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A little cheese and a little whine

An OutRage! but no Stonewall

When OutRage, the direct action group for LGB rights, first came on the scene in 1990, it was not universally welcome. Many in the LGB community felt that it was too confrontational, too noisy and too controversial, preferring the more conservative, pro-establishment line taken by groups like Stonewall. What soon became apparent, though, was that the two worked hand in hand: OutRage made a noise, rattled cages, and banged on the doors of the corridors of power, while Stonewall, the respectable elder brother, put on a suit and asked politely to be admitted. Stonewall spoke softly; OutRage was the big stick it carried when it did so.

Twenty years later there is no shortage of outrage at an economy battered and broken by a combination of poor government and reckless banks, and we see in the Occupy movement the same very visible, noisy and confrontational stance that characterised OutRage. To be fair, OutRage was probably more provocative, but then they had more to work with; it’s hardly as if Occupy could go to Piccadilly circus and have a mass lend-in.

But where, in this picture, is Stonewall? The Occupy movement has done well to get the idea of “anti-capitalism” on the agenda, but who now will take that forward to real change? The natural candidates – the Labour Party in the UK and Democrats in the US – are certainly not likely ones. In the UK, we have the Greens, but they are too thinly stretched trying to get elected to be effective lobbyists. There seems to be a gap, so to speak, in the market.

My understanding – and I admit it is a partial and possibly flawed understanding – is that this is a consequence of the history of the anti-capitalist movement. Or rather, it is a consequence of the fact that the anti-capitalist movement is not a movement at all, in two senses. First, there is no group of people who can identify themselves unambiguously as those who suffer at the hands of capitalism, as there is in the case of LGB rights. The concept of “the 99%” is a powerful one here, because it starts to provide such an identity, but there is not a sharp enough distinction between the experiences of the 99% and those around them to really forge a sense of group identity and belonging. Second, the movement has no unifying philosophy, having resisted historically any systematic statement of what it stands for.

There are, again, two reasons for this. The early successes of the movement occurred where it was possible to mobilise a specific group around a specific issue. The protesters who made such a noise at the G8 summits of the late nineties were not part of a movement so much as a coalition of people dedicated not to the downfall of capitalism, but more specific local issues like the conditions in a factory or the pollution of a river. And it was on those local issues, and not the machinations of the G8, that they had a real impact. An overarching positive vision was neither practical in the terms of the coalition, nor particularly important to the core aims of those involved.

Second, there was the spectre of Marxism. This was not, as you might expect, a consequence of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, but rather a difficulty with the way Marxism came to express itself in practical politics. Marxists had a tendency to totalise problems and reduce solutions: there was one issue, which was the continued existence of capitalism, and one solution, which was general revolution. You could only solve the problem you wanted to solve if you solved everything else at the same time. If you bought into this, there was a second problem: there was no substantial agreement about what that revolution would look like, how to bring it about, or where it would lead. There was, however, a substantial body of text by the Great Man to be read, absorbed, argued over and most importantly, to be used as a means to create and maintain divisive power structures within the activist group.

This is not, of course, a problem specific to Marxism. Certain religious sects face the same issues: only by bringing about the Kingdom of God can any problem be solved, and while we don’t know what that involves or what it will look like, I can certainly prove I’m a better Christian than you by interpreting this particular bit of the Bible one way rather than another, thank you. The problem is not with Marxism per se but rather with grand, overarching theories of how the world works and should work. Experience suggests that such theories get in the way and become misdirections and ultimately distractions in their own right.

Stonewall had the advantage here that, while its objectives were substantial – implying both a program of legislative change and a sea change in social attitudes – they were modest and local compared to those of Occupy. Bigger than conditions in a single factory, certainly, but not railing against the dominant mode of economic organisation of a whole planet. The challenge for Occupy, or rather for those with anti-capitalists sentiments more generally (I cannot now consistently refer to it as a movement) is to find the middle ground – a positive and specific program of change which is big enough to constitute a convincing vision of an alternative but not so big as to risk paralysis.

Such a vision is, slowly, starting to emerge, although it is still evolving and continues to carry the local flavour of the individual Occupy movements. There is broad support for a tax on financial transactions, but the US movements have a clear agenda of tackling political corruption which is not so hot a topic in the UK.

The question is whether, as consensus forms and the nebulous rage at something not being right coalesces into specific demands for change, we will see the emergence of one or more Stonewalls – people in suits with tidy hair, used to dealing with the establishment, versed in the ways of power and willing to put in the patient, methodical campaign needed to accomplish legislative change. Occupy has proven itself to be an effective big stick; what we need now is someone to speak softly and carry it.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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