Laurie Penny and Joan Smith: Debating the anti-capitalism protests

Laurie Penny says we are witnessing a brave challenge to greed and inequity. Joan Smith thinks that the protesters are self-congratulatory and will achieve nothing. So we set the pair to argue the matter out...

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Dear Joan,

If this isn't an appropriate time for civil disobedience, I don't know what is. As the average after-tax income for the top 1 per cent of US households was last week revealed to have almost quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, 24- year-old Iraq veteran Scott Olsen was fighting for his life in a California hospital, shot in the face by police with a tear-gas canister during a demonstration against corporate greed in Oakland. In hundreds of cities, ordinary people are putting their bodies and futures on the line to challenge the inequities of aggressive market finance.

The Occupy movement has drawn in supporters from across the socio-political spectrum, especially in America, where union backing has lent weight to what began less than a month ago as a gaggle of protesters getting pepper-sprayed on a Manhattan sidewalk.

Of course, any movement that is trying to do something so profoundly new and exciting with politics is going to experience teething problems – this is a movement that is complex, and constantly evolving. But the protesters at Occupy London released a communally authored list of demands challenging the secret practices and undemocratic privileges of the City of London Corporation, working out of a tent-city on the flagstones of St Paul's Churchyard. How's that for a bunch of naive hippies?

Yours, Laurie

Dear Laurie,

I don't think there's any dispute about the unhappy state we're in. I can't remember a time when so many people were worried about losing their jobs, paying the mortgage, getting jobs in the first place, having their benefits cut or being left to fend for themselves in hospital. There's a great deal of anger because most of us feel the global financial crisis isn't our fault but we're suffering the consequences, and may go on doing so for years. A society distorted by inequality is being made even more unfair by a government bent on making reckless cuts. But I'm not sure all this talk of new and exciting politics is any kind of a solution to the problem. It's taken two weeks for Occupy London to come up with a set of demands and now they have, they're narrow, focused on their own concerns and don't explain how any of it is to be achieved.

If we were emerging from years of dictatorship, like Tunisia, I could understand it. But I wonder how many of the protesters have got involved in politics of any description before now. I suspect one of the reasons we're in this mess is that it's easier to exchange rants with like-minded people online, set up camps and issue manifestos than do the hard slog of politics – standing for election, knocking on doors, winning people over. There's a well-meaning but self-congratulatory atmosphere about these protests that doesn't have much to do with real life – caring for elderly people, creating jobs, improving the outlook for the disabled and children in care.

Yours, Joan

Dear Joan,

One of the things that fascinates about these protests is how many organisers are young people who have abandoned party politics to camp out under the edifices of global finance – in America, the occupiers are the Obama generation, worn out with asking politely for change that never comes. At St Paul's, I've met a civil servant, former and current Labour Party campaigners, feminist activists, union members and workers for think tanks and NGOs. These are people who have spent countless hours answering phones, stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors and writing press releases for their party of choice, and everywhere they see representative democracy unable to rein in corporate excess, and they've had enough. They have chosen for now to focus their hard work and energy elsewhere, and the Occupy movement is nothing if not hard work. Months of organisation, weeks sleeping on hard stone paving, cleaning, dealing with the press, as well as looking after the many hungry, homeless and sick people who turn up at the occupations looking for shelter – it's all being done gladly, in order to model the sort of society of mutual aid and trust that occupiers would like to see.

Coming up with an action plan for a new world order takes time, and two weeks is a remarkably short time frame, especially when you're having to field questions and attacks from a hostile press while surviving sub-zero temperatures in central London. You and others began by criticising the occupiers for not having any demands; now that they've produced some, you're still not happy.

What is saddening is that where, in America, protests have been bolstered by support from labour unions, public figures, local politicians and NGOs who understand that the Occupy movement represents the beginning of a new direction for social politics, the British left has retained a cynical distance that nudges towards cowardice. What the Occupy movement offers the left is the space and imagination it desperately needs to envision a world beyond drab deference to financial oligarchy, and the tools to build it. Anyone can contribute, so if you're unhappy with the way the demands have been put together, get down toOccupy London and join in the General Assembly. Your voice will be heard and respected, and they'll even give you free tea and biscuits.

Yours, Laurie

Dear Laurie,

Now you're romanticising – there haven't been sub-zero temperatures in central London over the past two weeks. I live in London and it's been quite balmy for the time of year.

I know plenty of people who work very hard within mainstream parties. I'm not a fan of the Tories or the Lib Dems but I do respect the time they and Labour Party activists put into canvassing, talking to voters and attending council meetings. I also know lots of people who volunteer for NGOs – and I've done it for PEN and Amnesty.

Now, what is this General Assembly? From where does it derive its democratic legitimacy? Who voted for it? What about all the people who don't agree with its decisions? Are 30-something million adults supposed to turn up in St Paul's churchyard to make their voices heard? You say people involved in the Occupy movement have been involved in politics and trade unions and got fed up with them. Well, I have a problem with that, because what system is better than representative democracy?

I don't want to live according to a series of referendums, and I'm certainly not keen on government by a self-selecting group of people who've chosen not to work within existing democratic structures – that's just oligarchy by another name. I've seen the updated manifesto: there's nothing wrong with proposing changes to the City but is that it? I have to say I'm still not convinced that this is new, democratic or effective. But if you're offering biscuits, I like chocolate-chip cookies.

Yours, Joan

Dear Joan,

It's the wind-chill factor in the man-made air funnel of St Paul's churchyard that has made temperatures on the skin so arctic, something you'd have experienced if you had bothered to spend time at the Occupation before this debate. This is precisely the problem. It's all very well for members of the commentariat in their cosy living rooms to pour scorn on people trying to change the system, but if you have a better plan for getting the whole world talking about financial injustice, I'd like to see it.

I don't think any of the occupiers at St Paul's expect the work they are doing so suddenly to entirely replace everything being done more traditionally on the left – nobody is trying to confiscate your membership of Amnesty International. But when the mainstream commentariat cannot tell the difference between an attack on Labour organisers and an attack on free-market capitalism, it's worth considering the robustness of its existing narratives.

General Assembly is the decision-making body of any given occupation, and it uses a system of consensus-based direct democracy to work out everything from what demands to levy on the City of London to who takes out the rubbish. Nobody votes for its leaders, because it doesn't have leaders – everyone is an equal participant in the process, and all voices are supposed to be heard equally. Unfortunately, it's a system that can often mean that the simplest housekeeping questions take ages to finalise. I've been to a meeting that took four hours to decide whether we should be allowed to smoke indoors. But it's miles better than the microcosmic Soviet Union that you seem, rather unimaginatively, to envisage as the end-point of all radical politics.

Nobody is asking you to live according to a series of referendums, Joan. They are just asking for democracy that does what it says on the tin. These occupations are an attempt to change the political conversation, in Britain and across the developed world. They have already been successful; whether they continue to be so will depend in part on whether commentators such as you are prepared to listen to them.

Yours, Laurie

Dear Laurie,

Interestingly, I don't recall the Greenham Common women ever complaining to me about the cold, and they camped for years. When I chaired the PEN Writers in Prison committee, I travelled frequently and met people who'd undergone dreadful torture in Syria and Iran, as well as observing Orhan Pamuk's trial in Istanbul. I've also been involved in a literacy project in Sierra Leone, although it's true that I'd do almost anything to avoid that terrifying boat trip from Lungi airport to Freetown.

I've always wanted to change the world. But I think the world's problems – from the financial crisis to evidence that war crimes have been committed in Libya – are too pressing to waste four hours on "housekeeping". I don't think traditional democratic structures are to blame, but the small numbers of people who are prepared to use them, in contrast to newly democratic countries such as Tunisia. But I'm happy to give you the benefit of the doubt. Let's see what happens in five years. If I'm wrong, the biscuits are on me.

Yours, Joan

Laurie Penny, a freelance journalist and author of 'Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism' (Zero Books); Joan Smith is Political Blonde www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

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