Tom Hodgkinson: 'Fundamentally this is a Christian protest'


Sunday 13 November 2011 01:00

During half-term I took the children on a treat to visit the protest on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. While their pals were being taken to Legoland or Alton Towers, I thought it more important for my kids to understand the fundamental injustice of corporate elitism, and at the same time to gain an introduction into consensus politics.

Actually, they enjoyed it. Arthur remarked that all the protesters had kind faces. Everyone was sharing their things. One tried to give my daughter Delilah his cup with a picture of a cat on it. There was a camp library, too, to which I donated a pile of second-hand books from our shop. There was also Tent City University, offering lectures.

The Occupy village is a noble attempt at creating a working utopia. They are actually demonstrating the ideals they would like to live by, and I am delighted that the church has allowed them to stay.

There is something fantastically theatrical and medieval about Occupy St Paul's. The occupiers have created a spectacle which drips with symbolism and historical reference. In the Middle Ages there was the phenomenon of the Weepers: gangs of men and women who would walk into town and sob histrionically on the steps of the churches. It was a cathartic act: they spoke for the whole city and expressed its grief. You also had the adherents of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who refused to work and would wander from town to town crying, "Bread for God's sake." Then there were fanatics such as Savonarola and his bonfire of the vanities, when he encouraged the bourgeois of Florence to chuck all their vain baubles – mirrors, make-up, hairbrushes – on to the fire. And who cannot but be reminded of Jesus and the turning over of the tables of the money-changers? Or even a medieval siege?

A gigantic banner on the steps reading "Root Out Usury" is another medieval touch. The church in the Middle Ages actually proscribed lending money at interest because it was considered to be morally wrong. This didn't stop people doing it: families such as the Medicis made fortunes from it. But it was regularly and powerfully denounced. It was seen as acceptable for banks to make commercial loans, but not to charge interest on loans made to the poor. It was argued that the poor debtor had simply suffered bad luck and it was unfair for the rich man to profit from his poverty.

Usury was also condemned because it was fundamentally uncreative. The usurer did not make anything or even work: he just sat around and waited. He sold time, and time was not a commodity. Aquinas also argued that usury sets up an inequality, because money cannot produce more money.

This is the reason that St Paul's and the church has decided to let the protesters stay: because this is a fundamentally Christian protest. Christianity is a friend to the poor. It introduced the idea of charity to the world.

The protest is not bad for business: the shops around the cathedral were all heaving with tourists, who were also taking photos of the camp. It has got everyone talking. After lunch on the steps, I went to throw our rubbish into the back of the dustcart, and overheard a tattooed dustman and a bike courier engaging in a heated political debate about socialism. The efforts of the Daily Mail and The Sun to discredit the protest with claims either that the occupiers are all toffs or that they are not hardcore enough and sometimes go home for a bath now look silly and desperate. In a comically ill-judged piece in The Daily Telegraph, the atheist Toby Young wrote off the occupiers as "loons" and "preening narcissists" and wrote: "The Occupy London movement will go down in history as one of the least successful protests ever staged."

Well, I was delighted when I returned home to find an invitation from Occupier Emma to speak at Tent City University. Emma also sent a report from camp. She said the police photo showing empty tents at night had been taken at 11pm, before the occupiers had gone to bed! The reality, she said, is a peaceful, progressive and creative camp, with first-aid tents, a piano, a meditation tent and a football team.

Occupy St Paul's has been far more effective than any number of marches of the "What do we want? Full-time jobs" variety. The left-wingers of that stripe are powerless whingers. The St Paul's protesters are actually doing something.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'

Join our new commenting forum

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

View comments