Written by Wolfgang Hoeschele
The Occupy Wall Street movement has reached far beyond its beginnings, with similar occupations occurring around the world, while it echoes previous occupations of public space in Egypt, Spain, and Israel. These movements have clearly struck a chord with a huge number of people, not only those sitting in public spaces, but also those supporting them with food and other supplies, and those raising their voices in support. What is this chord, and what may be the results of its strumming?
Among the key points of the Occupy movement is the claim that it represents the “99%,” that is, all those who do not control the financial affairs of the world, who cannot pull strings to manipulate economic affairs around the world, and who cannot expect to be given a golden parachute if they destroy a company and throw entire countries into disarray. On a symbolic level, the Occupy movement has involved the occupations of public or semi-public spaces (technically private spaces that are open to the public) as a way of saying “we are the public!” The “we” here refers to the 99%, and exposes that those public places are either reserved for a very select and exclusive “public,” or that public expression in those places is severely circumscribed. The claim that the 99% deserve to occupy public spaces extends to the related claim that they should have their say in public affairs, in the running of finance and “the economy.” All this flies in the face of what I call industrial feudalism.
What is industrial feudalism? It refers to the failure of modernity to keep its promises of liberation from the old order, particularly the key structural feature of the feudal (or agrarian feudal) order, that a few feudal lords controlled all the productive resources. A modern factory is very much like a feudal plantation; just as the serfs did all the work but had to give up the produce of their labor to the plantation owners, so also the employees of a company provide the products of their labor “in kind” to their employers, who can then sell them on the market. And just as the feudal system fostered a subservient mentality among serfs and servants, so also the feudal industrial society fosters a subservient mentality among employees and government officials (“we’ve got to please the investors, because who else is going to provide our jobs?”).
There’s a collective failure of the imagination when people fail to realize that all the employees together can own a company and democratically manage its affairs, and that all the people living in a place can democratically and sustainably manage shared natural resources in order to provide enough for all (including for future generations). Likewise, we fail to recognize that if we break up large companies, everyone can make a living by selling to everyone else on a more equal footing than prevails today. We continuously fail to realize that means of exchange can be created by any group of people, not just banks and governments. This failure is in part the result of the closing down of the imagination by the “TINA” syndrome: the sense that “there is no alternative.”
Industrial feudalism also refers to the fact that, even while at the political level we have democracies (however imperfect) in which every citizen has a vote, our economic structures are still very much organized like autocratic kingdoms. Private property is very similar to the sovereignty of a king who is supposed to have the divinely ordained right to determine the affairs of the kingdom, and to pass it on to his heirs (no matter how unqualified they may be for the job). And just as democracy was considered a threat because it would undermine the aristocracy, and just as it was claimed that democracy would hinder timely decision-making, economic democracy is regarded as a threat to the current elites, and cooperatively run businesses are dismissed as inefficient. Yet, we can never have true political democracy if we do not also have economic democracy – that is, the ability of all people to co-manage their workplaces, to be involved in deciding how the surpluses they help generate are used, to co-manage the local natural resources that they rely on, and to share in the economic as well as cultural, social, spiritual, intellectual and other benefits arising from shared resources. As long as we have a market divided between those who have nothing to sell but their labor, and those who own all the important assets, there will be no economic democracy, and political democracy will be incomplete.
For a while, in the wealthy industrial democracies in the 1950s until the early 1970s, it may have seemed like taxing the wealthy and using the state to redistribute income could work to maintain a certain degree of social equality while simultaneously maintaining industrial growth. But this model was abandoned with the advance of neoliberalism since the 1980s. Since then, the capitalist growth model has also been facing increasingly obvious environmental limits because it is predicated on never-ending growth on a planet of fixed size (and an atmosphere that can absorb only so much carbon dioxide without being thrown out of balance). As opportunities to make profits by the sale of real goods and services diminished, the “creativity” of capitalist investors instead shifted into developing more and more abstract “derivatives” in the financial markets, which ultimately created the vast bubble that has now exploded. What, we might ask, is the way forward now?
If we set aside the notion of political conservatives, that we only need to go back to the mythical good old days, then there are basically two alternative future paths: one is to maintain capitalism while making it energy and resource-efficient (green capitalism, or a kind of post-industrial feudalism), while the other is to extend democracy from the political into the economic realm (and thereby reinvigorate political democracy as well).
What would a post-industrial feudal world look like? The “global commons”
(treated as nobody’s property, available for the taking) would continue to be parceled out among the highest bidders – for example, those willing to pay the most for rights to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This would create new, highly profitable monopolies, leading to “economic growth” that would enrich a few, while everyone else would have to submit to “market discipline” (i.e., the scarcities imposed by those who control the market). On the other hand, those companies seeking to control the wind energy market (for instance) would try to produce power as cheaply as possible, which in many instances may be done by expropriating the people who now live on that land (for a report of this nature in India, see http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/green-energy-takes-toll-green-cover). A discourse of resource scarcity would tell us that we all have to make do with less, even while profits accrue to a few. Post-industrial feudalism might well be more environmentally sustainable than our present variety of capitalism, but it would undermine social equity and would lead to continued social instability and strife. Fundamentally, if property consists of the right to exclude others from the enjoyment of a resource, even the “greenest” property holders will try to grab as much as they can and keep out everyone else.
What would a future of economic democracy look like? In such a future, most “property” would no longer be arranged as it is under feudal monarchy, but instead resemble a republic (a “public thing”), in which every citizen shares in the benefits of that property as well as in the responsibility of managing it. Every “citizen” means everyone who either contributes to creating that property (as in worker cooperatives or creative commons) or in using or enjoying it (as in natural resources such as the atmosphere, groundwater and surface waters, and fisheries, but also the common cultural heritage of any group of people with a shared identity). The people who own such common property would not have a built-in drive to expand the realm of their property, because along with the greater extent of their property there would also be a larger number of people with whom it would have to be shared. On a per-person basis, they would not come out ahead. Instead, they would be more interested in keeping property at a scale at which it can be successfully managed as a democracy – for example, by a worker-owned business splitting into two if it grows beyond a certain size. The imperative to greater production would cease, as beyond a certain point the co-owners would want to have more time rather than more goods (greed gets out of hand only among those who do not have to work in order to obtain more income). We would be able to relax more, enjoy life, and devote out energies to living life as art – living our life such that it expresses our values and aspirations, how we want to live in relationships with other human beings and with nature.
The path of economic democracy involves considerable rethinking and soul-searching, even among those of us who are in the structural position of serfs in the present order. It also requires a lot of institution-building, which is happening all over the place in many different ways. The Occupy movement is a call to consciousness of the need for the 99% to come together and claim space, claim the public realm, and make much of what is now private into a public (a common) thing.