After Occupy: some words on Occupy London from #10yearson at the Royal Exchange
It’s ten years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers brought the world financial system to a halt.
It’s also ten years since the decision was made that costs incurred by a few should be socialised and borne by the many.
As a result of the UK’s reliance on financial services and a lax regulatory environment, a decade on the UK is still experiencing its longest decline in living standards since the Second World War.
While the burden has been general it has also been particular. Exacerbated by the harmful austerity policies of successive governments, the costs of the crash have fallen disproportionately on those least able to bear them. The sick, the disabled, the low-paid.
If it’s ten years since the crash, that means it’s nearly eight years since that profound political failure brought Occupy London into being, in St Paul’s Churchyard and eventually in four other sites in and around the Square Mile.
In London, as elsewhere, Occupy was a spontaneous convergence of a range of forces — all brought together by a shared realisation that the current political system is deeply dysfunctional and a reset badly needed.
As the initial statement collectively agreed on the second day of the occupation opened:
The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.
Occupy was not anti-politics; it was deeply committed to finding commonly held positions on which to base a new politics.
The first point from the economics statement agreed that December was that “Banks and financial institutions need to be accountable to society”
If there’s one thing that Occupy demonstrated, it’s that financial institutions and those that depend on them are deeply afraid of being held accountable. The numerous legal injunctions we received (some of which are still in force), the expensive PR advice the City of London was receiving to not engage with criticism, the pressure brought to bear on St Paul’s Cathedral by central and local government — they all bear witness to that.
So where are we now?
Despite modest reforms and much agonishing over institutional culture, it’s hard not to conclude that most of the concerns expressed by Occupy still stand. Furtherbanking scandals have come to light, not least on LIBOR and the asset stripping of small businesses, all with a conspicuous lack of anyone at the decision-making level being held accountable.
Both Occupy’s initial and economics statements insisted that regulators needed to be independent of the industries they are supposed to oversee.
The FCA is clearly not functionally independent of the industry it regulates and financial sector whistleblowers continue to suffer as a result. If we’re serious about fixing the financial sector, it is beyond time that we replaced the Public Interest Disclosure Act with something that actually works.
Occupy was correct to assert that the political system has to change before the financial system can be reformed to work for everybody. And it’s there that we’ve seen the most dramatic changes over the past decade.
A broader range of voices are being heard, empowered by technology. Some of whom were completely disenfranchised before. New actors are putting life back into old structures.
Fundamental to what Occupy was doing was increasing participation in decision making. As tricky and cumbersome and painful as that sometimes was, it was clear that the more people who were involved in those decisions, the better they were.
The return of mass politics won’t always be plain sailing either, but ten years on from Lehman it’s that which offers us the best hope for the future.