The impressiveness of the ‘public repossession’ of the vacant UBS building in Hackney has rather deflated over the weekend, as it appears the symbolism of the Bank of Ideas far supersedes any activity going on inside it.
The addition of a bank-owned property to the Occupy portfolio is a huge coup for the movement. In symbolic terms it is much more to the point than the St. Pauls camp.
After their press conference on Friday when they proudly announced UBS had been targeted for its “rogue trading” and “gambling pension money,” it really did seem like the infamous bank would have no choice but to get dragged into the debate. The hopeful amongst us might have dared to imagine the bank would be forced to stop and think.
But it seems UBS is smarter than it looks. It has completely shirked the invitation and denied the movement a dialogue. This could not have been more aptly demonstrated than by the decision to close the shutters on the building they actually use, just across the road from their new neighbours. Unlike Occupy St Paul’s, which saw the dean, the canon chancellor and a cleric resign, we have yet to see CEOs for UBS falling on their swords.
With no statement from UBS to bite on, and with the bank’s lawyers quietly plotting how to make the occupiers disappear, the activists have found themselves left with a big empty building. Although they are not doing too badly coming up with a substantial programme of events to fill it, these kinds of squatting projects have a tendency to underwhelm in the long term. So far scheduled to perform are Billy Bragg and Josie Long, but unfortunately for the Bank of Ideas, BBC Newsnight economics editor, Paul Mason (a rather well informed guy) politely declined their Twitter invitation to talk there. “I might come and listen!” he replied.
The fact that the bank is in Hackney also holds symbolic significance – Hackney is one of the most deprived boroughs in the capital, and has a dramatic shortage of social housing. Last year Hackney had over 15,000 people on the council housing waiting list and 2,000 registered as homeless. Occupy London supporter Jack Holburn said that in England “over 9,000 families were kicked out of their homes in the last three months for failing to keep up with mortgage payments”, which they blame on a recession caused by the banks.
It is an indisputable immorality that empty properties can exist aside such statistics. However as a non-residential occupation, beyond the symbolism of highlighting its vacancy, the Bank of Ideas can offer little to solve these crises. Residential or not many of the occupiers, such as Pete Phoneix, are well seasoned squatters. The debate could easily reduce into one about their rights to be there, rather than about the international movements anti-capitalist views.
In fact, homeless people are descending on the Occupy camps. In fact, it is a growing problem. At Friday’s press conference activist Jack Holburn acknowledged this, but described a “welfare” structure they are developing for these vulnerable people. This is unconvincing at best, and unsafe at worst – are they biting off more than they can chew? Journalist Damien Gayle found himself being mistaken for a crack dealer, when he visited the building last week, despite an explicit ban against drugs and alcohol. Clearly not everyone is there for quite the same reasons.
Coining the occupation as a “public repossession” is, however, a significant move. It is an empowering image to behold as millions of people in Britain are finding themselves increasingly dispossessed as they lose homes, jobs and community facilities. However, as time goes on, the feeling of empowerment that the Bank of Ideas has generated will fade, as it becomes just another distant happening, inaccessible to most people in the country.
The long-term legacy of the Bank of Ideas will depend on whether its presence can actually provide a credible platform for their key message; exposing the limitations of capitalism. As legal action to evict them is just around the corner, this seems highly unlikely. Though it is hard not to support their efforts, the poignancy of the UBS occupation was in its creation. Since then, the question we have to ask is: is this a Bank of Ideas, or a Bank of Idealists?