Occupy have provoked the intelligent debate so lacking in mainstream politics

For four months, the protestors at St Paul’s have provoked the sort of intelligent debate so lacking in mainstream politics today, write Friends of the Earth.


Craig Bennett is the policy and campaigns director of Friends of the Earth

When police and bailiffs in helmets and bright orange jackets moved in on Monday night to evict Occupy London from outside St Paul’s Cathedral, activists promised it was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

Over the last four months, their continued presence outside this iconic London landmark – young and old, from a wide variety of backgrounds – has fuelled a fierce national debate about what, and crucially who, our global economic system is for.

Whether it is bankers’ bonuses or offensively large energy company profits, barely a day has gone by since October without media headlines slamming corporate greed. Much of it is because of the way the international Occupy movement has successfully captured the public’s imagination in this age of political apathy.

Of course there have been a number of politicians and commentators who have passed sneering judgements on the protestors outside St Paul’s; there have been the usual “get a job” jibes, particularly offensive at a time when opportunities available to young people are at a low-ebb.

Some have also derided the protesters’ demands for being too ideological, too vague, and lacking the tangible solutions needed to get us out of the mess we’re all in.

But these are accusations that should be levelled squarely at our political leaders who, after one of the greatest economic calamities in decades, have entirely failed to understand what caused the collapse in the first place – and are now putting everything back exactly as it was before, dumping the bill on us taxpayers.

In fact, the protestors at St Paul’s and progressive think-tanks and campaigning organisations like Friends of the Earth have plenty of ideas about the steps that could be taken here and now to move the global economy forward –  in a way that works for ordinary people and the planet.

Why not immediately end the insanity of spending $500 billion of public money worldwide every year to subsidise the fossil fuel industry at a time when the International Energy Authority is warning us to switch to clean energy within the next five years or face “irreversible climate change”?

The money should be used to support rapid development and deployment of renewable energy, bringing down the cost of clean technology, providing off-grid access to energy for the world’s poor, and generating massive economic stimulus to boot.

Why not introduce a financial transaction or ‘Tobin’ tax, a small levy applied to each currency transaction that would raise billions of pounds every year, to support climate mitigation and adaptation in developing nations? Adair Turner, former chair of the Financial Services Authority, called it “a nice sensible revenue source for funding global public goods”.

Why not investigate the stranglehold of the Big Six energy companies on our broken energy market, who are banking huge profits while more than five million UK households struggle to heat their homes? Recent research for Friends of the Earth and Compass reveals nine in ten people support an independent public inquiry, and nearly three in four want a levy on their profits, which could be ring-fenced for making homes more energy efficient.

And why not redefine the fiduciary duty – the legal duty placed on company directors – to require them to act in the interests of society and the environment, and not just in those of their shareholders? They should be responsible for the triple bottom line, not just making money.

Our political leaders have failed to implement or outright oppose such proposals, not because they have come up with anything better or because of any rational arguments against them, but because of an outdated, discredited neoliberal ideology that, against all the evidence, still argues that advocating sensible regulatory frameworks is somehow ‘anti-business’.

And so, it is the mainstream political parties that – in my view – are most guilty of being ideological and vague at this current time. None of them are really making any real tangible difference to the social, environmental or economic crises we face.

One or two politicians do understand and are working hard with NGOs to bring forward the changes we need – but collectively they are stuck on a dull treadmill of predictable politics, seemingly destined to repeat the mistakes of politicians past.

Over the last few months, business leaders, ministers, journalists and academics have told me they think the Occupy movement has a point. But few of these eminent persons would be comfortable saying so publicly for fear of being labelled ‘anti-corporate’ or ‘anti-capitalist’.

And that is perhaps one of the worst legacies of the neoliberal ideology; how it closed down intelligent debate. I don’t consider myself to be either anti-corporate or anti-capitalist. In fact I have spent much of my career working closely with business, and enjoy many of the goods and services provided to me by the capitalist system.

In my opinion, being against corporate greed does not make you anti-corporate. Being against a form of capitalism that predominantly benefits the already super-rich at the expense of the poor does not make you “anti-capitalist”.

And daring to think about how we should transform the global economy so that it operates fairly within environmental limits should be seen as one of the defining and most relevant practical questions of our time – not an ideological dream.

Our booming British solar industry, backed by the CBI and recently reassured by government support, is proof there’s a UK market for greener business. With the Green Investment Bank set to lend to companies developing clean energy and low-carbon technologies, we’re on the threshold of a renewable energy revolution that will boost our economy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

For four months, the protestors at St Paul’s have provoked the sort of intelligent debate that is so lacking in mainstream politics today, and for that I thank them.

When people act together we have a louder voice.

It remains to be seen if we can convince the Treasury that protecting our environment and driving economic prosperity are two sides of the same coin.

See also:

Occupy London evicted, but are St Paul’s sad to see them go?Alex Hern, February 28th 2012

Occupy and its Indian sister movement are fighting the same battlesDr Kailash Chand OBE, January 30th 2012

Seek solutions to protests, not problemsMike Morgan-Giles, November 2nd 2011

What Would Alinsky Do: Why Occupy LSX need to quit St Paul’sDaniel Elton, October 31st 2011

Occupy London needs to catalyse a new LeftBen Mitchell, October 27th 2011

The “occupy” protests come to the City this SaturdayShamik Das, October 12th 2011

Are “Occupy Threadneedle Street” protests on the way?Shamik Das, September 19th 2011

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