I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
-- Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth"
Last month opened up with a call by the "Occupy Wall Street" folks for a general strike on May Day in some 135 cities, and then we saw protests at the NATO summit in Chicago. But what impact did they have?
Well, in the case of the general strike on May Day, it was a strike that wasn't one. There weren't any widespread work stoppages that brought communities and cities to a grinding halt, no reports of unrest (but that's not really the Occupy M.O. anyway). The protests during the NATO summit were for the most part, a non-event as well.
So what do we make of the whole Occupy movement, nine months after that initial protest last September?
Initially we all had a feeling that they were trying something new, something different. And many were drawn to what the Occupiers were attempting to do: raise consciousness about what they felt were the problems in our economy and society and propose some solutions (although the "solutions" suggested seemed to struggle in gaining even a modicum of acceptance).
The point seemed to be that we need to have serious discussions about how our markets are structured, how finance works in our modern economy, and how our government works as well as how it doesn't work.
Have we had those discussions? Are we really thinking long and hard about these issues? Well, yes and no.
Discussion around what it means to live in a too-big-to-fail world is everywhere and people have been talking about reshaping America very differently on a number of fronts for the first time in decades. Think about it: When was the last time anyone really talked about eliminating bases in Europe or legalizing marijuana? And yet, because the social mood has darkened and horizon preferences have changed from "us, everywhere, forever" to "me, here, now," those discussions are taking place.
And as profound as some of these conversations are, they aren't addressing many of the issues that have been talked about in the wake of the last recession. Why? Because, while many of us may be part of the 99%, we're individuals first and foremost. This truth was one of the biggest reasons I simply could not agree with the Occupiers on many things, regardless of all of their proselytizing that we're all "in this together." No, we're not.
Economically and financially speaking, this independence was what I was trying to point out in my last post (see Go Your Own Way: Correlation Breakdown in the Market
): the potential for a breakdown in the one market meme we've operated under for decades. Other commentators like Sober Look
and the Pragmatic Capitalist
have discussed variations on this idea, but we seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion: a decoupling of the US from other parts of the world.
As old linkages and relationships break apart, new connections and drivers emerge -- both for the economy and social mood. And as the social mood changes from negative to positive, protest and angst fade.
But to understand the social mood as embodied by a group like Occupy, it may help to look at literature that captures its zeitgeist. One of the books that seems to have become a standard bearer for the Occupy movement is Ken Layne's Dignity
, which I bought based on the recommendation of Kevin Depew
In a book that can only be described as a series of modern-day letters on the gospel of communal simplicity, you can see what kind of world some of the Occupiers might envision: communities occupying vacant suburban or exurban subdivisions, farming the land themselves, bartering with doctors and the like, and shunning modern technology (which Layne derisively referred to as "the screen" or "screens" in his book).
So when I heard someone say this photo montage
of Americans living "off the grid" reminded them of Layne's book, I thought that observation was something to pay attention to. This person believes moving forward means moving backwards.
Occupiers, take note: In a world without debt, where your system of exchange is barter, these photos are what your world is going to look like. Such an off-the-grid occupation will not be Facebooked, Instagrammed, or Tweeted. On the upside, there's very little stopping you from living this way tomorrow if you wish. Just don't insist on everyone else must live the same way as you, and don't excoriate them when they resist. That's just oppression under a different guise.
At its heart, the financial crisis and recession revealed something not only about our market system and government, but also something about us. And what it revealed is something we don't like to talk about: a chronic condition that has been building for generations. Tom Matlack over at The Good Men Project calls it "The Disease of More.
" This passage really hits home:
We have all allowed ourselves to get trapped into this rampant level of consumerism which rots our souls and makes us miserable. Capitalism by itself is just a tool to make stuff: cars, ice cream, iPads. What we do with that stuff is really up to us. And we’ve become Pavlovian dogs who chase and chase and chase the stuff of life like some kind of narcotic that will fix what ails us. But it never does because inside the trap of the disease of more no matter how much you have -- even if you are a billionaire -- you don’t have enough to be happy.
He's absolutely right. People -- particularly the younger generations -- are waking up to the notion that largesse isn't all it was cracked up to be. Which lifestyle is better: taking public transit in a densely populated area where people seek community, or the expansionist, suburban model where everyone preaches on "stranger danger" and locks themselves in their cul-de-sac?
The answer, of course, is in the answer to this question: How much stuff does it take to make you happy? The former definitely requires less than the latter.
So in the end, the answer to what ails us isn't going to be found in occupying public parks or government buildings, protesting, and shouting. It's going to be found in genuine self-reflection and reassessing who we are and what drives us.
In short, we need to occupy ourselves. Todd Harrison's book
, is a prime example of this. And if that message encourages others to join in that process, I'd be willing to bet the results will be more transformational than demonstrating in Zuccotti Park -- no matter how good those intentions may be.
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