When New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered police to clear Zuccotti Park of Occupy protestors on 15 November last year he called on the protesters to “occupy the space with the power of their arguments”. Starting out as a movement against corporate greed, the Occupy movement quickly developed demands for grassroots democracy. The economic became political. But it seems to have fizzled out for now. Or is this the quiet before the storm? What arguments might fill this space?
Whether or not 2011 becomes known as a turning point in world history will mainly depend on whether or not the “99%”, as we have nominated ourselves, take up Bloomberg’s gauntlet.
It’s hard to imagine such a dramatic shift taking place, with mainstream politics focusing on unremarkable presidential electioneering in the US; a pretence by the Australian media that Julia Gillard must fall and a real (read “male”) leader take her place; and hard-fought-for “freedom” in the Middle East looking more and more like a mirage.
Life without money
But the ten contributors to a new book I co-edited, Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies, offer strong, radical responses to defenders of capitalism and the so-called “free world”. They set out money-free models of community-based governance and collective sufficiency, arguing that production for trade contorts and destroys humane and natural values. They offer strategies for undercutting capitalism by refusing to deal in money, arguing that we need to replace monetary values and relationships by accounting directly in social and environmental values.
There are a number of alternative communities, as well as movements such as squatting, freeganism and collaborative consumption, experimenting with non-market models. A decade ago they might have been considered marginal. But their activities are gaining greater currency (pardon the pun) and coming into sharper focus as capitalists and workers alike fear more and worse instability in global financial markets.
All this uncertainty, endemic to any market economy, threatens the viability of businesses, job security, house prices and home ownership, the worth of assets and superannuation savings. It makes people question the basis of our economy within which money is the operating principle, dominating value and determining so many relationships.
Opting out of overconsumption
Even those of us who are not managers or workers are intimately integrated into the monetary system; everyone’s fortunes depend on satiating Mammon.
For the wealthy north, overconsumption is a very real sustainability-cum-economic challenge: if everyone decided to live modestly capitalism would disintegrate. Growth is capitalism’s achilles’ heel. While overconsumption in the north demands that we develop less materialistic ways of living, it is simply impossible to imagine either individual entrepreneurs or national GDP “degrowing” without a planned economy, at which point we have only two options.
There is the option of state-planned economies, which are out of favour among the left and right alike. The problem with planned economies is working out how everyone gets a say in what is produced. If distribution is more on the basis of need, it would appear money has little function. If we were to have less we would be very concerned to make sure we had enough and the kinds of things we feel we need, or badly want.
Could we really leave such decisions to the kinds of politicians we have today? No, we’d like a direct say in how we live.
On the other hand, non-market forms have the distinct benefit of offering individuals and neighbourhoods economic democracy. It is precisely the importance of such democracy that lies at the heart of Occupy movements worldwide. Occupy politics focus on general assemblies, allowing everyone a say in decision-making. Clumsy, you say, impossible, not feasible. You’re right, under current economic conditions, under capitalism.
But the economic infrastructure of a world in which we could all have a say in how we live our lives is sketched out in the final chapter of Life Without Money, which offers a model of a “compact society”. “Compact” because all the main relationships and structures would be based on legally enforceable voluntary agreements, rather than monetary contracts.
Instead of establishing tiny self-sufficient households, we’d work collectively, with a range of connected local households occupying a basic unit of a neighbourhood, the size of which would be flexible and dependent on the local ecology. Local collective sufficiency would be the key aim of every neighbourhood, sourcing materials for, and making, food, clothing and shelter as well as other basic needs, through appropriate technology.
Of course, there are likely to be needs or wants that people could not source or create locally. Ideally, these would be obtained from a neighbouring area or through the least environmentally and socially expensive option available at the time.
Establishing and maintaining collective sufficiency would require every individual to work out what they would need over a year, assessing local potential, planning how to meet the needs listed, working out how surpluses might be generated, and negotiating with other units to fulfil their needs. The internet facilitates this kind of collective research, planning and negotiation, which would involve numerous compacts.
Working out what works
A main focus of the Occupy movement has been working out how to develop and embed processes for direct decision making. Only by expanding such experience can we decide what practices work, are efficient, effective and really democratic.
At the same time, as developments that stimulated the Occupy movement show, the economic systems by which we live have to be reclaimed as our cultural inventions.
A massive decade of engaging with our current economic, environmental and political challenges might well have just started.