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Occupy protests: the tyranny of solutions
Much has been made of the current ‘Occupy’ protests; Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange, (located at St Paul’s Cathedral) being two of the most prominent, although I have seen similar protests in a number of cities in different countries.
These protests are often criticised for not having any clear focus, demands, proposals or even a narrative of what they stand for. When journalists speak to protesters they talk of banks, jobs going overseas, globalisation and a random selection of other such issues. For this reason the media, politicians and others have an easy time dismissing them and negating their protest. And every time I hear this, I do tend to think that the commentator concerned is missing the point.
We sit inside of a substantial economic downturn, which has affected all of us. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used by politicians all over the world, who are scrambling for something to deflect any sense of their own responsibility. It’s a global interconnected system, and politicians rightly point out that they, on their own, could not have prevented this crisis – we are connected to what American mortgage lenders did over the previous decades in a way we could not have predicted.
During the last decades real wages (the income of an average family) in the US have stayed stable (in fact they are currently below the levels they were at in 1997). In that time the American dream was pursued by many through real estate investments – this was a means to increase income. However those dreams died when the housing bubble burst. Meanwhile the richest parts of society have gotten richer – redistribution of wealth in a capitalist form!
Now we have a group of people, across a number of countries, whose investments have gone down in value (both property and other investments, such as pensions), whilst others have gotten richer. They look around for explanations and hear politicians profess that it’s not their fault as it’s a globally interconnected system, economists didn’t see it coming, and even if they did, the cause was somewhere else (in the UK, politicians often cite American mortgage lenders at this point, but I’m sure all politicians have someone they blame). Even now in hindsight, economists argue about what went wrong and how to fix it.
These protests are a representation of the anger that exists about all that has happened. The people concerned are not international economists (who can’t agree about what to do) and yet the commentators expect these people to articulate the nature of the problem and their proposals for how to fix it.
Just how can they be expected to do this? This is absurdity! This is a group of people who have been screwed by an economic system they do not understand (neither do the economists, but most of the protestors will be more honest about admitting it!). They know there is a problem, they know that there has been a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. They know that something in this whole system, where investment bankers still get big bonuses, isn’t working. They often can’t articulate exactly what it is, and they can’t engage in arguments with economists about the whys and wherefores of it, but they know it’s not working.
Sometimes we expect people to come with solutions rather than problems. For many things in life this is appropriate and helpful, and we want people to do this – most managers want their staff to come with their recommended solution as well as details of the problem. However let’s be honest, we don’t really understand the economic system we are living in. Economists can’t agree on it, and politicians, in their attempts to absolve themselves of responsibility, admit the same thing every day when they say that it’s a globally interconnected system and they couldn’t have seen it coming or prevented it.
Whenever a problem is sufficiently complex, telling people that they need to present solutions is useless. They may be able to come up with a potential solution, but someone else will be able to pick holes in it. The reality is that the solution to anything really big and complex takes many diverse perspectives, and therefore many diverse people, who are all affected by the complexity of the system.
Yes, these protestors have no clear position or proposals, but perhaps that’s the point. Any proposals or solutions that these protestors give would be woefully inadequate, dealing only with one small part of the problem. This is not a criticism of the protestors; the same would be true of any small group or individual trying to solve the problem (and is also the problem faced by many politicians in trying to deal with the mess they are in).
Perhaps we should stop demanding clear solutions and proposals, and understand that the lack of such clarity tells us the nature of the problem. Perhaps, we need to be more accepting of confusing and unclear responses to confusing and unclear situations and realise that clear proposals would be simplistic given the complexity of the situation. We are perhaps more adept at dealing with more simple situations where we can have clear proposals, but requiring the protestors to develop clear and simplistic sound bites and arguments is something they are right to resist.
Sometimes it’s ok to just declare that there is a problem, without having to provide a solution. The protestors are performing that role, and our response should not be to criticise them; they perform a useful role in pushing us to face this difficult and complex solution without resorting to simplistic solutions.