From breakdown to breakthrough

The legacy of “Occupy Everywhere”

by Geoff Olson

At the time of this writing, Occupy Vancouver’s tent camp is no more. Across North America, the remaining occupations are under siege from law enforcement and negative press, to say nothing of harsh weather. Is the global flareup from October 15 just a historical flash in the pan, and its tagline, “We Are the 99 Percent” destined to become a forgettable political cliché? Or is there something necessary and new animating the “Occupy Everywhere” movement that will take on new forms in the future?

On a chilly early November day, one of the Occupy Vancouver organizers described how he joined the movement. “I used to be one of the one percent and made a lot of money,” said Suresh Fernando. “I was stockbroker at Scotia Macleod, lived at Wall Center, drove a beamer, all that kind of fancy stuff. I was never happy.” He says he went through a “spiritual transformation” over the past few years, a change that took him to the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery on October 15, the day of global solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Fernando has been on and off the site ever since.

“You know, the financial industry is predicated on the stupidity of the general public, so I’m here as someone who deeply understands the other side of the fence,” he says with animation. A common theme among occupiers is that financial institutions and other big organizations have grown outside the reach of representative democracy. The voting citizen has become an isolated atom of consumption, squeezed for profit and bled by debt.

The corporate state is comparable to a cruise ship with a disintegrating hull. The crew is trying half-heartedly to plug the leaks, while the officers are pulling boards from steerage to redecorate the ballroom. Off in the distance, we can see the lights of small vessels picking up people thrown from the ship. I will argue below that the occupations have performed, in part, like rescue vessels – jury-rigged rafts bound together with determination and awareness.

Leopold Kohr wouldn’t have been surprised by the outcry against the big, lawless institutions of today. Born in Salzburg Austria in 1909, Kohr was something of the Rodney Dangerfield of economists – a guy who “couldn’t get no respect.” He died in 1994, but his central thesis lives on, summed up in his 1957 book The Breakdown of Nations, in which he wrote, “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.”

Anticipating E. F. Schumacher’s sixties manifesto, Small is Beautiful and anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s scholarly work on cultural collapse in the late eighties, Kohr held that endless growth is unsustainable in all complex systems, from organisms to organizations. As any institution grows, the distance increases between those at the base of the pyramid and those at the top. As democratic participation weakens, power gravitates to a shrinking minority who use it to enrich themselves at the expense of the many.

The “1 percent” is no more of a historical quirk than the Gilded Age of late nineteenth century America. To Kohr, elite-level corruption is a repeating motif that heralds the breakdown of great powers in their cancerous, terminal stages. The phenomenon predates the Ancient Romans, whose anti-Republican elite distracted restless citizens with gladiatorial spectacles, while pouring huge resources into defending an overextended empire that was being hollowed out from within.

Kohr wrote his historical survey of failed giant states in 1951, in the glow of post-war recovery. It found a publisher six years later, just prior to the starry optimism of the space age. His thesis on the crisis of size was seriously out of step with the times. Wasn’t it the sheer scale of US military might that saved Europe from Hitler? And weren’t supranational bodies like the UN ushering in an era of global harmony? Weren’t the Sputnik and Mercury programs only possible through the massive expenditures of the two remaining superpowers, the US and the USSR?

Surveying the historical record, Kohr refused to believe the post-war rebuilding boom could be extended indefinitely into the future. Endless growth is not the answer, he argued. It is the very essence of the problem.

It’s not ideology that is at the heart of history’s train wreck of failed states, Kohr insisted. Great civilizations with widely varying belief systems and political structure – from the Maya to the Spanish Empire to the USSR to Nazi Germany – have all engaged in mass exterminations of their own subjects before ending in ruins. The only characteristic these empires shared was their overwhelming size, which precluded any significant involvement of citizens in affairs of state. “While every kind of small state, whether republic or monarchy, is thus by nature democratic, every kind of large state is by nature undemocratic,” Kohr wrote.

 

Our politicians and pundits genuflect before economic “growth” as a good in and of itself. Yet many of the most 

pressing global problems – increasing wealth disparities, big bank Ponzi schemes, Third World debt, wars for profit, petrodollar-backed resource depletion, nuclear power disasters, monoculture GMO crops, ecological destruction, the fall of personal privacy and the rise of public surveillance – trace back to bloated institutions that are artificially propped up by the mesh of monopoly capitalism. These organizations are dominated by a small class of technocrats, plutocrats and political leaders who live in a bubble of privilege and career-adaptive blindness. In this global network of interlocked corporate directorships and multinational cross-ownership, democratic oversight is possible only in theory, but rarely in practice.

As journalist Bill Moyers observed in a recent speech, people “are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied the country.” Wall Street has also occupied the world. The investment banks spread their toxic, securitized assets from Newark to Norway, in a cynical plan to maximize profits by watering down the risk among unknowing players, initiating a global economic crisis in the process. In 2002, the globe-girdling investment bank Goldman Sachs colluded in a secret deal with Greek government that concealed the nation’s swollen budget deficit for years, leading to crisis in the Eurozone when the real numbers were revealed. Sachs’ manipulation of the commodity futures market has also led to spikes in the cost of staples across the world, resulting in mass hunger and food riots in the developing nations, from Peru to Zimbabwe.

The worldwide trade derivatives market is now estimated at 791 trillion dollars, 20 times greater than the GDP of the entire planet. The problem of overgrowth is not limited to the financial sector’s fictions, of course. The US maintains 860 military bases across the world to ensure the security of the petrodollar. Presiding over this is a swollen, unmanageable defense department, a sinkhole into which literally trillions of dollars have disappeared, unaccounted for by Congressional oversight.

Gargantuan corporations like Walmart and Google now dwarf entire nations in economic scale. Kohr warned that when a civilization “grows cracks in its later stages, it was not because of its social shortcomings but because of its infection with large-scale organisms such as monopolies or unsurveyably huge market areas which, far from being responsible for economic progress, seem to be its principal obstacle.”

Anticipating George H. Bush’s talk of a “New World Order,” the Austrian professor predicted a global network of international control, but was not optimistic of its outcome. “After a period of dazzling vitality, it will spend itself. There will be no war to bring about its end. It will not explode. Like the ageing colossi of the stellar universe, it will gradually collapse internally, leaving as its principal contribution to posterity its fragments, the little states, until the consolidation process of big-power development starts all over again,” he wrote in The Breakdown of Nations.”

On October 15, millions of people hit the streets, from Santiago to San Francisco, in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The horizontally organized, leaderless occupations are informed by the kind of networked, open-source collaboration that is found on the Internet. Within weeks of the global protests, street people were wandering into the camps to take advantage of the ground security, free food and supplies. Organizers discovered they weren’t just protesting big banks; they were trying to figure out how to sustain themselves and others for an indefinite period. The homeless were free to join in the committees and general assemblies, giving everyone a chance to get to know, and possibly grow, with others in their midst.

Writing on Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald observes that the Occupy movement “is not devoted to voicing grievances as much as it is finding a model to solve them.” Writer Marina Sitrin, who is researching global mass movements from Spain to Egypt, insists the Occupy movement’s assemblies offer a “radical, if not revolutionary, way of organizing. When we’re in our neighbourhoods and come together and relate in that way, it’s more like alternative governance,” she told Russian Television. In the last few weeks, the protests seemed to be as much about social transformation as protest against big banks. As one anonymous commentator on the Internet asked, “Why demand change [of Wall Street] when people can, collectively, make it obsolete?”

Here’s the big question. Is it possible the occupations were the rough drafts of a parallel civic society, decentralized but global? If, as Kohr insisted, the overgrowth of states and institutions invariably leads to a collapse, is the Occupy movement offering us a rough sketch of more humane, people-scaled way of life, in spite of all its unavoidable flaws and faux pas?

“We have accomplished so much,” enthused a woman at Occupy Vancouver, identifying herself as Kiki. “We need to prove to the world that we can take care of each other. That we don’t need the government breathing down our neck… so what we’ve basically done is build an alternative community here that provides all the same social services to people that they should be getting in Vancouver but they actually aren’t getting… we want to show people it works, and we’re actually accomplishing it.”

It’s a big claim that is easy to make in the first, flushed weeks of a newly minted movement. But this kind of enthusiasm is not without intellectual foundation. At Solari.com, Catherine Austin Fitts points out the multiplier effect of providing goods and services to the community by the community. Fitts, formerly assistant Secretary of Housing in the first Bush administration, insists that “lending circles” and other ground-up, microeconomic operations result in the circulation of wealth abundance, in the inverse of the Walmart wealth extraction model for communities.

Fitts believes the present debt-fuelled political economy is far too big to be defeated outright; it can only be “starved.” This can be accomplished by finding alternative, smaller-scale models for living, and reengineering money to serve public assets over private hoarding.

I don’t want to romanticize the Occupy movement and its members – or its embers, smoldering after judicial writs and police crackdowns. There is nothing romantic about camping out in near-zero temperatures or figuring out the next move with authorities while dealing with group dynamics and contending egos. For the movement’s foot soldiers, juggling the day-to-day problems of ground security and sanitation has been part of their tour of duty, as they offer up a vision of a parallel civil society that looks more wonky than wonkish. Their unexpected fusion of pragmatism and idealism is still completely beyond news outlets, which cannot see the forest for the tents.

Speaking of tents, we’d do well to remember there have been tent cities in major cities across the US at least since the crash of 2008 that have nothing to do with the Occupy movement. They are inhabited, in part, by scared and scarred former members of the middle class, many who have lost their homes and livelihoods to a subprime mortgage or a hospital bill. We may get the kind of occupations we deserve, depending on our willingness to confront the reality of a transnational situation that stretches from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Big is looking unstable these days. Big multinationals fixate on maximizing quarterly profits, with the social and ecological costs of resource extraction ignored as “externalities.” Big finance continues to measure economic progress by false metrics like the GDP, which counts a heart attack or oil spill as an economic plus. Big media swoons over a volatile stock market while amusing news-consumers to death with celebrity piffle. Big government signs off on wars for profit and private security/surveillance programs, while carving up the public sector for business interests. Perhaps its time to stop genuflecting before big and remind ourselves of the virtues of the small. That can start by supporting local networks of interdependence, whichever form they take, from workers’ cooperatives to farmers markets to credit unions to inventive new forms of public assembly.

On a cold weekday night in November, I stood on a street corner surveying a landscape of tents and tarps at Occupy Vancouver. “How are you doing in this cold?” I asked a grizzled fellow in a chair on the perimeter of the Vancouver Art Gallery grounds. “Just fine, “ he replied with a smile. “ The warmth of the beautiful people here is all I need.”

Occupy London recently staged an occupation of an abandoned UBS bank in Hackney, turning a storefront reminder of the global economic crisis into a “Bank of Ideas,” which they intend to use for teach-ins and other social events. For his part, Suresh Fernando believes the Occupy movement will continue to evolve. “ I look at this as setting up a community and mutual support and infrastructure… and transporting it somewhere else and setting up a parallel process.” The Occupy movement doesn’t have to be a fixed point in time and space, he insists.

Fernando hopes the larger public will learn to appreciate the Occupy movement as a social template rather than a slacktivist temper tantrum. The Occupy meme has been beta-tested in cities across the world, and although the movement is being hammered by violent police crackdowns in Oakland, Berkeley, New York, Denver and elsewhere, you can’t arrest an idea.

“The importance is about human beings using technology to reconnect in the real world to discuss building a better one,” says Fernando. “It’s in the physicality of this, being actually able to shake hands and being here, that’s what’s different. And that’s important from a human relationship standpoint.”

Somewhere, the spirit of forgotten Leopold Kohr is nodding in agreement. To reverse his dictum about size, whenever something is right, something is human-scale.

www.geoffolson.com

musician photo © Richard Gunion
demonstrators photo by Geoff Olson

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