Occupy and the Co-op Connection
Occupy and the
It has now been six months since The Occupy movement burst onto an unsuspecting world. The movement, messy and unmanaged at the best of times, nevertheless did something extraordinary – it refocused and shifted the terms of public debate about the primary political and economic issues of our time. Occupy gave voice to deep welled feelings of rage and resentment against an economic system that betrays the vast majority while enriching a rapacious and ever shrinking elite. For the first time in generations, the grievances of this majority were being voiced in terms of class and inequality and people heard what was said and knew it was true. The potent symbolism of 99% had entered the public lexicon.
Eager predictions of the movement’s demise however, were not only premature; they were profoundly misguided. The underlying issues and anger that gave rise to Occupy aren’t going away, even if the camps have. The overall direction and effect of the political and economic system is, if anything, gathering momentum. The question now is: in what form will the Occupy movement re-emerge? The decamping has opened a space allowing the movement to reflect on its experience and to plot a strategy that will serve its purposes for the long term.
But many are still asking, as at the beginning, what are its purposes? Aside from the most generalized of slogans, no one can yet say what particular demands the movement has. And this had been the main criticism of Occupy from friends and foes alike. Which seemed just fine with many of the occupiers. The vagueness and diffuseness of their demands seemed in keeping with a sense that specificity or a platform would narrow what was essentially a moral cause to a set of issues that could then be attacked or discredited.
Another cause for the absence of focus was the sheer speed and spontaneity of the action; it didn’t allow the time needed to develop and hone an organizing message. Significantly, the one proposal to emerge was support for a campaign to get people to transfer their money from banks to credit unions.
But Occupy is at a crossroads. With the demise of the camps, the movement has entered a stage that calls for a shift from the tactics of opposition to those of proposition. Those who support Occupy want to know what alternatives the movement is proposing. If not the status quo, then what? How do we realize a system that is fundamentally different? What kind of organization will allow Occupy to mobilize the power and the ideas it needs to move it forward? These are the questions that are now being grappled with – online, in countless discussions groups and strategy sessions, and in renewed occupations at new sites and around a wide spectrum of issues. A defining set of proposals however, has yet to emerge.
And this is where the co-op movement comes in.
At first sight, the bank transfer campaign seemed to provide a welcome bridge between two very different political and cultural realities. With Occupy we have a movement that is young, anarchic, angry, energized, individualistic, inclusive, irreverent, and deeply suspicious of leadership. The co-op movement seems like the polar opposite. It is middle-aged, highly structured, very white, very cautious, largely apolitical, and polite to the point of painfulness. Across such a cultural divide, what could these two movements have to offer each other? The answer, as made plain by the bank transfer campaign, is plenty.
Eventually, (and hopefully at the end of this current interregnum) the Occupy movement must propose answers to the mess we are in. Not to do so merely raises the suspicion that in fact, it has no solutions. And on this crucial point, the co-op movement is invaluable. It has the keys to a real alternative. Despite its more staid and cautious character, the co-op movement represents an economic and social model that actually embodies the values that the Occupy movement cares so deeply about.
The proposal to shift money from banks to credit unions was a stroke of genius. It gave people something concrete they could do. It raised public awareness by focusing attention on a financial model that was democratic and accountable and a real alternative to the banks. Unlike the tent occupations it was an action that everyone could be part of.
And people responded. Between September and November 2011, nearly 1 million Americans transferred their money to a credit union. Membership during those months grew at five times the monthly average. November had the largest one-month membership gain since 2003. And the trend has continued. Today, nearly three times as many people have joined a credit union as the same time last year.
But that’s just a start. The Occupy movement could point to the ways in which economic democracy is not only more just than capitalism but also more viable. Co-operatives routinely outperform capitalist firms. Occupy could show that the survival rate of co-ops is double what it is for conventional businesses. It could highlight how credit unions, by responding to the actual needs of their members, didn’t engage in the fraudulent financial speculations that bankrupted the economy. Credit unions came through the financial crisis even stronger than before and had no need of massive public bailouts. Occupy could show how co-ops reduce inequality.
On a global level, the movement could point to how fair trade, based on the return of profits to small producers through their co-ops, represents an entirely different logic for international trade that isn’t based on the extraction of profit by exploiting the weak. And at a time of global economic recession, the experience of the recovered factory co-ops of Argentina, Uruguay, and elsewhere shows how workers and the communities in which they live can take back control of shuttered factories and provide a living for workers and their families. And there is much, much more…with an effective research and communications strategy, Occupy groups in cities around the country could be issuing media releases on these issues every day.
Occupy has shown the degree to which people are fed up and very, very pissed off. The language of Occupy captures the moral outrage that lies at the heart of the movement. It is an outrage that the co-op movement needs to recognize, and to respond to, in its own right. Not to do so is to signal that the co-op movement is no longer relevant, or even worse, indifferent to the issues raised so powerfully by Occupy.
To Occupy’s energy, the co-op movement can contribute solidarity and a framework for change. The two movements are like the two parts of a single equation. Both movements share a commitment to a world in which money doesn’t rule. Both aim to humanize the economy by making economics serve the well being of society and not the other way round.
What is needed here is an understanding that we don’t need to start from square one. That others before us have been where the activists of the Occupy movement are today. The struggle against corporate greed and social injustice is not new. What is new is that we have now the experience of 170 years of co-operation to see that the tenets of democracy can be applied to economics just as in politics and that they work.
It is this heritage of economic democracy that is invaluable to the movement that so ardently seeks an alternative to the status quo.
The Occupy Movement and the Co-op Movement need to start a dialogue. There needs to be a conversation about how the present capitalist system can be challenged, and ultimately transformed, by democratizing our economies. The Occupy movement needs to grapple with what an alternative to the present system might actually look like, be able to point to examples, and be lucid in articulating a new economic model that embodies its values. And at this point in its life, Occupy needs a strategy and a structure on a scale to match its ambition.
It needs leadership. In this, it can learn not only from the experience of democratic decision-making in the co-op movement, but also from the experience of other movements that learned how to develop leadership and articulate demands without compromising their values. The Civil Rights movement that has served as such an inspiration for Occupy is a good example. And if the Tea Party “movement” can launch a mass march on Washington to protect the privileges of America’s 1%, could the Occupy movement do the same for the 99%?
For its part, the co-op movement has some soul searching to do. It should look carefully at what the Occupy movement has accomplished in so short a time and why. It should understand that the discontent with our present economic system is deep and it is wide and that the protesters have unearthed a reservoir of public feeling that is profound. And it should ask itself why, with all its resources and experience, it is not in the vanguard of such a movement.
On Nov. 17, I was in Manhattan to witness the Day of Action called to celebrate two months of occupation in New York and to protest the violent eviction of occupiers from Zucotti Park. Despite the vitriolic press, and the ridicule, and the ambivalence that many had felt about the tent camp, the response was powerful.
As dusk came, so did New Yorkers, in their thousands. Filing down the streets and emerging from the subways, flag bearing crowds made their way to Foley Square to hear the stories of anguish and resistance told by ordinary people that had been screwed by the American Dream. At its peak, well over 20,000 strong had gathered to show their support and solidarity. And they were not just the young. It was parents and grandparents and teachers and construction workers. They were Black and Latino and Asian and living testament to the human tapestry that is America. And in that gathering dusk, as the throng began to push against the police barriers and make its way down Broadway, it felt like something had shifted, that the opening overture of the Occupy Movement had been sounded and that the substance of the music was still to come.
2012 is the International Year of Co-operatives. With over 1 billion co-op members in 127 countries the world over there is so much for the co-op movement to celebrate and so many successes to point to.
Globally, co-ops and credit unions provide livelihoods to more people than all the multinationals combined. From the producer and telephone and energy co-ops of America, to the fair trade co-ops of Africa and the worker co-ops of Latin America, the co-op movement has continued to build a vision of economic democracy and social equity that was once dismissed as utopian. It has flourished and it has lessons worth learning. The co-op movement can tap into and help to articulate and give direction to the deep discontent and longing for a better future that now animates the occupiers and their supporters around the globe.
There has rarely been a better time.