I was in town this morning for a very productive meeting with a friend who’s a local GP to help me explore potential opportunities for social enterprises (aka #socent on Twitter) if GPs end up directly commissioning services.
We’d spotted earlier in the day that Billy Bragg was going to be at Occupy Leeds in City Square at midday, so we wandered across after our meeting finished.
I love Billy Bragg. I think kids in 50 years time will study his lyrics in the way that we studied war poets. And there is a coherence and clarity to his view of the world which I find hugely inspiring (even though I’m the first to admit I’m not a socialist). So it was good to hear a few songs and listen to what he had to say about the importance of the Occupy movement.
It was the first time I’ve been down to Occupy Leeds. I took a passing interest when Occupy Wall Street started, and got a bit more interested when people attempted to occupy the London Stock Exchange. But it really caught my imagination when the protest moved to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.
I thought the symbolism was brilliant, and could immediately see how moving the protest to the steps of a Christian church was likely to lead to something quite interesting. But of course I couldn’t have anticipated how much it would shake up the hierarchy at St Paul’s and in the wider Church.
I’m a conflicted, uncomfortable Roman Catholic, born into a Catholic family. I wouldn’t actively choose to be a Catholic now, but it’s the tradition I’ve been brought up in and it’s where, in lots of ways, I belong. I also value in some ways the sense of discomfort that it brings me. But I have no time for the hierarchy of the Church, and I struggle with a lot of its teaching. Yet I find a niche within it – informed mainly by my year in Ecuador with a social project steeped in liberation theology – that keeps me hanging in there.
It was my patchy understanding of liberation theology that sparked my interest in the protest at St Paul’s. I was pretty sure that Jesus would be outside in one of the tents, sitting with the people whose demands may be incoherent but who are saying something profound about social justice. I also thought that the kind of church leader who inspires me – someone like the assassinated Archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Romero – would be out there with them too.
So that was my way in to the Occupy movement. But I’d be lying if I said I felt that I was part of that movement. When I was down at City Square this afternoon I found it too easy to tell myself that the people there – camping, speaking, waving banners were people not like me. I accept that’s not particularly helpful, but it was my honest response. Got a beard? Probably not like me. Read Socialist Worker? Not like me. Look vaguely “alternative” in any of the ways that we like to compartmentalise other people? Not like me. Got a desire to camp outside in the freezing cold at City Square? Not like me. And there were lots of people there who, I told myself privately, were “not like me”.
But I think that’s the challenge, both to me and to the rest of us – both those who do currently feel totally part of the Occupy movement – and those like me who are intrigued by it and who see how important it is at this moment in time. And that’s why I think the We Are The 99% slogan is so clever and so powerful. Because in my opinion we – the vast majority of the world who are at the mercy of modern capitalism (and the vast majority of the world are doing far worse out of it than I am) – need to see that all of us are ill-served by the current economic system. There has to be a better way. If we don’t find one, the only question will be whether it’s economic collapse or environmental catastrophe that gets us first.
So I think with time we need to all see ourselves as the 99% – a diverse, engaged and not so engaged, political and apolitical, religious and non-religious, “alternative” and “mainstream” group of people. So, speaking personally, I can be part of a movement that aims to make the world a much better place than it currently is. Me, with my lack of political upbringing, my complicated relationship with Christianity, my lack of desire to take part in protests, my interest in finding business opportunities that deliver social change, my pragmatism, and my messy contradictions. I see myself as part of the 99 per cent now. Do you?