Sydney Writers' Festival Review: OccupySWF in the Great Hall

18 May 2012

Walking in to the Sydney Writers' Festival Occupy event, I was filled with an underlying scepticism. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for social justice and equality. Nothing makes me madder than corporate fat-cats and their golden parachutes. Yet this utopic spirit is tinged by an overwhelming apathy. What can I do? I'm one person in the face of an international problem! And for all media hype, the Occupy Sydney movement has fizzled down to a few hardy hangers-on, clinging to their patch of cement in Martin Plaza since October last year.

As the rank and file of Occupy enthusiasts and intrigued guests filled the University of Sydney's Great Hall, I couldn't help but feel a palpable sense that I wasn't alone in my doubts.

So when the University's Professor Simon Tormey opened the floor to the international panel experts, I was quite shocked at how quickly I changed my mind. Particularly given some of the movement's slogans bandied about (which included "I don't believe in anything, I'm just here for the violence" and "Tell us your demands so we can ignore them"). Relishing his role as devil's advocate, Tormey played the perfect convenor of this hotly contested debate.

First to add his two cents was renowned political academic Professor John Keane . He tackled my preconceived notions early on, asking us all to question the use of the term Occupy "movement" itself. With its throwbacks to Industrial Revolution era progress, Keane suggests we ditch the phrase entirely for a more accurate one - "Occupy Politics".

Keane continued to surprise, inverting the supposed negatives of the movement into a more favourable light. He suggested the very things we criticise Occupy for - its indecisiveness, spontaneity, and sardonic humour - should instead be celebrated. Keane really forced me to open my eyes to a radical new form of democratic participation, one founded on the collective, the complex and the novel.

Italian financial commentator Loretta Napoleoni gave a more forensic perspective on the movement. She pointed to Occupy's fluid, leaderless structure as the most indignant form of political engagement; a reinvention of modern politics itself. "We should be learning from them, not teaching them!" she exclaimed. "They show us a deep crisis in democracy."

When Napoleoni brought some hard economic data to the discussion it was clear that she was not far wrong. I was shocked to learn that executive salaries in the 1980s were 40 times the median wage in the United States. This has alarmingly ballooned out of all proportion today, with executive salaries around 400 times the median wage! As she discussed the European sovereign debt crisis, rising unemployment rates and the disappearing middle class, the moral outrage at the heart of Occupy became unmistakable.

Adding some anecdotal perspectives to the evening was American author Chad Harbach. His laid-back stories from friends who camped out at Occupy's front line in Zuccotti Park gave a rare insight into the pragmatics of getting this social movement onto the international agenda.

I never thought I'd hear about the Occupy protestors on "meal duty" or as "head of the laundry division", yet this is what happened as the group struggled to cope with the rising number of occupiers in the park. Chad laughed and recalled his friend's questions of "How are we going to feed ourselves?" These mundane glimpses showed me how the movement is as much a civic societal project as it is a political one.

After a lengthy Q&A, the night ended with more questions than answers. But Harbach summed up the situation well. Whatever Occupy is asking for, the time for making their demands hasn't arrived yet. But the galvanising effect of the Occupy slogan - "We are the 99 per cent" - has undoubtedly had an indelible effect on not just American politics but global social activism.

Contact: Emily Jones

Phone: 02 9114 1961

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