Occupy Wall Street is expanding the conversation from grievances to imagining a more sustainable economic system
By Francesca Rheannon
The General Assembly of New York City (the self-governing decision-making body of Occupy Wall Street) released a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” on September 29. The document listed 23 grievances against the “1%,” who are seen as the lords of our financial system and the economy. The grievances begin with “They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage” and end with “they continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.”
The document has been sent out to Occupy groups across the country for input and ratification. I was at one such gathering this past Sunday at “Occupy the Hamptons,” where about 100 people clustered by a picturesque windmill on Sag Harbor’s wharf to discuss the document. (Yours Truly – ever the climate hawk – suggested the inclusion of a grievance reading, in part, “In spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus that our current path of carbon emissions will cause catastrophic climate change… corporations have refused to cut carbon emissions to bring them down to the safe level of 350ppm in the atmosphere.”)
But, even as the movement’s grievances are still being articulated, it has begun to move toward educating itself about alternatives to the current top-down, vertically organized market economy – one that has seen income inequality soar to rates unseen since the last Gilded Age and incomes of ordinary Americans – the 99% – stagnate or fall. (New figures show that 50% of Americans make less than $26,364, the lowest in real dollars since 1999.)
The 99%-ers have been taking back the political sphere by re-defining the relationship Americans have toward the political process, from passivity to participatory democracy. As David Graeber, one of the original organizers of OWS and author of the recent book, Debt, wrote on the blog Naked Capitalism:
It is almost impossible to convince the average American that a truly democratic society would be possible. One can only show them. But the experience of actually watching a group of a thousand, or two thousand, people making collective decisions without a leadership structure, let alone that of thousands of people in the streets linking arms to holding their ground against a phalanx of armored riot cops, motivated only by principle and solidarity, can change one’s most fundamental assumptions about what politics, or for that matter, human life, could actually be like.
Now they are seeking economic structures that will embody the same horizontal principles. The New York General Assembly at OWS is in the process of designing a new currency based on gifting. Gift economies are ancient; Graeber argues in Debt that they may be the oldest economies in human history. They are getting an update in the work of such thinkers as Charles Eisenstein, as outlined in his book (available free online), Sacred Economics. He argues money should be an agent of abundance, not scarcity, connecting “human gifts with human needs.”
In that spirit, the Alternative Currencies Working Group at OWS is putting out for consideration by the General Assembly a software-enabled gift currency called PermaBank, that’s premise is “to develop and deploy a set of technologies that align 'financial services' with the principles of permaculture.” PermaBank would enable individuals and groups “to post their wish/requests and gifts/offers and indicate whether they've been completed.” It would also use paper money and credit cards (on a local credit union).
It seems the currency will formalize and organize an economy that has already spontaneously sprouted, enhancing “the efficiency of the gifting culture that currently exists within Liberty Plaza.”
The protestors have already deposited their money into a small credit union on the Lower East Side serving poor people who have been denied loans or accounts by other banks. In an extraordinarily mean-spirited move, Goldman Sachs retaliated against the bank by withdrawing a $5,000 pledge when the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union planned a fundraising event honoring the Occupy movement.
Alternative local currencies are not new – they have been promoted for decades by the Shumacher Society (now the New Economics Institute), among others, and are thriving in the Berkshires of Massachusetts (Berkshares) and elsewhere and in the explosion of time banks around the country.
The Metacurrency Project (whose proponent Arthur Brock was invited to speak to the 99%-ers at Zucotti Park) promotes the idea that “people should be able to decide what they value and how that will be measured and acknowledged. This means they have to be able to create their own currencies.” It aims to create the technology “tools, protocols and platforms” that will enable people to “transact directly with each other with no segment of that interaction relying on a centrally controlled system,” where “all levels are sovereign” (horizontally, not vertically determined).
The horizontal, democratic participation that Web-based technology makes possible is being used by another ad hoc group formed in the wake of OWS. Initially put out into the digisphere by Ralph Meima of Marlboro College’s MBA in Managing for Sustainability, “The American People’s New Economic Charter” is hoping to crowd-source an open, national conversation that develops a plan for redress for 18 of the 23 grievances in the Declaration of the Occupation—the ones dealing with economic issues.
Originally in the form of a public document on Google Docs, the Charter came under malicious attacks and migrated instead to a wiki that requires registration to join and edit. Since then, it’s taken off. “In three weeks we’ve come out of nowhere and have a community of far-flung people who have never worked together before,” Meima told CSRwire.
As an educator, Meima sees the Charter as an educational project that will use a process of continual collaborative iteration to inform ordinary people about complex issues and engage them in finding solutions.
It’s a new experiment, Meima says, one that expands the Occupy movement to the virtual space to create solutions on the ground. “Imagine a group of citizens who get together on the local level, it’s face to face. This is an experiment in virtual local activism – online education and local citizen activism moved to the national and virtual level.”
A movement toward creating a New Economy has been organizing since well before Occupy Wall Street first took to the streets. The New Economy Working Group is one key segment, bringing together thought leaders like David Korten (who publishes regularly on CSRwire) and Gar Alperovitz together with the Institute for Policy Studies.
The New Economic Institute in New York is making direct links to OWS. They will be putting on a forum, “Voices of the New Economics,” with Gar Alperowitz and Juliet Schor on November 5 that will also feature a youth panel with participants from Occupy Wall Street.
The work of The New Economy Working Group and New Economic Institute on local economies, regional banks, alternative currencies and other forms of democratic, sustainable economic systems are an invaluable resource for the 99%-ers. Last week, I wrote, “Let a hundred flowers of economic experimentation bloom.” This week, I see the shoots already pushing through the earth.
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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