This week we take a break from
the serialization of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of
Transition to present an article inspired by the protests across the country connected to #occupywallstreet. We will
resume with Chapter 13 of Sacred Economics next Thursday.
Looking out upon the withered American Dream, many of us
feel a deep sense of betrayal. Unemployment, financial insecurity, and lifelong
enslavement to debt are just the tip of the iceberg. We don't want to merely
fix the growth machine and bring profit and product to every corner of the
earth. We want to fundamentally change the course of civilization. For the
American Dream betrayed even those who achieved it, lonely in their overtime
careers and their McMansions, narcotized to the ongoing ruination of nature and
culture but aching because of it, endlessly consuming and accumulating to quell
the insistent voice, "I wasn't put here on earth to sell product."
"I wasn't put here on earth to increase market share." "I wasn't
put here on earth to make numbers grow."
We protest not only at our exclusion from the American
Dream; we protest at its bleakness. If it cannot include everyone on earth,
every ecosystem and bioregion, every people and culture in its richness; if the
wealth of one must be the debt of another; if it entails sweatshops and
underclasses and fracking and all the rest of the ugliness our system has
created, then we want none of it.
No one deserves to live in a world built upon the
degradation of human beings, forests, waters, and the rest of our living
planet. Speaking to our brethren on Wall Street, no one deserves to spend their
lives playing with numbers while the world burns. Ultimately, we are protesting
not only on behalf of the 99% left behind, but on behalf of the 1% as well. We
have no enemies. We want everyone to wake up to the beauty of what we can
Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for its lack of clear
demands, but how do we issue demands, when what we really want is nothing less
than the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible? No demand is big
enough. We could make lists of demands for new public policies: tax the
wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment, end the wars,
regulate the banks. While we know these are positive steps, they aren't quite
what motivated people to occupy Wall Street. What needs attention is something
deeper: the power structures, ideologies, and institutions that prevented these
steps from being taken years ago; indeed, that made these steps even necessary.
Our leaders are beholden to impersonal forces, such as that of money, that
compel them to do what no sane human being would choose. Disconnected from the
actual effects of their policies, they live in a world of insincerity and
pretense. It is time to bring a countervailing force to bear, and not just a
force but a call. Our message is, "Stop pretending. You know what to do.
Start doing it." Occupy Wall Street is about exposing the truth. We can
trust its power. When a policeman pepper sprays helpless women, we don't beat
him up and scare him into not doing it again; we show the world. Much worse
than pepper spray is being perpetrated on our planet in service of money. Let
us allow nothing happening on earth to be hidden.
If politicians are disconnected from the real world of human
suffering and ecosystem collapse, all the more disconnected are the financial
wizards of Wall Street. Behind their computer screens, they occupy a world of
pure symbol, manipulating numbers and computer bits. Occupy Wall Street
punctures their bubble of pretense as well, reconnects them with the human
consequences of the god they serve, and perhaps with their own consciences and
humanity too. Only in a hallucination could someone imagine that the
unsustainable can last forever; in puncturing their bubble, we remind them that
the money game is nearing its end. It can be perpetuated for a while longer,
perhaps, but only at great and growing cost. We, the 99%, are paying that cost
right now, and as the environment and the social fabric decay, the 1% will soon
feel it too. We want those who operate and serve the financial system to wake
up and see before it is too late.
We can also point out to them that they sooner or later they
will have no choice. The god they serve, the financial system, is a dying god.
Reading various insider financial websites, I perceive that the authorities are
flailing, panicking, desperately implementing solutions they themselves know
are temporary just to kick the problem down the road a few years or a few
months. The strategy of lending even more money to a debtor who cannot pay his
debts is doomed, its eventual failure a mathematical certainty. Like all our
institutions of exponential growth, it is unsustainable. Once you have stripped
the debtor of all assets – home equity, savings, pension – and turned every
last dollar of his or her disposable income toward debt service, once you have
forced the debtor into austerity and laid claim even to his future income (or
in the case of nations, tax revenues), then there is nothing left to take. We
are nearing that point, the point of peak debt. The money machine, ever hungry,
seeks to liquidate whatever scraps remain of the natural commons and social
equity to reignite economic growth. If GDP rises, so does our ability to
service debt. But is growth really what we want? Can we really cheer an
increase in housing starts, when there are 19 million vacant housing units on
the market already? Can we really applaud a new oil field, when the atmosphere
is past the limit of how much waste it can absorb? Is more stuff really
what the world needs right now? Or can we envision a world instead with more
play and less work, more sharing and less buying, more public space and less
indoors, more nature and less product?
So far, government policy has been to try somehow to keep
the debts on the books, but every debt bubble in history ultimately collapses;
ours is no different. The question is, how much misery will we endure, and how
much will we inflict, before we succumb to the inevitable? And secondly, how
can we make a gentle, non-violent transition to a steady-state or degrowth
world? Too many revolutions before us have succeeded only to institute a
different but more horrible version of the very thing they overthrew. We look
to a different kind of revolution. At risk of revealing the stars in my eyes,
let me call it a revolution of love.
What else but love would motivate any person to abandon the
quest to maximize rational self-interest? Love, the felt experience of
connection to other beings, contradicts the laws of economics as we know them.
Ultimately, we want to create a money system, and an economy, that is the ally
not the enemy of love. We don't want to forever fight the money power to create
good in the world; we want to change the money power so that we don't need to
fight it. I will not in this essay describe my vision – one of many – of a
money system aligned with the good in all of us. I will only say that such a
shift can only happen atop an even deeper shift, a transformation of human
consciousness. Happily, just such a transformation is underway today. We see it
in anyone who had dedicated their lives to serving, healing, and protecting
other beings: people, cultures, whales, children, ecosystems, the waters, the
forests, the planet.
In the ecological age, we are beginning to understand that
we are connected beings, that the welfare of any species or people is aligned
with our own. Our money system is inconsistent with this understanding, which
is dawning among all 100 percent of us, each in a different way. I think the
ultimate purpose of Occupy Wall Street, or the great archetype it taps into, is
the revolution of love. If the 99% defeat the 1%, they will like the Bolsheviks
ultimately create a new 1% in their place. So let us not defeat them; let us
open them and invite them to join us.
If Occupy Wall Street has a demand, it should be this: wake
up! The game is nearly over. Jump ship while there is still time. In my work I
meet many people of wealth who have done that, exiting the money game and
devoting their time to giving away money as beautifully as they can. And I meet
many more people who have the skills and good fortune to earn wealth if they
wanted to, but who likewise refuse to participate in the money game. So if I
sound idealistic, keep in mind that many people have had a change of heart
Some might call these ideas impractical (though I think that
nothing other than a change of heart is practical), and seek to issue concrete
demands. Unfortunately, though no demand is big enough, yet equally any demand
we would care to make is also too big. Everything we want is on the very margin
of mainstream political discourse, or outside it altogether. For example, it might
be within the range of respectable policy options to tighten standards on
industrial-scale confinement meat operations; but how about ending the practice
completely? Congress wrangles about whether or not to reduce troop levels by a
few thousand here and there, but what about ending the garrisoning of the
planet? Any demand that we could make that is within the realm of political
reality is too small. Any demand we could make that reflects what we truly want
is politically unrealistic.
Shall we fight hard for something we don't even want? It is
fine to make demands, but the movement cannot get hung up on them, much less on
practicality, because any remotely achievable demand is far less than what our
planet needs. "Practical" is not an option. We must seek the
We might come up with a list of demands, something we can
all stand behind, albeit each with a secret reservation in his or her heart
that says, "I wanted more than that." I encourage those in the
movement to recognize such demands as stepping stones, or landmarks, perhaps,
on the road to an economy of love. Let us never mortgage a greater to a lesser.
The means of the movement, more than the ends, will be the genesis of what
comes after the debt pyramid collapses. Occupy Wall Street is practicing new
forms of non-hierarchical collaboration, peer-to-peer organization, and playful
action that someday, maybe, we can build a world on.
We must learn the lessons of Egypt, where a people's
movement started with the amorphous demand to end intolerable conditions, and,
as it discovered its power, soon turned to demand the ouster of the president.
That demand would have been too big at the outset, too impossible; yet at the
end it proved to be too small. The dictator left, the protestors went home
without creating any lasting structures of people power, and, while some things
changed, the basic political and economic infrastructure of Egypt did not.
Occupy Wall Street should not be content with half-measures,
even as it encourages and applauds the tiny hundredth-measures that might come
first. It should not let such concessions sap the strength of the movement or
seduce it into neglecting to foster its organizational network. Occupy Wall
Street is the first manifestation in a long time of "people power" in
America. For too long, democracy has, for most people, meant meaningless
choices in a box. The Wall Street occupation is stepping out of the box.
Our job is to take a stand for a world that is truly
beautiful, fair, and just, a planet and a civilization that is healing. For a
politician or a financier, even a small step in this direction takes courage,
for it goes against the gradient of money and all that is attached to it. I
think that the task of Occupy Wall Street is to provide a context for that
courage, and a call to that courage. With each step taken, the necessity of far
larger steps will become apparent, along with the courage to take them.
To those holding the reins of power, let us say, We will be
your witnesses and your truthtellers. We will not allow you to live in a
bubble. We will not go away. We will show you who you are hurting and how. We
will make it awkward to do business, until your conscience cannot stand it any
longer. We know, in the beginning, many of you will try to escape us; perhaps
you will leave Wall Street for suburban corporate offices on private land where
there is no "street" for us to hit. You might also retreat further
into your ideologies of globalism and growth that deny the obvious. But nothing
will stop us, because our tactics will constantly shift. In one way or another,
we will speak the truth and we will speak it loudly. Where speaking the truth
becomes illegal, we will break the law. We will not wait to be invited. We will
enter, in some way, every physical and ideological fortress.
The truth is dwindling rain forests, spreading deserts, mass
tree die-offs on every continent; looted pensions, groaning burdens of student
debt, people working two or three dead end jobs; children eating dirt in Haiti,
elders choosing between food and medicine… the list is endless, and we will
make it no longer possible to hold it in disconnection from the money system.
That is why we converge on Wall Street, and anywhere that finance holds sway.
You have lulled us into complacency for long enough with illusions and false
hopes. We the people are awakening and we will not go back to sleep.
Image by edenpictures, courtesy of Creative Commons license.