Occupy London Stock Exchange: Dissent and adapt

18th October 2011

It has been peaceful, according to The Guardian even if some in the media would have preferred the physical confrontation, which can look so interesting on the six o'clock TV news.  They had to go to Rome for that. Those in the camp seem to have come to a modus vivendi with both the church authorities and the police – even if they are banned from the nearby Paternoster Square shopping precinct.

And the action attracted immediate international attention – The Washington Post datelined its global protest story from London. The UK capital is late in the game after New York, Rome, Madrid and many other cities but it is a centre of world finance on a par with Wall Street.

So it has been good-natured – and that applies as well to the middle-aged men in suits that are an obligatory feature of all reports. They are not screaming "scum" or "anarchist" or demanding they are cleared with water cannons (even if elements of the tabloid press wish they were). Instead, their comments are all centred on one sentence – perhaps the City of London PR department put out a briefing sheet.

That is: "I have some sympathy but what is that they want?" They want to know what  are their demands, and where do they want to go.

This is well articulated by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan in his Telegraph blog in defence of the banks and bankers.

However, this "you can safely ignore them because they don't have a coherent set of proposals to replace the financial system they detest" line may misunderstand the nature of this protest. It ignores the adaptive cycle, a relatively new and different way of looking at political and social interactions, derived from the dynamics of ecosystems.

Over the past decade, London has seen a number of mass marches and demonstrations – for fox hunting, against the Iraq War, against the power of the G20, and against student fees. In these cases, it was clear what the protests were about and what the protestors wanted. And the actions were seen as the culmination of long planning.

The inchoate City of London action, powered by social media, is different. It has more in common with Paris in 1968. As one who was there – I avoided the police charges if not the whiff of tear gas – I can safely say it was a once in a lifetime experience. Starting as a student protest against poor facilities in a new university in the poor Paris suburb of Nanterre, it soon transformed into a general strike, probably the biggest ever seen in an advanced economy.

 Events simply happened – by word of mouth and leaflet in those pre Facebook and Twitter days. There was no leadership, let alone co-ordination – simply a feeling of throwing off the social order that had served France for decades. Attempts by the unions and the French Communist Party to take over the "events" and force them into their organisational mode failed.

 It didn't last. It couldn't last. But it has lasted. France was never the same again. A conservative society with fixed ideas on religion, patriotism, respect for authority, turned into a more liberal moral ideal.  Even if the mai 68 events were not the sole cause, they were certainly a catalyst.

 So when the City of London demonstrators say they don't know where they are going, this could be a strength, not a weakness. A clear agenda would mean alienating any group that did not agree 100% with them – they would fall into the trap of many protest groups, left and right. As the old saying about Trotskyists goes, "One's a tendency, two's a party and three's a split.

The adaptive cycle concentrates on the destruction and re-organisation/regrowth common in the natural world, eschewing the growth and conservation model that has dominated economics and politics for generations. It starts with the R phase – growth and exploitation where competitive processes lead to a few processes or groups achieving domination – in this case, the banking system and the bankers (including political and business friends).

It then becomes the K phase where conservation of the existing order is pre-dominant. In our society, so many areas of finance have become monopolistic – banks, power companies, food stores – in fact if not according to the Competition Commission – providing further proof of conservation.  The accumulated human capital – skills and relationships – contain the seeds of their own destruction. In our society, the banking and finance system is at breaking point.

 What those camping out in the City may do – if the energy is not dissipated – is to move on to the next stage in the cycle is a short period where massive and unforeseen change can occur – Paris in 1968, the Arab spring. This is the omega phase – where previous ecosystems collapse and have their energy released – possibly in ways that no one can predict.

  In reverse of the Greek alphabet, the alpha phase follows where society is re-organised and renewed, again in impossible to forecast ways. These are brief windows of experimentation –  but windows whose scope is controlled by other factors in society. Paris 68 for instance did not result in mass looting or maiming or killing – while French society needed renewal, it was sufficiently mature not to destroy itself in the way some other societies have done.

But even Conservative MEPs like Hannan show they have some idea of what is going on. In his blog, which has so far attracted nearly 600 comments, he wrote:

"The hard-Left protesters who marched in cities across the world today are wrong about many things, but they have got one thing absolutely right: bailing out first banks and then entire countries, is a form
of class war against working people. The trouble is, the demonstrators are picking the wrong target. The people they should blame are not the financiers, but the politicians who obsequiously agreed to rescue them from the consequences of their mal-investments." This is just one sign of a breakdown of the traditional left-right political division.

Yes, those camping outside St Paul's have no clear agenda. But given where we are on the adaptive cycle, having a clear way forward could mean more of the same – and no one on the protest or supporting it, wants that."

More from Mindful Money:

Shareholder Activism increased 90% in 2011. Will it do any good?

 "Occupy Wall Street" Revisited: The Reactions

‘Why I support Occupy Wall Street’, Shaun Richards

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