While it is self-evident our economic system is collapsing, it is perhaps less evident what to do about it. This is in part why so many critics of #occupywallstreet are calling on the protestors to create demands summing up the systemic change we require. The liberal Left has a laundry list—everything from reinstituting Glass Steagall to a corporate personhood amendment–but while many reforms would curtail some of the harm our communities are experiencing, they would not foster a new set of economic relationships. Profit would still rule, just in greater moderation, and we would ultimately be subject to the same excesses and abuses the system engenders. I am hopeful we will get many of these reforms as the Democrats scramble to co-opt the occupation movement, but I believe focusing on corporate accountability and electoral politics is a mistake, and misses the transformative potential of the current rebellion. Now is the time to begin building a solidarity economy, and along with it, new models of organizing.
Solidarity economy practices support values of justice, ecological sustainability, mutualism and cooperation, and democracy. It is a way of naming what is already happening and linking a diverse array of practices into coherent chains of production, exchange, consumption, finance, waste, etc. Sometimes the models are new, utilizing economic innovations, and other times they are a return to traditional survival strategies kept alive within subcultures. Solidarity economy models and practices include credit unions and community development banks; housing, food, and worker cooperatives; barter networks and time banks; participatory budgeting and community land trusts; really really free markets and tool shares; community gardens and CSAs; and so on, ultimately touching every sector of our economy and our lives.
Many in the #occupywallstreet movement are already practicing solidarity economics by utilizing open source technologies, using a Manhattan community development credit union for Liberty Square’s banking needs, and employing direct democracy and horizontal structures to exchange goods and services internally. We’re building the system as we go, and there is a path forward for building a movement for transformative economic justice at the intersection of a participatory democratic culture and existing economic alternatives.
It is vital that this new movement acknowledge the solidarity economy that already exists, and connect to established networks like cooperatives and credit unions. While we are still grounded in occupation protest sites, such as the case with Liberty Square, we can engage these networks to create teams of popular educators, who can provide solidarity economy teach-ins at #occupy sites around the country, alongside a collective of organizers who can link the groups together. Such efforts would need to coexist with the organizing ongoing inside and outside the General Assembly structure, bridging traditional organizations with the dynamic opportunities playing out within the #occupywallstreet structure. Such bridging is essential to creating an inclusive and accessible movement that is cross-generational and diverse. Not everyone is prepared or able to drop everything and sleep on Wall Street, so we must meet them where they are. We need the skills of many to make this successful, and it is the job of organizers to create the space necessary for skill development, mentorship, and informed decision-making.
It is also vital that our organizing continue to insist on a culture of participation, where to occupy means to actively engage with each other as people rather than as political commodities. Many are drawn to the #occupy sites because they share a widespread acknowledgement and bubbling critique that the lifestyle of the vast majority of the 99% isn’t ecologically, financially, or spiritually sustainable. People are not coming out merely because of foreclosures, student debt, or corporate tax dodging, and we have to keep that in mind. Transformative economic organizing can and should fuel people’s desire and willingness to imagine, and increasingly to fight, for an alternative system
While there are substantial limitations and obstacles, there are certainly opportunities emerging for existing campaigns and organizations to plug into this work. The values and structures of the current movement—including autonomous working groups, the desire and insistence on transparency, universal access to the people’s mic at General Assemblies, and the insistence that anyone can participate in a way that meets their needs—lend themselves easily to most forms of community organizing. While I appreciate the vast critiques which have been offered of this action, it is also clear that the people sleeping out on Wall Street are not going to organize us or a build a movement for us. We can be real about limitations and still organize ourselves according to our own needs, which is exactly what this opportunity presents.
In keeping with the #occupy tactic, many organizations will find ways to participate in transformative economic organizing that fits into existing campaigns. Occupying spaces that are also sites of solutions, like foreclosed homes or abandoned buildings that could be made into housing coops, or vacant lots that could become democratically controlled farms, would allow groups to embed the #occupy culture and structure in spaces our communities need. These spaces could placed under the authority of the General Assembly, for example, and in the same vein so could vacant storefronts which might be sites for grassroots job creation strategies. We might occupy spaces of power, like corporate offices or Congressional halls, but I would hope we would do so to win concessions for participatory budgeting, financial support for solidarity economics initiatives and education, to push institutional money into community development financial institutions, or any number of creative intersections between immediate material needs and systemic change. We’ll learn what works as we build together.
This is all independent of what is likely to happen: the co-optation of a limited set of demands by Democrats for their own 2012 electoral campaigns, winter pushing #occupywallstreet into homes and community spaces, and a settling into business as usual by hierarchical organizations for whom the protest was nothing more than a way to advance specific advocacy agendas. More of us must get arrested to even complete the fight for basic reforms, but my interest is whether this moment can become a turning point for the social justice movement. Will we learn to adapt our organizing to build a movement and a new system? If we develop new economic practices that in turn can lead to new funding strategies, we can free much of the Left from the well-documented limitations of the nonprofit industrial complex. It’s ambitious, but the fact that #occupywallstreet has already succeeded in engaging the radical imagination, in creating a place where people want to occupy their own thoughts instead of dissociating, gives me great hope that now is an opportunity to build an economy worth occupying.