When students take to the streets of Paris or London today, it is no longer to bring about a better world, but to defend what they can of the world their parents took for granted.
– Dougald Hine, ‘Remember the Future?’, Dark Mountain II
If someone has compiled an Occupy Wall Street reading list, investigative journalist Matt Taibbi’s book Griftopia is surely on it. Taibbi argues:
“The financial leaders of America and their political servants have seemingly reached the cynical conclusion that our society is not worth saving and have taken on a new mission that involves not creating wealth for all, but simply absconding with whatever wealth remains in our hollowed-out economy.”
Taibbi is clearly dabbling in rhetorical hyperbole here, as he so memorably did when he called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” but the image of a kleptomaniac elite stripping the commons of everything that’s not bolted to the floor because they’ve lost hope for the future has a certain truthiness to it. The past three years of massive bailouts, deepening debt and vicious public austerity make a lot more sense if Taibbi’s right.
Capitalism has always been driven by naked self-interest, of course. Under neoliberalism, selfishness just has a lot more freedom to do its damage. So rather than seeking to change course to avert catastrophe, capitalists seek new ways to profit from the devastation by piling into the next speculative bubble, the safest hedge to hide behind, or the next commons to enclose and exploit. This high-class looting act is both self-fulfilling and self-defeating: slashing public revenues and looting public infrastructure only destroy the common resources needed to mitigate the damage, while deepening inequality makes everyone, including the one per cent, more vulnerable.
It’s the prisoners’ dilemma on a planetary scale. Walter Benjamin’s observation “perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake” has never been more apt.
This is why the occupations springing up across North America, Spain, Greece and the Middle East are a genuine game changer: these predominantly young activists have seen the same storm clouds on the horizon that trouble the dreams of the one per cent, and have caught on to the heist they are perpetrating. The occupiers realize that for them, cynicism is a luxury they can’t afford, and they won’t surrender their future without a fight. As rabble.ca blogger Aalya Ahmad so pithily put it, “Let’s carpe fucking diem on this one, eh? The way this world is going, many of us may not get another chance.” With the cliff we’re careening towards in full view, hundreds of thousands are now in the streets and collectively reaching for the emergency brake.
The nature of the beast
For all that has been written about the financial crisis, there have been precious few efforts to connect it to its shadow: the planetary ecological crisis. Over the past two decades, stagnating growth, ecological limits and deregulated finance capital have meant that private wealth comes increasingly from, and public wealth is increasingly destroyed by, speculative bubbles which have rapidly accelerated the destruction of the natural world while displacing more stable but slower-growth investments in infrastructure and productive enterprise.
We are now witnessing the unraveling of the latest and greatest bubble: credit, increasingly known by its four-letter synonym debt. Debt, in essence, is a gamble that the future will be more prosperous than the present: we defer payment today because we assume we’ll have more money tomorrow. This is not so different from how we’ve dealt with the climate crisis: future generations, we assume, will have the money to solve this problem, so we don’t need to. In both cases, our gamble that future prosperity will manage to pay for past excess is starting to look like an incredibly stupid one. (No wonder so many banks — both financial and fluvial — are getting washed out.) Without economic growth, financial debt becomes unmanageable; without ecological regeneration, ecological debt becomes unmanageable.
After years of underinvestment in the real economy, the three per cent compound growth that capitalism requires has stalled. Finance capital chases itself in circles, creating nothing. Economies sink under the weight of rising commodity prices — themselves a speculative bubble, though one rooted in real natural limits. The desperate and costly efforts of governments and central banks to restart growth by further priming the credit engine have created nothing but more debt. This is the endgame of finance capital in an age of ecological limits, dashing the dreams of a generation and threatening to bring down entire economies.
To stop this runaway train requires a recognition that the basic tenets of capitalism — everything has a price, competition trumps cooperation, scarcity is the natural state of humanity, material gain is the only motivator, the only agent of change is the consumer — are only true because enough people believe them to be true and act accordingly. There are other ways of relating, and through collective struggle, we can and must awaken to them. This is not utopian, but exceedingly practical: as philosopher Slavoj Žižek told the Wall Street occupiers, “The true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are.”
Our fear of future scarcity cannot be resolved within the terms of capitalism, because capitalism thrives on scarcity and the fear of scarcity. Outside of the logic of that system, there remains an abundance of the very things that nourish us: the desire to provide for ourselves and our loved ones, the courage to approach an uncertain future with creativity and generosity, the ingenuity to pool our resources to create together what we could never create alone.
These are the seeds of the other world that capitalism tells us is not possible. They are being sown in countless individual and collective acts each day: a community raises funds for an integrated health centre that had lost government support, a bus drivers’ union refuses to transport arrested protesters, 50,000 artists gather in the desert to participate in a gift economy, a group of activists blockade the highway to the tar sands, another group prepares meals from discarded food and gives them away to anyone who’s hungry. And so on. Everywhere you look you’ll find capitalism, and everywhere you look you’ll find the seeds of its successor.
‘Our one demand’
Occupy Wall Street, like the indignados of Spain who inspired their actions, has been criticized for the vagueness of its demands. But the occupiers and indignados have seen clearly what the politicians cannot: the situation is irresolvable within the frame provided, so the frame itself must be broken.
To limit their demands to minor reforms that leave the extractive structures of vampire capitalism intact would be a terrible mistake. Those occupying the public squares know that we must think both bigger and smaller. To demand anything, we must demand everything. Each eviction, bankruptcy or new mining development must be fought in such a way that a victory builds momentum rather than dissipating it. Each demand formulated and won must propel the movement towards the point that it need no longer address its demands to the illegitimate power structures it seeks to displace, because it has already displaced them.
We will hear the same dismissals from respectable corners when thousands descend on Bay Street in Toronto and the public squares of many other cities on Saturday, but this next wave of occupiers must also refuse to take the bait. The enigmatic “one demand” of Occupy Wall Street was always only that, to occupy Wall Street. Shut it down. No more business as usual. No more profit from human suffering and ecological destruction, no more speculation on food and energy, no more sacrificing sound public policy to the growth imperative.
With its own demands sidelined until the economic crisis is resolved, the environmental movement faces a choice: either continue to work within the frame provided, hoping against hope that capitalism can resolve the crisis it has caused and get back to greenwashing itself, or construct an anti-capitalist politics that places solidarity, mutual aid, and the defense and expansion of the commons at the centre of its labors. The economic crisis finds its true resolution in the ecological realm, and vice versa.
The left in general faces the same choice: either try to save capitalism from itself by putting a human face on its worst excesses, or engage in the difficult work of theorizing and building an ecologically sound, anti-capitalist alternative. Eco-socialists like Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster have perhaps gone the farthest in articulating the contours of such an alternative, which is prefigured in countless local, indigenous, and commons-based initiatives. Such initiatives must be defended, supported, connected and multiplied.
So, in sum: capitalism is in the process of cannibalizing itself by devouring public infrastructure, personal livelihoods and the planet. Faith that the system can save us from itself is falling rapidly. Liberals and conservatives alike have abandoned any semblance of pursuing what Noam Chomsky long ago called “the vision of a future just society,” and no viable alternative vision exists within the frame of respectable debate. This is a deep crisis of legitimacy, irresolvable within the current system. It’s also a moment of immense opportunity, if we have the courage to seize it. The emergency brake is just within our reach. Occupy the market. Occupy the commons. Occupy the future.
Dave Oswald Mitchell is an independent editor, researcher and writer, last seen in Toronto.
Read our other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada.