Down and Out in Occupy London

Dark, brooding and incongruously ugly, the Occupy London’s Tent City offers an apocalyptic vision of a post-recession Britain. A nightmarish vision of austerity, middle-class slum or a utopian commune, it really depends on your point of view. Marxist cuckoos in the Anglican’s nest, the anti-capitalist protesters have turned the public piazza outside St Paul’s Cathedral into a new found democracy.

Organised by a hash tag and riddled with contradictions, the Occupy protesters are a malleable bunch. Predominately under the age of thirty, if not younger, the hardcore militants protesting at St Paul’s are invariably white educated liberals or students as they are more commonly known.

Campaigning against banker bonuses, corporate greed and the grotesque spectacle of UK business executives giving themselves a 50% increase in their salaries. Something had to be done. Identifying what is wrong with modern capitalism but thus far offering no concrete solutions, Occupy London has a lot in common with social-democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband. Awaiting genuine leadership, a big bang moment has yet to strike a chime with the protesters at St Paul’s.

With up to 150 tents living cheek by jowl on frozen concrete, the protesters come from different social and economic backgrounds but slumming it is a real leveller. Speaking about his experience mingling with tramps, George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, “Once you’re in that world and seemingly of it, it hardly matters what you have been in the past. It is a sort of world-within-world where everyone is equal, a small squalid democracy – perhaps the nearest thing to a democracy that exists in England.”

Although unlike the lowly tramps in Orwell’s essay, the anti-capitalist protesters occupying St Paul’s are bound by idealism not poverty. Coming from good homes and largely well-educated, the Occupy camp will have enjoyed wealth, comfort and opportunities for most of their young lives.

It is the fear of these privileges being taken away from them that propels them to the streets. Those worst affected by capitalism, the grizzly anonymous men loitering in street corners drinking cider, are nowhere to be seen. Instead a bizarre congregation of misfits preside over a spectacle of awareness against a system that continues to feed them.

As the global economic crisis of 2008 has already shown, ordinary people have become helpless components in a computerised market system, which we are seemingly powerless to challenge or change. And nothing will change as a result of this protest camp. To pretend otherwise is to miss the point entirely.

Occupy London is merely a piss stain on the carpet of the establishment. A metaphorical protest that is more likely to be dismantled by dropping temperatures than police bailiffs. However, it offers a fascinating insight into the collective values of middle-class idealism. Those whose essential needs have been satisfied and yet dream of changing the world order for the greater good of society.

With police thermal images showing 90% of tents at St Paul’s are unoccupied in the early hours, the protesters have been accused of hypocrisy and self-indulgence. Returning home to warm bedrooms, eating gourmet sandwiches from a nearby Marks and Spencers and tweeting solidarity on luxury smartphones, there are benefits to capitalism that not even the most militant-protester would want to lose.

This fractious community are representative of an increasingly divided country, angry at injustice and corporate greed, but still more likely to pay homage to Steve Jobs than Karl Marx. Unnerving as it might be to suggest, the otherwise noble idealism of the protesters regularly falls short at the first touch of reality. All the while the genuinely impoverished and historical victims of the market system are nowhere to be seen.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Revolution

As Madrid is more of a national capital than an international one like London or Paris, the British press have perhaps not given Spain’s “los indignados” the attention they deserve. Over 60, 000 Spanish youths held spontaneous protests in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia in May 2011, rebelling against the socialist government’s austerity measures. A decade of unemployment and emigration beckons for tens of thousands of Spanish graduates.

Youth unemployment among 16 to 29-year-olds is estimated to be around 45 per cent. Upturned in the Puerta de Sol are stolen crates, graffiti slogans and multiple plastic tents full of sticky protesters eating tinned food in brutally hot temperatures. Indignant in their defiance, the “los indignados” are demanding new jobs, public investment and changes to the government’s austerity plans but their wishes have fallen on deaf ears. Spain like so many other debt-ridden European nations has elected a centre-right government into power.

Madrid’s tent city should perhaps serve as a reminder that political dissent has not always been tolerated in Europe. For this red scar of rebellion may be gathering momentum in 2011 but situated in a former hospital is a heart stopping reminder of Spain’s fascist past. Forming an integral part of the holy trinity of Madrid’s historic art museums, the Museo Reina Sofía is renowned throughout the world for hosting Picasso’s Guernica.

Awe inspiring and superbly displayed, this icon of twentieth-century European art is one of the few universal masterpieces that commands a religious silence from all visitors. Displayed on the second floor, the art crowds flock to Guernica all year round and cross-legged school children listen attentively to the horrific origins of the painting. Picasso painted it as a response to the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.

As a universal symbol against the fight against fascism, Guernica is a brutal reminder that under General Franco Spain was a military dictatorship until the late 1970s. On forming a one party state, the Falange, political censorship was vigorously enforced under Franco. Trade unions were banned. Catalan, Basque and Galician languages were severely censured and political opponents were mercilessly executed. The majority of Britons will be unable to comprehend the level of repression suffered in Spain during this period. Most people in the UK understandably take the liberal fruits of universal suffrage and freedom of speech for granted.

Britain is one of the oldest and most stable democracies in the modern world, and has enjoyed peaceful growth from 1945 until the present day. Guernica is a potent reminder that Britain has enjoyed its most comfortable, safe and prosperous period in its living history. The global recession of 2008 has triggered violent rioting in Greece and led to tens of thousands of protesters kicking spokes in the hub of Madrid’s wheel.

Britain’s anti-cut march in London attracted over 200, 000 people but it feels strangely weak and deeply uninspiring compared to the demonstrations in Madrid. The protest was quickly forgotten after a day’s headlines. And it will be most likely remembered for the self-aggrandising violence of a hundred upper-middle class anarchists. Spain feels different.

Although history will judge how effective the Spanish revolution will be in what is going to be a very difficult decade for Europe. A generational time bomb is slowly ticking because of this economic crisis. Unemployment and living costs continue to rise across the continent. But if history is to offer any guide, and hard as this is to admit, sometimes you have to travel across your own borders to realise how lucky Britain really is.