Rag Tag Rebels With A Cause


It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for the remnant forces of the left in Australia. The brief flowering of Australian versions of a world-wide "Occupy" movement was terminated abruptly by massive police intervention in Melbourne and then Sydney, followed by plenty of recriminations.

What does the Occupy movement signify? Is it a valid expression of political and social discontent, or merely a theatre of protest acted out by bored activists in search of a cause?

I turned up to the Occupy Melbourne protest on its first Saturday to have a look for myself. It was hard to judge the real depth of the discontent through the clatter of slogans and the forest of protest signs. The vibe was peaceful and friendly. Certainly, there was a general feeling that the global financial crisis signifies a handy recent example for those wishing to point to the power of banking elites to rig the system in their favour. There were also a multitude of different causes and social protest movements represented, predominantly but not solely from the left. But the crowd was diverse and by no means dominated by activists.

Incidentally, one thing I didn’t notice was any economic suffering from local cafes and traders. The restaurant on City Square I bought my coffee from was doing a roaring trade from protestors toting recyclable cups, and the manager I spoke to was apparently more concerned about the large public art sculptures of demon babies erected by the Melbourne Festival than the impromptu occupation that had assembled on the square before his establishment.

A week later, after a typically self-aggrandising intervention from Melbourne’s clownish Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, more than 400 police moved in a small core of protestors and forcefully evicted them. It was a brutal demonstration of naked force by the state, and made headlines all around the world.

Was it necessary? Of course it wasn’t, but that’s not to say it wasn’t politically advantageous to Doyle, a conservative who correctly judged that taking decisive action against the dwindling group of protestors would be viewed favourably by much of the mainstream media, as well as many of his City of Melbourne constituents. (The City’s constitution allows businesses and traders to vote, as well as actual city residents).

There’s been an awful lot of coverage of the Occupy Melbourne eviction, most of which has been selective and some of which has been rather disturbing. The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair, for instance, recommended (we hope with his tongue in his cheek) the use of water-cannons, water boarding and "helicopter gunships" (yes, really) against protestors, while centrist commentators like Fairfax’s Shaun Carney used the protests as a handy opportunity to attack the Greens. The right-wing newspapers have also jumped on this bandwagon, aided by the paper-thin pretext of the involvement of a part-time Greens staffer as a volunteer media contact for Occupy Melbourne. "Beneath the polished exterior and gentle tones of the modern Greens movement," thundered the Tele’s editorial, "lies a goofy core of anti-mainstream agitation."

The anti-Greens rhetoric tells us more about the preoccupations of that party’s critics than it does about the validity of the Occupy protestors’ concerns. Indeed, the general flavour of the reaction has been … reactionary. It’s amusing, though hardly surprising, to find many of the same voices who only a couple of weeks ago lined up to defend Andrew Bolt’s law-breaking racial vilification on free speech grounds turning around to attack the Occupy Melbourne protestors for their "self-indulgence". It’s also interesting to compare the way that protests about the carbon tax were covered by much of the Murdoch media and television news to the way the Occupy protests have been covered.

But perhaps more instructive is the manner in which even normally progressive commentators such as Greg Jericho can be found ridiculing the protests, whether for their disorganisation, their intellectual incoherence, their refusal to disperse after a period of time, or simply because of a general feeling that things are pretty good in Australia in 2011 and there should be no need to protest.

One of the most common variants of the commentary about the Occupy protests is that, because Australia didn’t have a recession, there is really no justification for discontent, in contrast to Greece or the United States.

As Tad Tiezte remarks on his blog Left Flank, the problem with this analysis is that "it seeks to find the cause of the US protests pretty much solely in the level of hardship being visited on that country’s population by the Great Recession".

But, Tietze points out, while the level of deprivation is manifestly worse in other countries, Australia still suffers from inequality and poverty of very much the same nature. "It is worrying that progressive critics are trying to make such a positive case about inequality and poverty here while the top 20 per cent own 60 times the wealth of the bottom 20 per cent, and when there has been a lot of worrying data released as part of Anti-Poverty Week," he writes.

There has indeed been a lot of new data recently released about broadening inequalities and worsening poverty. The Australian Council of Social Service and the University of New South Wales’ respected Social Policy Research Centre estimate that as many as 2.2 million Australians live below the poverty line, defined in this country as a frugal $284 a week. Given the rising costs of food, housing and utilities in recent years, many Australians are genuinely doing it tough. In the meantime, billionaires like Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest show no compunction donating big dollars to slick marketing campaigns aimed at defeating higher taxes on their stupendously lucrative mining activities.

So what can we make of the Occupy protests? It’s fair to say that they have not simply been about poverty and inequality. Protestors are clearly voicing their concern about a multitude of disparate issues. The protests have been neither coherent nor particularly articulate. On the other hand, it’s intellectually lazy in the extreme to argue — as many have been — that there is no problem here and that the protests are not valid at all.

In fact, the systemic issues that the Occupy protests have identified remain endemic in Australian society; indeed, in the structure of the global economy itself. The trends driving increased poverty and inequality in supposedly wealthy western nations are international and long-standing, and protests about them can’t be wished away as meaningless agitprop without a wilful blindness to the economic trends of the past three decades. These trends include rapid globalisation, footloose capital, vast increases in consumer and household debt, and widening income inequality driven by unprecedented and unjustified rewards for those — like bankers and CEOs — at the top of the economic pyramid.

Rational policy responses to these trends have not been highlighted in the media’s coverage of the Occupy protests, but that doesn’t man they’re not out there. A few ideas include a return to a more structured and planned economy, greater public investment in the long-term services that the market can’t or won’t provide, increased taxation of executive pay-outs, corporate profits and other unjustified economic rents, and more stringent regulation of hot money, financial speculation and the other risky side-effects of global capitalism.

But why focus on the policy solutions? It’s so much easier for the media to manufacture outrage.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.