Financial Services Authority and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs appear wanting, as the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal and recent ‘outings’ of tax-dodgers have made clear. The erosion of democracy under the relentless pressure of unelected financial bodies was chillingly confirmed in elections and referendums within the EU, including Greece, while in the UK the interests of the City of London Corporation determined national policy and undermined democracy at both the electorate and representative (parliamentary) level.
While these foretold futures came to pass, Occupy’s evolution both as protest and process continued. With the demise of the initial open-ended camps, alternatives started being explored. Nomadic Occupy was temporary, mobile and driven by local issues. While this model expired too, its message hailing the primacy of community activism and land did not. In a recent example, the criminalisation of residential squatting acted as a catalyst for the successful collaboration between squatters and community campaigners working to save their local library. The Olympics triggered, among other things, warnings about the privatisation of public space. Settling in disused woodland, the Diggers 2012 renewed discussions on the relationship between land and democracy, and fed the idea of a commons-based economy as a new way forward. To encourage this cross-fertilisation of ideas and action, a series of meetings and debates was arranged, including the Occupy Research Collective Convergence, the New Putney Debates and the October 2012 Quilligan Seminars.
On its anniversary, and for a number of reasons, Occupy finds itself splintered and isolated from the social forces necessary to successfully defend and advance it as a movement, such as established activist groups, organised labour, and emerging movements. To reconnect with these forces, Occupy first needs to address issues of political expression, organisational mechanisms and cohesion in the absence of camps. It’s a formidable task, but not an impossible one. After all, these were the forces that guided and supported Occupy’s birth.
A year has passed. The vortex of capitalism is still churning away unchecked at life, humanity and livelihoods. It doesn’t look any more caring or responsible than it did a year ago; if anything, it is even more voracious. At its centre, authoritarian capitalism beckons. Once again, Occupy is raising the alarm, this month with Global Noise. Like the future Picard, Occupy has no ready-made solutions to offer. Like the present Picard, we are reminded that if we want to free ourselves from this deathly stranglehold, we will have to figure out ways of working together collectively, because the future tells us that no individual action is going to be enough.