Occupy the Economy

Much has been written recently about the rise of a new protest movement. A movement that occupies commercial space to protest against the global capitalist system which they believe to be steeped in inequality. They claim to represent the 99% of society that have suffered from the credit crunch, high unemployment, low growth rate and the government's austerity program. In New York this has taken the form of Occupy Wall Street where a camp of protesters has taken up residence in Liberty Plaza. Occupy Wall Street itself takes its inspiration from the Egyptian protesters whose occupation Tahir Square in Cairo was instrumental in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. In London a similar demonstration was planned to occupy Paternoster Square outside the London Stock Exchange. Upon finding that this square had been closed by the police, they instead have set up camp in the adjacent area outside St Paul's Cathedral.

These occupy movements are different from previous anti-capitalist protests in that they lack a central leadership, a core demographic of members and clear stated goals or grievances. They use a consensus decision making model to plan action across the myriad of different groups which have joined the protest. In many ways the Occupy Movement is The Culture of Resistance, although they do not represent all of the Culture which is an even more diverse anti-establishment group. But the Occupy Movement represents a subset of the Culture of Resistance that has mobiliaed to take direct action. The Occupy Movement is an expression of dissatisfaction with the current capitalist hegemony. It is not exactly a defined political movement in itself as it lacks set goals and memberships, which is also one of the defining features of the Culture of Resistance.

Technology has allowed these decentralised protests to take place. Social networks such as Twitter and instant messaging programs such as BBM have allowed the disaffected to communicate with each other and organise a protest without the need for a central authority. The new technology has allowed those looking to start a protest to connect with those who are feeling alienated by the current political and economic system.

Expressions of alienation and dissatisfaction via online social-networks have culminated to create an Ecosystem of Discontent within the social network. Heightened chatter in the Ecosystem of Discontent creates the feeling that the physical space is safe for direct action. In other words the more people discuss the Occupy Movement on a social network, and how alienated people are by mainstream politics, the more appealing the occupation itself becomes to members of the Culture of Resistance. The ecosystem just needs a single event focused around a specific action or group to begin the chatter. Unlike in the past, the vanguard that begin the chatter and created (sometimes without intention) the ecosystem are not necessarily the ones who shape its development into direct action. Any node in the ecosystem can influence its development and those involved in its creation frequently have nothing to do with the point when the ecosystem achieves the critical mass required to spill into a real world protest. It is the Ecosystem of Discontent and the connections to strangers possible through social networking that allow the idea of the protest to spread beyond the group who initially conceived it to encompass the huge variety of seemingly unconnected people found in the Occupy Movement.

The existence of the Occupy Movement is evidence of the growing mobilisation of the Culture of Resistance and growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. Unemployment, poverty and poor growth is drawing more people into the Culture of Resistance and technology is allowing them to become involved with ecosystems facilitating direct action.

The next question is, what can economists do about the situation to improve people's material circumstances and halt the growing tide of alienation. The answer is not the obvious one of getting the economy growing again as fast as possible, as the dissatisfaction currently felt has its roots in the recent decades of economic prosperity.

What economists can do to help is reexamine their thinking. The Occupy Movement is further evidence that current neo-liberal consensus is not working. Previously we believed that the best course of action was to grow the economy as a whole, and through the infamous Trickle Down Effect all sections of society will benefit from increased wealth. Although during the boom all sections of society where wealthier than they had been the past this did not make everyone content. Inequality between the rich and the poor has grown during the Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown years. The divide between the rich and poor is greater now than it was in the late 1970s. Class mobility has decreased over the same period. If you are born poor now you are more likely to die poor than if you were born in the years following the Second World War. This situation has been created by our neo-liberal economic policy and huge sections of society are clearly not happy about this.

Many people in the Occupy Movement are middle class. The people who stand to benefit from the neo-liberal agenda but have grave concerns about the kind of society that we are becoming by following this agenda. To continue down the route we have been following is for the gap between the rich and poor to grow wider and wealth to remain trapped amongst a privileged few.

We need a new way of thinking about our economy which must involve a revival of the economics of equality and full employment. We need to do away with the attitude that by making it easier for private business we are benefiting all of society. Other new as yet unknown ways of thinking about economics will also be needed but I feel that certainly a good place to start is look at a commitment to greater wealth equality. The outdated neo-liberal view of economics is not working and people know it. Inequality will not stand and the best thing we as economists can do is find a way to more evenly allocate society’s scares resources.