Economic disaster is no match for people’s spirit and self-organizing

Economic dislocation and pain has always given rise to creative forms of protest, direct action and rebellion. Right now, the French are showing the way with a wave of “boss-nappings” — when the boss tries to close a factory or layoff workers, the workers lock managers inside and won’t let them leave until demands for better severance pay are met. But outrage has been overflowing all over from unrest in Bolivia to Greek farmers blocking roads to riots in Vladivostok, Russia, and clashes with police in Reykjavik, Iceland. At the recent G20 protest in London, hundreds of people smashed the windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The US has a powerful history of action during hard economic times — from general strikes to bread riots to widespread squatting that occurred during the depression in the 1930s. And while protest in the US often lags behind the rest of the world these days, things haven’t been totally boring in the USA. There have been marches on Wall Street and in Chicago, 300 members of the United Electrical workers seized their factory in December to protest its closing.

Given that recessions are part of capitalism’s normal functioning, it isn’t always clear whether popular uprisings inspired by economic pain can go beyond purely reformist and limited goals. While it is encouraging to see more people in the streets and less respect for bosses, corporations, and authority, it makes no sense to demand “jobs,” “more economic activity” or “more money” out of precisely the same system that has let us down. The recession is causing pain for people precisely because the economy has so much power over people’s lives — demanding that the system start working “better” so it can even further dominate our lives makes no sense.

Protests related to an economic downturn risk being myopic — addressing symptoms, but not causes, and seeking crumbs, not the whole pie. But popular eruptions don’t have to be so short-sighted.

How can we seize on capitalism’s current self-inflicted wounds — widening tiny cracks into huge breaches in its rotten facade? In the last issue of Slingshot, I suggested that the recession creates opportunities for people to build alternative economic structures outside the capitalist system that can enable us to live more sustainably during the recession and after it is over. These alternative structures can replace competition, consumption, and privatization with cooperation, sharing, and a broad re-evaluation of what we really need to make us happy and free.

The other opportunities opened by the economic collapse are exciting chances to mount direct attacks on the structures of capitalism, industrialization, and hierarchy that create and sustain material inequality and misery, and that — in the process — are wreaking devastation on the environment. Right now millions of people see banks, the stock market, and the dog-eat-dog economy as the problem, not the solution.

A boss-napping in France that forces a company to pay an extra three months severance is ultimately not very threatening to capitalism. The workers are still accepting their status as workers and the bosses’ right to own the factory and close it if they like. The extra wages can be factored in as a cost of doing business. The manager taken hostage is usually just another paid employee of a big corporation — not all that close to the people who are really in charge. Such an action fails to question the flaws in the system that run deeper than a periodic downturn leading to some layoffs, business failures and foreclosures. How can such actions be put in a broader context and make wider demands?

Even when the capitalist economy is booming and consumption is growing, all the hours spent at work, new products to buy, and technological improvements leave us poorer in the things that really matter. When the economy is healthy, we are robbed of our time to invest in relationships and community. A world in which all our needs are increasingly met through the market — rather than voluntarily by other people around us — replaces meaning, depth and intimacy with distraction, superficial interactions, and loneliness.

The gross domestic product grows as more and more people eat highly processed food transported over great distances, and fewer and fewer people have the time to grow their own food in a garden and sit with friends cooking a slow supper. The mainstream assumption that more money, consumption and higher production improves the “standard of living” or human happiness is absurd — based on manufactured misunderstandings about what really matters.

This recession is perhaps the first major economic collapse since society has become fully aware of the environmental consequences of capitalism’s model of limitless economic growth. During the Great Depression, it was clear that capitalism led to economic inequality, arbitrary displacement and misery. Capitalism meant millions would live alienated, meaningless lives based on mechanistic consumption and production, rather than humanistic pursuits of freedom, joy and beauty. In the 1930s, the scale of world capitalism and the state of environmental awareness made it difficult to understand capitalism’s even more dramatic flaw: a model that requires limitless growth cannot coexist with a finite planet.

The subprime mortgage recession of 2008 — or whatever future generations may eventually call these times — is occurring within a far different context. Now, perhaps the chief indictment against the system is on environmental grounds. The idea of restoring the economy to “normal” becomes even more sinister when one considers the health of the world’s ecosystems.

Will the failures of the capitalist economy beyond temporary layoffs be on trial during this long, hot summer of discontent? Can a factory occupation demand not just severance pay, but that the factory be turned over to its workers rather than closed? And once we own the factory, will we redirect its function away from producing limitlessly for profit and consumerism, and towards manufacturing things we actually need in a way that doesn’t undermine our ability to live on a fragile planet? Or will we decide we don’t need factories and the stuff they make at all?

Militant tactics like wildcat strikes, bread riots and neighborhood eviction defense contain within them very important seeds for a different world. Each of these actions represents people alone or in groups stepping outside the dream world of the system — a world of consumers and spectators powerless to control their own lives. To the contrary, when you’re in the streets, you are a full participant in history, not a passive observer. You’re helping to determine what will happen next and how social institutions shall be organized or transformed.