For many of those camped out in New York, London, Melbourne, and more than 900 cities around the world, this whole capitalist mess began with a book: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.
The fightback began with another – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s weighty Communist Manifesto – and has continued into the contemporary works of Chomsky and Klein. Their written words lurk behind the ‘I told you so’ tuts echoing across Wall Street or the steps of St Paul’s.
Books react against books, like volatile elements. So if books brought them here, what are they reading to take them forward?
It’s Thursday night in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s Square. More than 20 tents are pitched in this beautiful Georgian public park. This is Occupy Edinburgh. On the east side of the square is the central branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). The UK taxpayer owns the majority of RBS after pumping at least £45.5bn into it to keep it afloat in 2008. And like similar banks bailed out in the US and around the world, it proceeded to handsomely reward its senior executives for their failure to the tune of billions of pounds in bonuses.
In the UK RBS is the bogeyman of the financial crash. This is why Occupy Edinburgh is camping in its front garden.
The protesters milling about are friendly (especially two Spanish sisters, veterans of the tented los indignados protests in Barcelona – they moved to Edinburgh after losing their jobs, found work in a hotel, and are spending their week’s holiday camping in St Andrews Square in solidarity) but their reading habits are as hard to get out of them as the endgame plan for Occupy Edinburgh itself.
The mini library in the main tent offers more overt clues. Unsurprisingly, political biography appears to be big in Occupy movements. Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope sits on top of British left-wing pin-up Tony Benn’s biography, which in turn squats on left-wing busted-flush Tony Blair’s own volume.
Books on economic and social theory also feature strongly. And then there is the fiction. It turns out that the movement wanting to forge a new society (or System Change, Not Climate Change as one sign says) loves its airport novels: John Grisham, Dan Brown and Michael Connelly are all here and all well thumbed. Authors of books that confirm that there is always a conspiracy at work. Obama might provide the hope that things can change, but Brown provides the paranoia that the system will try and stop it. Once more books react against each other.
Which might explain why these movements feel so inert. Buoyancy and dread co-exist in this corner of Edinburgh.
The power of books is not lost on many organisers. Occupy LA has printed its own reading list. Occupy Wall Street has a well established lending library to spread the ideas that might enrage, enlighten and, ultimately, empower. It’s as beautiful and as potent a use ever given to a book.
One man very close to Occupy Edinburgh knows this all too well. He once wrote a book that changed the world. Half a mile from St Andrew’s Square, Adam Smith himself is buried in Canongate Kirkyard. He lies in his grave blissfully passive while the world around him continues to react, action against action, book against book.