Occupy the Playground!

Having a youth movement is good. But what are the demands of the occupy protesters? Without a message, they might as well occupy their local playgrounds. Real change happens through institutions, not by protesting against them.

The damn train station doesn’t motivate people anymore. For months, thousands had protested against the reconstruction of the Stuttgart main station in Southern Germany. Now, the protests have lost their momentum. Construction has proceeded despite the election of a Green Party state government. But forget that – now we’re fighting for the jackpot. Occupy! Not only the station but the planet! The politics of anger have returned, and we have zeroed in on those in power: Governments and bankers. The mob wants to be taken seriously without knowing how to improve the status quo.

We’re living in utopian times again, that is the message from the tent cities. A few thousand protesters are portrayed as a revolution. Their honest demand is, roughly speaking, the building of a better world. Yet prominent German artists and politicians have justifiably asked: “What the heck do they want?” Or, more politely: “Who are these youthful romantics?”

We are observing the formation of rather bizarre alliances. Conservative chancellor Merkel voiced sympathy for the demonstrations alongside the Green Party, ECB Chairman Mario Draghi and (conservative) Treasury Secretary Wolfgang Schäuble.

What? If I were one of the protesters, I surely would not want support from these people. Once the political establishment gets on board, the movement will lose its revolutionary aura and the flair that comes from storming the financial palaces and castles of power.

It is entirely obvious why politicians are beginning to throw their lot in with the protesters: By strengthening the occupy movement against big banks, they are diverting attention from their own policies that contributed to the current debt crisis. At the same time, they are raising the pressure for banks to act – and hope to corner them to extract further concessions towards their economic policies.

A paradoxical move: Nobody would deny that bond ratings were downgraded precisely because of the accumulation of debt by national governments. The banks displayed enormous trust in the solvency of government-issued bonds. There is a reason why bond purchases did not have to be backed by a capital stock. It is thus a bit belated to demand that banks increase their capital stock now – a move that would have been necessary three years ago. Today, we are faced with a state-induced debt crisis, not with a financial crisis.

But let us return to the issue at hand: Against what are people protesting? Against banks. Against capitalism. Against injustice. For the redistribution of wealth. The top one percent ought to give back to the other 99 percent. How is that supposed to happen, one might ask. A possible answer: The collective will come up with a solution. But is the European Central Bank really the right spot to voice those concerns? I doubt it. Politicians will not like this, but I am convinced that it is true: The demonstrations should happen in front of parliaments and the seats of governments – they are the ones responsible for the current crisis.

During the past week, my Facebook feed provided a live update of the perils of the urban middle class: They were being kettled by police, tensions were rising. Oh Lord, how exciting! What an opportunity to avoid another lame Saturday in the park with the dog, or on the playground with the kids.

Today’s protesters need to learn from the student movement of the 1960s. They advocated the “march through the institutions”. Only through established institutions can we engender sustainable change. While they were busy protesting, the news cycle produced another round of concerning reports: China, India and Brazil want to use the IMF to topple the Euro. Of course they want more institutional power! They are demanding a change to existing power constellations – and the West will be forced to grant concessions. Change is already underway.

We used to smile at the idea of Eastern or Southern dominance. But rising powers have taken center stage in global politics and will leave their mark in the decades to come. They will accept responsibility – even if that means the rectification of a failed Western debt policy. The IMF becomes the vehicle for change while protest withers away. It’s a lesson we should not miss: Opposition does not imply change. Now is not the time for redistribution, but for responsibility.

Thus far, nobody has attempted to storm the gates of the German chancellery. “Why would we?”, the occupiers ask. They prefer to philosophize about a better world and paint their faces. To that I say: Go back to the playground! In Berlin, in New York, in Paris and Milan, young men and women are studying in the libraries. Tomorrow, they will march through the institutions. They will occupy positions of power, not empty squares. They are the real occupiers.

Read more in this debate: Priyamvada Gopal.

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It is easy to dismiss the occupy movement as idealistic or incoherent. Here's a different take: We may have finally reached that stage where remaining listless and indifferent is not an option. Occupy is where true politics happens.

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by Priyamvada Gopal
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