Friday, November 04, 2011

The Metasociety

Responding to An Open Letter to #OccupyWallStreet 
When the OWS people say 'we' they do not mean it in the sense of 'we who are camped out' but rather 'we' as in 'we who are not among the financial elite'. When they say 'we are the 99 percent' what they are saying is that there is a small group of people - the one percent - who own most of the economy, and then there's the rest of us.

The OWS people are the social equivalent of somebody running through the halls clanging on a lid and yelling that the building is on fire. He doesn't want everyone else to start clanging lids, he wants them to get out of the building. It's not a question of how much people 'support' him, he's sounding the alarm. When he says 'we are in danger' he means not simply the 'we' who are clanging on lids, but everybody in the building.

OWS isn't a political entity. It doesn't need your support. It's sounding an alarm. Whether you heed it is up to you, and you ar the one who will gain or suffer as a result of your actions. Not them.

Having said that, the numbers are quite stark and should be as convincing as a smoke-filled room to anyone. A very small percentage of the people own most of the economy. And while they have become exponentially richer over the years, the rest of us have lost ground. And moreover, these rich are acting in ways that will make the poorer even more so, by using up the environment, eroding political and economic rights, and entrenching corporate power.

OWS isn't about solutions. That said, when asked, a few things have been discussed. Among these:

- an end to corporate personhood, which would make corporate owners responsible for the debts (including, for example, pension plans that have simply 'evaporated') and legal liabilities (eg. the costs of environmental harm) caused by corporations. Because as it stands now, corporations constitute the archetypical 'tragedy of the commons', with nobody stepping forward to take responsibility for their excesses.

- a small tax - on the order of 0.04 percent - on financial transactions. This would on the one hand result in the financial community giving contributing *something* to government, and on the other hand would create a little bit of friction on financial transactions, making it much more difficult for huge investors to profit by holding national economies (such as Thailand in the 90s and Greece today) hostage.

Will these solve all the problems? Probably not. The OWS movement recognizes that we aren't facing problems that can be addressed by political rallies positing simplistic demands. We face much deeper issues created by the widespread intransigence of the business communities on social issues. We need to redefine our priorities as a society. As AdBusters magazine (which was a force behind the initial OWS protests) used to ask, "Is 'economic progress' destroying the planet?"

Right now we live in a society where this question cannot even be posed - advertisements run by AdBusters along these lines have been refused by national media, magazines, even transit services. The discourse is so skewed in the direction of economic realism, where the will of the financially elite is represented as some sort of immutable force - that we do not even have the capacity to discuss these issues, let alone resolve them. OWS is about changing that discourse - 'we are the 99 percent' is, at its heart, an exercise in reframing.

I've spent some of my time at OWS camps, but mostly my support has been from afar. I get no sense that anyone expects anything otherwise. What's more important is that I become a part of the dialogue. That I participate in the raising of these issues.

Because - as I see it - OWS is only one small part of a much larger movement. It is the movement made up of community groups and NGOs, trade associations, special interest groups, community co-ops, environmental groups, rights groups, online activists, artists' collectives, and more. The metasociety. The community of communities. If you've signed a petition to stop a dam, contributed some cans to a food bank, received a flyer from Amnesty, helped at a Medicins Sans Frontiers dinner, or any such activity, you've been touched by one of these groups.

When we say 'we are the 99 percent' we are also saying something about how we would like to be governed. Today, we have an elaborate architecture of government that exists mostly to transfer wealth from the 99 percent - that's us - and to the 1 percent. What we want is a form of government that doesn't do this - a form of government that is not only directly constituted of the people, but one that also works in direct support of the people. What that government will look like is undefined - trying to articulate it more clearly right now is premature.

But what what we do know - again - is that a simplistic measure will be insufficient. A program along the lines of 'tax the rich' will not succeed, and is not desirable, simply because it leaves in place the mechanisms of government designed to enrich the rich. And even if government itself were redesigned, it will be insufficient, because the rich have the means to supply purchase for themselves access to whatever levers of power remain. If we want our money and resources to help ourselves, we need a comprehensive rethinking of government. Not empty platitudes and slogans.

Again, though - this is not a matter of whether you believe OWS or support the cause. It is a matter of empirical fact as to whether or not your resources are flowing away from you and toward those who are already better off, or not. The most anyone can do is make you aware that your current involvement in society is enriching the rich while leaving you further and further behind. What you do about that, if anything, will no doubt be a matter of personal decision.

And that's probably the most important point. Though it is typically depicted as such, OWS is the opposite of a mass movement. There are no leaders who can be co-opted, no manifestos or doctrines that can be corrupted. It is a network of awareness coupled with the creation of an environment for personal engagement. The OWS camp in New York was a perfect example; if you saw my photos you'd see the meditating circle, the people banging on the drums, the people 'knitting for the 99 percent', the people contributing food and distributing resources, the people taking pictures, the people engaged in discussions and education sessions, and myriad other activities.

OWS is, at its heart, a change in the way we view social change and political action. It's a recognition that the placement of too much of anything - power, money, influence - into the hands of a few is ultimately damaging to society. It's an attempt to create enough social friction to make the accumulation of so much wealth and power unbearable to the few who possess it. And its an attempt to understand how we govern ourselves in the coming era after we have rejected the attempts of the rich and powerful to do our governing for us.


  1. Here in Vancouver the machinery of government is getting ready to remove the Occupy protesters under the guise of 'safety concerns'. In London the same thing happened, while in the US the government is using more overt force. One thing people can and should do is to become more educated about how we got to where we are. Read, watch truly independent media (Democracy Now! is a good place to start) and think!

  2. I saw on twitter a couple people saying this was the best OSW explanation they've read. I have to agree. This is probably one of the most helpful things someone can do for the movement: explain it in a way that makes sense.
    Thank you for taking the time to take part in your way.

  3. In Melbourne Australia they were forcibly removed - clearly the 1% are starting to feel threatened.

  4. Just thought it needed a bit more emphasis:

  5. "It is a matter of empirical fact as to whether or not your resources are flowing away from you and toward those who are already better off, or not."

    While I agree that Wall Sreet got bailed out, considering that a majority of my taxes (as an Amaerican) go towards social welfare programs(Medicare, Medicade, etc) the statement above you make is not factually correct. I'm excluding the military spending purposely, as I do believe too much money is spent in that category.

  6. Medicare, like Social Security, is not a welfare program. The 7.65% that employees and employers pay to the Federal Government is the payment in advance for the return of investment when you become a Senior Citizen. It is no more welfare than a lay-away plan at WalMart, where you pay a little each week until you reach a date in December when you can pick up your purchases. There used to be separate accounts at the Federal Government for Medicare and Social Security, until the congressmen decided that since they couldn't run the government without a deficit, they would rob the piggy-bank of SS/Medicare. So now, it is true, it comes out of general funds, and the payments millions of Americans and corporations make into it also goes into general funds. Still, that doesn't make it welfare.

    Medicaid (note the spelling) is also not welfare. It is a socal net program designed to ensure that the very poor don't die on the streets. It is to provide healthcare to the poor, and is state administered. The patients do not receive the money; it goes directly to the health care providers.

    Welfare is actually called TANF (Temporary Need to Needy Families), and it was Pres Clinton who vowed to end welfare as we know it. He tightened the rules significantly. I agree that it is still sometimes abused, and I would agree that the policies should be reformed and should mandate education and job training. The biggest problem these days is actually the abuse of the disability system-and that requires doctor authorization.

    I also agree that too much money is spent in milary spending, and eliminating about 15% of the Pentagon personnel would barely put a dent in it, but would be a good first step.

  7. The motives of the OCCUPY movement are becoming increasingly clear as we read and hear stories about the deep pockets that have undermined and taken over the public realm. Witness Katie Evans, a 26 year old breast cancer survivor whose application was turned down by a for profit insurer due to so called preexisting conditions, a standard slight of hand to increase profits. Witness the hold of the Energy companies on governments. If governments stand up to them, they can merely buy another party that will tow their line. Witness the Harper government and the dismantling of the voter subsidy program that provided a more level playing field. This will be replaced by what is often referred to as dirty money, huge sums of money that buy influence. Dollar for dollar, the public can't compete with these deep pockets. Witness the environmental degradation of the tar sands and the bought and paid for propaganda that tars sands are somehow ethical, a typical shift of spotlight from environmental degradation in order to manipulate public thought. The tobacco industry used the same tactic a generation ago, so did the manufacturers of lead paint. The Occupy movement is getting it, they understand and they don't want to be the generation that returns to a neo feudal system where the top 1% have it all, and the bottom 99% are reduced to a form of updated 21st century serfdom.
    It is interesting to speculate what Steve Jobs would have said about the Occupy movement based on his past quote:
    Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Think Different, narrated by Steve Jobs


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