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.
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’?
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).
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.