Occupy and the Outlaws
When Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, he was contesting the authorities of the day. From the 16th century onwards, stories of Robin are told which present him as noble of heart, but also opposed to the sheriff in the castle and his pretender of a king. The fat priest, the greedy merchant and the tax collector are the immoral ones, not the wild heroes who live on the margins.
So greedy bankers and their like have been a problem for some time, and we didn’t need to have protesters occupying Paternoster Square to tell us that. But there is another analogy here which is worth thinking about too. In the tales of Robin Hood - as well as those of pirates, outlaws, highwaymen and others – the whole point is that morality and justice are outside the centres of power. The really interesting thing that these characters do is to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and to remind us that what we think of as ‘normal’ or ‘inevitable’ can be contested, if you have the imagination and courage to do it.
Take, for example, the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Four have been made so far, and in all of them the gloriously delinquent Captain Jack Sparrow (played by the deeply attractive Johnny Depp) outwits the uniformed fools who insist on following the rules. In the third movie, Captain Jack is contesting the authority and morality of the East India Company, represented by a cruel and greedy schemer with shiny buttons who gets his just desserts in the end. The pirates in this movie are classic examples of the sparkling eyed villain who does bad things for good reasons. The real monsters are those in power, the bewigged fools with their slick justifications for why the world has to be organized to benefit them.
Unsurprising then that we have seen such popular support for the occupy protesters flying the skull and crossbones. They articulate precisely that sense that there is something rotten at the center. In a society in which bankers and executives continue to claim that the difficulty of their jobs requires that they be ‘compensated’ with treasure chests full of gold, the protesters seem noble indeed. And when unemployment levels are so high, and the public sector faces such massive cutbacks, then arguments about the necessary inequities of capitalism begin to look shamelessly self interested. There are wider questions of social justice here then, and dismissing the occupy protesters as a bunch of hippies or anarchists is about as convincing as the Sheriff of Nottingham telling us that the villagers need protecting from the outlaws.
The Robin Hood tax (http://robinhoodtax.org/) was an initiative proposed in 2010 by a broad group of charities, business people and pressure groups. It trades on precisely that sense of the injustice of the present state of affairs and the importance of redistribution. Rather than doing it by knife point in a forest, this group proposes a tax on financial transactions which would be used to address global poverty. This was originally proposed in the 1970s by James Tobin but it has been given new impetus over the last year. According to the Robin Hood group, a mere 0.05% on financial transactions would generate £20 billion in the UK alone.
The occupy protests are not simply an immature politics that naively demands the right to play guitars and juggle in public spaces. They are a reflection of a deep unease about a society in which so much inequality can be defended as necessary for an economic system which seems to produce even more inequality. No wonder that Robin Hood and Jack Sparrow become counter culture heroes, when the bankers and politicians are inside their castles counting the gold.
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Outlaws, Crime and Culture
From Robin Hood to Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, outlaws have been a central part of 800 years of culture. These are characters who criticise the power of those in the castle or the skyscraper, and earn their keep by breaking the law. Outlaws break categories too. They are fact...
Published November 9th 2011 by Routledge