A video from day 14 of the Occupy Wall Street protests shows an impressively huge crowd flowing through the arches of the NYPD headquarters in New York City. The crowd is chanting: "The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching!" While that may not be the case yet, we're getting there. And that brings up a pretty big problem for the protesters and the future of the movement: If the whole world does end up watching, what exactly will they be watching?
Like lots of leftists, I'm inspired by this movement, and elated that it's happening. But I'm deeply worried it could end up falling upon the sword of its own self-imposed ambiguity. Nothing sums up that ambiguity better than a quote from a recent article on the protests:
When [a protester was] asked how long he was planning to be there [he replied]... "Until change is made to the financial structure."
What that change might look like, no one can say for sure.
Here's what the occupiers are getting absolutely right: protesting and gaining attention for it. The world needs to know that there are those among us who are ready to take action, and not stand by while a ruthless, soulless elite hijacks our civilization and flies it into the ground.
But besides declaring "we're not going to take it" -- which is certainly an important thing -- the only other declaration the protesters have made is "we're angry, we're fed up, and we believe in a better world." And that's what they're doing wrong. Public outrage with the status quo is not news to anyone.
What the world needs to hear is an answer to the questions: "Where do we go from here? Is there a truly workable alternative to capitalism? How do we solve the myriad crises of capitalism?"
I understand there is a natural allergy among the protesters to taking this awesome amorphous mass of people power they've assembled and solidifying it around a core set of leaders or defined principles. And indeed, there are plenty of good reasons to avoid entrusting the voice and vision of the movement to a spokesperson. This is a people's movement; it's not a search for a messiah of hope to pull us out of dark times. It's about learning to pull ourselves out.
But while you don't need a spokesperson, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have "spokes-principles" -- a core set of ideas or answers to the crises of the Wall-Street Empire that speak for you, that communicate who you are to a public that's tuning in more and more every day.
Without that set of spokes-principles, the public may have sympathy for the protesters' motives, but it will ultimately fear their objectives. And the organizers will have done the world a great disservice by earning a big public spotlight and failing to shine it on answers that the world urgently needs to know and start talking about if we're going to have a fighting chance of saving our civilization.
The right spokes-principles can encompass all of the fluid, diverse, populist beauty and verve of the protests and channel it into a vision that the broader public can see itself and its aspirations reflected in.
If it's about anything, Occupy Wall Street is about challenging the economic imperialism of Wall Street. Naturally then, the movement's spokes-principles should be the principles of economic democracy as roughly defined here:
- People over profit: An economic democracy is an economy that subordinates profit to people, not the other way around.
- Stakeholders over shareholders: An economic democracy is an economic system in which the voices, rights, and interests of all economic stakeholders -- including employees, stockholders, communities, ecosystems, other species and future generations -- are represented. Unlike our current economy where shareholders are given primacy, in an economic democracy no one stakeholder is granted a disproportionate degree of power and privilege.
- Better not bigger: In order to reorient the economy towards people and all stakeholders, we have to release it from the captivity of profit. In an economy geared towards GDP growth, the bottom line is the bottom line, and protecting it means suppressing wages, slashing payrolls, passing on costs to other people, other places, and other times. Most importantly, our economy has outgrown the physical limits of the planet, and saving civilization means stopping growth. A democratic economy should be a steady-state economy where existing wealth is distributed fairly, and where economic health is measured by true indicators of social welfare rather than the blunt and archaic tool of GDP. The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy is a useful resource for steady-state solutions.
- Main Street not Wall Street : The design of our financial system undermines true markets and productive community-based enterprises in favor of reckless speculation. It is designed to suck wealth away from communities and towards the corporate elite. A good blueprint here is the New Economy Working Group's report How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule.
- One employee, one vote: An economic democracy is an economy where companies are built around the concept of one worker, one vote. In an economic democracy a company is a community of employees, where the employees, as full citizens of that community and the true source of company profit, decide how to invest that profit in the community. In this way, an economic democracy is distinct from both capitalism and socialism -- both variations of economic oligarchy -- where private boards on the one hand and public bureaucrats on the other decide how the profits workers generate are disposed of.
- Economic Constitutionalism: In the United States Constitution the framers properly defined the powers and limits to the powers of the powerful institutions that govern our society. In an age where corporations have become as powerful as any institution of government, and have amassed undue influence over the policies of those institutions, their powers need to be defined and constitutionally limited just like any institution of government.
This Declaration of Economic Democracy is by no means an exhaustive list. But it is an endlessly expansive one. One that is broad enough in its framework to incorporate and synthesize the wide diversity of dreams, grievances, demands and aspirations of the many people involved in the protests. It's one that can help the broader public understand and identify with the movement, and help the movement build an identity that's powerful enough to bring down the Wall and build a better world.