Towards an economics of non-violence

The continuously evolving Occupy Movement, if nothing else, has stirred up great debate about the nature of capitalism and the failings of the current global economic system. While labeled as an ‘anti-capitalist’ protest by the mass media, the true identity of the movement is far more subtle and multi-faceted.

Anti-capitalist or not, there has been remarkable consensus on the disastrous impacts that the current economic system has wrought – across nations, generations, social classes, religions, people from all walks of life are beginning to speak out against the appalling concentration of wealth, the corruption of the democratic process, and the inherently violent nature of free market fundamentalism.

The roots of non-violence

As I and many others have already argued, the Occupy Movement is not about creating a list of demands for someone else to carry out. The systemic failings are many and creative, collective responses are what is needed more than anything else. However, there seems to be at least one fundamental ideal which has the potential to unite all the diverse occupations around the globe: non-violence.

Non-violence (ahimsa), in this sense, is more than the mere absence of violence and more than a tactic for social change. As understood by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Thich Nhat Hanh and others, non-violence is a moral imperative, a way of being, a way of understanding and relating to the world. It is not simply a means towards some desired outcome; it is a principle to be expressed in everything one does, an end in itself.

J.C. Kumarappa, Gandhi’s lesser known but highly-influential economist, developed the idea of a economic and social order based fundamentally on non-violence in the 1930s and ’40s. Seeking a middle way between the violence of market-dominated capitalism and state-dominated communism, Kumarappa spent his career weaving a vast and interconnected web of small village economies across India, based on the decentralized and localized production of crafts and agricultural products. The separation of the worker from his land and from the creative impulse, as well as the endless accumulation of capital, exploitation of non-renewable resources, and undemocratic system of taxation practiced by the British Empire, represented fundamental forms of violence to Gandhi and Kumarappa.

Response to a violent system

While the current global financial crises are far more complex and pervasive than the economic problems of colonial India, Kumarappa’s economic and moral philosophy offers profound insights – and extremely relevant suggestions – for addressing our current problems. The true significance of the global Occupy Movement lies not in a list of demands or proposed solutions, but in the very reorganization of human relationships based upon an egalitarian – and essentially non-violent – form of consensus democracy. And while the organizing principles of co-creation, self-organization and consensus-based decision-making have been clearly articulated and put into practice in General Assemblies across the globe, the underlying principle of non-violence (ahimsa) has been less thoroughly developed.

To be sure, the Occupy Movement is a peaceful one which encourages non-violence “to maximize the safety of all participants.” But the use of non-violence as a tactic is significantly different from non-violence as a deeply-held worldview. We have all seen the immense power of non-violence in the face of violent and repressive police action – in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in the anti-war protests of the 1970s, in the Arab Spring of 2010-11, and more recently in the Occupy demonstrations in New York, Oakland, and Atlanta. But ‘tactical’ non-violence seeks a revolution through various means, while true non-violence is a revolution in and of itself.

In response to a fundamentally violent economic, political, and social system which objectifies people and the natural world, which commodifies human relationships and labor, which endlessly exploits the earth for unjust and unequal private gain, the most radical rejection of this system is a vow of true non-violence. Implicit in the practice of this form of non-violence is a demand for rights along with a recognition of responsibility. If we, the 99%, are to demand change, we must actively practice that change – which is precisely what Occupy camps are doing. However, if ahimsa does not underlie this practice, true and lasting change within ourselves, within our societies, and across our globe may not be possible.

Particularly in places like London, where the camp is facing possible eviction measures by St. Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London Corporation, a commitment to non-violence as a core principle will ensure that, whatever the actions of the authorities, we remain steadfast in our way of living.

If indeed we do seek a non-violent and non-exploitative economic system, we cannot seek it in a violent way. This division of means and ends is a hallmark of the old, violent paradigm of Pure Rationalism and Objectivism. Practically speaking, a truly non-violent economic system founded on participatory and non-hierarchical democracy, cooperation and mutual aid, respect for all life and deep connection with the earth, non-extractive and zero-waste resource use, and more sustainable levels of consumption is the best way towards a just and sustainable future.

What we stand to gain – and lose – in the fight against tar sands

The grassroots environmental movement has had much to protest in recent months. Activist on both sides of the US have mobilized around the July sentencing of Tim DeChristopher in a Utah court and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline connecting Canada’s tar sands to Texas’ oil refineries. The movement has long followed traditions of nonviolent civil disobedience; but the question remains how effectively these methods of protest have been carried out.

Is that beginning to change? Has it merely been an issue of scale or rather a more deep-seated failure to engage a diverse range of social groups and communicate in ways that are relevant to the larger mainstream society?

The just concluded direct action in Washington, DC to pressure President Obama to deny permitting of the Keystone XL pipeline – known as Tar Sands Action – is an interesting study. As of writing, 1252 protesters have been arrested over two weeks of civil disobedience in front of the White House. That is a significant and large number of people from many different regions, professions, religions, ethnicities, etc. But to what avail?

To those who follow such things, the issue is rather clear: approving the Keystone XL pipeline through the heart of the US will allow for the rapid and destructive exploitation of Canadian tar sands, perhaps the dirtiest source of potential fossil fuel energy in the world. Compound that with the nearly inevitable environmental and social problems that the physical pipeline is likely to cause – oil spills, water and air pollution, community dislocation – and the whole project adds up to profoundly negative consequences.

Modern industrial society prides itself on efficiency and, indeed, holds efficiency among its highest values. But there is nothing efficient about exploiting these tar sands through a process that requires as much energy to extract as it purports to create, fouls other essential resources such as water and air, and needs to be piped thousands of miles away just to process and make it usable. So even following the mechanistic logic of business and industry, this projects is questionable on many accounts.

Naturally, those who stand to profit from this pipeline present a false choice between economic recovery and environmental protection. Some say we can’t afford to not exploit the Canadian tar sands, given the unstable source of most of our oil. The deeper question, of course, is how can we truly afford to do so given the extremely destructive and inefficient nature of the process and the long-term affects on human health and habitat?

So how has the recent direct action in DC to protest this potential disaster affected political will and public sentiment?

Sadly, during the course of this protest, Obama has actually weakened his environmental record without even addressing the pipeline – by canceling newly proposed smog standards that were set to go into effect soon. Apparently the panic of business and industry overruled concerns about the health of our citizens, as many argued that new environmental regulations were too burdensome during a recession. Take a look at the projected costs though and it’s quite clear that this is a classic case of shifting the economic burden from businesses to individuals in the form of higher health care costs and increased mortality.

But that is not what is being protested, so oh well, right? But how much media attention has the protest even garnered? 1200 people being arrested in front of the White House seems like big news, but not so much in a 24-hour news cycle that needs something new and frightening to panic about every day. Riots and violence in isolated parts of London garnered significantly more headlines and news coverage than peaceful protest of an issue that inevitably affects the entire globe.

I believe the civil disobedience campaign can and will be extremely effective at spreading awareness about this important issue…at least among those who already follow environmental issues. But its potential effectiveness as a political protest lies in the fact that what matters is the response of one man with the power to single-handedly approve or (at least temporarily) scrap the pipeline project – it is beautifully targeted political action.

As founder and protest organizer Bill McKibben said in a recent Washington Post column, “Many of us [protesters] will be wearing [Obama ’08 buttons] while we sit outside his house, in an effort to show that we’re not, exactly, protesting. We’re trying to rekindle some of that passion from [Obama’s] groundbreaking campaign. We’re trying to remind ourselves and the president how good it felt to be full of hope.”

And therein lies the potential unintended consequences of this protest – if Obama fails to listen, he may very well loose the support of a group of highly passionate and often wealthy supporters. Can he – or the country – survive that loss?

DC being my home turf, I truly wish I could be there to participate in this historic action. However I, along with 618,417 others from around the world, are there in spirit. You can be too if you like – click here to sign the petition being delivered to Obama and play a small but essential role in the collective airing of grievances.

Thoughts on this protest or the effectiveness of environmental protests in general? Please share!