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On a snowy weekend in January, activists for social, economic and environmental justice from across the United States gathered in a Chicago union hall to plan a Global Climate Convergence: ten days of action from Earth Day to May Day. Many of these activists had never focused on the climate crisis before, being mired instead in fighting battles that loomed more immediately in their lives. Who has the capacity to worry about climate change when your community is hungry, cold, without shelter, lacks health care or is being poisoned?
During that weekend meeting, we transcended the barriers that typically lead to working in narrow silos and treading water while the oceans literally and figuratively continue to rise around us. We stepped outside of our particular areas of advocacy, connected our struggles, and forged a collective effort to take action together this spring and beyond. The rallying cry was that the time has arrived to join hands and change course.
To me, the weekend was another manifestation of the shift in consciousness that is happening in the United States and around the world. Awareness is growing that the multiple crises we face are caused by a common system and that we cannot resolve the crises unless we work together to change the system that created them. Without doing that, any reforms are only temporary fixes and we will ultimately wind up in crisis again.
We are living in an exciting and frightening time. Joanna Macy calls it ‘The Great Turning,’ which she defines as “the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” The clock is ticking and there is no guarantee that we will navigate this turning successfully. However, there is also reason for optimism. In our communities, across the United States and across borders, people are joining together to resist harmful practices and to create alternative systems that are just and sustainable. A worldwide people-powered movement of movements is rising, and history teaches us that an organized and mobilized populace is what has always caused transformational change.
There has never been a time in human history with so many urgent crises on such a great scale. Oxfam reports that 70% of the world population is living in a country where the wealth divide is widening and that the 85 richest people in the world hold as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people.1 Globalization has created a race to the bottom in wages and worker rights; it is also hastening ecological destruction as transnational corporations move their operations to places with the weakest regulations. As resources decline, methods to obtain them are becoming more extreme, as is the geopolitical battle to control them. We are living in a time of rapid extinction of species. On top of all of this, climate change threatens our homes, our health and our access to food and water.
At the root of these crises is the conflict between a global economic system that demands growth without regard for life and a planet whose resources are being consumed at a rate that exceeds its capacity. Human consumption passed 100% of planetary capacity in the mid-1970s; our consumption has continued to rise ever since and now exceeds 140% of capacity. We are living on credit, but very soon the bill will be due and we will have no way to pay it.
Economists such as Jack Rasmus and Gar Alperovitz tell us that there will be no real recovery of the global economy in the foreseeable future. Rasmus reports that the global economic crisis is approaching a perfect storm where “three significant global economic trends have begun to intensify and converge.”2 He predicts that these trends will cause severe global financial instability. Alperovitz sees long-term stagnation and decay with collapses and recoveries; after each collapse, the recovery will be diminished and more difficult to achieve.3
Professor C. J. Polychroniou calls the current economic system ‘Predatory Capitalism.’4 We have passed the era of industrial capitalism and have entered finance capitalism based on global expansion of the neoliberal economic model. In this model, government actively serves the financial elite, as Polychroniou describes: “Policies that increase the upward flows of income and the availability of public property for private exploitation rest at the core of the global neoliberal project, where predatory capitalism reigns supreme. So does privatizing profits and socializing losses.”
Predatory capitalism drives the race to the bottom in worker rights and wages. It drives the dismantling of our public institutions and privatization of education, transportation, health care, the postal service, prisons and more. Predatory capitalism sells our resources to the highest bidder without regard for destruction of the planet, displacement of families or poisoning of communities.
The wealthy are steering the global economy into total breakdown. They greedily push for more policies that funnel wealth their way while insisting on austerity for everyone else. The downward spiral is accelerating as more people find themselves without the means to purchase even basic necessities. As Alperovitz states, “if you concentrate it all at the top, there’s not enough purchasing power to make the rest of the system work.”
The magnitude of these crises calls for both bold solutions and bold action. There are numerous examples where people are using this opportunity to reach for a higher vision of what our societies could be. A new economy based on principles of solidarity, democracy, equity, cooperation and restoration is blossoming worldwide. This growing economy is rooted in communities and builds wealth from the bottom up through cooperatives, complementary currencies, public management of the commons, networks of local producers of goods and services, and decentralized renewable energy production.
What is amazing is that around the world, similar ideas and values are being put forward. People are joining together to create societies that respect life and the planet and that are more horizontal and participatory. There has been talk of global revolution, and in some areas, revolutions—the changing of governments—are occurring. Venezuela comes to mind as one government that is breaking from the neo-liberal model and becoming deeply democratic, although it still faces many challenges.
However, we are not yet in a global revolution. In his article “Revolution, or Digital-Age Renaissance,” Bernardo Gutiérrez writes, “Ruskoff argues that the revolution has not arrived and what we are experiencing is a new renaissance. Renaissances are historical instances of widespread recontextualisation. It is the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. Renaissance is a dimensional leap, when our perspective shifts so dramatically that our understanding of the oldest, most fundamental elements of existence changes. The stories we have been using no longer work.”5 Gutiérrez explains that the revolution comes after the renaissance.
Currently, people are not only creating new systems but they are also questioning the stories they have been told to maintain the status quo as they recognize that many of our restraints are artificial. People do have the ability to rethink our assumptions and to change our views and behaviors.
For decades, particularly in the United States, we have been taught to accept that there will always be poor people. We have been told that wealth trickles down and that we should all compete to achieve the ‘American Dream.’ We believed that in order to achieve that dream, we must go into debt. And we have believed that the people in power should be trusted to make decisions for us, that we didn’t have the capacity to make them.
All of that is now being turned on its head as we recognize the consequences of debt-based economies and that there are alternatives. In the past, there were periodic jubilees to erase debt. In his article “Debt Refusal Essential To Rebuilding Popular Democracy,” editor Chris White writes that “resisting debt is not only moral, it may be essential to re-envisioning a democracy built on legitimate bonds to our community.”6 He quotes Strike Debt, an offshoot organized by Occupy Wall Street, that demonstrates how “working together to build greater economic democracy would mean weaving a dense, creative network where our debts are to each other, not to them (read: the big banks).”
Another area of renaissance is globalization. To date, globalization has been based on the neoliberal economic model, but now that we understand the consequences, it is becoming more difficult for governments to continue on this path. A case in point is the stalling of negotiation efforts involving the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its sister, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Civil society groups from around the world that have been working together to stop these agreements are also discussing ways to use crowd-sourcing technology to collaborate on the development of a new system of global trade that places people’s needs and protection of the planet before corporate profits.
In particular, social movement organizations from the Global South are calling for a ‘deglobalization’ of the economy that encourages communities to produce more of the goods they need locally and become more self-reliant. Walden Bello outlines a detailed plan for this on the blog for Systemic Alternatives.7 He states that deglobalization is not about withdrawing from the world economy but is about restructuring it: “Today’s need is not another centralized global institution but the deconcentration and decentralization of institutional power and the creation of a pluralistic system of state and non-state institutions and organizations interacting with one another, guided by broad and flexible agreements and understandings, which receive their authority and legitimacy from below.”
We have the benefit now of being able to look back over the history of resistance movements around the world to learn what is effective to create substantial and sustainable change and what is counterproductive. In their book “Why Civil Resistance Works” (2012; Columbia University Press), Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan provide an empirical study that analyzed 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Among these, 100 were major nonviolent resistance campaigns. They find what a Dutch revolutionary found decades ago: “The more violence, the less revolution.”
The most striking finding of Chenoweth and Stephan’s research was that nonviolent resistance campaigns were twice as likely to achieve full or partial success than were violent campaigns. The authors also looked at why some nonviolent campaigns succeed and some fail. The key factor was whether the campaign became a mass movement or remained a fringe movement. They reported that no government has been able to withstand resistance when 3.5% of the population is actively engaged with majority public support.
Nonviolent resistance campaigns are increasing globally. A September 2013 study of protests from 2006 to mid-2013 found “a steady increase in the overall number of protests every year, from 2006 (59 protests) to mid-2013 (112 protests events in only half a year).”8 Four inter-related issues are driving this surge in protests: economic justice and opposition to austerity, failure of political systems, the injustice of global trade rigged for big business, and the rights of people (e.g., indigenous, racial and ethnic groups, workers, women, LGBT, immigrants and prisoners).
A second study that mapped protests based on media reports from 1979 to the summer of 2013 shows that no period like the last few years has had the intensity and breadth of protests at any time in the last 30 years.9 The number of protests is likely to be higher than what was reported because many protests are not covered by media.
When we look at the “Movement Action Plan: Eight Stages of a Successful Social Movement” developed by the late Bill Moyer, we find that we are on track globally to succeed in creating real transformation.10 Moyer outlined eight stages of transformation, with the seventh stage being success and the eighth defending that victory. The year 2011 looks like Stage Four, which is known as the ‘Social Movement Take-Off.’ In this stage, an issue that was previously not part of the public dialogue suddenly gains widespread attention and a protest that begins in one place is repeated across the country—or in this case, around the world.
The Take-Off Phase began in December 2010 in Tunisia and rapidly spread throughout the Arab world, including the Egyptian uprising in January that deposed the long-standing dictator Hosni Mubarak. In February, a wave of occupation in state capitals took place across the United States starting in Madison, WI. In May, the Indignados arose in Spain and sparked the anti-bank movement in the European Union. In September, Occupy Wall Street began in New York City; within weeks, there were more than a thousand solidarity Occupy encampments around the world. The issues that became prominent were economic inequality and the system that creates it.
I was an organizer of the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC in October 2011. We started organizing that protest in early 2011 after a large protest was held at the White House on December 16, 2010 in which 132 people were arrested outside in the snow as they protested the war in Afghanistan while President Obama was inside reporting that the United States was making progress in Afghanistan. Many of us who were present continued meeting to discuss what actions to take next. As we spoke to other activists around the United States, we found a similar recognition that our tactics were not having an effect and it was time to try something new.
By the time that we arrived in Freedom Plaza that October, more than 160 advocate organizations representing a broad range of issues had signed on and thousands of people showed up to occupy that space. We protested the corporate control of our political process, austerity measures being imposed on us, and US militarism. Our action was called “Stop the machine, create a new world” to reflect our two-track strategy of resistance and creation.
As we expected, the media criticized us for having a broad agenda and no clear set of demands, but we recognized that we did not yet have sufficient strength to support specific demands. Moyer writes that the government is incapable of meeting substantial demands until Stage Seven, ‘Success.’ At that point, one of three scenarios occurs. There may be a ‘dramatic showdown’ consisting of a massive uprising; or the government may recognize that it must do something, so it adopts the movement’s demands, which is called a ‘victorious retreat;’ or the movement may grow in power and put new systems in place such that the government becomes inconsequential, which is known as ‘attrition.’
Globally, we are currently in Stage Six, ‘Majority Public Support.’ During this phase, which usually lasts several years and can take decades, the movement develops more structure and deeper political education, experiments with new systems, and reaches broad consensus on the dysfunction of the current system and what ought to replace it. The movement becomes a ‘movement of movements’ as more people realize that their individual struggles are connected to a larger struggle and that by working together, the movement is stronger and more effective.
During the activists’ meeting in Chicago in January 2014, I sensed a very similar atmosphere to what it was like in early 2011. At that time, most of the activists we spoke with were already having similar conversations to ours. Many were thinking about or were already organizing occupations of some sort. Now, everywhere I look in the activist community, I see more people open to talking about the need for system change rather than reform, and I see groups that have never worked together trying to find common ground and resolve areas of tension. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.
As I sat there, I knew that many others were engaged in similar organizing—from communities who were gathering to stop austerity measures in their states to the Moral Mondays coalition in the South to the new international effort to abolish war (‘World Beyond War’) to the calls for a ‘Worldwide Wave’ of action. We are all finding our way through uncharted territory to learn how to work together, to learn how to build the mass movement of movements that is necessary if we are to mitigate the many crises we face.
We are learning that the future is ours to shape. We are no longer constrained by what we are told is ‘on the table.’ We recognize that the table has been set by participants of a corrupt and dysfunctional system. By maintaining a position of what is necessary, we are shifting the realm of the possible. As we shift the cultural acceptance of what is possible, those who have operated within the current system will shift as well, and more will join the new effort because those who stand for justice in all of its forms represent what the majority of people already want.
Although it is easy to be overwhelmed by the crises and to feel that our task is impossible, that our foe is too strong, I see many positive signs. New people are joining the struggle and small victories are being won. I remind myself that the history of progress for humankind has always been one where the seemingly impossible becomes the new reality. This new reality is born out of the visions of humanity and the work of people seeking to remake the world in seemingly impossible ways. The late Nelson Mandela said something that applies to all the great struggles of our era: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Margaret Flowers, co-director of Its Our Economy, is a Maryland pediatrician. After graduation from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1990 and completion of pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Flowers worked first as a hospitalist and then in private practice. She left practice in 2007 to advocate full-time for a single […]