Creating global prosperity without economic growth

Occupy – A Cultural Strike

by Amelia Bryne and Sharon Ede on 13th November 2011

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The Occupy movement has done a brilliant job of identifying the symptoms of discontent that have given rise to this international phenomenon, as laid out in the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.

Yet, is there a deeper cultural story unfolding?

On the surface, the Occupy movement would seem to be about the unfairness of a broken economic system, a demand for justice by ‘the 99%’ and the role of corporations and government in relation to both.

In fact, it is an expression of a more profound malaise. Reflecting on New York City, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone recently observed:

Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become.

If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it.

Taibbi has hit the nail on the head. Occupy is indeed much more than an expression of economic discontent – it is a cultural strike.

As such, Occupy heralds a potentially seismic cultural shift.

man holding a cardboard sign that reads 'I am a human being not a commodity'

A movement which has been forged in large part from economic difficulties might be expected to champion economic growth as a savior – as the politicians and economists in power continue do, and as we continue to hear on television and to read in the news.

Despite the growing dialogue about possible and existing alternative economic practices, such as those being mapped in New York City, the voices speaking in and out of the movement have been relatively silent on the issue of economic growth.

What does this mean? Could this signify that people are suspicious of ‘the growth story’?

Naomi Klein has been consistently trying to draw this link, but for whatever reason it seems to be a thread not yet being picked up by the movement en masse.

Across ideologies – from democracy, to socialism, to communism – our culture has placed economic growth, as measured by increasing GDP, as a central goal. We have come to equate economic growth, as measured by GDP, with growth in well-being while ignoring the concurrent growth in environmental destruction, stress, alienation, pollution.

Inconveniently, of course, growth is closely linked with the way that today’s economy is structured. We have an economy that needs to increase at an exponential rate of growth to stay afloat (and avoid crashes, job loss, defaults). Yet, in order to grow, the economy needs to grow its use of energy and resources and will increase its impact on the physical environment.

However, maintaining this trajectory is ultimately impossible because the physical and biological capacity of the earth is finite – the planet, it turns out, is not growing any bigger. We’re seeing the effects of the clash between the drive for economic growth with nature’s limits and the environment manifesting as a myriad of ways, such as peak oil and climate change.

In a 1999 paper*, Clive Hamilton, author of Growth Fetish, also drew a connection between growth past an optimum point, and social decline:

The problem is unemployment; only growth can create the jobs. Schools and hospitals are underfunded; the answer is faster growth. We can’t afford to protect the environment; the solution is more growth. Poverty is entrenched; growth will rescue the poor. Income distribution is unequal; the answer is more growth.

If the answer to the problem is always more growth then who dares ask the question:

What if the problems are caused by economic growth?

More than a decade on, the faith that more economic growth will solve all our problems increasingly seems to be misplaced.

Looking at the complex interconnection of the issues raised through Occupy, it is clear that only systemic and fundamental change, not small fixes, can address the concerns of the movement.

We would further suggest that as part of the action we take to transform the ways in which we live, we must call economic growth’s bluff.

If governments, Wall Street, mainstream economists and politicians continue to say “all we need to fix the economy is more economic growth”, let’s respond, “We don’t believe this is true.”

Let’s seize this moment, when we are acting upon the necessity of changing the way that we live on this planet, and in relation to one another, to also take the position that we can no longer live by economies based on unending economic growth (e.g. unending growth in consumption and use of natural resources).

man holding a sign that reads 'a better world is possible'

It’s time to let go of both the blind faith that economic growth will fix things, and of the fear of what alternatives to growth-based economies could look like.

Instead, let us work together to build an economy that puts life and everything needed to maintain it at the center of economic and social activity as opposed to the never-ending accumulation of money, and the pursuit of growth of all kinds without regard for its consequences.

*‘Economic growth and social decline: How our measures of prosperity are taking us down the wrong path’


avatar Steven Liaros November 14, 2011 at 14:17

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
You make an excellent observation “but for whatever reason it seems to be a thread not yet being picked up by the movement en masse.” The reason is that many in our society, especially those in positions of authority, define themselves through their possessions. The more you have the more ‘valuable’ you are. We all want to be valued by others and this, for many, is the only available measure. Please read Ekhardt Tolle’s ‘The New Earth’ if you haven’t already.

You should also appreciate that the desire for growth is a fundamental human condition. Education and self-improvement are necessary expressions of humanity. We have structured our society, so that desire for self-improvement is expressed through economic growth or growth in productivity. We have suppressed opportunities for personal growth, or growth in creativity.

It is extraordinary that ideas that were familiar to many older civilisations are completely foreign to us. The Mayan god Ek Chua was the god of commerce and he was married to Ix Cacao, the goddess of chocolate, their marriage was the battle between work and pleasure, the more work, the less pleasure and vice versa. The Chinese believed in yin-yang harmony. Our yin relates to our earth bound needs, our economic needs, while the yang was our desire to discover heaven. They say that the inferior man is only concerned about satisfying his/her needs and is driven by intellect alone, the superior man is outward-looking, is concerned about others and is guided by intuition. The Greeks coined the term economy, or ‘eco-nomia’, literally ‘household management’, the domain of selfishness, so as to distinguish it from ‘politia’, the public or political domain, the domain of shared assets in which citizens were ‘free’, that is, free of economic obligations and responsibilities. The word ‘politia’ means ‘culture’ or civilised society.

avatar Brandon November 15, 2011 at 04:37

Wow, now the ‘Occupy’ movement makes so much sense to me. I hadn’t really thought about “The Growth Story” but you are right, as a first world country we really have gone beyond a point where growth is going to fix all our problems. Thank you for this article, I will share it with others.

avatar Sharon Ede November 15, 2011 at 07:52

Steven – how amazing you should mention A New Earth. Not only I have read, and am a fan of that book, but I literally just had an email exchange with Amelia after this was posted and pointed her to Tolle’s concept of the ‘pain-body’. What is going on in NYC and many other places right now is an expression of the collective ‘pain-body’ – it’s a venting of pent-up rage and anger (there are of course also many positive things happening, such as teach-ins, but I’m referring here specifically to Tolle’s concept).

Also thank you for the mini history/culture lesson, and forgive my flippancy, but there’s a goddess of chocolate?!! I think I have found my religion!

Brandon, thank you so much, and for sharing the article. It’s great to know this resonated with you, especially if it was something new for you. It is gratifying to know that what we’re writing is making a difference, especially when a) what we’re on about runs up against so much ‘programming’ (people have been conditioned to believe that all growth is always good) and that b) it is difficult to write about such a complex topic in a few hundred words!

avatar Steven Liaros November 15, 2011 at 13:27

I think its very important to keep this conversation going.
Sharon, please see my website… the paper “Housing and the Theory of the Symposium” talks about the goddess of chocolate but focuses more on Dionysos, the Greek god of wine who has a very similar role and has more relevantly influenced how we construct our society in the West.

Essentially, on a limited planet, material or economic growth can only occur at the expense of something else… or everything else. Its the basic ‘circle of life’ … We all share this planet, if some take more than they need, others will have less than they need. If we spend all our time working, there’s no time for love and pleasure. If we accept an insurmountable debt, then we are never free to live.
We need to balance material growth with personal growth and align material growth with the capacity of our part of the planet to provide.

avatar Jim December 20, 2011 at 09:44

I’m surprised no one is mentioning the last great cultural strike– The Great Refusal of the young in the counterculture, 1955- 1980. This was a time of turning away from the pursuit of money, “success” and dead ritual; towards personal fulfillment instead.

That was also a very inchoate movement, hard to pin down. Ostensibly a strength, that turned out to be a weakness. And it was also a haven for those with mental & emotional problems (though there seems to be a clear maturity this time that drugs are not a revolutionary act; and at least in my town, there’s an emphasis on the Occupy site being a drug- & alcohol-free zone).

I might feel better about all this Occupy stuff if there was a more clear articulation of ecological and post-growth concerns, and if there was less conspiracy theory (Is lizard man David Icke *really* enjoying a resurgence peddling theories of Bilderberg lizards controlling our world [yet allowing him to speak]? Aargh. )

avatar Amelia Bryne January 31, 2012 at 04:53

Jim – thank you, that’s a really good point. From what I understand as a younger person the counterculture ‘movement’ did have a significant impact on larger American culture (with a subsequent backlash against this in the 1980s and the pop-culturization of that history). So, it would be very interesting to hear more from those who lived in that time and who are now part of Occupy about differences and resonances.

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