Occupy one year on. Happy anniversary?

The Occupy Movement hit the headlines a year ago as protesters converged on the New York Stock Exchange, St Paul’s and elsewhere. Young and old, employed and jobless were brought together by the overriding conviction that one per cent of the population has simply ruined things for the rest of us – the 99%.

Occupy called for non-violent protest at economic inequality and corporate greed. And its agenda went beyond the financial, to lament social injustice, the lack of affordable housing and the undue influence of lobbyists over government.

These are reasonable, even laudable moral concerns, but Occupy also gave a platform to more extreme voices. The London protesters gathered in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement that began the previous month in Manhattan. But the US website ratchets up the rhetoric considerably:

‘The 1% wreck our economy, kill our jobs, seize our homes, assault our rights, destroy the environment, and sentence us to lives of debt and war… the people have but one choice—to fight back! The relentless class war against the 99% must end.’

This confrontational language spills over onto the Occupy Together website. It explains ‘Occupying is a militant non-violent tactic meant to assert control over physical space by reclaiming it for a new purpose while disrupting the ability of your adversary to use that space, thus forcing recognition of your cause.’

‘Militant… control… disruption… force’ – the reassurance of non-violence gets drowned out in the melee.

That said, the London Occupy protests were tame stuff indeed, compared with the recent riots in Greece and Spain over the debt crisis, where it was the police who were accused of using violence to achieve their ends.

Underlying the rhetoric of protest at home and abroad is a conviction that corporations and financial institutions are rotten to the core, and a cry for capitalism and globalisation to be bought to their knees. The most strident voices in the Occupy Movement sum it up in a simple declaration of ‘war against the New York Stock Exchange.’

And it is this simplicity, this naivety, and the unreasoning anger behind some of the rhetoric that has made it all too easy to dismiss the Occupy Movement. Which is a pity.

Occupy never claimed to speak with one voice. Rather, it continues to stress inclusivity by offering a platform to many voices and many aims. The various Occupy websites attempt to mobilise supporters into taking concrete action by inviting them to sign up to certain pledges.

These pledges are a mixed bag, ranging from promising to attend a civil disobedience session to pledging to ‘dump my bank and join a credit union.’

And here’s the rub. Is a good idea combined with a bad idea a good idea or a bad idea?

Opening an account with a Credit Union may be commendable, but this course of action is welded to the promise to dump your bank. The germ of a good idea is flattened by the giant Monty Python foot of ideological excess.

Occupy could have engaged many more who share its concerns by eschewing its off-putting militancy and recommending more moderate courses of action. Opening an account with a building society may sound an unlikely a call to arms, but, after all, building societies work for their members rather than shareholders or ‘greedy corporate institutions’. Other ‘revolutionary’ alternatives in the UK include the Kingdom Bank and the Reliance Bank, which are run along Christian lines, and the Co-operative Bank, which takes a stand for ethical finance.

So why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Occupy is entitled to denounce our economic system as bankrupt and to call for its demise. But Occupy is a broad coalition of many views, some veering off into extremism, all gathered under a single banner. It can be hard to discern the voice of reason amid the clamour of so many disparate voices.

For example, by making a target of the New York Stock Exchange, those who want to literally close it down, should they succeed, would devastate the pension funds of the millions of workers they claim to represent. They would foreclose on their futures and those of their families.

Likewise, globalisation is a soft target for Occupy, but the economies of the world are now so entwined and interdependent, that to extricate them would be a huge undertaking.

And it would have strengthened, rather than weakened the argument by giving credit, where credit is due, to the other side. It would have helped Occupy – and the debate – to have acknowledged that there has been at least some benefit from global trade.

Take Vietnam. Until the 1990s farmers in that country were permitted to export only limited quantities of rice. But when the government lifted those limitations the demand for rice from Vietnam increased. And this in turn led to higher standards of living that helped lift some farmers and their families out of abject poverty. Without a global economy this could not have happened.

But nothing is ever simple. A question mark remains over what is a fair price for the rice produced and exported by those Vietnamese farmers. In a country that imports more food than it produces local farmers could find themselves worse off, as prices are driven down due to the ready availability of cheap imported food.

And that’s the problem with rhetoric. It assumes everything is simple. Black and white, good and bad, cut and dried and clear. The Occupy websites are full of rhetoric – much of it angry. And angry rhetoric never put food on the table.

One way or another most of us are stakeholders in the world’s stock exchanges, even just as pensioners. We depend upon their success. So demonising a system for its failings is not enough.

While Occupy begins by pointing up the problems – problems of concern to many reasonable people – its rhetoric cries for abolition rather than reform, of class war, rather than social justice. Which makes Occupy all too easy to dismiss. Which, like I said, would be a pity. Because amid all the sound and fury are voices that speak from the heart. And those voices need to be heard. Which is why it’s also a pity the church fumbled its handling of the protesters camped out at the foot of St Paul’s.

One reason for the Babel of voices coming from Occupy is that it invites people to join them regardless of their individual aim or cause. This is a movement rather than an organisation. And without clear leadership, while it is evident what Occupy is against, it is less than certain what it is for. What does Occupy propose to replace capitalism? And how would it introduce some new system without fundamentally damaging the livelihood of those it claims to speak for? Occupy accuses politicians of failing to have the answers. But what’s needed from both sides now is dialogue, not diatribe.

Occupy justifies its tactic of occupying spaces by reference to the civil rights movement of Martin Luther-King. But that movement was altogether clearer in its aims and purposes, which were to abolish the legal justification for the racist action of denying another human being a seat on a bus, a table in a restaurant or a place in a school.

Institutionalised racism was the target, but had Martin Luther-King embraced the kind of outraged rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street, he might well have declared a race war on whites.

So while I personally share many of the concerns of the Occupy Movement, I find its aims too broad and its aspirations too disparate and confused. Other than adding a howl of protest it is unclear what they have achieved in the past year since mounting the steps of St Paul’s. Except…

…taking up the cause of the poor, the downtrodden, those who are denied basic rights, just speaking up for those who have no voice has value in itself, according to the Bible. ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ - Micah 6:8

Occupy has contributed to the debate, and that is a good thing. But the problem for Occupy, and for us all, is how to move things forward, whilst acknowledging that not all bosses are out to scam and defraud others, and that some corporations might actually benefit the common good. To fail to acknowledge what good there is would be both unjust and lacking in humility.

The Bible has much to say on the stewardship of money and possessions and Britain has a legacy of companies established under Biblical principles – Cadbury’s and Rowntree, to name just two. Even Barclays bank was founded by honourable Quakers, to be an institution that would hold the moral high ground. Perhaps Barclays – and all of us – need this timely reminder of our roots.

And perhaps it is also time for the Occupy Movement, together with the corporate giants, to sit down and discuss how wealth creation can actually benefit others, to share hopes and concerns, and to work for a common solution.

At best, what Occupy represents is a grassroots desire for justice, fairness and positive change. The movement serves as a timely reminder of the roots of our radical Christian gospel and faith, which ‘turned the world upside down’ transforming society one heart at a time.

Arwyn Bailey is a member of the Association of Christian Financial Advisers. ACFA is the UK network of Christian financial advisers and related professionals. It aims to be the voice of Christian financial advice and champions best practice in the UK. The ACFA website offers links to Christian financial advisers across the UK.

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