Business/Finance

The trouble with Occupy

The Occupy movement seems as if it has the potential to do great things. While it professes no leadership, it has galvanized the left—and a growing part of the middle, possibly—in ways that no other issue has over the past decade—since the invasion of Iraq, actually. And galvanize it has—it’s a worldwide phenomenon now, here in London at St Paul’s Cathedral, and elsewhere. It has provided a focus for the anger—outright rage, in many cases—at the lack of accountability of the financial and political elite for the crisis of a couple of years ago, and the state of the economy now, at a time when it is god-awful difficult for many families in America and many other industrial economies to make ends meet, or just to stay in place. People are going backwards, and they know it. One can only admire the determination and focus of the people involved. One can only feel outrage at the indifference, so far, their protest has engendered in the corporate media and the policy elites. The tragedy in Oakland is symptomatic of a deep sickness in American culture, one that the financial and political elite seem perfectly comfortable perpetuating at the expense of both people and planet.

And yet, and yet…. I’m bothered by something, and I haven’t really seen anyone focus on what is actually being demanded here. Well, not demanded, actually, since people’s motives here are broad and wide. But there’s a broad insistence on economic justice, as if that could be satisfied by lower CEO pay, or sending some of the obvious crooks on Wall Street to jail. I suppose the latter might happen, but not nearly enough to matter, frankly. But there’s clearly more at issue here—it’s the lack of work, the lack of mobility, the fact that the American Dream no longer seems attainable.

But it’s a shibboleth, an illusion. The only person I’ve seen articulate the concerns I have is Gwyneth Jones, who writes (in a longer and much better thought out piece than I could come up with):

The trouble is, in real life as opposed to outer space, there is another value… and it’s the worth of the living world, the only planet we have. This present crisis looks “bad” but the environment we live in can still be squeezed. Fossil fuels can still be extracted, at horrible cost but in mighty volumes of natural gas, even if the oil is running a little low. Forest and wilderness can still be cleared for agribusiness, in staggering enormous swathes. The oceans can be killed stone dead. And this is what will happen, and this is what must happen, if the middle classes and the masses are to be given enough of a “share of the wealth” to shut them up again.

I admire the Occupy movement very much, but I’m afraid their mass support is coming, has to come, not from those who want something new, but from the angry people who simply want the machine to work again. They want economic growth to go on, forever and ever, so that ideally (and this is what dresses the mass movement in idealism) everyone, every single one of the 7 billions and counting, can have the good life. But I don’t want that, even if it were possible. I don’t want to share the wealth, I want the wealthy to share my frugal sufficiency. I don’t want my rights restored (the right to a new car, two weeks in the Maldives and a new gadget, every six months). I want those “rights” withdrawn from circulation. I want to trade them for a future I can look forward to without dread and grief.

The whole thing in America the past three decades has been an illusion, a house of cards, a trick with mirrors. It all comes down to credit. People got more and more credit, and thought they were rich. So the bigger house, and the extra SUV, the endless supply of gadgets. And everyone got to move to the Sunbelt even as the industrial economy was being hollowed out, and homebuilding became the most important industry in America.

And it all depends on energy being cheap. This has been America’s natural advantage for decades, perhaps even longer. Energy in America has always been cheaper than in Europe or Japan. It’s what let the country expand the suburbs, so that everyone could have the four bedroom monster with central air conditioning and SUV or two in the driveway. And a lifestyle where you have to drive everywhere—it’s not optional. In most parts of the US, even in most cities, you can’t not drive. Which is why every time the cost of energy goes up, the country has a conniption fit.

Well, the current period of adjustment, if nothing else, would have at least offered the prospect of weaning America from its energy addictions. It looked for a while there as if the prospect of cheap energy, and the artificial economy based on artificial credit that enables it, would disappear. But that might not be the case now. There is, in much of Europe and some of the rest of the world, a recognition that adaptation to and mitigation of global warming will mean that energy, yes, will become more expensive. The American policy elite, both Republican and Democratic, remain in deep denial. This is what I find deeply scary about shale gas—not so much that America might have cheap energy again, but the price it’s willing to pay to have it. In any choice there days between jobs and the planet, the planet usually loses. It didn’t take long to BP to get a new permit for deep drilling in the Gulf again, didn’t it? In this regard the Obama administration’s decision regarding the Keystone Pipeline will be telling. I’m not optimistic.

So where does this leave Occupy? Well, according to Michael Moore, Occupy is beyond party politics. Moore occasionally has useful things to say, but this is not helpful. If this isn’t political, what’s the point? I have no idea what Occupy should be about. Economic grievances are obvious, and curing them is a necessary part of whatever transition we’re about to undertake–if that’s what is going to occur. But it’s not sufficient, and may even be counter-productive if, as Jones intuits, it simply becomes a return some familiar old mantra of jobs jobs jobs, which can take on an aura of Drill Baby, Drill if we’re not careful. But the goals here seem so inchoate that, really, this could go anywhere. Maybe a working democracy not owned by the usual suspects would be enough. It would be fantastic, in fact. But that next step—towards a voluntary simplicity and greater localism in our economic expectations—that remains to be seen.

10 replies »

  1. It seems to me Gwyneth Jones has not been to any Occupy GAs. No one here is crying for things to go on the way they’ve been. We’re looking for new ways to exist that encompass frugality. We’re actively working on building awareness now that we have the world’s attention. Our ideas are shared in this statement, “I want the wealthy to share my frugal sufficiency.” I have oft heard this repeated desire. It’s like a mantra. So, I urge Gwyneth and wufnik to come down to the streets and parks and join us in this new awakening.

  2. Ah, I wasn’t clear enough. Jones actually notes with admiration the frugality of the occupiers in a section I didn’t quote–it would have been too long. As I said, it was a longer post on her part, and is well worth the read. And I’ve wandered through St Paul’s, and agree. No, she’s making a more general point, one which I agree with–that getting a broader consensus on some of these issues involves getting a buy-in on frugality, on giving up the “rights” that many people have grown used to, on the part of a more broader range of the public. She is not optimistic on that point, nor am I. I imagine she (and I, certainly) would be delighted to be proved wrong. The political history of the US over the past 30 something years–since Reagan, say–is not encouraging in this regard.

  3. Do a degree, Wuf, i agree. I don’t know what OWS “wants,” but then it’s hard to know what a large gathering of people wants in distilled form unless they hand out a list of simple demands. I’m thankful that OWS hasn’t done that.

    The thing is that i’m not entirely sure this is a proactive protest movement, as in it isn’t about a single issue (ending a war) or a specific abuse (Civil Rights). It is – and i’m too far away from any Occupy situation to take its pulse personally, so i might be totally wrong – a display of anger towards a system that is broken.

    In the States, i’ll bet that a large percentage of the Occupiers were part of Obama’s legion of youth volunteers that did so much work in 2008. They tried to do it “the right way” and look what it got them: more of the same.

    My gut feeling is that this is the first groundswell in the kind of change you’re talking about. Given that much of the protesting mass is young, i would be surprised if many of them thought the current system is sustainable. They’ve grown up in a world where global warming is a fact (no matter what talking heads from the right say). They’ve grown up in a world where war is a constant state. Many of them have never seen what we might call rational Capitalism. And all the while of growing up, they’ve been told that they’re just, plain awesome and unique; that they can be anything and change the world.

    Now they’re out of university, can’t find work, and are starting out life under such a crushing debt burden that they simply can’t “follow their dreams” and create the world they envision within the structures of the world they inhabit. It’s a large cohort, and right now it’s feeling its oats … maybe with the unspoken (and unconscious?) knowledge that this system is going to have to be torn down before any new one can be constructed.

    It would be nice if this system displayed some ability to adapt, but it doesn’t. Those at the top are going to fight to the death to maintain the prerogative they have now. They’re the ones who refuse to see the vision of the future that you have. How many of the occupiers see it is unclear. But this is their coming out party. It’s gloriously messy and may yet turn sour. It also might be the germination of a great many good things.

  4. I agree with this–you have a generation that has figured out it’s getting stuck with a large bill they didn’t ask for. This is true worldwide, by the way, but I imagine you already know this. But youth unemployment is at double digits rates everywhere, not just in the western economies. In places like Tunisia and Egypt, we’re already seeing the reaction, but it’s not clear how this wall play out. More countries than you can shake a stick at share this problem, in fact.

    And I won’t bore you with what has gone wrong, We all know what has gone wrong–the system has not delivered the goods as promised. Instead, as you point out, we have back-breaking debt everywhere, and few good options. Of course, one could become a young Republican and ease yourself into the 1% that way, and I imagine there’s a little hard core of young corporatist apologists already gearing up to take over from Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter when they become viewed as being too liberal.

    Here’s my view of the problem. How can you opt out? I remember the Voluntary Simplicity days of the 1970s. It all sounded great. I had my subscription to Coevolution Quarterly and Mother Earth News. Carter put solar panels on the White House. And then Reagan came in and blew the whole thing up, and the country went along with it. So we ended up with the concentration of corporate and media power we’ve got now.

    So how do you withdraw from this system to set up another one? I’m not sure that you can at this point. You can buy less crap, but people don’t have money any more, so that’s already happening. But, say, driving. How do you not drive? I know lots of people here n England who just never bothered to get drivers licenses. Is that even possible in the US? There are many more ways to live frugally than we’re doing, I’m sure, and there’s actually a lot of exciting stuff happening–the post I wrote about Transition Towns in the UK was about that very thing. But can this ever reach the point where it’s transformation on a societal scale? Boy, I sure hope so. It would be nice to think that this is the case.

    But we both know that the current system will collapse if that’s the case–the economy, especially in the US, now depends more than it ever did on people buying stuff. Because what we’re talking about in this case is involuntary simplicity. And we know that people don’t like it one bit. The art of all of this is to move from involuntary simplicity to voluntary simplicity, and get people to like the idea while it’s happening. So far, I don’t see much evidence that that’s going to happen, and, frankly, it’s more likely to happen here in the UK than in the US. This is, ultimately, a small island in the North Atlantic with a conducive climate for growing things, and which can be covered end to end by train in the time it takes to get from Boston to Chicago.

    Don’t misunderstand–I think this is all very exciting, and I do not doubt for one minute the commitment of the people involved. And the fact that there may be multiple motives is understood–at this point, I expect there would be. My concern is what is required to take it further into a genuinely transformational movement, one that the majority of the population will support. And once the majority of the population understands that one of the key issues here is going to be lower economic growth, with a smaller pie to cut up, what then? Or if the choice is giving people more jobs, but at the cost of sacrificing the planet our grandchilren will inherit, what will their response be?

    I don’t think vision is the problem here. There’s lots of that. Jones’ point, which is one that I agree with, is that whatever we (or they) come up with, it has to factor in limited resources and limited growth. Will the broader population buy that? To say nothing of China and Africa and Egypt and the rest of the world, who just want a taste of what the American lifestyle is like. I’m looking forward to the discussions on these points. In a way, Moore is right–it’s not just about political parties and elections. But at some level it is these things, because that’s how one institutionalizes transformational change–the civil rights movement ultimately had a legislative response. How likely is that here? I’m curious to know what you think.

  5. >According to Michael Moore, Occupy is beyond party politics. Moore
    >occasionally has useful things to say, but this is not helpful. If this
    >isn’t political, what’s the point?

    “Listen to me, Major Walsh. It is an event sociological!”

  6. Once again the media pins its conclusions on OWS and then decrys them! Some may indeed long for the past and “the good old days” but some also see the future as the only salvation for the mess we have allowed to be made of our earth so far. We have allowed the planed to be ravaged and the creatures (including ourselves) to be poisoned or killed for a larger profit. We should instead be using war money to fund the tech we need to get US and the world out of where we are now. We had a much better life ten years ago when Clinton taxed all fairly and that is where we need to get to once we jail the lawbreakers and take back all the stolen money!

  7. Wuf, i’m all with you. Especially on the issue of how we need to voluntarily make these changes before they’re made for us. If you look back at the collapse of the USSR, people were involuntarily prepared by a system that never really delivered the goods and got worse the closer it came to collapse.

    It’s hard to voluntarily remove one’s self from the machine. I’ve talked here about establishing parallel institutions and been laughed at for it. It’s hard doing it individually even, and i’m in a good situation to try. Among my circle of friends, there’s a saying, “One grid at a time.” You can’t sever the cord, but you do the little things when and how you can. We’re into the realm of Gandhi’s quote about not being able to change the world except by changing yourself.

    I don’t know if the kids today really see it and are ready to act on it with the force of a large generation. To some degree they can’t, because the system is designed to trap them before they ever get a chance.

    I hope they’re ready, willing and able. But ya know, hope in one hand and shit the other. Your critique is valid, and if Moore is right, then we’ll need to see the Occupy movement move on these issues to prove that it is above party politics…which is different than being apolitical.

    Of course, the funny thing is that if the US were to shift the majority of its spending from defense to making these changes, there would be money and jobs and a far too late bridge to the 21st Century being built.

  8. I would say instead of withdrawing from “political life”, more of US need to be active. It is only through concerted action that change will come (look at Ohio and Wis.) Truly, “we are the change we are looking for” we have to remember the 5 steps of new ideas and the final is recognition of the issue and the solution as “good”. The Soviets were a planned economy and the leaders lost sight of the needs of the people( like the Chinese leaders are rapidly doing). We (US) have the ‘advantage’ of having been “robbed” and all the money is still within our reach. Our economy, being anything but planned, can pick up right away once we put money to work for US. We just need to get our money back, stop all wars and give everyone a tab, apps and social media with bullet proof ID;privacy and ‘Bobs your uncle’, the floodgates of innovation and buying are open!

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