Occupy Sydney: Why The Doubters Are Wrong

27 October 2011
There's nothing worse than finding yourself on the same side of an issue as one of the right wing bile spewers you normally despise - certainly during the Bill Henson controversy was mortified to find myself agreeing with Miranda Devine. I guess safety in numbers would help, at least for many lefty types I know who have come out against the Occupy Sydney/Melbourne/Australia protests. It must be hard being on the same side as John Howard's stunt double Gerald Henderson, who applies his right wing touch to the protests. We'd expect that from the conservative chorus. But why are so many normally open minded progressive types in agreement?

It's a partial agreement, to be fair. "I support the Occupy Wall Street protests" the line from the sneering hipsters runs, "But not Occupy Australian City. What have they got to complain about?" However, they've completely missed the point of the thing. One popular post doing the rounds (on Tumblr, no less) sums up why they just don't get it.

Yes, Australia has come through the GFC largely unscathed. But not completely. Around 100,000 Australians lost their jobs as a direct result of the economic downturn (I was one of them) - not huge numbers, but if you were one of them, it kinda rankles when people act like you don't exist. Unemployment overall is low, so most of those people, apparently, found other jobs (although Australia suffers from gross under reporting in unemployment statistics) but the effects of the GFC will be felt for years to come as we pay off the budget deficit acquired to stave off the worst of the economic woes. The system which allowed the GFC to happen is still very much in place.

And we are vulnerable to it in Australia; we're part of the global economy. The decisions made in corporate boardrooms around the world very much affect us here. The protests are global, too. One of the dumbest criticisms of the protests has been "the Australian economy isn't like the U.S. economy". Well for a start the global Occupy movement started in Madrid - Occupy Wall Street came later - and second it's about showing solidarity, and Australia is very much at the whims of the global system of capitalism. We still have a system where CEOs can receive obscene bonuses whilst laying off staff and cutting costs to the detriment of service and safety; we still have a system that is reliant on personal over corporate taxation for the backbone of federal revenue. Services which were once provided by the government are now outsourced. We are going down the path of two-tier health and education systems. Yes Australia has it better than many other countries, but for how much longer if we keep sitting back and letting it get worse?

Perhaps the most amusing, or offensive, comment from the anti-Occupy brigade is "wouldn't it be great if those participating in the Occupy protests did volunteer work instead." Aside from the irony of smug hipsters sitting in coffee shops tapping on their iPads telling those who actually get off their butts and do something that they should be doing something else instead, it's just plain wrong. Volunteer work is something we should all be doing. But it's grassroots stuff. There's that hackneyed old saying "give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime." It's true here. Volunteering does nothing to address the long term problems of social inequality. It's the ordinary people cleaning up the messes which have arisen through the actions of the powerful - closing mental hospitals, underfunding disability services. We need the short term help of volunteers. We also need to fix the problems which require them. So do both. But don't attack those who choose to protest by declaring what else they should be doing, whilst you do nothing at all.

Rather than declaring what's wrong with the protests, or quibbling every detail of their sometimes blurred agenda, we should be supporting them in recognition that the current system needs to change. Maybe the alternatives aren't perfect, but is capitalism?


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