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Francesca Rheannon, 'Occupy' Goes Global: Is Another World Possible?

'Occupy' Goes Global: Is Another World Possible?
Francesca Rheannon

The Occupy movement is birthing a new global paradigm of democratic
governance. Can capitalism adapt?

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.