"You will be distracted, you will grow tired, we will wait you out, we are patient, we are the 1%,” reads a poster produced in the midst of the Occupy zeal and euphoria. The sardonically prophetic statement was too close to the truth for comfort. Despite the problems in the economy and political system in the UK, the country’s elite didn’t have to wait very long for the movement to die.
In the UK, the 1% lurch from crisis to crisis. From the MPs expenses scandal, to the economic crash, to the phone-hacking inquiry. The establishment and the system are being shaken to their very core, yet at the same time they seem as immovable as ever.
The left, without a party or a coherent mass movement, appear unable to capitalize on the situation. The student movement disappeared as quickly as it arrived. UK Uncut captured the public imagination but has since disappeared from public gaze and Occupy kept an alternative economic vision on the agenda for a while before it too vanished into the ether.
The traditional left has been equally ineffective. The Labour party hasn’t been an instrument for social change for some time and the unions are hamstrung by archaic labor laws and their own imagination. While parliament, the mother of all democracies, is dying if not dead.
While America and France claim to have ignited the torch of modern democracy, its real roots are in the UK, in 1215 and 1649, with the Magna Carta and the first ever parliamentary democracy – historical singularities that awoke the slumbering ideals of economic power and individualism from a political cocoon.
The recent past that’s sold to us, however, is a revisionist lie. Our present is fractured. Our future is looking like a return to a type of feudalism, the rule of a capitalist aristocracy. Our elected officials are the product of private school systems and our elites re-create themselves like clones in a sci-fi movie. How unsurprising is it then that in these streets, modern democracy’s bricks and mortar begin to crumble with age and neglect.
A recent study by the group Democratic Audit warns that British Democracy is in “terminal decline.” They report that public faith in democratic institutions is “decaying”; that there is a widening gap in the participation rates of different social classes of voters; and an “unprecedented” growth in corporate power, which the study’s authors warn, “threatens to undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making.”
The right send out contradictory messages. Cameron talks about a “broken Britain,” but a Britain that we should be proud of all the same. But what exactly is there to be proud of in the UK? Our imperial past? The Olympic legacy? He’s right, we’ve lost our character, but not in the way he thinks. It’s our proud revolutionary character that’s vanished. Where are the descendents of the republicans that beheaded the king, of the Levellers, the Chartists, the Diggers? Of the first radical trade unions, of Thomas Paine and the Panckhursts? All our heroes are dead.
Few give a shit anymore. Most spend time away from their office cubicles sitting in clubs, bars and coffee shops drinking and K-holing their imaginations away, with an unhealthy fear of this reality and any alternate ones. Even fewer bother to act and those that do are largely directionless, often isolated and sometimes misdirected. The Sex Pistols generation’s punk movement was all but a harmless fashion indulgence. Today’s “dub step revolutionaries” have yet to prove they have anything more to offer. Today, rebellion is distracted, disorganized and heavily policed. You need an attention span longer than a gnat’s to make a real impact; the Facebook generation have yet to learn this. So what happens without an outlet?
In August last year, riots started in London and quickly spread across the country. The situation can be seen as a conflation of, and reaction to, all of the above: mirroring what we see in the City of London and the MPs expenses scandal, looters engaged in a violent consumerism fuelled by rampant individualism and materialism. It was the violence of the system writ large on the streets of London.
A year has passed and on the surface things couldn’t appear more different. A summer of flag-waving pageantry replaced the burning cars. The Queen’s Jubilee followed by the militarized tax haven that was the Olympic Games gave some a welcome distraction from the country’s woes, but the realities of 21st century Britain were never far away.
They were realities that Occupy, the latest leftist fad, had failed to seriously challenge. The hundred or so tents just yards from the stock exchange certainly made a big media impact but here in the UK only 1% of the 99% were ever really represented. Far from emulating the Egyptian model, where grassroots activists joined with labor rights groups and unions, the grassroots Occupy group was detached from working people and did not enjoy support from established left institutions.
For a while the numerous London sites (and others across the country) burnt bright, igniting debate and illuminating the ills of the City of London which for so long had enjoyed a social silence of a scale matched only by that of our deplorable imperial past. However, despite the media-refracted noise, it failed to gain the mass support needed to effect real change and like the student movement a year before the camps quickly fizzled out. As predicted the city waited them out. So what are we left with other than the Julian Assange circus?
People are trying in small ways to make changes. Since January 2012 the Move Your Money campaign estimates that 500,000 people have switched their current accounts to ethical alternatives such as cooperatives and mutuals. At least it puts pay to the myth of an apathetic populace. But this type of highly individualized action, successful as it is becoming, can only take us so far.
There are countless other small demonstrations happening in towns and cities across the country, a type of anti-austerity NIMBYism backed by the trade unions but lacking any real revolutionary zeal. Keynes is the only alternative in town as far as the unions are concerned. Progressively radical visions are the pre-occupation of a secluded minority. In Greece a true left party, Syriza, has at least forced the agenda. Here we have none. Britain reels from a lack of a creative left. We need some hope, some inspiration, something that shakes us out of a dismally predictable downward spiral.
But what’ll next year bring? Further cuts, definitely. A continuing crisis, certainly. More riots, possibly. And while a divided and disconnected left find a post-Occupy cause célèbre, the lumpen masses will pay more attention to the X-Factor TV show than a specter, that if they cared to look, still haunts Europe.
Now go here and help bring some life back into the Left!