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A Tale of Two Occupies

by Robert Gordon

Posted: 12 Mar 2012

With the eviction of the Occupy camp outside of St Paul's, I thought it would be useful to put forward some reflections on my experience of the last few months. It's worth noting from the outset that this is not an official response to the cathedral's engagement with the recent protests, but represents some thoughts that I hope might be useful when contemplating recent events.

October 15th, 2011, represented a moment in time marked globally, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests that had occurred a month earlier. This new movement identified itself with the surge of popular unrest throughout the Middle East and parts of Europe, highlighting that even in the seemingly most comfortable and democratic of societies there were deep grievances that needed to be addressed. It is undeniable that, both as a global and local movement, Occupy has helped keep the focus firmly on questions of economic justice in recent months; displaying a tangible manifestation of the growing public mandate to deal with issues of social equality. In addition, the overall peaceful and dialogue-based nature of the protest is to be highly commended when we consider the outbursts of anger and violence that marked the student protests of 2010 and the riots of 2011.

The often chaotic nature of the relationship between the camp and St Paul's Cathedral has been well - if not always accurately - documented, and there continue to be voices of opinion that seek to place blame at the feet of one group or another. It is no surprise that the cathedral and the wider Church have come under scrutiny, and the questions put forward are valid ones worthy of deep contemplation and thoughtful response. This article is not going to cover many of those challenges, but one of the questions that I have had to face both personally and professionally is how can the social and economic justice work of St Paul's Institute be reconciled with a perceived 'betrayal' of the Occupy encampment - in the wake of our Director's resignation over this very issue, surely the two are not mutually exclusive.  Aren't our actions a sign of institutional hypocrisy or at the very least narrow-mindedness?

In articulating a response to this particular question, I am immediately drawn to one of the lessons personally learned throughout this period. When reading articles and speaking with people across the pro/anti-Occupy spectrum it was clear that all of us were relating to a projected form of Occupy, often based on preconceived ideas and informed by varying levels of engagement with the movement throughout the UK and abroad. The more vehement anti-Occupy views could often be readily dismissed as not recognising the genuine depth of thought and inspiring passion that many of the protestors embodied. To claim that the movement was made up merely of 'the Great Unwashed', junkies, benefit scroungers, and middle class dilettantes is a lazy analysis that says more of the person speaking than it ever does of the Occupy movement itself.

Equally so, but in a very different way, the more utopian visions of many pro-Occupy commentators were often in denial - or not aware - of aspects that were failing to live up to the lofty ideals of the movement. For one, there are some very real issues with the model of direct democracy that Occupy has experimented with. A process that, although on paper uncomplicated and inclusive, has proven difficult to maintain consistency with and has developed barriers for entry that are not immediately apparent but are contributing to the apathy that the wider public has increasingly presented. Ultimately, on either end of this for/against divide we see people's egos playing out the narrative that they are emotionally most invested in. Identity is formed in great part through how we articulate our relationship to other human beings, and Occupy is one of the more acute examples of this that we have playing out in public consciousness in the UK today.

Through this process, we come to have what can be seen as 'A Tale of Two Occupies' - our projected vision versus the dynamic reality. Some of the most introspectively critical pieces on Occupy come from people closely involved themselves, who have more of an understanding of where the movement might need care and attention. Here we see people trying to reconcile their personal ideal with the pragmatic reality in an attempt to bring the two closer together, and the issues being faced are similar regardless of geographical location. Others seek to focus on the shortfalls of external bodies that interface directly with the identity formation of Occupy: be it the Church, State, City or Media.  There are also a number of critical pieces emerging out of the ranks of the Church, displaying the same attempt to reconcile apparently disparate positions. Some of the varied grievances on all sides are entirely valid, others based on various levels of misinformation, others still are overstated or overlook the high degree of nuance and compromise that makes up human interaction and decision making.

One thing that is common amongst all of us is that we tend to relate to Occupy as an allegory that plays out our own particular views; focusing intently on aspects that reinforce our beliefs and either overlooking or dismissing the importance of other factors that play just as valid a part. Clarity often exists in the unclaimed areas between the different viewpoints we come across, and the hard part is being able to adjust our own perception of things by openly listening to and empathising with opposing positions.

'We are the 99%!' is, in my mind, one of the greatest slogans of empowerment in living memory. It allows everybody to feel like they belong to the movement, that they can claim some form of ownership of it and be motivated into action. However, as inspiring a device as it is, it sets up a remarkably difficult vision of inclusivity to follow through with under a single banner. This is an issue that, despite a great deal of hard work and good intentions, is proving contentious as general assemblies around the globe struggle to define behavioural boundaries and have even more difficulty in enforcing them. Related to this, many people are finding it hard to identify themselves with Occupy as, although there are no stated barriers for entry, human nature itself and the way we formulate our personal identity and social groups ensures that barriers arise nonetheless. Affinity groups form around both personal and professional lines and often play off of one another, perceiving the detrimental aspects of others without examining closely where their own actions might fall short.

What is important now, in this period of reflection for us all, is to try and recognise the role that we each played in creating these barriers and implicitly - if often unconsciously - enforcing them. One of the most alluring aspects of the 99% slogan is the sense that genuine, positive change is coming and the popular masses will soon stand together. But, for now at least, the masses have yet to arrive and we often see ourselves in opposition. We must consider carefully why this is the case, and not just under the umbrella of Occupy but for the universal message of justice and wellbeing that has long been championed by countless organisations and movements.

When I hear the accusations placed against St Paul's Cathedral and the wider Church for failing to properly embrace Occupy, I am struck that these accusations immediately presume that to not wholeheartedly embrace an amorphous movement is equivalent to ignoring an agenda of social and economic justice in general. From the local perspective of St Paul's Cathedral, departments that focus specifically on justice issues have been ongoing in various incarnations for over a decade and have succeeded in facilitating important and penetrating dialogue, debate and action across all levels of society. The relevance is not lost when I consider that in 2009 we hosted Gordon Brown and Kevin Rudd, both active Prime Ministers at the time, who openly promoted to a full cathedral the need for a more moral and virtuous form of capitalism that served the people rather than exploited them. The arrival of the Occupy London camp rightly brought home the point that words are cheap, and that nowhere near enough progress has been made over the last few years towards the practical, systemic changes necessary to right the balance between people and markets. But beyond these systemic issues, we should not be too quick to overlook the fact that the infrastructure of the Church has proven time and again its ability to mobilise large numbers of people to bring about measurable change. We need only look to the involvement of the cathedral and church coalitions in Fairtrade, the Living Wage, microfinance, climate change and ethical investment to name but a few key examples where the Church has been at the forefront of innovation and engagement with justice issues of paramount importance.

This is not to say that we cannot renew our efforts and improve upon them, as this is always the case. However, when much of the current rhetoric begins from a standpoint of antagonism it not only overlooks the truly impacting work already done, but also creates an air of hostility that could hamper future collaborations at a time when widespread cooperation is needed most. There might have been an opportunity lost in how the camp at St Paul's played out, but if so it was one lost by all parties involved and not only through the actions of the cathedral. In more ways than one, the physical gravitas of Occupy was both its greatest strength and its most difficult challenge. The encampments (and subsequent squatted buildings) became a primary agenda and topic of discussion in and of themselves. They were an important safety net for some, an inspiring community building exercise for others, a free educational facility that embraced alternative views, or an ineffective self-indulgence in the eyes of detractors. After a period of time however, the inward looking nature of the tactic was one that started to draw away from the inclusive, participatory democracy that created the initial spark of energy in favour of increasingly closed circles and divisive group mentalities that made true engagement difficult.

For all the faults we could see in one another and ourselves, we should never take our eyes off of the fact that we all desire to head in the same direction. Since the financial crisis of 2008, there are a growing number of people who agree that an evolution of the very foundations of society is required to overcome the challenges of coming years. Our own Value and Values report showed that this sentiment is held even within the financial sector itself - a sector that quite clearly has a great deal of penitence required, to say the very least - and structural changes to our financial systems are occurring, whilst corporate social responsibility and philanthropic efforts continue to improve and have real effect as they must do if we are to see progress towards a more unified and compassionate society.

When discussing how we move forwards, grievances toward perceived enemies of the common good certainly need to be voiced and addressed; but it is not ultimately productive to presume that there exist evil caricatures that can be conclusively identified and eradicated. A position of ongoing, positive and dynamic collaboration that includes all members of our global society must form the basis of our call for change. The difficulty lies ultimately in agreeing upon what change looks like; what practical steps are required; who might have to make sacrifices for the greater good of others; where and how authority is created; and how we are collectively going to bring it all together. It is the transition from one form of existence to another that often proves the most disruptive, and we are clearly in a transitional period. This will require compromise; it will require a position of openness to different driving motivations and ideas; and it will require the humbling process of self-improvement as opposed to the comforting embrace of judgement. It demands that we see past differences in action and opinion and move the message into the heart of our collective being, with the understanding that whilst facing in the same direction it is by walking different paths that we strengthen rather than weaken our overall position.

There are very important lessons to be learned in how the cathedral approached the Occupy movement, but I do not have too much difficulty with the seeming contradictions because in the end there was an honest attempt at trying to come together in reconciliation based upon common principles. In my extended interactions with many people in both the camp and cathedral, I can sincerely state that the level of resolve and commitment to finding a productive and positive outcome that worked for the greater good of society was displayed in almost everybody I came across. The fact that compromises in key areas were not obtained is a fault less of the people involved and more of the paradigms that we are all subsumed by when going about our daily existence, for it is often very difficult to see beyond our personal vision and accept that everybody around us is equally transfixed on their own version of the way things should be.

Looking forwards, I am enthused by the knowledge that efforts in addressing the pressing issues of our time will continue to take place at St Paul's Cathedral, and that we take very seriously the desire to improve and continuously adapt in order to achieve the greatest impact and reach the widest audience possible. Occupy as a movement has already begun to evolve and learn from the lessons of its embryonic period having been energised by the watershed moment that they embodied, and I look forward to seeing their continued efforts take form over the coming months. In a wider sense, what I find most heartening is the knowledge that countless organisations and initiatives have been emboldened by recent events and will continue the honourable work that has always been done and has brought us to this point. A comprehensive shift towards social and economic justice cannot occur under a single banner, and it will be our diversity acting in parallel with one another that produces lasting results.

It would be a great shame if this time of authentic, and ongoing, engagement with justice and virtue over the entire cross-spectrum of society is overshadowed by calls for judgement and blame. Down that path lies a whole host of unnecessary conflict that in the end will only detract from the core message of justice that we wish to promote. Instead, we must embrace this moment of reflection and renew our appreciation for each other's respective and continued efforts despite the fact that mistakes might be made along the way. By doing so we remind ourselves that, although our decisions are often motivated by different concerns and responsibilities, we are increasingly facing the same direction across all sectors of society in an attempt to formulate and contribute to the common good.

About this author

Robert Gordon was the Manager of St Paul's Institute from 2009 - 2017.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.