Monday, 6 January 2014

The Occupy Tour: an anti-capitalist tour of The City of London

Finally I have got round to taking The Occupy Tour, a tour that is based upon the financial crisis and London's role within the historical development and current state of global capitalism. If that sounds like a lot of digest, you're right it is, but it all boils down to an anti-capitalism tour, more or less, and one that proved to be very well attended too.

The tour started on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, the site that the Occupy protesters took after being prevented from occupying the London Stock Exchange back in 2011. I remember standing on these same steps back then and listening to the geographer David Harvey speaking to a large crowd on the relation of capital to city space and how he strongly supported the Occupy initiatives that were taking place worldwide. I think his writings should be worth looking at in relation to both this tour and The Tour of Tours more generally as he does go into the contested functions of public space quite considerably. This tour began not with a reading from Harvey, however, but instead with a reading from the letters of St Paul about possessions and money, a reading that addressed, rather aptly, the church's compromised role in finally supporting the eviction of the protesters.

The tour made its way from point to point taking shelter whenever possible from the rain. It should not be a shock in London to have to deal with a bit of rain when on a tour, but it has been a particularly damp time recently and I have the feeling I been enduring one sodden tour after another of late. Between stops we were encouraged to play "Spot the Tax Dodger". Predictably enough Starbucks was on the list and so too was Boots who, we were told, have assigned their corporate headquarters to a post office box in Switzerland, a move detailed in the UK Uncut campaign. 

We stopped outside many buildings that belonged to the different people and institutions who, we were told, were in their own ways responsible for the crisis. Our two guides took it in turns to explain the roles each of these different institutions played such as here describing the evolution of the Lord Mayor of London's office. This was quite interesting but what gave the tour an extra twist were the responses of the people inside the buildings. Here, we had someone opening the door and asking the tour to move away. We did... about 10 meters to the right, so that we were now assembled in front of another of their doors. The man then banged futilely on this other door from the inside to show his displeasure, but the street belonged to the crowd so the quotes from then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2006 and 2007 on the wisdom of light touch regulation of financial services, kept on flowing.

We came to the headquarters of the Rothschild family's businesses in London and heard how they built their empire, in part, through acting as the financier of national war bonds. Their present status is less important, we were told, as they had relaxed into being merely super wealthy and producing hyper-expensive wine in their vineyards in France. Now I think of it, I was once shown a large number of bottles of their wine whilst taking a truly surreal tour around the Reignwood Wine collection in Beijing. I might have to repeat that wine tour this spring when I will again be in Beijing so I can cover it here on the blog.

Once again we came across disapproving security guards speaking into their radios and not quite knowing what to do with us. Finally a colleague of his emerged and said, "No photographs, private property." It was the best he could come up with, a symbolic way of saying, "We don't like you, you are not welcome."  

They used a lot of laminated A3 pictures to illustrate their stories, such as this one on the founding of the stock exchange. I'm quite familiar with this use of cards having seen it on many other tours but the one thing that was more novel and which I rather liked was their hats. The rest of their clothing was relatively normal and would not attract much attention but their hats gave the whole tour a theatrical, not to say sartorial, lift. Top hats function as historical references that reminded me of the Victorian and Georgian eras, which was quite appropriate with this tour in which the past and present constantly intermingled. This mixing of time frames was, in fact, both the tours strength and weakness. It allowed them to make connections and explain how we got here, however, it was at the same time so scattered that it was impossible to extract a clear argument or thread from the tour, which instead felt like a catalogue of annoying and unjust things about the City of London.

The two of them performed well as a double act; here they are talking about Monty Norman the Nazi sympathising Governor of The Bank of England. What's more, they didn't just rely upon each other, they also brought members of the audience into their act by asking them to answer questions, translate phrases and even sing songs. Compared to the last time I took a tour with two guides who were at crossed purposes, this was a very harmonious duo. 

The tour came to The Guildhall, a site already known to me from The Machiavelli Reinterpreted Tour and here they made a gently provocative gesture through writing on the wall of The Guildhall in chalk. This diagram explains the medieval system of representation in The City of London which today ensures the mayor remains a person appointed by the banks.

We then stood in front of Chicago University's European Campus located in Woolgate Exchange but were cleared off this spot by another zealous security guard who had a contented 'job well done' look on his face when he managed to get us to the other side of the street. I can only think that these men have a very poor understanding of public relations as these actions only heightened the sense that these institutions had something to feel ashamed of and were embarrassed by this attention. Security guards and those who manage them tend to see things differently.

Chalk was again used to good effect to produce this table showing the income of the top 1% and level of public debt in an effort to debunk the free-market theories of the Chicago School of economic thought. The apparent failure of these economic theories and policies to behave as predicted has not yet made any apparent dent on the prestigious university campus located in the heart of the financial city. I would have liked one of their economics professors to have come out of the building and defended the theories, but that was not to be. It was a Saturday after all.

We then went over to Deutsche Bank where the topic was the consolidation of debt and the financial products and instruments that were behind the collapse of sub-prime mortgages. This was made a little more entertaining by including a rap composed by a former employee of the bank on the subject of the Collateralized Debt Obligation Market.

"CDO Oh Baby" to the tune of Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice

Yo vip let's kick it!
C D O oh baby, C D O oh baby
All right, stop, collaborate and listen
Spreads are wide with a technical invasion
Home Eq Subs were trading so tightly
Until Hedge Funds Bot Protection daily and nightly
Will they stop? Yo I don't know

Turn up the Arb and let's go
To the extreme Macro Funds do damage like a vandal
Now, BBBs are trading with a new handle
Print, even if the housing bubble looms
There are never ends to real estate booms
If there is a problem, yo, we'll solve it

Check out the spreads while my structurer revolves it
C D O oh baby, C D O oh baby"

The guards looked on unimpressed as usual but did not intervene. In the background there is some of the bank's substantial art collection on show and I noted that they offer tours of their art collection, I might just have to take one to see things from that point of view. 

The last stop on the tour was the Moorgate branch of Nat West, a bank that is owned by RBS. There was a whole lot more talk about the government bailout of this bank and its unethical investments and as I was listening to this I looked around and saw the sentry box that marks the 'ring of steel' the security checkpoints installed in the 90s to tighten police control of the city's entrances and exits following IRA bombings. It was striking how it seems to more or less follow the old Roman Wall of London which, incidentally, is a tour route as well. This city within a city, or even state within a state, as some consider it, is essential to any understanding of what is going on elsewhere in the city and well beyond. The tour concluded with many thank yous, a steadfast refusal to accept money for the tour, encouragement to get involved with the issues raised and current campaigns such as that to remove the post of The City Remembracer and a final near ubiquitous gesture that I was not expecting. They said, "if you have enjoyed the tour then rate us on Trip Advisor!" It seems like this company and its website is the glue that connects people with tours in London today. 

The tour finished in the Red Lion where the bar staff kept trying to pour short pints, ie not fill up the glass completely, even though it was an over-priced generic city pub. On second thought that might precisely be why they were pouring short but that, in any case, didn't deter a significant tranche of anti-capitalists mixing and talking about the tour, about Occupy and much else besides. I've come to notice that the tours that generally finish in the pub are the ones where there is already a greater degree of connectedness between those taking it: tours around a very specific topic or political tours, like this one. The more general tourist oriented tours rarely have this social dimension. While most of the tours I've reviewed so far that have ended this way have been lefty tours, I would be shocked if this were not also the case with other groups and different political persuasions. I don't quite have it in me to test a BNP or EDL tour, if such a thing exists, but I can well imagine it finishing in a pub too.

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