Rebels without a root cause

Occupy-bullIt’s been interesting to follow the Occupy Wall Street movement from afar, although the media here in Europe aren’t giving it as much attention as the Arab Spring protests or similar uprisings demanding freedom, democracy and cheap bread received at the time. Of course, in the West concepts like freedom and democracy are a bit more nuanced, because we officially have them. And although gasoline is deemed way too expensive,  bread is still cheap enough that we can throw away substantial amounts of it. No, the reasons for this Western protest are manifold, but they aren’t expressed concisely and explicitly. This in fact, is still a major criticism of the movement. What is it about? What do they want?

As Paul Krugman wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed:

A better critique of the protests is the absence of specific policy demands. It would probably be helpful if protesters could agree on at least a few main policy changes they would like to see enacted. But we shouldn’t make too much of the lack of specifics. It’s clear what kinds of things the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators want, and it’s really the job of policy intellectuals and politicians to fill in the details.

At the end of last month a declaration of some sorts was published that reflects the broadness of the movement. No one is left out. As Douglas Rushkoff wrote in his opinion piece for CNN on October 5th:

Yes, there are a wide array of complaints, demands, and goals from the Wall Street protesters: the collapsing environment, labor standards, housing policy, government corruption, World Bank lending practices, unemployment, increasing wealth disparity and so on. Different people have been affected by different aspects of the same system — and they believe they are symptoms of the same core problem.

Are they ready to articulate exactly what that problem is and how to address it? No, not yet.

PuzzleIt’s too bad neither author articulates what the core problem or root cause is. None or few of the good people of the Occupy Wall Street movement are. Instead there’s a fragmentation and lack of direction that could make the movement’s effort vulnerable to simple and age old divide & conquer-tactics. To be really effective in stirring things up the movement needs a core message that unifies all the fragments and general sense of dissatisfaction with ‘something that is wrong, but we can’t put our finger on it’. This message exists. It is hidden in the collection of fragments.

As I’ve stated in my previous opinion piece here on Planet 3.0 the root cause of most if not all global problems is the neoclassical economic concept that growth can and must be infinite. After many decades of dominance this concept has become the invisible core of all of the economy, society and culture, in the US and beyond. But as no organism can grow forever – and our global civilisation is in every way an organism – there will inevitably come a point at which limits are bumped into, problems becoming so obvious that they can no longer be ignored.

Wall streetThese are the “wide array of complaints, demands, and goals from the Wall Street protesters”. They are indeed “symptoms of the same core problem”, which becomes clear when looking at the Declaration of the Occupation of New York city, the list of grievances referring to what ‘they’ did. I’ll just pick out a few grievances from the list to bolster my argument:

They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity,
and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.

It is demanded of them that they act this way, because it maximizes profits and thus economic growth. If the bankers hadn’t done what they did (gambling with derivatives based on subprime lending), and if they hadn’t been bailed out, the economy would have stopped growing. The problem with that is that the engine of the economy can only go forward, at accelerating speeds by preference. The engine has to become more flexible and resilient, and to do that you have to replace the dominant economic theory that has perpetual economic growth as its goal.

They have poisoned the food supply through negligence,
and undermined the farming system through monopolization.

ChickenSame thing. They poisoned the food supply because it was more economically efficient to do so. It increased profits, it boosted GDP growth, as do the health and social problems emerging from it. Food has to be cheap, so people can consume more of it, and have more money left to consume more things. Only monopolies can do that for you. If you want that to change, you must change the context in which farms operate. And changing that context, changes everything. It absolutely demands another economic concept to lie at the heart of your policies.

They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products,
endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

Yes, it’s called perceived and planned obsolescence. It’s been around a long time. There are conferences where engineers discuss how they can make appliances break after X time, but not so soon that consumers buy a new appliance from another brand. If they would make appliances last as long as possible, the economy would collapse. That’s because that economy floats on the idea that economic growth can and must last forever. More and more stuff needs to be produced and consumed by a docile population.

I could go on and on, and answer all points on the list like this. If it were up to me, the major slogan of the OWS movement would be something along these lines: ‘Infinite growth is not possible on a finite world, please replace the dominant economic concept’. This one demand could unify the Occupy Wall Street movement, without excluding anyone, without diminishing the importance of individual grievances. In fact, I honestly believe it’s the absolute prerequisite for lasting solutions to all the complaints on the Occupy Wall Street Declaration. Put it on top and let the show really begin.

Comments:

  1. Well, I'm surprised Frank hasn't gotten on your case for this one.

    I think he's right that the brilliant "99%" framing is a key feature of the movement. But that is for both good and ill; that is what makes me nervous about it.

    If you ask people, far less than 99% would volunteer "we would like to organize society without growth" never mind what I take to the corollary "we must organize society so that dignity is available without formal employment or accumulated wealth".

    Is the latter socialist? I suppose you can argue so. I suppose that this will be a "drag on the economy" the
    way socialist measures are. But since a drag on the economy is what we actually need, this doesn't concern me.

    A slow economy historically means bad times, The usual answer has been to speed up the economy. Now that this has reached ludicrous proportions, we no longer have that option. All that is left is to make living in a relatively slow economy tolerable. But the relatively slow economy still remains much faster than pre-2005 economies. There ought to be some way to manage this.

    But I don't think the 99% understand any of this. So I am not entirely happy about the emergence of direct democracy as an alternative to corrupt democracy. Neither has mechanisms for recognizing expertise.

    • I think he’s right that the brilliant “99%” framing is a key feature of the movement.

      Thanks MT.

      Neven, as I pointed out, there's indeed a focused message behind the 99% movement, and it's given by the very words "We are the 99%". That is, policies should be crafted and implemented to benefit the 99%, not the richest and most powerful 1% -- and everything else flows from this basic imperative.

      The criticism that 'the OWS movement has no clear message' might had been valid when the movement was only called "OWS", but it's no longer true now.

      the root cause of most if not all global problems is the neoclassical economic concept that growth can and must be infinite.

      I see the problem as not "infinite growth" per se, but rather infinite consumption. Though "growth" may be a problematic concept -- not least because much so-called "growth" is merely bubbles waiting to burst -- but "growth" by itself doesn't lead to environmental destruction. Consumption does.

      You mentioned gasoline. I think a prime example of the blind, absurd worship of infinite consumption in the US is precisely the obsession over gasoline prices -- an obsession which, in my opinion, is reaching totally ridiculous proportions.

      -- frank

    • Is the latter socialist?

      Don't forget that in the greatest socialist experiment of all time, the USSR, everything was about growth too. I often get called a communist in discussions because of my questioning the mantra of eternal economic growth, but communists were all pro-growth as well. And they didn't stop promoting growth when a large percentage of the population had a decent standard of living, just like the West. That's because of the power structure that goes with economic growth. And thus the powers that be don't want it to end.

      Whether a decentralised economic system that respects natural limits and focuses on minimum and maximum needs (instead of wants), is socialist or still capitalist or whatever, is a distraction. Isn't it time we go beyond 20th century thinking?

    • Neven:

      As I mentioned above, I think the problem isn't the idea of infinite 'growth', but the idea of infinite consumption. Pretty much every time, people are promised the utopia of infinite consumption -- free flow of gasoline like water from a tap, a cornucopia of electricity, an end to the problem of starvation, and a pony too.

      It seems that infinite consumption is the much more 'primal' concern, and the idea of infinite 'growth' was introduced to 'justify' the promise of infinite consumption.

      -- frank

  2. Frank,

    policies should be crafted and implemented to benefit the 99%, not the richest and most powerful 1% — and everything else flows from this basic imperative.

    I agree, but it's a bit vague. To make it less vague, there should be an explicit call for a different economic system (IMO). Because none of those policies is really going to work if you don't stop the overruling need of the economy to grow forever.

    I see the problem as not “infinite growth” per se, but rather infinite consumption. Though “growth” may be a problematic concept — not least because much so-called “growth” is merely bubbles waiting to burst — but “growth” by itself doesn’t lead to environmental destruction. Consumption does.

    Agreed. It all depends on how you define growth and what you want it to do. But as it is, consumption is the way it is because the economy needs to grow. That's why everyone is being brainwashed continuously, with all the consequences that entails.

    So, if you want consumption to change (quantity and quality) you need to change the current economic paradigm that has dominated economic thought and governmental policies for over half a century now. Neoclassical economics allow no room for less consumption. And consumption can't be greenified either to the point that the system can remain the way it is. Even if it were possible, there's just not enough time.

    • Neven:

      I agree, but it's a bit vague.

      It's not vague. It's the top-level goal, the goal that every proposed measure should try to fulfill. Changing the economic system is but a means to the 99% end.

      But as it is, consumption is the way it is because the economy needs to grow.

      I don't think any individual person says "I pump gasoline into my car because I want the economy to grow", or "I eat a lot of junk food because I want the economy to grow". Not even the most "brainwashed" person thinks like that!

      People do these things because they can (e.g. eat junk food), or because they have to (e.g. use a car because there's no convenient public transport). As far as I can remember, this is where neo-classical economics comes in, by promising cheap gasoline and lots of food through magical "wealth creation". (I should probably try to cite an actual quote or two, but real life beckons...)

      -- frank

    • Changing the economic system is but a means to the 99% end.

      Of course we agree on that. I just happen to think that it should be on top of the list, because it will make the rest on the list so much 'easier'.

      I don’t think any individual person says “I pump gasoline into my car because I want the economy to grow”, or “I eat a lot of junk food because I want the economy to grow”. Not even the most “brainwashed” person thinks like that!

      Not directly, of course, but definitely indirectly. A lot of our unconscious thinking is guided through culture, peer pressure, advertising, etc. Thus a lot of our consumption comes from living in a consumer culture. And that culture is spurred by the need for the economy to grow. That's why for instance George Bush urged the American people to go shopping at the end of 2006.

      People do these things because they can (e.g. eat junk food), or because they have to (e.g. use a car because there’s no convenient public transport). As far as I can remember, this is where neo-classical economics comes in, by promising cheap gasoline and lots of food through magical “wealth creation”. (I should probably try to cite an actual quote or two, but real life beckons…)

      Of course the system is successful because it taps into real or perceived needs, because people are hardwired to like shiny things, to look for security, to seek novelty (ye shalt not be bored) and this naturally has to do with the way the system has come to work, a vicious cycle in a way (the other part of the cycle being the plutocrats profiting from the way things are set up).

      But it's not the main reason. The main reason was a conscious choice by economists and policymakers to put economic growth first. And it was necessary too after WW2, as large parts of the developed world was in shambles. That's how it all started, it was a means to an end. And now the limits are being hit because they didn't switch to another system, letting this one become the end instead of the means it had been so far.

      What is still needed, of course, is a realization of the fact that limits will eventually be hit on our current course (never mind the fact that we are hitting several as we speak). This realization must have impacts on the individual as well as the collective scale. Every individual should try and impose limits on himself, as soon as he/she's convinced of the reality of the limits. But collectively there should be a call for another economic system that respects the limits, simply to make those individual choices easier or even possible.

      So not only is it more important to change the economic system, the context, rather than hardwired human behaviour (that partly depends on the context), it also stands more of a chance of being realized. But it needs to be a conscious choice. It will not come about by changing some aspects of regulation and policy (most of the demands of the 99%). It needs economists to formulate a different paradigm that replaces the current one based on endless growth. And they won't as long as practically none of the 99% is asking them to (and certainly none of the 1%).

      I believe this is key.

    • Neven:

      The main reason was a conscious choice by economists and policymakers to put economic growth first. And it was necessary too after WW2, as large parts of the developed world was in shambles. That's how it all started, it was a means to an end.

      OK, I'll have to grant that that may be true -- my bad. But even so, it's clear that the doctrine of "infinite growth" is still being presented as a means to an end -- just a different end. "Infinite growth" has been "repackaged" as a way to allow free flow of gasoline and other cool stuff. See for example this blog post by Anthony Watts's party.

      (As an analogy, consider the question of gun ownership in the US: the founders originally presented the Second Amendment as a means for preventing a tyranny of the top rungs of government, but now it's sold as a "self-defense" measure to allow paranoid folks to keep out "illegal immigrants" and the like. Still a means to an end, but a different end. There are probably other examples of this sort of "repurposing".)

      So not only is it more important to change the economic system, the context, rather than hardwired human behaviour (that partly depends on the context), it also stands more of a chance of being realized.

      When I said "People do these things because they can [...] or because they have to", I didn't mean that overconsumption is "hardwired" and there's nothing we can do about it; rather I mean that the message of infinite oil, food, water, and ponies has a very definite allure, with people willing to capitalize on this allure, and we need to recognize this as a problem so that we can minimize it.

      -- frank

    • But even so, it’s clear that the doctrine of “infinite growth” is still being presented as a means to an end — just a different end. “Infinite growth” has been “repackaged” as a way to allow free flow of gasoline and other cool stuff.

      Absolutely agreed. I'd say the real end of the economic system is to satisfy the 1%'s insatiable hunger for more wealth. This whole system is their tool. And I'm not even talking conspiracy here (Bilderberg, Illuminati or whatever). It was logical that this would happen.

      The tool needs to be taken away. I think the best way to do that is to stop the economic lunacy of infinite growth so that a foundation for lasting reforms can be laid.

      I mean that the message of infinite oil, food, water, and ponies has a very definite allure, with people willing to capitalize on this allure, and we need to recognize this as a problem so that we can minimize it.

      Indeed. And to minimize the problem the existence of limits has to be taken into account. Once you acknowledge that you cannot but change the whole economic system.

      Except for ponies of course. There is no limit on ponies.

  3. I admit that I'm not following the OWS/99% movement very closely, but there are two things that I'm afraid are happening:

    1. It's just about taking away the benefits of growth (wealth) away from the rich, so they can be distributed to the 99%. So after that we keep growing as usual, but with better regulation, etc, etc.
    2. Pointing fingers at 'Them', and a lack of awareness of our own role in all of this, and what it will take to stop being a victim/accomplice. Yes, some are more responsible, but that doesn't mean we aren't all of us responsible for the way the system is. Most people aren't aware of what it will take to get this whole train back on the rails again. Everybody expects his prospects to improve, or at least stay the same. That's impossible, no matter what happens.

    To quote Simon Jenkins from this Guardian article danolner linked to in another comment thread:

    "New York's Zuccotti Park squatters, equidistant from Wall Street and Ground Zero, have received the widespread support of New Yorkers and the quiet endorsement of a succession of Democrat politicians. The squatters seem meticulously concerned about being clean, quiet and of good community behaviour. The place is already a tourist attraction.

    For celebrities, turning up at Zuccotti has become a publicity must. Susan Sarandon, Jesse Jackson, Kanye West, Roseanne Barr, Michael Moore and Tim Robbins have dropped by. A freesheet ironically demanded: "Where are you Bono, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn?" A new Batman movie is to include a scene shot in the square.

    The camp has settled into New York's ever vital ecology. Donors have stepped forward with "five-star" soup kitchens, "occu-pie" pizzas and a Sheraton chef with a "chez Zuccotti menu" of salmon cakes with dill sauce and "pasta bologna with grass-fed beef". The New York Post felt obliged to send its restaurant critic to taste the fare."

    Or peak oil poet James Howard Kunstler in his latest column:

    "Eventually, you get a lot of people in the streets. Feelings of happy anarchy sweep the crowd, a feeling that something special is underway, that the usual rules of everyday conduct have been suspended, in a good way. The crowd basks in the sunny glow of its own mass, happy solidarity. Everybody is behaving splendidly - more to feel good about."

    If at least they'd be calling for a new economic paradigm as one of the first things on the list (in fact, it should be right at the top IMO), I'd be more positive. As things currently seem to shape up, I think I'm going to wait for the next movement. Unless the 99% surprise me.

    • Neven, I highly doubt that the eventual success or failure of the 99% movement will have anything to do with whether they explicitly demand the death of the "infinite growth" ideology.

      For now, we'll just have to see what the movement decides to do next.

      -- frank

      • On the other side of the coin, the success of the planet may depend on whether the 99% movement adopts serious sustainability or sticks too closely to the old fashioned prescription of "jobs jobs jobs".

    • Neven, I highly doubt that the eventual success or failure of the 99% movement will have anything to do with whether they explicitly demand the death of the “infinite growth” ideology.

      Not much in the short term. But definitely in the long term, as it forms the heart of the whole sustainability issue.

      For now, we’ll just have to see what the movement decides to do next.

      Yes, I'm very curious to know. Maybe they will try and influence the presidential elections? I suggest Richard Pryor-style: None of the above.

  4. Successful movements force change, but everybody in a movement doesn't need to understand what policies will address what ails them, nor do they expect to. I can't think of any movement where it's masses have, including the most successful of them. There are always going to be some smaller set of individuals who do the aiming. The question is where those leaders come from and can the movement trust them so as to direct their support that way.

    I think that the connection between the 99% movement and sustainability comes from how we work out the connection between work and consumption. A strong and prosperous middle class cannot, IMO, come from tax redistribution. It has to come from fair pay for work - the Distribution as opposed to the REdistribution.

    But paying more for work means paying more for goods. Which means consuming less of them. This is not THE solution to the issue, but I think it is how we get pointed in that direction

    • But paying more for work means paying more for goods. Which means consuming less of them. This is not THE solution to the issue, but I think it is how we get pointed in that direction

      Absolutely, Dean. My point is that this will have to go hand in hand with a different economic system. Because consuming less will mean less economic growth by the current standard calculations. And no economic growth is very, very dangerous for the whole globalized system. At least, until the system is changed and the current economic paradigm replaced.

      I hope the 99% movement gets that point across. If I've understood correctly the people of Adbusters and Anonymous that had a big part to play in getting this ball rolling, have quite a good reputation when it comes to sustainability issues, so hopefully they can remain the driving force (or background leaders) of the movement.

      I say background leaders, because as soon as someone steps up and starts making taboos like infinite growth and the corruption of democracy visible, he/she will get demonized and probably even killed. But maybe they can keep things going behind the scene.

      Now there's a nice and positive conspiracy theory. Hidden leaders who do exactly the right thing! :-)

  5. I agree with Frank about the unifying message of the movement. I certainly don't see "policies should be crafted and implemented to benefit the 99%" as being more vague than "an explicit call for a different economic system."

    But I think that there's a category error at work here. At its core, 99% is a social movement, not a political movement as such. It bears greater resemblance to the social movement of the 60s than, say, the nuclear freeze movement: the rebels of the 60s agitated against materialism, authoritarianism and injustice, and out of this sprang the anti-war movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, et cetera.

    I also agree that the only real solution to the financial crisis must be a thoroughgoing restructuring of our economy. I disagree, however, that the way to accomplish this is that the rag-tag Occupies must somehow transform themselves into a unified revolutionary vanguard with a single set of demands and a single plan of action behind which everyone gets in line.

    Specific political goals will grow out of this movement as the political movements of the 60s grew out of the more generalized critique. This has begun already, with growing support for policies like publicly financed elections, a debt jubilee, programs ensuring full employment, etc. Different groups will espouse different solutions, but this social movement will bear fruit when, and if, its critique is absorbed by the broad mass of people, and when and if the people formulate their own demands.

  6. "But paying more for work means paying more for goods. Which means consuming less of them."

    I'm not convinced. It may mean a change in lifestyle and time allocation though. As a 'real' baby boomer, meaning born before 1950, I grew up in the economic boom times of the 50s and 60s.

    Here in Australia that meant a suburban home with fruit trees providing a whole (sometimes more) year's worth of bottled fruits, jams and pickles. My dad built a whole kitchen pantry just to store summer's bounty. He had to. He turned a couple of weeks of our summer holidays every year into a preserved fruit production line while mum was at work. Even friend who were foolish enough to visit at these times got lined up. (But they came back every day so it can't have been too off-putting.)

    We grew flowers and some vegetables as well as keeping chooks for eggs and the occasional, very special, chicken dinner. We had lemons and herbs year round just outside the kitchen door. And so did just about everyone we knew.

    As far as economic measurement went, our lifestyle wouldn't have registered much on the books that reflected how well off we really were. A few punnets of seedlings, a few bags of chook food, a few skeins of wool and bags of sugar bought from 'outside' resulted in $$$value of greens, eggs, handknitted woollies, fresh flower arrangements every week and 300+ fruit desserts for a family of four.

    If you could find a copy of "Capitalism, Socialism and The Environment" by Hugh Stretton (1976) you'd get a better idea of what I mean. His big emphasis is on the contribution of housing design and availability to bettering family circumstances. In ways that conventional economic number crunching doesn't pick up very well. A 'spare' room allows or even encourages activities like making curtains and clothes - which substitute for 'higher' value bought items, engaging in various hobby activities - which substitute for purchased entertainments, and there are similar arguments about sheds and backyards and the British allotment system.

    So, after that long-winded discursion, I'm pretty sure that buying less doesn't involve 'less' lifestyle. After all, my solar panels are providing power back to the grid right now even as I use power for this computer.

  7. "Less harmful consumption"?

    I can't use myself as a good example to the rest of the world. Never been a 30 pairs of shoes type so I can't claim any virtue in reducing shopping because it's never been recreational for me. A chore usually, an indulgence occasionally, never a habit.

    I suppose the benefit of doing your own preserves and pickles depends a lot on what power sources you use and where you get your raw materials from. If you do it badly you might use more resources than if you bought ready made. Recreational consumption? We've bought a house with a large park across our back fence - so walking and cycling and other simple pastimes are pretty easy to come by. Others who have to drive or use other transport to get to parks, beaches or playgrounds would have to 'do more harm' for the same personal benefit.

    My own view is that for individuals and families to lessen the harm they cause, the first requirement is good urban planning and public transport. Doing the least harmful thing is much easier when it's also the cheapest or most convenient thing around. And our state government provides (fairly modest) cash subsidies for purchases of water saving and power saving additions to houses and gardens - makes it easy to decide whether you'll go for one kind of item rather than another when prioritising expenditures.

    And then there are consumer items. It'd be no loss to anyone if whitegoods and entertainment items were restricted in how much power they draw.

    Just make it easier, more convenient or actively encouraged to make better choices about routine activities and purchases, and people will usually do the right, or at least the better, thing without even thinking about it.

    • Been a bit busy in the garden - counting baby green tomatoes and strawberries on your bushes in a new garden is a dreadful time-waster - and similar pointless but deeply satisfying activities.

      Not so sure about whether the lifestyle thing relates directly to taxing externalities though, apart from power and transport. My leaning at the moment is to culture and values.

      People say we're too much involved with material possessions. We could turn that around and say that we're too little involved with our 'things'. The shed at my 'growing-up-house' had rafters loaded with timber to be used for various maintenance duties around the house. The workbench had all the tools you'd expect from a former carpenter, but it also had a cobbler's last. In those days of all leather shoes, my dad and many others repaired shoes at home. Not much good if we didn't carefully polish and maintain them. The uppers had to be as well looked after as the heels and soles. So we spent a _lot_ of time and effort on caring for our material possessions, shoes were just one of the important, more expensive items requiring home-made skills. (Have to confess my very first haircut bought for money(!) at a hairdresser rather than sitting on a stool in the shed was an unforgettable thrill. Grown up at last! There was a reason why little primary school girls always had plaits or tied up their hair in ribbons. The utilitarian cut or no haircut at all.)

      I'm not so much an old fuddy-duddy wailing about wicked, wanton waste as I am constantly amazed at people's willingness to abandon or discard perfectly serviceable items just because there's something bigger, newer, shinier or blacker available.

      I'm afraid this applies to a lot of 'sustainable' items too - substitute greener for blacker. Don't throw out your wood, glass, metal, plastic coffee table and buy a bamboo one. Repair, cover, paint it, dismantle and reuse the parts, whatever. And if you really truly don't want it, give it to a charity shop or other reuse and recycle organisation. Never, ever, ever dump anything.

      More pride in retention, long life and proper maintenance of our material possessions would be a worthwhile cultural shift for many groups within our societies.

      One externality we often overlook is the proper, full cost of retaining and managing the nutrients and other materials discarded by households and businesses. Paying higher rates for better landfill and waste dump management doesn't come anywhere near what is really required. Might put the externality of a carbon price into perspective if we had to pay in full the wages and all other costs of handling all our discards in a responsible manner.


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