Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

James Harkin: These protests are inarticulate, weak and self-righteous

Fine to speak out against greedy bankers, but you also need political arguments

Saturday 22 October 2011 08:46 BST

Journalists love spectres, and the "Occupy" movement which has spread from Wall Street to Europe seems like the beginning of something fresh and ominous. "There's a lot of anger on the streets at the moment," one young man outside St Paul's Cathedral told the BBC. Given the paltry numbers, he wasn't sure it was going to change the world, but it was good and necessary to be there all the same. "I'm glad to be here," he said.

Good for him. Any protest is better than nothing, but if there's one thing that's shocking about these demonstrations, it's how weak and inarticulate they were. Fine to speak up against greedy bankers, but without any other political arguments – who needs arguments when you have Facebook? – it rather seems like you're damning the millions who lived off their loans in the first place. And why would they want to do that?

As the fog of mainstream economics clears, it turns out that the growth miracle of the past few decades has been built less on new technology but on asking ordinary people to work harder and longer, and then take on part-time work to make ends meet. If the annual income of the median American household had continued to grow at its post-war rate, for example, it would now be over $90,000. But sometime in the last few decades it got stuck at a paltry $54,061. With real wages stagnant, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are now being asked to tighten their belts even further – at a time when there's little work to go around.

If anything, it's shocking how little anger there is on the streets. But maybe that's understandable, given the tenor of the protests. It's lovely to imagine a world without greed, but no one ever built a movement without appealing to the real interests of ordinary people. It's not hard to think of what those interests might be. Financial re-engineering, fictitious profits, inflated home prices; our economic managers had been living beyond their means, kept afloat on a line of cheap Chinese credit because the rate at which our economies had been growing jobs and productivity had been slowing for decades.

The banks were only the beginning of it. Unless these new anti-capitalists find a way to hitch their demands to the interests of the rest of the population – the 99 per cent they claim to speak for – they're stuck in a self-righteous bubble. And until they do so, their tirades against greed reek of the worst kind of Victorian self-righteous puritanism. It used to be that workers occupied factories, but now these sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie have seen fit to occupy the space outside a church. If there's a spectre haunting capitalism today, it's nothing more than its own self-loathing.

James Harkin is the author of 'Niche: Why the market no longer favours the mainstream'

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in