The Melbourne City Square was once a public space before the various private bars and hotels and restaurants that now dominate the area claimed it for their own. In that respect, it provided a fitting venue for Occupy Melbourne to reclaim.
By my count, there were about a thousand people in the square today: a thousand people talking with each other about politics and social change.
This is unequivocally a good thing.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the Occupy Oz protests, most of it remarkably vapid.
Yes, everyone knows that, as every pundit tediously repeated last week, the situation here’s not the same as the US: the economy’s more stable and unemployment’s lower. But so what?
Actually, the similarities are much greater than the differences. Australia, too, faces economic turmoil, of a severity that no-one can judge. Just as in the US, there’s widespread cynicism about mainstream politics and the mainstream media, a sense of disconnection from the parliamentary process and the insider nattering that passes for public debate. As everywhere else, the major parties remain entirely devoted to neoliberalism, even as the bankruptcy of that philosophy becomes more and more obvious.
If all the ‘Occupy Everywhere’ movement represented was a refusal of the status quo that in itself would be sufficient justification of today’s event. Saying ‘no’ is a necessary precondition for any change, a negation a million times more progressive – and, for that matter, a million times less utopian – than the liberal insistence that somehow the world will just muddle through its current problems entirely unchanged.
The demands for ‘Occupy Everywhere’ to put forward a manifesto are largely hypocritical, given the entire absence of solutions to the global economic crisis coming from mainstream politicians or pundits. Yes, the movement needs to develop a program but that will take time — and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about acknowledging that.
But here’s the thing. More than anything, Occupy Melbourne consisted of people talking to each other about political alternatives. There were stalls all across the square, representing every tendency on the far Left. But it wasn’t all just the usual suspects. What was remarkable was how many new people were there, reading and talking and debating about political ideas, in a way that simply doesn’t happen to most people in day-to-day life.
Naturally, there were cranks: people touting perpetual motion machines over the open mic or handing out photocopied tracts about the Rockefellers or muttering darkly about 9/11 truth.
But so what? That’s inevitable when you open up for debate, particular given the erosion of the Left milieu. Lots of ideas get raised and, initially at least, many of them are loopy. What’s important is the process. Discussion’s got to start somewhere, and once it’s underway, there’s no telling where it will end.
Besides, for every wild-eyed tinfoil hatwearer in the square today, there were scores of ordinary people – most of them young – engaged in good-humoured discussions about the mess we’re in and how we might get out of it. Though the city was crawling with police – on horses, in cars, on bikes and in every capacity possibly – the event was entirely peaceable, as much a festival as a traditional rally. Under the circumstances, the organisers did a remarkable job.
It’s easy to snark on Twitter or Facebook, to justify your own apathy with half-witted cracks about anti-corporate protesters who – gasp! – buy things from corporations (a jibe about as moronic as denouncing campaigners against world hunger for continuing to eat).
But what took place today is, perhaps, a beginning. It’s certainly not an end.
What happens next?
It’s hard to know how many protesters will stay the night, nor what the numbers will be like by Monday. There’s all sorts of tensions simmering at Occupy Melbourne: about the next step, about the involvement of political parties, about the decision-making process, about relations with the police and so on. Notably, the Max Brenner protest that took place this afternoon looked quite different to the Occupy Melbourne crowd, suggesting that the integration of the existing Left with the newer activists might prove somewhat ticklish.
Again, that’s inevitable, just as it’s inevitable that there will be flare-ups and arguments.
Will these be resolved? Who knows?
We need to be honest that the Australian Left has been on the backfoot for a long time now and so this new movement – if that’s what it is – starts from a pretty low base.
Nonetheless, the seed of something was sowed today. Let’s see what might grow from it.