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.

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The ecology of Occupy Wall Street

This morning I decided to read a newspaper, something I rarely do these days. Here’s why: a two-page spread in The Guardian contained articles on a new oil spill off the coast of New Zealand, widespread protests in Bolivia against exploitation of indigenous land, a scientific conference confirming the existence of the Yeti, and a meteorite crashing through someone’s roof in France. The other half of the spread was advertisements.

The world is changing rapidly around us – environmental degradation, social dislocation, and financial collapse are no longer taking place in distant lands or in a distant future. They are affecting our lives on a daily basis, whether we live in Bolivia, New Zealand, Siberia, or Paris.

In this incredibly unique stage of global transition, we have a choice as individuals, communities, and societies: sit quietly by as an impartial world changes around us or empower each other to stand up against an immoral system. Increasingly, people – the 99% – are taking that stand.

Photo: 350.org

The people of Bolivia and New York City are part of the same movement, whether they realize it or not. So are the thousands who have protested against piping tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands which if magically burned overnight would shoot the CO² concentration in our atmosphere instantly from  391 ppm to well over 500 ppm. According to Bill McKibben (who visited Schumacher College last week), James Hansen, and pretty much every other scientist to consider this, the burning of this source of carbon will fundamentally and irreversibly change our planet. If that happens, it may not matter who are the rich and who the poor – we will all share the same fate.

And herein lies the strength of this burgeoning movement – it can no longer be narrowly defined as the “environmental movement” or the “social justice” movement. It crosses all causes, all classes, all countries. Without equality, we live in an unjust and unhappy world. But without a stable, resilient, healthy planet, who knows how we live at all.

Speakers at the Schumacher Centenary included environmental lawyer Polly Higgins, post-growth economist Tim Jackson, Transition Town founder Rob Hopkins, and educator and activist Satish Kumar.

It is no longer just “activists” voicing these concerns, but  people from all walks of life. Last weekend I attended a conference to celebrate, explore, and further the ideas of E.F. Schumacher, the pioneer of holistic economics. The speakers included not just environmental organizers and green economists inspired by Schumacher’s ideas but also a lawyer, a banker, and a politician. Things are beginning to change, indeed.

Occupy Wall Street, now rapidly spreading across the US and elsewhere (there are demonstrations planned for London this weekend), is a collective expression of outrage. It is about reclaiming some agency in the effort to move beyond a crumbling and corrupt system. It may not have a unified voice or demand, but right now its diversity and passion are its strengths.

Whether non-violently occupying downtown Manhattan, marching 50 days across Bolivia to La Paz, or holding a bicycle rally in one of 2000 cities across the world, this is about exploring the space of possibility. We need the courage to name what is wrong, envision a positive alternative…and ultimately to embrace a profoundly unknown future with compassion and community.

All of these popular movements, from Tunisia to London to Wall Street, are part of the same process of creative destruction, of reclaiming our right and our responsibility to create a world where everyone, human and non-human, has the opportunity to flourish.

We have a choice. And a responsibility – to ourselves, our fellow beings on this planet, our children and their children. No one has the One Solution to fix it all. The collective genius is beginning to activate though, in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. As the late great Wangari Maathai once said, “Only those who risk going too far can know how far they can go.”

Food for Thought

Aside

In light of several recent civil disobedience campaigns in the US, an aside…

From The International Centre for Prison Studies’ World Prison Population List (2009):

“More than 9.8 million people are held in penal
institutions throughout the world, mostly as pre-trial
detainees (remand prisoners) or as sentenced prisoners.
Almost half of these are in the United States (2.29m),
Russia (0.89m) or China (1.57m sentenced prisoners).

“The United States has the highest prison population
rate in the world, 756 per 100,000 of the national
population.”