thenextwave

‘Occupy’ as public innovation

Posted in emerging issues, politics by Andrew Curry on 29 February, 2012

I have been trying, fairly unsuccessfully, to write a long post on the politics of Occupy. This isn’t that post, but it seemed that the clearance this week of Occupy LSX, after four months outside St Paul’s, needed some sort of note. This shortish post is about Occupy as a form of public innovation.

I’m partly grateful here to the Guardian journalist Gary Younge, who wrote something earlier this week about the way in which the Occupy moment in the US had done four important things (I’m interpreting here a little):

  • it had created an umbrella and a political narrative about the crisis under which activists involved in different campaigns could link together
  • it had drawn in new activists
  • it had created a story about the crisis which resonated with the mass of people.
  • even though the camps have largely gone, it had created a platform for further targeted actions about the crisis (such as the anti-eviction campaigns he writes about).

As a result American opinion polls now show, as Younge reports, that 77% of Americans believe there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations, while those who believed “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard” was at its lowest point since the question was first put in 1994. Even Republicans have cautioned that apparently uncritical support for “Wall Street” will damage the party’s prospects.

A shifting landscape

In the UK we’re seeing similar shifts in the landscape. Although the campaign in the past couple of weeks against the workings of the government’s ‘welfare to work’ proposals owe as much to the ethos of UK Uncut to Occupy, it seems unlikely that it would have gained so much traction this time last year, or that businesses would have been distancing themselves from the scheme so quickly. And you know that the government’s in trouble when businessmen such as Stuart Rose are wheeled out to support it.

By public innovation, I don’t mean the consensus decision-making of Occupy or the ‘crowd-mikes’, although they are both interesting. Instead, I mean this. I’ve written before on this blog about the Three Horizons model, originally developed by Bill Sharpe and Tony Hodgson, and which Tony and I evolved further in an article (opens pdf) in the Journal of Futures Studies.

A story about the future

Without labouring this, Three Horizons is a model of systemic change. The First Horizon represents current dominant assumptions about a domain, while the Third Horizon is the place of social critics and dissidents. To start to create change, the Third Horizon activists need to get beyond the sort of fragmented and single issue groups which can be  dismissed as impractical, or Luddites, or utopians, or all three. And to do this, they usually need a story about the future which is sufficiently compelling to be heard in the mainstream. Successful Third Horizon groups create constituencies around this idea of the future.

And as they do this, they start moving towards the Second Horizon, in which the prevailing dominant assumptions are challenged and the beneficiaries of the present system are forced to respond and adapt. (Not all Third Horizon groups get this far – some just fizzle out, and some are stamped out: this is not a determinist view of social and system change).

Gripped by the throat

Occupy and its aftermath hasn’t quite got to the Second Horizon stage. To be clear here, we’re still in a First Horizon world in which finance capital has our political system gripped warmly by the throat. But we are starting to see the sort of skirmishes which suggests engagement is starting to happen (systemic change is always an untidy process, and usually a protracted one). While bankers forgoing their bonuses is largely a PR-driven sleight of hand, it wouldn’t have happened at all a year or two ago. Nor would the Times have been leading on news that Barclays Bank had constructed a £500m tax avoidance scheme, or the Treasury moved so fast to close it – and to claw back the tax avoided retrospectively.

Changing the rules

Occupation is a symbolic tactic, which is one of the reasons that the authorities are discomfited by it. In the end, as occupiers have discovered ever since Winstanley was evicted from St George’s Hill by Fairfax’ troop of horse, the law and the authorities usually conspire to ensure eviction. But that doesn’t mean that occupation is a useless tactic. In his article Gary Younge quotes the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire:

“What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”

In the case of Occupy it has changed the political rules of engagement, for the moment. But we’re still at the early stages of an eighty-year economic crisis and a forty-year political crisis. Such crises can take a decade or more to unfold. For now, Occupy has opened up some possibilities.

 

The photos in this post of Occupy LSX were taken by Andrew Curry, and are posted here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

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