This week we take a break from the serialization of
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 22 of Sacred
Economics next Thursday. The print edition of Sacred
Economics is now available for sale online or at your local independent
Occupy has awakened a potent energy that had been lying dormant. It has made
activists of people of a new generation, and brought renewed hope to veterans
of past movements. Unlike earlier protest movements, it has not objected to any
specific policy, such as segregation or the Vietnam War. It is a protest
against a condition of society, highlighted by the maldistribution of wealth
and debt whose symbol is Wall Street, that goes deeper than anything the
Occupiers can easily name. As we say, no demand is big enough.
Having been awakened though, this
energy needs to find appropriate avenues of expression. So far, the movement
has eschewed involvement in electoral politics, nor has it adopted any specific
social cause. An outside observer might think that its purpose were to fight
for the right to camp in urban centers. While the right of free assembly and
the reclamation of public space are important issues, the vast groundswell of
public indignation that OWS has tapped into is not primarily about those. If
the movement turns inward and becomes about the encampments themselves, it will
alienate the majority of the public and become an historical footnote.
The occupations have served an
important purpose, but the time has come to direct the energy they have
awakened toward tangible goals. I say this with all due respect for the
wariness that has held the movement back from political involvement so far.
Whatever these tangible goals are, they must not be too narrow. No one in the
movement is going to get very excited about any proposal on the mainstream
political radar: the payroll tax cut, for instance, or Obama's health care
plan. For too long, the left has mortgaged its soul to a dispirited, defeated
version of the practical. Society and the planet are in such a strait that the
old practical isn't enough. We need to think big — and then be practical.
Let us name, then, the underlying
object of the protests' discontent. It is a society that fundamentally isn't
working, a system that coerces us into ruining the planet and exploiting its
people, denying us life and liberty if we refuse to comply, and sometimes
withholding them even if we do comply. It is a society where life is a little
bleaker, gaudier, uglier, less authentic, and less hopeful with each passing
year. It is a system of winners and losers, in which even the winners are less
happy than a typical Ladakhi peasant or Amazonian hunter-gatherer. It is a
society of pretense, image, and illusion. It is a society where more human
energy goes to war than to art. Most tellingly, it is a society where it is
normal to hate Monday. The discontent behind the protests comes from the
conviction, "We can do better than this!"
Despite the rhetoric of the 99% and the
1%, I find in talking to influential people in the movement a deep
understanding that no one is merely a victim of the system I have described. We
are also its perpetuators and its enforcers; it is woven into our habits, our
psychology, our very being. That is why the movement has striven to embody a
different way of relating and being through consensus-based decision-making,
open space technologies, gift-based allocation of resources, non-violent
communication, and so forth. We want to change the psychic and interpersonal
substructure of the system we live in. That is why this movement has united the
long-sundered currents of spiritual practice and political activism. And that
is also why we say: The revolution is love.
While such a statement might trigger
the inner cynic who associates love with a mere emotional state, akin to the
spiritual escapism of the last three decades, I think it actually offers an
organizing principle around which meaningful social and political action can
coalesce. Let me offer some examples of Occupy-themed actions that might flow
from a vision of a revolution of love.
the civic realm. All over the country, budget-strapped municipalities are
eliminating city services, closing libraries, laying off police, and so on. As
they retreat from these important civic and social functions, they leave a
vacuum that we can occupy. Occupiers
could, for instance, "occupy the library" — not as a symbolic protest that
inconveniences librarians and patrons, but to take over a library that is being
closed, turning it into a "people's library" akin to those on the encampments.
It wouldn't be a protest at all, it would be a public service. In unsafe
neighborhoods where police services have been cut back (or where residents
don't trust the police to begin with), activists could "occupy the night" by
providing escorts and a friendly, protective neighborhood presence of big dudes
with vests and walkie-talkies, perhaps military veterans, former police, and
ex-gang members, trained in mediation, who do some of the work that we would
like police to do. Where city parks are closing or falling into dereliction, a
new kind of "occupy the park" could take over their maintenance.
Remember that, after all, the
motivating spirit of the protests was never to jostle for a place in the
world-wrecking machine. The protesters want more than "jobs" — they want to be
useful people and do meaningful work. There is no shortage of meaningful work
to be done, so let us do it! Maybe we have relied for too long on an
inefficient state apparatus to serve functions that we can take over from the
grass roots. Here also is an opportunity, through direct donations and also by
working with existing foundations and non-profits, to create an alternative
system of funding civic work.
the economy. While economists define "the economy" as all things exchanged
for money, a broader definition might include all the ways that human beings
share the products of nature and human labor. Today, there are vast areas of
economic potential that languish unrealized: we have, on the one hand, enormous
needs to be met, and on the other vast amounts of surplus labor. There is, in
other words, a gap across which gift and needs cannot come together. There are
many ways we can "occupy" this gap. For example, our food system produces vast
quantities of unsellable but perfectly edible food — dented cans, expired
packages, and the waste that ends up in supermarket dumpsters (or, increasingly,
trash compactors). It is unsellable through normal channels, but it could be
distributed in non-monetary ways: free supermarkets in needy neighborhoods,
soup kitchens, food trucks. Where supermarkets are reluctant to give it away
and undermine their own markets, or where bureaucrats offer resistance, the
tactics of occupation can sweep away these obstacles.
Another way to mediate the gap between
gifts and needs is through complementary currency systems. Occupy, with its
nationwide network of activists, is uniquely positioned to create one. I think
a time-based system (like Ithica Hours) would be ideal. That way, the people
carrying out all of the functions I've described could be "paid" in hours-based
credits, which they could exchange for many of the needs that otherwise are met
with dollars. Reclaimed food, for example, as described above, could be sold
according to how much time it took to procure it. While such a currency
wouldn't completely free people from the dollar, it would provide some independence
and an alternate means to support people doing socially useful work.
abandoned buildings. It is ironic that politicians celebrate every rise in
new housing starts when there are millions of abandoned buildings around the
country. These could be reclaimed, renovated, and occupied. The obstacle to
doing so is certainly not a lack of willing labor, but rather a maze of
property rights, tax liabilities, and building codes. Here again, the tactics
of Occupation can create the necessary changes. I am not talking about
squatting (nor am I excluding it); after a building has been made usable, it
can be deeded over to someone in need of a home, who can repay the hours spent
renovating it in kind. It could also become a halfway house, community center,
homeless shelter, free warehouse, or business, depending on what kind of
building it is.
Political radicals have traditionally
disparaged charitable causes on a number of grounds, for example that they
mitigate the most obvious effects of the capitalist system and, therefore,
enable its perpetuation, or that they give us the illusion that we are doing
something about problems that actually grow from much deeper roots. However, I
think the kind of work I've been describing is also good strategy. It is easy
for a mayor to justify police force to clear away protestors who are only
proclaiming a message. It is much harder, from a PR standpoint, to justify
removing people who are using illegal tactics to feed the hungry, care for the
sick, and house the homeless.
These acts of love inspire popular support and
defuse the charges of hypocrisy and laziness so often leveled at the Occupiers.
Furthermore, they provide a vehicle for the acceptance of proposals on the
macroeconomic and political level by making it clear that we are not in it for
ourselves; that these proposals are in the same spirit of service as our
actions are. Moreover, social service activism also demonstrates that a
different kind of economy is possible by providing a living example of human
beings working hard for motivations of service rather than economic necessity,
greed, or self-interest. What would you trust: a political proposal announced
by Mother Theresa, or the same proposal articulated by Donald Trump? Ok, that's
a fanciful scenario, but the fact remains that any message is more powerful
when the messenger walks the walk.
While American politics has earned criticism
for being too focused on personalities over issues, in an age of PR, spin, and
hype, we are well-advised to base judgments on actions rather than words. A
sustained political movement needs strong ties to non-political social
institutions. In Egypt, for instance, it was the Muslim Brotherhood, with
decades of social welfare work in the cities, that came out on top in the recent
politics. Of course, thousands of organizations exist already that are
devoted to social justice and political reform. What makes Occupy different
from many of them is its emphasis, encoded in the very name, on physical
action. "Raising consciousness" and "educating the public" are valid goals, but
they are only a first step, not an end. Walking around with a new opinion
doesn't change the world by itself. The social and economic actions I have
described all involve hands, not only minds; actions, not only words. The same
can happen in the political arena, despite the fact that it is mostly a realm
of symbol: laws, votes, policies, regulations, budgets are made of words and numbers.
The citizen is mostly an abstraction for the politician, whose face time is
mostly with lobbyists, staffers, and other members of the political culture. It
is time to bring politicians back to reality. The Tea Party developed one
tactic, showing up in droves to heckle conservative politicians who didn't
uphold its views. Occupiers can do the same with progressive-leaning
politicians. It can also invite them to speak at events, solicit political
promises, and then hold them to those promises through the threat of occupying
their offices, campaign headquarters, and so on. Many politicians are eager to
tap into anti-Wall Street fervor while striving to do as little as possible,
assured that as long as they are the lesser of two evils, the votes of liberal
Americans are secure. They should be made to speak unambiguously and to follow
through on what they say.
I hope it is clear that I am not saying
that Occupy should become a political movement in the narrow sense of electoral
politics. I am saying, rather, that it should inspire a political movement that
shares its ideals and draws upon its tactics. The goals and basic motivating
spirit of OWS are bigger than the conventional political discourse can contain.
To turn toward politics as we know it would be to make the movement less. It
should be first and foremost a social and a spiritual movement, with a
the environment. Imagine what would happen if the same energy and
dedication that went into occupying Zucotti Park were devoted to occupying
fracking sites, mountaintop removal operations, gas pipeline projects, and
other venues of environmental pillage. The 99% that has been left out includes
the vast majority of life on earth, human and otherwise. Julia Butterfly Hill
saved a stand of redwoods by occupying a single tree. What could her example
achieve, multiplied by ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million?
I'm sure readers in the movement who
like acting in the material realm, not just the realm of words, can think of
many other Occupations to reclaim, to protect, and to serve humanity and the
planet. Already, the movement has awakened in hundreds of thousands of people a
willingness to act, sustained by the solidarity of others who can affirm that
no, none of us are crazy for bearing witness to the reigning insanity. The next
step is not to demand a more beautiful world – it is to create one.
Image by cloud2013, courtesy of Creative Commons license.