A few months ago there was a blog debate about the tensions between a movement left and a wonkish left in pursuing political change, summarised neatly here by Matt Cowgill. A domestic sequel has arisen in Australia. In the United States the wonkish left, from Riksbank laureates like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz down, have embraced the Occupy Wall Street protests (#ows). By contrast in Australia wonkish [fn1] progressives such as Greg Jericho and Possum (Scott Steel) have been far from complimentary about #Occupyoz, a protest movement that claims affinity with #ows and other movements in the North Atlantic, much to the chagrin of movement leftists such Dr Tad or Mark Bahnisch.
I’m very much inclined to agree with the Aussie wonks here rather than the movement types. I have a great sympathy for large parts of #ows, and I think it is likely a force for good in the world. I’m afraid those parts I have sympathy for don’t seem to be present in #OccupyOz. It’s not just because things are better here (or not as bad) but the underlying reasons why things are better. When trying to understand why I think we can find answers as to why the large and broad protests in Wall Street and Europe have only attracted a sectional imitation in Australia – much better answers than can be found by pathologising and patronising Australians the way Bahnisch is wont to do [EDIT – Mark disputes this characterisation, see comments].
The North Atlantic economies are being beaten down by a strange unorthodox economic paradigm of austerity, one unsupported by any empirics or logic or other wonkery. The paradigm is strongly rooted in the institutions of power. These institutions have powerful gatekeepers – such as the Ivy League or the Public School-Oxbridge nexus that effectively return the same classes and root out concern for the general public. A wonk in the North Atlantic is unheard in these institutions and has to take to the streets just to be heard.
No such silly paradigm took root here. This of course means many more young people are in work and without the immediate call (or forced free time) to occupy a financial centre. But there’s reasons that it didn’t take root. Australian institutions are not bastions of equal opportunity and openess, but they are certainly much more permeable. If you want to change things, you will find it easier to go to university to learn what might be done, to get work in the public service or the ACTU. I learned that politicians are happy to at least listen provided you seem sincere rather than self righteous. Thus the Australian versions of #ows protesters like this or this might be applying to work with ASIC, the local version of this to the Treasury, or this to the RBA. Someone who cares as much about inequality as this person in Australia could spend a great time researching the topic, and then become the Member for Canberra.
In short, Wall Street is occupied by a lot of people desperately trying to do something. The equivalents in Australia are lucky enough to be able to actually go and do something. Australia is not perfect, but we’re not powerless. It is possible to take action, and people are.
So given that the involuntarily unemployed are not present, and those who are inclined to act instead of speak are off acting, it’s not a surprise that all that’s left are recreational protesters, anti fluoride cranks, the self righteous and intellectually lazy. I’m sure they’re in #ows as well, but in #occupyoz it’s as if they’re all who is in.
Something that I think Jericho and Possum (and I) find particularly galling is intellectual laziness, whether from #occupyoz or from right wing equivalents. It’s not that the wonks are insiders who resent outsiders – those two owe what influence they have entirely to the openness of blogs – it’s that being informed isn’t really that hard. Decades ago progressives established institutions like the Sydney Mechanical School of Arts to allow outsiders to educate themselves. These days anyone with an Internet connection can easily inform themselves and begin to form concrete proposals. Wonkery is far less exclusive than it has every been. The only things to exclude someone is laziness or pretentions, and my impression is that the domestic imitation of #ows is richly invested with both.
[fn1] I am aware that “wonkish” is nearly a synonym for “economics graduate” here.