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.