Successful political movements emerge when people with diverging aims can be persuaded that they are really on the same side, that their aims are just different aspects of the same broader cause. The anti-cuts rallies were a good example. From further away, they looked like a homogeneous movement with a common cause. Getting a bit closer, one could see dozens, if not hundreds, of sub-demonstrations for completely different causes. Yes, there were the obligatory ‘Fight all cuts’ signs. But most banners were about much narrower concerns, reading ‘No cuts at...’, and then specifying the respective banner-holder’s pet spending area (presumably the sector in which s/he worked or otherwise benefited from).
It is not obvious why, to pick two random examples, nurses protesting against pay cuts and art lovers protesting against art subsidy cuts should perceive one another as allies. They could as well view each other as competitors for scarce public funds. Inescapably, every pound spent on art subsidies is no longer available for paying nurses, and vice versa. One could easily make up catchphrases plotting one group against the other. Nurses have to toil in long shifts, just so that some artsy toffs can enjoy their posh galleries for free. Or, the cultural backbone of this country is being destroyed, just so that some philistines can buy bigger flat-screen TVs.
Still, they all marched side by side, because a narrative had developed which interpreted the cuts as acts of viciousness directed against all of them. They thought government was sitting in a big pot of money which, if they had just been willing to tap into, could have satisfied the concerns of all groups alike.
Last weekend’s anti-capitalist ‘Occupy’ protests can be seen as the reductio ad absurdum of this mindset. The unifying theme of all these protests seemed to be the 99% vs. 1% narrative: we, the 99% (aka ‘the people’) are kind and noble folks. It’s the other 1%, the bankers and business owners, which causes all the trouble. All we need to do is take power and money away from them, and give it to ‘the people’.
The big fallacy of this idea is that there is no entity called ‘the people’ or ‘the 99%’, which is defined by common characteristics or common economic interests. Ask 99 people what they think the government should spend a hypothetical windfall surplus on, and you will get 99 different answers. A commuter will say that the money should be invested in infrastructure to ease congestion. A parent of school-age children will say that more teachers should be hired, so that fewer classes are being cancelled. A resident of a high-crime area will say that the police presence should be increased, etc, etc.
This shows that firstly, this mystical collective called ‘the people’ has wildly divergent interests, and secondly, individuals can act selfishly in the political sphere no less than in the marketplace. If I vote for a political party which pledges to increase tobacco tax and spend the revenue on refurbishing the underground, I am acting in a self-interested way. I don’t smoke, but I use the tube regularly. So if you’re a smoking motorist, I vote for your money to be spent on me.
Still, the protesters are right about 1% of their ‘programme’: bailouts for banks, or indeed any privileges for Big Business, are economically harmful and morally objectionable. But the most logical conclusion from this concern is to demand the abolition of privileges, not the abolition of business.