The Occupy movement is birthing a new global paradigm of democratic governance. Can capitalism adapt?
By Francesca Rheannon
On October 15, 2011, a tide of protests swept across 1,500 cities in 82 countries as the Occupy movement went global. The largest were in Spain, where more than a million people filled squares in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and other cities all over the country. That’s not surprising, given that Occupy Wall Street, which sparked the global day of protests, itself took inspiration from (among others) the massive demonstrations of the Spanish “indignados” in May of this year.
In Santiago, Chile, 100,000 marched; Lisbon: 20,000; New York: 20,000; Berlin: 10,000—to name only a few. Building on the protests occurring earlier this year, from the Arab Spring to Spain, Greece, Chile, Tel Aviv and now the USA, the Occupy movement is spreading a new culture of participatory democracy around the globe.
The difference between this idea of democracy and the one exploited by, for example, George W. Bush when he invaded Iraq, is the end of the notion that democracy is synonymous with free market fundamentalism. Instead, this new movement is saying political democracy means little without greater democracy in the economic sphere. It’s the difference between what Frances Moore Lappé calls “thin democracy” and “thick democracy.”
As one slogan held aloft by signs in Madrid put it, this movement wants “human rights for everybody.” Those rights, as set out in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, include everyone’s entitlement to the “realization…of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.” Including the “right to work, the just and favorable conditions of work and protection against unemployment.” And, the right “to just and favorable remuneration…worthy of human dignity.” Also – something the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio seem ignorant of – the right to form and join trade unions.
From the protests against draconian austerity measures (Greece, Portugal), to demands for relief from the crushing burden of student loan debt (Chile, England, US) to the swelling outrage at income and wealth inequality (everywhere) and the hijacking of political systems by predatory corporations (everywhere), the movement is connecting the dots between political power and economic power – and it wants to “take it back.” (Environmental and peace concerns have appeared more muted – except in Japan, where anti-nuclear sentiment is prominent – but they are very much a part of the awareness that predatory capitalism is behind environmental devastation and military adventurism.)
What is so extraordinary is – at this time, at least – the movement is getting so much support in the United States, where it seems the silent majority is finally finding its voice. A recent Times poll found 54% of respondents viewing the Occupy Wall Street protests favorably; 86% agreed with the statement “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington;” 79% thought “the gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large;” and 68% thought “the rich should pay more taxes.”
The fact the protests have stayed front and center in a media more noted for ignoring progressive movements – and that many politicians are paying at least lip service to the notion that the protests are justified – is an indication of the seriousness with which the ruling elites are taking this movement. They can’t ignore it and retain credibility.
And they should take it seriously, because it is sounding the death knell of an old paradigm and the birth of a new. What we are seeing here is a loss of legitimacy of the dominant capitalist paradigm, the paradigm of predatory capitalism that has ruled the planet since the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
While the military-industrial-political complex has been around at least since Eisenhower warned the country about it, the full-fledged florescence of predatory capitalism began with the elections of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. The privatization of national assets, the crushing of the unions, the erosion of the social safety net and the equating of “democracy” with free market fundamentalism were all milestones on the way to the capture of the public sphere by private interests.
It was a paradigm that spread far beyond the US and UK, eroding the social compact that had prevailed in many of the social democracies of Europe since the end of World War II. It turned the so-called “communism” of China into unfettered capitalism and replaced the state capitalism of the former Soviet Union with a privatized capitalist kleptocracy.
As long as business was no more than one (albeit powerful) voice in politics, “greed” could still be seen as “good” by many who hoped they might someday get rich. But once governments were sold to the highest bidders (Wall Street, the City of London, the European Central Bank, etc.) citizens saw their own interest (the interest of the “99%”) was not only no longer the same as the 1%, but actually opposed to it.
With this ripping away of the fig leaf of democracy comes a greater understanding of the toll autocratic governance takes on the lives of the governed. The modern corporation is not a democracy, but a hierarchy where citizens surrender their civil rights – to free speech, for example, or to due process – the moment they walk through the workplace door. That autocracy deems it right and good to plunder economies and ecosystems for its own private gain.
And as the abrupt fall of the Soviet behemoth showed in 1989, when a system – no matter how apparently powerful – loses legitimacy, its days are numbered (although it can thrash dangerously for a long time).
The old worldview privileging a linear command structure began to erode under the holistic discoveries of ecology: in the ecosystem’s web of life, every organism is equally important. This understanding has been seeping into the arena of social governance for awhile; the growth of a global movement for civic, social and economic democracy – dubbed “blessed unrest” by Paul Hawkins – has been going on at least since 1968, but it has largely been under the radar. It is now reaching critical mass.
It is showing up in a burgeoning worldwide conversation about alternative ways of structuring economic activity. Some are old, some new, but they all seek to create a more democratic ethos, one that serves "Human need, not corporate greed," as was expressed on many signs held aloft during the global protests this past weekend.
- Cooperatives are one form. As UN chief Ban Ki Moon said recently, they “are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”
- Libertarian socialist Robin Hahnel has developed a participatory economic “model of an economy based upon allocation by participatory democracy within an integrated framework of nested production and consumption councils...proposed as an alternative to contemporary capitalism, centralized state socialism and market socialism.”
- Ecological economics privileges the environment by capturing externalities to internalize environmental costs.
- The “Buy Local” movement has at its heart the idea that the producers and merchants should be engaged consumers in conversations that promote the sustainability of all.
Is the Occupy movement anti-capitalist? Yes and no. There are those in it who say they are just against predatory capitalism. Others believe capitalism is by nature predatory and reject it entirely. But one thing is clear: the new paradigm will only tolerate forms of economic behavior that are friendly to greater participation and democracy. Let a hundred flowers of economic experimentation bloom.
About Francesca Rheannon
Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writer's Voice with Francesca Rheannon.
This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.
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