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The Moral Compass Issue

What’s Up, Occupy London?

The Occupy London movement, camped outside St. Paul's Cathedral, recently removed a widely photographed protest banner that read "Capitalism Is Crisis" and replaced it with another declaring "Real Democracy Now."

by Milène Larsson, Photo: Henry Langston
Jan 11 2012, 12:00am

The Occupy London movement, camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, recently removed a widely photographed protest banner that read “Capitalism Is Crisis” and replaced it with another declaring “Real Democracy Now.” This seemed like quite the ideological shift for a movement frequently criticized for not having a clear purpose. So we tracked down Spyro Van Leemnen, a spokesperson for one of the Occupy’s media working groups (aka, the PR guy) to ask him what the hell was going on.

VICE: What happened to the pink and green “capitalism is crisis” sign?
Spyro Van Leemnen:
We decided to take it down. People preaching their personal anticapitalist agenda, allowing the media to potentially judge the whole Occupy movement by it, doesn’t help our cause. Occupy, as a whole, is neither anti- nor procapitalist. Acknowledging that there are fundamental problems with the economy doesn’t make you anticapitalist or a communist; it just makes you someone who wants to start a discussion about how to make things better and work toward finding an alternative.

What sort of alternative?
So far, the movement as a whole fully backs the Robin Hood tax [a tax on financial-market transactions]. But there are several reasons why we haven’t presented any official demands yet. Demands imply that you are asking for something from the people in power, meaning they could simply promise to meet some of them and then ask us to go home. We have goals rather than demands.

And those goals are?
Social and economic equality, a democratic system independent of commercial and private interests that represents the interests of the public, and a sustainable economic system. Any reforms suggested in the future will help to meet those goals. The movement is only in its infancy, and we have a long process ahead of us in creating a global democratic movement. Every Occupy camp around the world has its own general assembly that anyone, not just people in the camps, can participate in and speak their minds. That’s how all our decisions are made, through Athenian-style direct democracy.

So every single Occupy supporter in the world is given the chance to speak his or her mind before the movement can make a decision? That sounds like a very slow process.
Yes. We’re aware that it will take a while to reach a consensus. In the future it will hopefully be streamlined and able to include more people with the help of new technologies. For now, however, time-consuming local general assemblies, whose decisions are then forwarded to the global outreach group responsible for the intercommunication between the general assemblies around the world, are the only available ways of practicing direct democracy.

Do you ever feel disheartened when you think about the number of supporters required for the movement to actually gain momentum?
If we didn’t believe something could come out of this we wouldn’t be out protesting every day. I read an interview with an activist in Egypt who said that, at first, no more than 60 people showed up at Tahrir Square to protest against Mubarak. Eventually, an estimated 2 million people joined in and the government was overthrown. I think it is more utopian to think things can continue the way they are. With rising unemployment, family homes being repossessed, and tougher austerity measures—all while trillions of our tax money are being poured into bailouts—you don’t need to be an economist to realize that something is fundamentally wrong with the existing financial and political systems.