Occupy was a rarity in America – an explicitly “post-political” movement. It was not your textbook rebellion. No manifesto! No demands! No Villa, no Lennon, no Malcolm X to lead the masses, just a messy, somewhat incoherent, but ultimately a critical and joyful experience – until the truncheons, gas, rubber bullets, and all arrived. Occupy was an upwelling of surprising rebelliousness that by frightening the “forces of order” revealed to all their fear of free speech and their tenuous adherence to democratic debate.
And if anybody doubted the unmediated option for the iron heel, the recent nationwide protests of police terrorism against African-Americans disabused them of that. The fragility of Order was exposed as its pillars shook; the first pillar, racism; followed by economic oppression, dis-education, incarceration and psychological abuse. And again, non-violent protests attacked by the same array of truncheons, gas, rubber bullets, etc. from not only the militarized police but also, increasingly, the military itself in the form of the National Guard.
If the fight against America-brand apartheid adopts an explicit economic analysis, if the so-called progressive middle class concerned with state surveillance and corporate control join in and if the churches – not only the African American ones – demonstrate their solidarity then we may have a mass, bottom/up political movement on a scale beyond Occupy – one of historic proportions.
However, do we need to wait for significant social change passively, if impatiently – a social earthquake or nothing? Or should the groundswell of grassroots economic initiatives, in all areas of modern life, and in every community across this broad land register sufficient seismic activity to excite our interest?
Food or Facsimile?
Over the last five decades, as the quality of food declined with the expansion of industrial agriculture, consumers (with the purchasing power to do so) began a gradual, but determined, rebellion against corporate agriculture. The refusal to submit to the degradation of the food supply for profit gave rise to organic farms. Followed by farmers’ markets that blossomed all over the country. And that, in turn, spurred a movement for food security in communities where healthy food is unavailable.
The movement for real food – not chemical facsimiles – crossed race and class lines as urban gardens sprouted on unused land in both wealthy and poor neighborhoods. What began in a few localities as miniscule, self-help assistance programs have scaled up, and over the decades involved thousands of young people. With clever self-funding they have become viable urban ventures.
Today, to explore new possibilities of re-tooling the built, but underutilized, environment and to demonstrate the innovation of this sector, vertical gardens are planned for abandoned factories. Outfitted with solar arrays and hydroponic technology, these promise a new source of wholesome food for inner cities, while at the same time providing a source of income for the participants.
Unfortunately, the other rumblings along the fault-lines of everyday life are not affecting the poor as much as the movement for healthy food. For example, across the country dozens of successful experiments using complementary currencies offer a promise still to be fulfilled in poor, resource starved communities, though there are exceptions. In the area of housing, another area of unmet need, the vision of inexpensive construction demonstrates the ingenuity of people to transform their communities, but the priority is to stop and then reverse evictions, not to house the homeless in spiffy sheds. And the possibilities of off-grid energy provided by small-scale wind turbine and solar installations are migrating from the drawing boards to areas of poverty, but they still seek funding.
The collective experiences of these community projects establish the foundation for a meaningful oppositional culture, that is, one with ordinary people in active control. Surely, it comes as no surprise to us that our society lacks venues for collective creation. The intention, though, may fall short of practice. Jumping through hoops to maintain projects with insufficient funds and to satisfy funding agencies debilitates the best of intentions. And it is all too common for leadership to discourage “rocking the boat” if bottom/up demands are deemed disruptive of liberal support.
To cultivate an oppositional culture democratic practices are necessary, but not sufficient. What’s needed in addition is a commonly held, unifying oppositional perspective, a transformative solidarity. Socialism in one neighborhood or utopia in one urban plot too often serves as a celebrity project to accommodate funders. They don’t change anything.
The proponents of these bottom/up ventures subscribe, more or less, to the ideology of localism. That is, they value small-scale operations directly controlled by the people immediately involved in order to create flexible, responsive organizations. Localists see their projects replicated in other communities and eventually, through a sort of rhizomic expansion, develop into a thick web of economic and social entities. The hope here is that these efforts will supplant the worst excesses of the profit system.
There is a seductive charm to this vision of slowly growing an alternative to the egregious tentacles of corporate domination. At the same time, this vision recalls a not too distant past when America consisted of nothing but small-scale enterprises. Henry Ford, after all, started small. Even the nationwide train system, the epitome of larger scale enterprise in the 19th century, arose from the consolidation of hundreds of small rail lines crisscrossing the country. So does localism with its positive values promise a better future and is it a force for radical change, or is it simply an exercise in nostalgia? A non-threatening development that corporations can tolerate, or take over?
The steady growth of these grassroots economic projects, beyond their middle class origins to working class and underclass communities, is due to social justice activists recognizing their significance as a component of their strategy to attack poverty. Despite the middle class origin of many of these community ventures, activists appreciate their practicality and, with minor tweaking, they try to replicate them in “underserved communities.”
Localism, even when coupled with political activism that tries to incorporate these grassroots projects into a larger social justice campaign, still is not sufficient. First of all, do we have time, given the imperatives of climate change, for a methodical buildup of exemplary projects? And further, these projects need more than a sense of solidarity amongst themselves; they need to acquire a sense of solidarity beyond sectoral interests to larger political struggles.
The hesitancy to focus on what dominates the lives of all of us – jobs, or the search for them, results from the silo mentality that funders enforce.
All discussion of everyday economic issues are abandoned beyond the specific, circumscribed concern that may be carved out in a mission statement, or that which forms the core of the activity of a community project. The “jobs issue” is stifled on the assumption that that territory belongs to the so-called “labor movement,” which too often means the dominant (and undemocratic) trade union leadership.
It is fantasy to believe that the union bureaucrats have any concern for the working poor, the underemployed and the unemployed beyond periodically waving the red banner of working class rhetoric on appropriate occasions, only to neatly fold it away afterwards. There are exceptions where union funds minimally support a community project or two. And, of course, the widely publicized drive to raise the minimum wage (like, Fight for 15) while union-supported, is a tightly controlled, media-focused front operation that will not evolve into a movement for “people power” if the union leadership (and the Democratic Party and the local police) has any say in the matter.
And anyway, the minimum wage campaigns don’t address the issue of unemployment. Nor do they question the miserable jobs assigned to the poor, or for that matter, the lack of meaningful employment in general.
While there is agreement that for millions of jobless (and part-timers, wanting full-time work) the bus left without them, there is less recognition that it never stopped for many more millions who have completely dropped out of the labor market. Add to these figures the number of working poor and all those with jobs way below their qualifications and you arrive at a large majority of the US work force.
All enthusiastic proclamations of a growing alternative economy, as if it will provide the millions of jobs lost in the Great Recession, is beyond hyperbolic, it verges on delusional thinking in the face of the poverty all around us. Compounding this dire situation are the economic repercussions of climate change and you have a burden of worries that lead to despair and drive the most tenacious optimist to search for a cave.
A realistic appraisal of our situation should not lead to a cave, nor to a new grant, but to a better response. If our situation is bleak, and it is, then the response we need must match the catastrophe we face. Tweaking a system that is collapsing around us may partially satisfy our desire to keep sane by keeping busy; and it may keep the horror of despair at bay for a while; but without a larger perspective to give context to our efforts, we lose effectiveness, not to mention legitimacy.
What most people can agree upon is that the economy is dysfunctional. There are disputes about why this is the case, but to get stuck there is to loose the significance of this commonly held opinion. We need to concentrate on solutions. The focus on solutions makes localism popular. The problem is that the localist solutions are too narrowly focused; they distract and prevent big picture thinking.
If we start with a dysfunctional economy, and move beyond the usual complaints about inequality, off-shoring, poor skills training, government over-regulation, and so forth, what the liberals settle on telling us is that there are not enough jobs. And at that point, if we accept that conclusion, they have us hooked running a guinea pig wheel desperate for the perfect program – remember “shovel-ready”?
. . . or income?
The media bombards us with “economic news” – the mumbo-jumbo Wall Street financial minutia – simply to condition us to believe it is important. Despite the propaganda, people know that what runs the economy is money – money to buy goods. If consumer spending declines (meaning the rate of debt declines) then we hear wailing from corporate and government offices. So, the conclusion, it seems obvious, is that we need money, not jobs.
But to demand money without the obligatory expenditure of toil flies in the face of God’s wrath on Adam and sends some people into shudders of horror and panic. Usually, it must be said, these are self-righteous people who don’t need the money or who are so invested in their daily grind that they can’t bear the thought that some slacker will “get something for nothing.” The solution is to give everybody the same amount of money, enough to live modestly with shelter, food and education covered.
The wealthy who don’t need the extra money will have it taxed. Making the payment universal will not appease the righteous, but it does avoid welfarism – the practice of demeaning the poor for the benefit maintaining the illusion that system works for all but the weak. We can be certain that the number of people who would oppose a universal dividend just to punish the poor for their poverty must be smaller than the population of Wyoming.
There are at least two angles to this outrageous idea – robotization and computerization, and second, the repercussions of climate change. Those who think that robots don’t eat jobs, belong with that crew descending on Wyoming. The obvious fact is that they have been eating our lunch for decades. Of course the advances in technology make possible Amazon-like warehouse jobs, personal service jobs and, that newest booming sector, the sharing economy jobs. Without these great jobs millions more would join the ranks of the unemployed, under-employed and the job dropouts – the jobouts.
The climate change angle is a bit more complicated, and frankly speculative. Given the implications of weather pattern changes on food production, the edifice of industrial agriculture faces its endgame. Industrial Ag depends on an overabundance of water. Or more precisely, predictable rainfall. Continued drought will evaporate investments in large-scale farming faster than a desert rainfall.
Some measures can be taken, like those that drought-stricken Australian farmers have implemented. And they should be introduced, but even with drip irrigation, GMO drought tolerant plants, and fantasies about piping Arctic water, the days of US food produced in abundance are over.
Unless we move massive food production to northern Canada and re-establish road and rail networks, future farming will perforce be decentralized and labor intensive – you and your friends will very likely be cultivating a patch of real estate, a hydroponic basement garden and a window box for a good part of your caloric intake.
It is not farfetched to see the same scenario for energy distribution. Unless we adopt the life of moles, we will have solar panels in close proximity to our air conditioners. Farm in the morning and tinker with our batteries in the evening and hopefully enjoy a good book, play music or converse between those daily activities. Marx must be rollicking with laughter in his grave.
It is not beyond possibilities that we might see a future of contradictory scenarios. On one hand, increasing artificial intelligence coupled with mechanisms will reduce the drudgery of work as we know it but, on the other hand, we may see an increase in the work that immediately benefits our everyday existence. Who will do the former? And will the latter be a new form of drudgery involving all our time? Will any of this work be mediated by the money-economy? And if so, how? Will capitalism survive? Will government?
Here’s where the insights of urban agriculture enter the field, so to speak. The technical skills acquired raising our food today may mean our survival in the not-to-distant tomorrow. And, more importantly, the collaborative social skills we practice today will benefit us in a very different future, which we will have to cope with collectively, or else reduce our chances of survival.
And finally, the diverse DIY projects proliferating from cities to villages across the land could be the basis for a decentralized system of work allocations. What better way to distribute the necessary work than on a local level where it is most understood as vital. The nightmare of climate change is superseded only by the horror of centralized, bureaucratic government determining everything.
The agents of change are amongst us
Small-scale, bottom up community projects are like outposts of opposition that promise a better future. In order to confront and contend with the severe crises we face they miss one essential element – they need a catalyst. A catalyst that will provoke the radical upheaval of our social assumptions and initiate radical change. It is often glibly stated that we have moved from an industrial to a post-industrial reality. If we have then we have dragged along the geometry of that previous age and are lost in the old coordinates.
It would be more accurate to say that we have moved from a society where work has been replaced by consumption. Where in the past the value accrued to a person was based on their labor, today we are valued by the accouterments we labor to amass.
Previously, when labor was at the center of life, the possibility of realizing a person’s full potential led to democratic assumptions – ultimately to control work. The failure of that democratic project is at the heart of our malaise today. The concentration on bite-size endeavors – the community projects – is an attempt to retrieve what we imagine is a more realizable, and still authentic, version of the grander vision: a quest for worthwhile work. This is a Sisyphean task.
It is not work we need to control, but time. The democratic assumptions of the past were premised on the rise of an industrial society and the pivotal role of the workers. The aim was an abundant social order that would benefit those who labored to bring it about. But the abundance, the material benefit, was secondary to the main goal which was to be cultural. This was the aim of the foremost visionary of the new industrial age – Robert Owen. His industrial complex in New Lanark, Scotland comprised over a thousand men, women and children in the early 19th century. It included not only the factory, but also a dining hall (to spare women the chore of each cooking a meal), a school, library, theater and dance hall. The point of laboring was not to accumulate more money (to buy goods), but to acquire the leisure to enjoy a culture only the wealthy had access to.
Owen is often considered a utopian, but Marx who relished in defaming those, like Fourier, who devised meticulous plans for a future society, respected Owen for the practical implementation of his ideas. Marx saw Owen as an exception amongst the capitalists of his time, but despite Owen’s intentions, Marx knew that only the workers could create an egalitarian future society.
But what about the workers? We don’t have the huge industrial behemoths of a hundred years ago, nor – and this is the most significant point – the armies of workers who toiled in them. Therefore, are we to consider the era passed when workers could be catalysts for change? A casual perusal of the news might dissuade us from that conclusion. As mentioned previously, some workers appear to be mobilizing for change. The problem is that they are mobilized based on the old geometry – fighting for better jobs solely defined by better wages.
In the past at the height of industrial workers’ power, good jobs were defined not only by the high wages paid, but also by work rules that mitigated the worst aspects of jobs. Workers today can’t believe that in the past bosses were restricted from imposing arbitrary work conditions. Nor can they believe that wages in the past were tied to the rise in productivity. If that were the case today the minimum wage would be over $20 per hour.
The miserable position of workers today has been documented by a recent study from the US Government Accounting Office. It shows that over 40% of today’s workers have “contingent” jobs – that is jobs that have little or no security or are part-time (meaning that termination is at the whim of the boss).
The conclusion we must come to is that workers today, compared to their grandparents, have fewer rights, worse pay and more miserable working conditions. Given this situation, and nothing on the horizon to foretell a change, we must further conclude that the traditional working class is defunct as a social force and not the catalyst that will jumpstart the social change we see puttering along across the country.
But if not the workers, who will function as the lever to move society? Community organizers? Executive Directors of non-profits and foundations? Social entrepreneurs? Bernie Sanders’ supporters? No, there is no alternative. The proletariat will not appear on the horizon like battalions from a WPA mural, but what we can imagine is a transformed class structure. A new composition of workers that encompasses part-timers, freelancers, immigrants and all those workers who may have full-time jobs without protections as a social force.
In the last serious economic crisis in the 1930’s the unemployed organized themselves into self-help and agitational groups. In California, there were hundreds of these groups that organized in a matter of months. A good idea spread with the social media available at that time – telephones, the mail and rallies. (The rail networks helped.) These groups were the core supporters of a campaign that came close to electing a Socialist governor in California.
Is it too odd to propose that something similar take place today? What if all the workers agitating for better wages formed permanent groups? What if they were organized by industry and location, outside the corrals established by the unions and non-profits, and had as a mission to create self-help institutions along with maintaining continued pressure on their workplaces? And what if they reached out to freelancers, the underemployed and unemployed who now have no organization to fight for them? And further, what if these groups contacted immigrants? In other words, what if, to borrow an old slogan from the distant past, one big union of the marginally employed organized itself?
What’s missing in this scenario is a program to fight for. The demand for higher wages cannot be the centerpiece of the agitation since it doesn’t address poverty (only partially alleviates it), doesn’t help the unemployed, it has no effect on the quality of the job, and it provides no way to address climate change by reducing the need to grow the economy.
The centerpiece of agitation must confront the issues raised earlier around the assumption that jobs can continue to serve as the sole source for income. It is futile to develop grassroots economic projects into a large alternative network – a new economy no less – to meet the needs of people, without a political vision larger than these projects. With incomes secured as a basic right of existence, with all benefiting from our common wealth, then these local projects can become sustainable benefits for their communities. They could serve as models of worthwhile work for all. Or maybe friends could undertake a limited social task just for the camaraderie of it. And always, a social project could offer compensation for time employed for those who want to earn a bit extra beyond their common dividend.
With the onslaught of climate change, many envision vast changes like the agricultural apocalypse mentioned earlier. How will we cope with these changes? One way would be to have the government impose some emergency program and conscript millions into something like a civilian work force. Essentially, a militarized solution. Hopefully a better way of contending with the capitalist (and governmental) debacle that threatens civilization can be devised. Learning the lessons of a failed system of greed, sacrifice and hierarchy is our assignment. And imagining new ways to work is an essential aspect of that assignment.