Don’t Blame Bankers | What Alternatives Are ‘Occupy’ Proposing? | Article 38

One of the key questions that has been often asked about the ‘Occupy’ protests is ‘what are your proposed alternatives?’ This, I think, is often asked with a background attitude of ‘I really don’t think you have any alternatives, do you?’ The implication being, before you moan about how bad things are, make sure you have a fully worked solution to how you can undertake improvements.

One comment on a previous posted ended with this:

What alternative ways of living are the occupiers proposing? and what alternative are you proposing? If you’re really suggesting the occupiers mutiny, as opposed to just complain, then surely that entails appropriating St Paul’s as rebel territory and mugging any banker that comes within range? If that’s not the plan, what are the new ways of living that will transform our society?

Couple of points on this.

Firstly, it is part of the corruption of power to insist that any protest or critique against the dominant system comes fully formed. When you’re being beaten down, it is entirely valid to simply scream in frustration, without any idea what changes need to be made.

Secondly, that said, I do want to reflect on the sorts of changes that I think we need to see. Importantly, they do not involve mugging bankers. In fact, in some ways it would be inappropriate to blame the bankers at all. Why? Because bankers are not ‘bad guys in an essentially good system.’ They simply lucky guys in an essentially unfair and unjust system.

Zizek makes this point in his typical style in the video above, when he comments that Hitler was never violent enough. Why? Because, however radical, he worked only to make the system work for him. Counter this, Gandhi was far more violent – why? Because he wanted to dismantle the system entirely. He wanted the whole thing to stop and change.

So the point is not to mug the bankers as some attempt to redistribute the wealth that they have pooled into their possession. The only ethic behind this is jealousy – you’ve got more than me, so give me some. The fundamental point is that we need a different system – or, more poignantly, a different ethic.

In other words, the changes that need to be made need first to come at the inner, personal level. We need to deal with our own desires to be rich and wealthy, to use more than our fair share of resources. Without that, all we are wanting is to swap places with those who have done better than ourselves out of the current system.

Interestingly, the debabcle at St Pauls fits nicely into this. Why? Because at the centre of the debate is the ethical question of what constitutes ‘Christian’ economics. What Would Jesus Do? is the right question here, but, it seems, the Anglican church has come a very long way from that original radical ethic. Compare this:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

(Acts 4, 32 – 35)

to this:

The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.

(38th Article of the Church of England)

There are nuances and interpretations, I’m well aware. But the grandeur and opulence of St Pauls does seem to sit rather too comfortably in the Corporation of London…and does seem a very very long way away from the spirit of radical equality that the gospels and new testament talk so much about.




5 responses to “Don’t Blame Bankers | What Alternatives Are ‘Occupy’ Proposing? | Article 38”

  1. Thanks for this Kester,
    You sharply identify the problem as an ethical one and I think this is exactly right. I like the articulation of a Ghandian violent response that takes on the system and proposes a different ethic. I am, however, very pessimistic about our ability to do this on the necessary scale – even within the church (though I perhaps have some optimism about our ability to tackle this within churches). This all requires more thought and action than I have been able to give it. Your own thoughts and gathered ideas here do give me more fuel for that and feed a wee spring of optimism though, and for this I thank you.

  2. “In other words, the changes that need to be made need first to come at the inner, personal level. We need to deal with our own desires to be rich and wealthy, to use more than our fair share of resources.”

    Totally agree. But what if you’ve been addressing that quite deliberately in ever increasing ways for years and yet the tide persists in swelling in the opposite direction?
    I hesitate to use this example because (for one reason) the festival has given me a heck of a lot, but latterly I always seem to get a depressed phase when attending Greenbelt. Roughly half the times I have attended I’ve travelled there alone and by public transport. It’s taken almost as many times as I’ve been going for me to learn how to strike exactly the right balance between having luggage I can actually manage by myself whilst maintaining comfort whatever the weather might do and ensuring I have brought enough to eat. When I stay warm, dry and fed I am glad – I can focus on getting the most out of the event. Yet it frequently startles me how resource-hungry my fellow festival goers can be in meeting their basic needs compared to how I’ve met mine. (Bacon and egg every breakfast; shower booked every other day; nip round to the supermarket in the car if something’s forgotten). At Greenbelt the notices about life in Gaza assail me; so what if I have to haul water some distance from my camping place? I can get clean water EVERY TIME I press the tap. Similarly, when I looked around the committed regulars at my local environmental NGO meeting and realised that the majority could not only drive but also each owned a motor car, I wondered whether the cause was already quite lost. If the people who supposedly (and perhaps do) care most don’t seem to be paring things back sufficiently it’s gone pretty awry somewhere.

  3. Kester, thank. I enjoyed your post and hopefully have built on it constructively here. This is not the sort of issue I would normally risk commenting on—politics is not my strong point—but the controversy has thrown fascinating light on the dilemmas faced by the church as it attempts to face up to issues of systemic injustice.

  4. Hang in there, Clare – it takes time for people to transform themselves. It took Greenbelt three festivals to get the message about Gaza through to me, for example. Hopefully being immersed in the greenbelt experience will gradually transform people (including me) from where we’re at now.

    I think this relates a lot to what Kester says here about “the system” being inherently bad and what Prof Zizek says in the video about an individualistic ideology that we all subconciously absorb. The really bad thing about “the system” is not that it is open to abuse or even that it is unfair, but that it actively disincentivises ethical choices and penalises/marginalises those who choose to prioritise them, at the same time as pressurising us all to believe that we are powerless to go against the flow.

  5. Thanks Kester for taking the time to respond to my question, and thank you for articulating the problem we all face – and that my question was an attempt to explore – better than i was able to. I am especially grateful that you didn’t see or at least didn’t respond to my original question as an attack – it wasn’t meant to sound like one.
    I do think we need a better way of living and that getting there begins with a critique of and dissatisfaction with the current system. I also think we need to find ways of surviving in the current system whilst we develop alternatives – i think its about evolution not revolution. Props to the occupy protests for their exemplary critique, which i hope will bear much fruit.