Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has ‘gone local’, with hundreds of communities across the United States holding Occupy Main Street demonstrations and general assemblies. While the Occupy Movement is quickly gaining momentum, it remains to be seen how it might improve economic and social conditions in the long run. A related movement—the movement for economic localization—has been resisting corporate influence and simultaneously creating community oriented, environmentally-minded alternatives for many years. While the Occupy Movement is challenging the status quo on a grand scale, it would be in the interests of participating communities to begin creating more human-scale economies for long-term well-being.
Although OWS and the localization movement both argue that our current crises emanate from an economic and political system dominated by large-scale corporate and financial interests, there are some differences between the two critiques, which lead to different sets of solutions. The Occupy Movement has centered its critique on the 1%, a group of corporate leaders, financiers and lobbyists who have manipulated the system for their own benefit. They used their political clout not only to reap great benefits from the bank bailouts, but to avoid accountability for the 2008 financial collapse and the ensuing recession. The localization movement, on the other hand, focuses less on the 1% and more on the system itself. In particular, localization critiques the ideas which underpin corporate capitalism (e.g. the notion that perpetual economic growth is the only means to prosperity) and the mechanisms that help concentrate political and economic power in fewer and fewer hands (e.g. the deregulation of trade and finance, and the subsidies that promote ever larger scale).
In the Occupy Movement, alternative models of governance are being created and put into practice in general assemblies and working groups, explained in detail by a recent video. Arguably, these practices are not just ways to organize an effective protest, but represent an alternative vision for decision making—for democracy. The Occupy Movement has been criticized—even ridiculed—for lacking a spokesperson, clear leadership, and specific demands (OWS’s website says in one place, “we are our demands”, in another, our demand is a process”). (Author Richard Heinberg, in a recent conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge hosted by Orion Magazine, argues that the protesters should focus for now on getting money out of politics and eliminating corporate personhood.) But to others, OWS’s perceived deficits are simultaneously strengths because everyone who shows up actively participates in decision making and has a voice. In this way, the process of direct democracy—participation in general assemblies and working groups following a modified consensus format—is an end in itself. However, many are excited to contend with social, environmental and economic issues.
The movement for economic localization aims to redress the destruction wrought by the global economy in a deceptively simple way. “At a structural level, the fundamental problem is scale,” says Helena Norberg-Hodge, a pioneer of the localization movement. She believes that reducing the scale of economic activity—meaning both the distance between production and consumption and the size of businesses—is a systemic and far-reaching solution to most of our social, environmental, and economic problems. Buying from local merchants rather than corporate giants, for example, keeps money within the local economy and provides more local jobs. Local banking and finance offer stable investment in one’s own community rather than risky speculation on the other side of the world. Decentralized renewable energy projects provide safer, cleaner energy, and can remain free of corporate control. Local food systems—built upon farmers’ markets, co-operatives, permaculture projects, community supported agriculture, slow food, and urban gardens—are healthier for both people and the land. All of these local responses, in turn, can help foster a sense of belonging and connection through stronger community ties, and can help bring political power back to the people.
As the Occupy Movement uses popular uprising to confront the inequities wrought by the corporate and financial world, communities are already reversing those problems by rebuilding human scale economies: as we resist, we must simultaneously renew. More than ‘reform’ our current economic system by repealing a few laws or creating additional layers of government bureaucracy, let’s build a new, healthy, sustainable and resilient economy—one in which massive government bailouts would be unnecessary and high rates of unemployment unthinkable. Once better established, general assemblies would do well to facilitate and support locally based initiatives like farmers’ markets, “move your money” campaigns and local business alliances. Bringing the economy home—back to a more human scale—is a powerful way to challenge the corporate order while simultaneously providing real benefits for people and nature. As Helena Norberg-Hodge suggests, “let’s occupy Main Street to demonstrate our opposition to the current corporate system, and at the same time, let’s demonstrate localization in action. The movement for economic localization, from local food to local business alliances, systemically confronts corporate and financial power, while simultaneously healing ourselves, our societies and our ecosystems.”
“The Economics of Happiness” is new documentary film about the worldwide movement for economic localization–watch the trailer here. It is being made available for free to general assemblies and individuals who will screen the film as part of the Occupy Movement. Please contact us at [email protected] if you’d like to show the film.