Christopher Caldwell in occupied London
Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Chug-a-lugging malt liquor and smashing things may be the Oakland way of expressing support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. But there are other ways. The movement’s English sympathizers seemed to be asking what Jesus would do. In London last week I decided to visit them.
I have a soft spot for the English counterculture, maybe because I know it mostly through books. George Orwell once wrote that “the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Say what you will, Nature Cure quacks are not known for following Pol Pot. English protesters don’t smash up Mercedes showrooms with lead pipes. They lean more towards hallucinogenic mushrooms, hard-to-name stringed instruments, infrequent bathing, and all-encompassing theories about sex. They are more hippies than vandals.
Rather than holler in front of some sooty stock exchange or central bank, the London Occupiers camped in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In so doing, they occasioned a crisis of conscience in the Church of England. The tabloids urged clearing out the lowlifes. The church showed every inclination to oblige. But then Canon Giles Fraser resigned rather than participate in their dispersal. “I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp,” he said. To kick the protesters out would constitute “violence in the name of the Church.” Fraser won backers, inside the church and out. Conservative columnists soon began to remark that Jesus did have a pretty negative opinion of wealth.
The priests might have been lachry-mose and out of their economic depth, but they were not wrong. Robert Frost said that home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in. A church, similarly, is where, when you complain about injustice, they have to listen to you. It seemed a small miracle that, through all the cant and fashion-obsession that gets knocked into young people’s heads nowadays, they had found their way to that place.
Hearing me enthuse this way, an English friend asked: “Are you quite sure they chose the spot in front of the church because it was a church?” He was right to be skeptical. The protesters, I discovered when I went to visit, had wanted to go to Paternoster Square, a pedestrian shopping area. But it turned out to be owned by Mitsubishi. Unencumbered by Anglo-Saxon hippie anguish, the company asserted its property rights and told the campers to beat it. So they wandered next-door—to St. Paul’s.
The tent city they set up was not the kind that the Joads or the Bonus Marchers lived in. It was more like the Phillips Exeter Nature Club summer reunion on Mount Washington, with high-end camping tents kept clean as a whistle. As striking as the lack of dirt was the paucity of genuine economic protest. The campers were fighting for the same causes you would have seen at a European Social Forum 10 years ago. There were the Kurdistan Workers’ party people with their quotations from Abdullah Öcalan. There were Palestine people. There were people demanding something on behalf of sex workers. (Not the 40-hour week, as I recall.) The finance crisis was a pretext for taking to the streets.
I had been given the name of a press contact, but she was off at Julian Assange’s trial. So a well-mannered 17-year-old from North London walked me around. We went to various tents and sheds—to the GA, or General Assembly, which met at 1 and 7 p.m. daily; to the kitchen tent, which served 500-700 meals a day; to the T-shirt-making tent that two Chinese guys had set up days before. (The camp was so advanced, it already had its own sweatshop.) My friend was going to regret going back to his fancy school in a couple weeks, he said, but his parents would be upset if he didn’t.
When I asked him about the church, he introduced me to a skinny, bespectacled, bearded fellow, the kind of ringleader who crops up at all these “nonhierarchical” gatherings.
“So how do you get along with the church?” I asked.
“The what?” replied Ringleader.
“Why’s everyone going on about the church?”
“Well, I mean, in making your case to a body that—”
“This is bigger than the church, mate.”
“Well,” I continued, “the gospel—”
At that point Ringleader remembered he had a meeting. I saw him a few minutes later checking his email in Starbucks.