20 November 2011

In the Shadow of Zuccotti...

Echoing my erstwhile co-author's comments regarding a lack of posts - Acting as a 'de facto' Tour guide for vistors to New York City seems to be taking up an inordinate amount of my time, so have been off the radar, even with a number of issues that really do cry out for attention. Arguably one of my all-time favourite Television Series of any genre is the Science Fiction Saga, Babylon 5 , a multi-layered self -contained Universe which ran, despite not really having anything like the financial backing of it's Paramount financed Rivals in the Star Trek franchise, for five years in the 1990's. The chief antagonists of the series first three years are a race known as the Shadows, whose basic philosophy appears to be that strength and progress come through conflict. Without doubt my favourite character from the entire run of the series was arguably the main villain, the Shadows' human emissary Mr. Morden , whose Wikipedia description bears repeating:

'Although outwardly polite and courteous, he represents a dangerous hidden agenda'

His first question to anyone he meets is the simply phrased: 'What do you want?'

This came back to me in my consideration of the ongoing protests at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy LSX, as well as, it has to be said the around 70 other protests ongoing across the globe. I am particularly admiring of the doughty group of protestors who have chosen to occupy a square in that famous centre of off shore finance, Newport, Isle of Wight, but I digress. I have to ask the protestors 'what do you want?' because one of the issues facing the movement is that it's demands seem so desperately unclear and unfocused. Whilst some see this as a source of strength, for me, if they are to move beyond first base (using American parlance) in offering what my colleague Hal Berstram calls 'a new paradigm' it's imperative that they get a coherent list of goals. On Twitter, where arguably much of the energy that should be put into this blog is now dissipated, the much disparaged 'astroturfing right-wing trolls' pointed me out this link which lists the latest minutes of Occupy LSX's loftily entitled General assembly. When I stopped laughing, I took the time to examine more closely this document, to gain some greater insight into what motivates these protestors. In spite of their failure to remove the Soviet banners from their encampment, I am continually informed that recreation of the defunct USSR is not the true agenda, so let's see if we can find out what it actually is.

'Well established. Working Groups can have a room each down there. National Occupy conference will take place at OLSX on Saturday and BoI on Saturday. Want books to start library, food, paint, tools, people, lamps / lighting equipment.
Most probably know building is owned by UBS. They were subject ot $60bn bail-out from Swiss government. Evidence of corruption. They gambled millions of pension money. It’s appropriate that we open this bank'

So the invasion of Private property goes on - a repudiation of one of the fundamental building blocks of human freedom. Quite what business the policies of the Swiss government is of these people is anyone's guess, but nevertheless, I am assuming they object to UK firms using UBS as a Pension fund manager? The lack of understanding of basic finance again shows through. There is no such thing as a 'risk free investment' I'd argue any Pension fund manager who invested in low risk deposit accounts with interest rates at 0.5% and even instruments like Guaranteed Equity bonds paying post-tax returns below inflation was being negligent but that's again a moot point.

'People’s assemblies are good because the the government has centralised everything. Everything on a local level would not have need for centralised government – we can achieve everything locally, through face to face contact with people – you’ll know people, they’ll be easy to contact and talk to – that’s where I will be hopefully'

This actually did intrigue me somewhat as ideally I'd be in favour of much greater 'localism' - one of the problems we see, though, is the inevitable ill-informed articles about 'postcode lotteries' in provision of such staples as old-age care and Health provision. these are stoked by the press on both sides of the political divide. Much centralisation under every government since Thatcher (and possibly arguably even prior to that there were tendencies) has been in response to such criticisms. By allowing real Local democracy, the risk is run that provision of services will be very unequal. Also, is there anything to stop say, Far-right or Islamic extremists implementing policies which to the Left would be distasteful in the extreme(banning on Eating pork or preferential housing for Whites) The proposal also shows a distinct lack of historical awareness. A number of Local authorities (most famously the GLC under Livingstone, but also Liverpool under , say Hatton) took it upon themselves to deliberately stoke up taxation and set themselves up in opposition to the then elected government. Much centralisation in fields such as education was a response to provocation from people whose extreme left wing ideology was signifcantly more important than their concerns for local ratepayers. Hence the eventual abolition of the GLC and widespread use of 'rate capping' during the 80's and into the 90's. How would such tendencies (And regardless of what Occupy believe I assume some Conservative councils would still exist? If not that's another matter entirely) be curbed under the dispensation proferred here?

'One way to spread the occupy movement is to bring in the trade unions, to appeal to as many as possible. On 20th November, 3 million public sector workers are on strike in support of their pensions. It’s an important day, you can really appeal to them. People should occupy workspaces so they can decide for themselves their conditions, working hours, benefits, and pay'

So, what I can glean from this is that workers should come in and 'Occupy their workplace' - fine. What happens then? As workers have 'decided for themselves their pay and conditions and their working hours' what will happen. I know a number of my former colleagues who would vote themselves a salary of 250K and working hours of zero, as well as a pension linked to the 2008 inflation rate in Zimbabwe. Whether any business that ran in that fashion would be able to stave off bankruptcy for even one hour would be questionable. As for enlisting the Trade unions, it seems astonishingly myopic not to recognise their agenda. UNISON and especially the RMT exist to promote the interests of their membership, not the wider society at large. Do you think Union poster boy Bob Crow gives two hoots about the commuters into all manner of industries (not just the LSX) when he calls his latest stoppage by his outrageously well-renumerated drivers over the flimsiest pretext? I'd argue not.

In fairness, a number of 'Occupy' supporters have pointed out these are 'minutes' - and I recognise that. But again we return back to the question I posed earlier in the post - 'What do you want'? The minutes read like a Student Union meeting, and if the Occupy movement want to be taken seriously, thney need to move beyond this initial stage and quickly. As New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica points out the naysayers dismissing these people as 'dope fiends and sex fiends' were lying from the start and that generalisation remains a lie. Nevertheless, he makes the point that their moving to blockade Subway (underground!- going native!) stations and block traffic for Commuter buses is unlikely to have any impact on Senior personnel at Citibank or JP Morgan, as I can vouch from a degree of personal knowledge, these guys don't take the bus or subway. On the other hand literally thousands of chefs and kitchen workers (for example) do and any sympathy they had for the movement will have been diminished by an already possibly 2 hour journey to the Outer boroughs being made an hour longer!

In short, 'What does the Occupy movement want?' remains the question, and rest assured, despite the protestations of my erstwhile colleague Hal Berstram, I remain 'outwardly polite and courteous' and there is no hidden agenda, just a willingness to perhaps find out what the 'real agenda' actually is!

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