The criticism of the Occupy London protests in much of the right-leaning press in the UK recently has focussed largely on issues of hypocrisy. How can these so-called activists possibly be politically motivated, the question goes, if they’re seen drinking Starbucks coffee, browsing the internet on their Apple laptops, and wearing designer clothes? There they sit, complaining about a system of excess and corruption, whilst they themselves reap the benefits. Hypocrites!
The alternative (but still linked) rebuke is that the activists are made up only of feckless students, rich kids with nothing better do to, or the lowly unemployed. And why should anybody listen to these freeloaders? Do they really think that without capitalism’s guiding hand they’d be receiving their benefits or student-loans? And as for Henrietta and Ptolemy living off daddy’s oil money: they don’t know they’re born …
The recent (debatable and debated) news reports claiming that 90% of the Occupy London tents were vacant overnight conforms to this same all-or-nothing logic. Activists are clearly required to conform to an unchanging social role involving minimal shades of grey. As soon as one social category is breached or blended with another then activism ceases, political messages are compromised and hypocrisy reigns.
But then what does this really leave?
If the logic states that it’s impossible to engage in the activity of activism whilst immersed in the activity of capitalism, then who is left to speak? The answer, presumably, is only those with no political voice at all; those who can be easily derided or ignored—those, in effect, who can safely protest without ruffling too many feathers.
Undoing this cleverly disarming logic is, of course, quite easy. The influence of markets, branding and capitalism is inescapable. Put simply, it is impossible to be an effective political activist without engaging in hypocrisy. Just as it is very difficult to be an effective environmental activist without, say, international air-travel. Slavoj Žižek puts it well:
What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on enemy’s turf; time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken from us – everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror”, ominous and threatening as it should be.
To remove these necessarily overlapping areas leaves only a choice between the ‘all-in’, easily stereotyped (and ignored) left-wing anarchists who want a return to communism, or the ‘all-out’ Mr Monopoly bankers who’d willingly sell Africa to Shell—which is effectively a choice between fuck- and bugger-all.
If someone at Occupy London leaves the camp every three days to go and catch up on paid work (so as to lengthen their stay at the protest), then their act of so-called hypocrisy is in fact a pragmatic choice based upon the realisation that whilst the current system is broken, it is the only system in town, and that it is only through such a system that new and collective political agency can emerge.
Within a hegemonic system like capitalism, hypocrisy must in fact be the point of departure for any act of political dissent. And whilst there are certainly some modes of hypocrisy it would be better to avoid (protestors drinking Starbucks coffee for one), to simply berate pragmatic people for working within their limitations is a shortsighted and manipulative attempt to caricature what is a complex social movement into clearly defined parameters, and works only to stultify debate.
And it makes me mad.