I'll admit from the outset that the real reason I initially went to the Occupied Economies forum on Nov. 18 was that it was held at the Design Exchange in the old Toronto Stock Exchange building. In my old age I'm coming to appreciate old stuff, and I wanted to see inside. I've also always appreciated irony; the architecture evokes a time when capital markets were used by companies to build stuff, make things and employ people. You know, in the "olden days." We were in a room that used to be the trading floor where people, as opposed to algorithms, would set the value of the activities of companies and nations.
I also attended because in the absence of a forum to discuss social ideas, like a parliament or a city hall, I was interested to see what this forum could produce. While I support the spirit of the Occupiers, I'm not the biggest fan of camping. Outside of driving or walking by, I haven't really engaged. I had been waiting for something like this event to occur, indoors and with available seating. My expectations were modest, but as the forum progressed it really did illustrate the difficulty in taking the Occupy ethos and moving it out from the margins and into the majority.
"Gerard" was a panel member from Occupy Toronto who works in the financial services sector. He was in disguise and using an alias to go undetected by his bosses. He's probably not in the belly of the beast, but I'll suggest that he's somewhere around the esophagus. Judging from his appearances and his words (humans are apparently "noble beasts"), I also think that he's young enough that he will hopefully leave the business and go in a different direction. I'll admit, however, that it's also the bias of the middle-aged guy typing this who's stuck well within the slavery of useless commerce.
Matt (his real name, but to me he is a character in the narrative) is the National Post columnist who wasn't in disguise, but maybe should have been given the number of hand-flapping Occupiers in the audience. He was definitely in the costume you would expect of a NP columnist -- a dark suit and tie. He was also rather young, which leads me to believe he actually was there to be a part of the action and was likely not on assignment; perhaps because I can't fathom the National Post acknowledging this event. He was honest about knowing a little about a lot of things, and not being good with numbers. I call that intellectual laziness (which is par for the course in the media) however Matt was believable as the average working person who is preoccupied with making the income and expenses add up at the end of the month; the people who have no time to camp out in the park.
From my vantage point, Matt and Gerard symbolize the foot soldiers in this battle. However, the common ground is a lack of a frame of reference. These guys are both products of the past 30 years of the ascendancy of neoliberalism, culminating in crap like the current Parliament of Canada and U.S. Congress, Sun Media, Fox News, Twitter, and Facebook. The effect of the doctrine was to make us self-absorbed consumers with no real sense of history or social responsibility. But now that the cash has run out and the jig is up, people are wondering what the hell happened. At the same time, banks and multinational corporations have simply moved the dice game out of the storefront and back into the alley where it belongs.
The remaining panelists were what I think most in the mainstream would dismiss as "intellectuals." These are people who have studied both stuff and things. They were spending their time with us because they are intrigued by the movement and want to see if or how they can get the dialogue to the next level. What is unique about the Occupy Movement is that it is a dialogue, and the Occupiers don't seem to presuppose a solution. The panelists are trying to figure things out too, but seem as perplexed as the Occupiers.
Various subjects flowed, if briefly. Among them: the relationship between local political action and global political structures; the similarities between the Occupy Movement and other social movements and their relative contexts; the language of political discourse and its effects (eg. "Respect for taxpayers," "Mission accomplished"). It did seem like there were too many threads, and that we could have explored any one of them in more depth.
When we got to the point of the Q&A session, there was less dialogue and more diatribes. People were up on their proverbial soapboxes, and a live version of Twitter (or maybe Facebook) proceeded. It's not that there weren't issues raised that could have merit (the true economic cost of pollution was one I remember; a call for Canada to essentially opt out of the world economy was another), but we didn't get to an exchange of ideas. That is symptomatic of our political discourse in general.
What we do need is more of these forums. We need to help structure the protest and the anger, for it is just. We need to define what "the economy" is, explore what our political relationship is to each other and what it has been in the past. Occupiers signal agreement with hand flaps and disagreement with crossed arms. We need to move beyond that to new language and take back the discourse. It takes time, and within the Occupied Economies forum I saw the potential starting point. And like the protests, I hope it continues.