OCCUPY WALL STREET AND MELANCHOLIA OF PARTY POLITICS

Melancholia descended upon the world this week. The latest movie by Lars von Triers contrasts the personal conflicts of a family with the end of the world as we know it. While two sisters go quietly bonkers, a giant planet appears in the night sky and heads directly towards Earth. Much has been made of the metaphorical references to von Triers own struggles with depression, but, for me, the movie touches on a different horror unfolding before our eyes.

Anyone whose team has, like mine in recent seasons, been involved in a relegation battle since before Christmas, will be familiar with the sense of foreboding that comes with reading the sports pages. Over the past few weeks, I have felt that same sense of dread when tripping through the financial section. Maybe it’s desperation that focuses the imagination, because I couldn’t help but see ‘Melancholia’ as a metaphor for the coming crash.

As the giant planet shatters the Earth in the opening sequence, all I could think of was the bloated financial markets running out of control, smashing into the real world and destroying the hopes and dreams of millions. In the long two hours of film that follow, the market crash metaphor just grew in size as the super planet loomed larger on the horizon. Everyone could see it coming and understood what it meant, but no-one seemed able to work out a response.

For those of us frustrated by the melancholy mood that seems to have gripped the population in the face of the on-coming financial crash, the party conference season won’t have offered much hope. Although Labour’s Ed Miliband began groping toward an alternative to the free market orthodoxy of New Labour – his rather clunky designation of ‘predator’ companies – our three main parties remain chained to a globalisation agenda that is about to go off the edge of an abyss.

At least Chancellor George Osbourne took the opportunity to declare that the free market model was broken and no longer fit for purpose. Of course he didn’t actually say that, but his announcement that the government was going to take responsibility for getting loans to small businesses was an admission that his core beliefs were wrong – the markets don’t always do what is economically and socially beneficial for the country.

While those on the planet free market cling to the notion that the only way to encourage growth is to cut taxes and regulations for entrepreneurs, in the real world we are facing a crisis in demand. The economy isn’t stalling because business people are being constrained by an over-powerful state – quite the opposite. The British state is currently doing all it can, within the Tories own ideological straitjacket, to encourage growth. However, the current financial crises are revealing the lie behind the free market myth that only entrepreneurs create growth, therefore all financial encouragements must be directed solely at them.

We are now seeing that, when it comes to growth, consumer spending is the most important engine. If people don’t have money to spend, then globalisation, a project that relies on quick turn-over and tight profit margins, swiftly grinds to a halt. With prices rising, wages continuing to flat-line and credit becoming scarce, consumers are staying at home.

Even those with money to spend are hanging onto it, spooked by George Osbourne’s recent announcement that he intends to make it harder for employees to challenge their dismissal. Only a Tory politician could claim that he was going to cut unemployment figures by making it easier for bosses to sack people.

We need to change the balance in our economy to ensure that a greater percentage of profits are paid as wages to workers rather than as dividends for shareholders. Yes, investors should expect a return on their money, but since the power of the unions was broken in the 1980s, wages have been seen as little more than a hindrance to the profitability of the stock market. To increase demand, we need to put our economy on a different trajectory.

There was precious little sign that this realisation might be beginning to dawn on our political leaders over the three weeks of the party conferences. Instead, a glimmer of hope appeared with the emergence of opposition to the globalisation project in its heartland. On the day that the Liberal Democrats assembled in Birmingham for their conference, a few thousand protesters marched through downtown Manhattan under the banner ‘Occupy Wall Street’.

By the time Ed Miliband delivered his ‘predator’ speech to the Labour Party conference, OWS had begun to make headlines following the use of pepper spray by the NYPD against passive demonstrators. And when the Prime Minister stood up before his party to make a speech in which he declared equality to be a form of oppression, events on the Brooklyn Bridge had catapulted OWS into the mainstream media. Even President Obama was forced to offer a lukewarm nod of recognition.

Of course there have been some on the Left who have cast scorn on OWS and it’s lack of a list of demands, seeing similarities with the anti-globalisation movement of the past decade, which was unable to translate its anger into an ideology that could be supported by those unable to attend the mass demonstrations. However, the difference between then and now is that anti-globalisation activists sought to challenge the financial sector when it was at its height. For most people, it delivered – unevenly – but many still felt they had better prospects under globalisation.

Now that notion has been challenged by the markets themselves, whose failure has driven many families to the brink of ruin. Public opinion is shifting towards a belief that it is fundamentally unfair to allow those who created the financial crisis to continue to get wealthy while working people struggle to pay their bills.

Is that idea alone capable of motivating a mass movement for a fairer economy? There is always a danger that, just as the nascent Tea Party movement was hijacked by fundamentalist Christians with their book that has all the answers, OWS could be taken over by fundamentalist Marxists, who have their own book that solves all your problems.

In part, the demand for an instantly formulated set of goals reflects a desperate need for right wing news outlets to have evidence that allows them to condemn those gathered in opposition to the status quo. We should not allow our enemies to define the rules by which we are allowed to act. Neo-liberalism is not an ideology, with a programme and list of demands, just a bunch of powerful people doing things in their own self interest. OWS has come to challenge that power, by gathering together a bunch of disenfranchised people and empowering them to act together in their own self interest.

The time may come when OWS needs to nail a set of demands to the doors of the New York Stock Exchange, but for now, just the fact that so many people across the United States are willing to take a stand against globalised capitalism is inspiring. It shows that, unlike the poor souls in ‘Melancholia’, we are not resigned to our fate, that, as the bloated financial markets career out of control, we are busy working out a new trajectory for our economy, one that will ensure that such a devastating crash never happens again.

36 Responses to “OCCUPY WALL STREET AND MELANCHOLIA OF PARTY POLITICS”

  1. rob fetterolf says:

    amen brother. peace and love, rob ::P STORM THE CASTLE! ::D

  2. nahummer says:

    Great article. I’ve found that the OWS is also giving me cause for hope. I was just reading about how it took almost four years for people to stand and demand justice following the Wall Street crash of 1929, we can only hope that a similar wave is beginning now that will lead to changes in the system.

    The only part you might need to restate is the line “Only a Tory politician could claim that he was going to cut unemployment figures by making it easier for bosses to sack people.” After all, a government that calls itself socialist, the PSOE, just helped push through a law that does the same thing in Spain. Ain’t democracy that offers such a wide range of policy options grand?

  3. Martin Lawlor says:

    Thank you. I appreciate your struggle to articulate what is happening and what we can do about it. The sense of melancholia has got hold of me this weekend. I went to the Stop the War event. I was left with a deep sense of shame that we are marking the fact that 10 years have passed where we have had little or no impact on the many wars we have lived through. So I went to the Block the Bridge event. The people in OK Uncut are great. The bridge was closed. The police looked positiveley militaristic including the ones on bicycles! But the numbers of protesters was not enough to fill the bridge or to leave a national sense of rage at the loss of the NHS. London seemed to be just getting on with business.
    I will get over this because melancholia has been part of my experience on the Left and I know that the bastards must not grind us down. I am now aware that most of the things I know are just not good enough for the next period. I am struggling with this idea of creating a starfish rather than a spiders web (see Van Jones). Whatever happens you should keep singing. I am reminded that one of the times where melancholia was kicked out of the daily discourse was when the Clash played Victoria Park. Up until that time we. the lefties, had spent a good few years hounding the NF, marching against them and arguing with them. In fact some of us even believed that “we are dead men on leave”. Why I bought into that shit I do not know. Point is that The Clash burst us all out of a bubble. I cannot minimise Rock against Racism here. For me, I think things were kept together in the 80’s by New Variety and the whole culture of left wing comedy and performance. But now? Not sure. I do believe you have been on the right path since you took the stand against paying taxes and then did the sessions in Hyde Park. That was beyond melancholia. That was struggle for all to see. And I needed to see it. Good luck but we really do need to Kick out the jam’s Brothers and Sisters!

  4. tim says:

    All very well to suggest that profits should be curtailed to drive wage growth, but overwhelmingly these profits go to pension funds to pay pensions. Bearing in mind that a very significant squeeze on wages comes from the taxes needed to sustain very generous public sector pensions, aren’t you being a little inconsistent here?

    In some respects by saying “take corporate profits to pay the workers more” you’re the mirror image of the tea party “tax workers less to reduce the burden of the state”. Both positions aim to give the workers more so they can spend more, but the betes noires are different in each case. The truth lies somewhere in between.

    Very good and thoughtful piece though. Ultimately where I think I agree with you most is that there needs to be a slightly less globalised view of markets and companies should think more about local impact. Fundamentally, it’s dumb to destroy the ability of consumers in your home territory by either cutting back their wages to the bare minimum or by moving their jobs somewhere else. Otherwise you’re just destroying value (in a resolutely capitalist sense) by moving wealth to other people in smaller tranches and finding they can’t afford the prices you charge at home. Not that it’s a bad thing to transfer wealth elsewhere, but not for short term exploitation of wage arbitrage, which will itself inevitably dissolve.

  5. abbo says:

    Super well put Mr Bragg, It’s going to be a while before someone comes up with a viable answer though I fear which I would assume has a balance of many if not all political and financial thinkings

    Sadly it leaves the question that when will those standing proud and ignorant in their Fundamentalist far right, far left, free market, profiteering etc etc corner, concede that a little bit of everything may be something that should be raised in conversation.

    The OWS has their work cut out for them I wish them all well in raising awareness to those who need to, to look within themselves and a wider audience, I do believe though they have made the classic American error of Fight first, decide what to do after without having any real idea of what that may entail. Maybe the originators never thought it would gain such popularity and support.

    On that note I bid you good night!!

  6. Billy Bragg says:

    Tim,

    I hear what you say about pension funds being paid for by investments. It’s an unfortunate fact that, when trying to stimulate an economy, certain sectors suffer – look at how savers are currently being discouraged by the Bank of England’s determination to keep interest rates low.

    I believe that pensions shouldn’t have to rely on the vagaries of the market, they should be provided from taxation, along with free education, free health care and a roof over your head.

  7. David Archer says:

    Excellent post made all the more cogent by a history of music inseparable from the convictions of the man – or as Paul Simon wrote – “I’ll sing what I’ve said”.

    Well versed, Billy Bragg.

  8. [...] OCCUPY WALL STREET AND THE DANGERS OF MELANCHOLIA « Billy Blogg This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged a-family-with, a-giant-planet, contrasts-the, know-it-, latest-movie, night, week, with-the-end, world by admin. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  9. shona paton says:

    Thank you for talking sense and taking the time to think about it all and share it with us. Keep it up Billy! Hope you feel better soon :)

  10. ~anon~ says:

    Very well written piece, Bill. I agree with you on most parts and wish you would tend to write more on the subject. I appreciate you lending your voice to The Movement, no matter how loosely. Just to have you bring more notice to it is good enough for me.

    Concerning a remark made here – and seemingly around the world – as to our ‘List of Demands’ as a centerpiece for the Occupy Wall Street Movement, there is one main demand and it is being stated pefectly well by all that attend: No More Business As Usuall! When we started to organize this back in July it was said many times that we don’t want any central organization to it that others can tear down and point a collective finger at. Instead, the purpose is just to Shake It Up. Get people to look and think for themselves what is wrong with ‘The Market’ and how it affects their own lives and put a little fear into those that hold the puppet strings. We have successfully acclomplished that, I believe. (We all have our own view as to what is wrong.) We envisioned it to be as big as it has become, however, I don’t believe any of us thought that it would recieve the responses it has from such a wide-range of individuals, including sitting politicians, so quickly. This is a “Movement”. It is not a ‘rally’ or a ‘protest’. This was envisioned to be an ongoing, loosely organized, Event. We are not going anywhere! We will be here for a long time. Will we grow and accomplish what each individual wants to? That will be determined as to how many people actually stand up around the world and say, “I’m Mad As Hell and I am Not Going To Take This Anymore!” The apathy and melancholic sense of ‘it is what it is’ has to stop.

    It cannot be ‘hijacked’ or co-opted by any other organization, as there is nothing to hijack! That is one good thing about not having a core or centralized ‘commitee’: No one can speak for the group and in turn, no one can hand over the power to someone else. If someone were to try, others in the group will turn against them and continue the movement as originally envisioned – I believe.

    I do want to say that I speak only for myself, and when I have said,”We”, I am merely meaning ‘me’ [anonymous] and ‘me’ [non-anonymous]. I – as many around the world – have given plenty of notice to Expect Us.
    Peace Up All!

  11. attackanddecay says:

    Billy, I agree with anon above that it is hard to see how this Movement can be hijacked – at Zuccotti park yesterday, there were socialists and Marxists (yes of course), but also Christians, pacifists of all backgrounds, working people in the city of no “declared” political background who are seeking economic justice, and many, many young people who refuse to identify with traditional political labels because they seek to create a NEW kind of politics. I certainly came away from the afternoon feeling that some of my melancholia had lifted. I also agree that the biggest enemy is apathy, or worse, attacks by those – especially mainstream media – who may sound like they simply disdain the protester, but who actually fear that the mass of the American population will be truly inspired by these ideas to fight for change.

    I am buoyed by the positive energy that was being produced by all the folks in that park and hope to bring it to a movement in my own hometown, a city that is proud of its industrial history and of the prosperity and stability that unions contributed to people here, but which has fallen on very, very hard times. Those who seek a “rationale” or an “agenda” for the movement could take a look at the guiding principles of the Unitarian Universalist church, who have kindly offered us space in their premises to organize. I am not religious but their perspective is refreshing:

    “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”
    “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations”
    “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”
    “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”
    “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all”
    “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”

    Thanks for your blog and for your music, which has inspired me and many others to continue our struggles!

  12. http://1world1wage.org suggests a Global Labor Treaty to eliminate the places corporations can exploit vulnerable people for labor and end their practice of off-shoring jobs in order to break unions.

    Go to my website to sign the Global Labor Treaty petition to the United Nations.

    And visit my http://theconsumerparty.org website for ideas on what to do with our consumer dollars once everyone has globally sustainable salaries.

    PEACE through economic justice!

  13. Billy Bragg says:

    Attackanddecay,

    It’s good to hear that our new movement is capable of absorbing ideas from different sources without being co-opted by them.

    For the record, I have nothing against Marxists and people of faith. I have myself been inspired by both traditions. My argument is with those who turn up at any protest and tell everyone that they’re doing things the wrong way and that nothing of any worth can be achieved until we first overthrow capitalism/experience The Rapture. The scorn and damnation that such fundamentalists offer to all those who refuse to comply can be very divisive.

  14. attackanddecay says:

    Agreed, and thanks for your answer.

    When I left the park yesterday, I had “World Turned Upside Down” running through my head (although of course we seek a different sort of “ending” here). My hope is that those in charge of enforcing order – in particular the police unions – will come to see that we have a shared future, and that they can enable/support change that will benefit all of us. We have a long way to go. . .

  15. Simon says:

    I haven’t read all your recent stuff but hearing you on BBC Question Time and here, I’m wondering if you have any reservations about continuing with the mantra of economic growth, getting more money into peoples pockets so they can get back to consuming more stuff to kick-start the economy etc. Does environmental catastrophe feature in the planet crash metaphor? Or can we kick such worries into the long grass while we concentrate on ways to save capitalism by making its face more acceptable?

  16. Billy Bragg says:

    Good point, Simon.

    My idea of growth is not a return to the cheap credit, housing bubble kind of growth that we’ve seen over the past 20 years, but an economy that is on a sustainable trajectory, both in terms of the environment and on a social level.

    Our socialism needs to take on a green hue.

  17. Kerry says:

    Billy, one action that many people here in the U.S. are doing, including a lot of my friends and myself, is switching from big banks to credit unions. If this trend keeps up, the big banks, and hopefully other big financial concerns, will HAVE to listen to the people, because they will be LOSING customers/money, and THAT always gets them to listen…losing money…

  18. JBoyd says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say, Billy, but have two reservations: first, as Simon says (put your hands on your head, sorry couldn’t resist that), there are problems with relying on consumer spending as the engine of economic growth to build a fairer society from a green point of view. I would go further and say that we have to wean ourselves off economic growth generally; it simply isn’t sustainable environmentally, it isn’t (as we have seen) sustainable economically and it doesn’t actually deliver a more equal society.

    The other point is about Marxists; I think you can argue that trying to accommodate Marxism has held the Left back over the last century, because ultimately it isn’t compatible with other forms of socialism. The non-Marxist Left has traditionally seen revolutionary marxists as its allies, which at best has led to endless futile debate and at worst to open, violent conflict.

    I agree that they fundamentalist Marxist Left will try to take over any Left movement, which is a problem; but I think that assuming that they can still march (metaphorically) with the rest of the Left without the inevitable disagreements undermining the whole enterprise is unrealistic.

  19. Joey says:

    Being a regular viewer of question time I was thankful of your commenst regarding the importance of keeping people in employment in order to aid growth.

    It is an argument we have been using in the NHS with regard to a recent decision to pass Family Health Services in the South West of England to a french backed shared business venture that the NHS is currently promoting in an aggressive form. There will be many redundancies acroos the south west as services are streamlined, qulaity compromised and a precentage of work being sent offshore in India. This handing over of key nhs work to what is in effect a private company is based on an agreement formed in 2005 which freedom of information choses not to allow to share. To me it is the worst form of privatistaion – it is happening quitely through the back door on a huge scale. Whilst the argument for privatisation may be that it drives up competetion, in this case the Shared Business Service are slowly but surely taking over the NHS without having to tender thus having no competetion whatsoever.

    The true costs of the redundancies across the south west are simply not being realised. many of these people will end up on benefit as there simply are not the jobs in the south west to apply for. Whilst on benefit they will not be paying taxes or spending money in the economy. these are costs the NHS simply don’t take into account.

    I wish there was a way to highlight this publicly as people are unaware of this silent enemy and the long term effects could be huge.

    Why are we so short sighted and why do senior health officials refuse to see the bigger picture.

  20. Billy Bragg says:

    JBoyd,

    I understand your reservations about consumer spending. Rather than relying on it, we should harness it to deliver the greener economy that we want. What I do have trouble with is the notion – often put forward by green campaigners – that we have to stop buying things and instead live a frugal life.

    The Marxists made a huge mistake when they sought to deny that people have material need. That proscriptive agenda – that we know best what you want – is a massive turn off for voters. Surely a Green society has to be consensual? If so, we need to wean industrialists off of dirty production and do things that help consumers to drive a sustainable economy, like making sure that all the cars on the road are green.

    With specific regard to our Marxists friends – like the Greens – not all of them are fundies.
    And, just like I do with the Labour Party, you find the good ones and work with them.

  21. whichone says:

    Billy , they don’t want change they just want a fairer share of the existing system. With pressure this may happen until everyone is ‘happy’ again and the pressure on wages starts again. Nothing is changing or will change. The sad thing is that how much worse and ‘in your face’ must it get for any meaningful and lasting change to take place.

  22. Billy Bragg says:

    whichone,

    That’s like saying people who want free health care in the USA don’t really want change, they just want free health care. That would be meaningful change, as would a fairer version of the existing system.

    It doesn’t really help a fledgling movement with lots of young idealists to have people like you telling them that ‘nothing is changing or will change’.

    Kerb your cynicism, if only for your own good.

  23. Frank Conmy says:

    Well done on a very fair-minded article. Free market ought to mean just that: labour is essential therefore fair payment for labour ought to be essential.
    People have to matter more than corporate profits??!!
    The Economy must be the slave of the people not the other way around.

  24. Susie Madrak says:

    I am very, very hopeful for the first time in a long time. And Billy, I would love for you to come to #occupyphilly and play!

  25. Frank Conmy says:

    It is not about socialism, capitalism or any other -ism; it is about us the people of the earth.

  26. Tammy Smith says:

    I am in the US, & I have waited so long for something like Occupy Wall Street to happen. It’s amazing how quickly it has spread. But we still have problems with the people who watch Fox News all day long & have closed minds. Many of these individuals are being hurt by the economy too. It’s sad that they don’t even realize who their enemy truly is.

  27. [...] Billy Blogg (aka Billy Bragg) supports Occupy Wall Street from the United Kingdom.  Read his article at the link. [...]

  28. Simon says:

    I don’t identify with fundamentalists of any stripe but agree with JBoyd that we have to somehow wean ourselves off economic growth per se. Its also hard to see any elections being won by appeals to fairness and sustainability if there is any hint of hairshirt altruism. I want to remain optimistic that people (even currently very wealthy people) could be motivated by something other than more material acquisition and consumption. At the interpersonal level and in some communities there is plenty of evidence that they can be and that the riches that matter to us are not just those that can be measured financially. But how can capitalism reflect or allow this without ceasing to be capitalism?

  29. [...] Okay! my man Billy Bragg backs Reside in in piece here. “The time may come when [...]

  30. PatrickInOhio says:

    I hate the arsehole I’ve become! I stumbled upon this blog and agree wholeheartedly. It’s spreading #OccupyCleveland

  31. [...] kein Fett angesetzt hat allerdings auch Billy Bragg (54). Allerdings fragt man sich bei der Gelegenheit, wo denn eigentlich die anderen tollen (New [...]

  32. Kyle says:

    TIMES SQUARE RALLY, OCTOBER 15 || http://vimeo.com/30456863

  33. Jake says:

    The trouble with the current system is the obsession with “making money”. There’s no such thing (ignore actually making money, which is technically making the representation of money anyway). You just take money from many places and store it for yourself. Nobody can get rich unless someone else gets poor.

    I’m just about to turn 18, so my experience of life is limited. But all I see is that capitalism is putting a name on letting human nature run wild.

  34. Tim says:

    It’s all very well saying pensions and education and so on should be paid from taxation, but you hit a take from Peter to pay Paul issue. There’s no point raising people’s wages to give them more to spend and then taking money away in tax. Unless you get growth your tax take diminishes anyway, and as your population ages the working part of it gets hammered to pay for the retirement of the old.

    On saving, why should anyone expect a risk free safe return anyway? Where do you think the money to pay interest comes from exactly? You don’t spirit up free money just by sticking 0.25% on base rates: the answer is that it comes from other people investing in growth.

    In reality, and beyond a certain amount of diabolical advocacy, I’m not a million miles away from your position, but where I worry is that in simplifying a very complex set of interlinkages and nailing them onto a political banner, you are presenting the idea that we can all be well off and live in utopia without any personal costs or sacrfice. In fact what I’d like to see is an understanding that to have the quality of life most of us want spread into all sections of society, ALL OF US need to be prepared to pay in terms of tax. We can’t rely on a mythical rich big brother to pick up the tab for us. And it’s really very divisive to pretend we can, it’s just back to class war.

    Take bank taxes for example. Every single bank employee in the UK pays income tax. 40% of all banker bonuses go in income tax and more in NI. That is a massive take for the government, irrespective of what corporation tax banks pay, which in any case isn’t how they’re measured on their accounts, it just comes out of the money available for shareholders (pension funds basically). Now it’s certainly the case that banks behaved idiotically by using valueless mortgage loans as security, and natural justice demands contrition, but banks also do provide the liquidity that we need – companies and individuals – to get back to growth, so thumping them endlessly becomes self defeating. What we should be doing is spelling out very clearly what we expect from them as part of the societal contract in the regions they operate, not just turning round at every opportunity and telling them they are evil.

    That’s what I think anyway. I don’t want to come across as a bank apologist c*** anyway, and I do love your music and your decency and basic common sense. You can respect someone without agreeing 100% I guess.

  35. Billy Bragg says:

    Tim,

    It’s all very well for you to say that bank’s pay taxes too. Check out this article from this weeks Guardian

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/oct/11/ftse-100-subsidiaries-tax-havens?intcmp=239

    Here’s what it says about British banks:

    “The banking sector has the largest number of tax haven companies, with the big four UK banks – HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays and Lloyds – having a total of 1,649 offshore subsidiaries. They have the largest number of companies registered in the Cayman Islands, with Barclays alone registering 174 subsidiaries and ventures there. HSBC has 156 subsidiaries in Delaware, which has limited reporting requirements, compared to 97 in the rest of the USA. Lloyds Group has 97 companies in the Channel Islands.”

    These are British companies making money off of the British taxpayer and syphoning it offshore so that they don’t have to support their customers health care, education, housing or pensions.

    I’m spelling out what I want: I want that money to be paid to the Treasury. Is that wrong?

  36. Joey says:

    Billy,

    Any chance you could contact me before Thursday as have an issue involving the south west which i hope will concern you.

    Andy

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