October 18, 2011

We Power

From Zuccotti Park to Main Street, people's yearnings spark new possibilities for a shift from me to we

Occupy Wall Street and related actions across the country overturned the conventional wisdom that most Americans passively accept a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy. There’s genuine surprise among journalists and other experts that thousands of people from all walks of life are camping out in the autumn chill to protest Wall Street greed. And there’s shock that their actions are supported by a majority of Americans. A recent Time magazine poll found that 54 percent view the Occupy Wall Street protests favorably (23 percent do not). Compare that to the 27 percent in the same poll who view the Tea Party favorably.

Until now, it’s been easy to think that no cares what’s happening because there were no protests in the streets. But the dynamics of social change are more complicated that that, as shown in this essay by On the Commons Co-director Julie Ristau and Program Director Alexa Bradley. Although written before the Wall Street occupation, it pinpoints the power of our yearnings to set the stage for future action. We live under the market paradigm today, they write, in which “people’s social, political, and even personal consciousness is conditioned by their belief in the market as the only efficient system to organize society.” That means it takes time for many people to respond to events like the economic crisis, and that when they do it comes out first as feelings, not as policy proposals. But three years after the crash, there’s an upsurge in outrage about the richest one percent high-jacking the U.S. economy—and rising interest in the commons as a way to find our way of this mess. — Jay Walljasper

Adapted from the On the Commons book “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons”:

Through our experience with numerous community projects, we’ve come to see how deeply contemporary society is immersed in the market mentality. So long as market fundamentalism remains the lens through which most Americans see the world, it will be very difficult for people to envision a commons-based society, let alone work to revive actual commons that are under threat in their communities.

This realization led us to examine how people’s social, political, and even personal consciousness is conditioned by their belief in the market as the only efficient system to organize society, and to look for points of entry for introducing commons-based ideas to the wider public.

It is jarring to realize just how far modern culture has drifted from the commons existence that for ages was central to human society. Our sense of we has been assaulted, chipped away at, forgotten. Of course, we can’t retreat back to the past. But it’s important to look at what we have lost and how that affects us today.

Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science who popularized the phrase “paradigm shift,” defines a paradigm as “an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on, shared by the members of a given community . . . [as] a set of unassailable, unconsciously accepted truths.” He goes on to describe the dramatic revolution of thought needed to make a shift—to break out of the deeply held beliefs of an old paradigm that no longer serves us.

Claiming the Commons

What happens when we apply this thinking to our market-based society and the re-emerging idea of the commons?

In one of our workshops, participants hit upon the idea of colonization as a way to describe how we became separated from the commons. Our culture is saturated in the market paradigm. The concepts of consumer, ownership, private, worth, and profit define how we think about ourselves, our relationship to each other and everything we encounter. It displaces all other ways of making connections and finding meaning.

Colonization denotes total economic, social, and cultural domination of one people by another. It instills a belief system—a paradigm—that legitimizes large-scale theft and repression, making them seem entirely natural.

The market paradigm justifies damage that is done to people’s lives as inevitable and dismisses the possibility of another way of life as naive and romantic. The commons continually erodes under the force of the market paradigm and eventually disappears from our view. In accepting the complete dominance of the market paradigm, people unconsciously relinquish a part of themselves that is sustained by the commons.

Imagination = Hope

Envision what would happen if the commons paradigm became a fundamental framework for modern life, gradually outstripping the market paradigm. That’s not easy to do. It requires a leap from our usual thinking. It involves cracking open the constraints on our imaginations that prevent us from seeking a true transformation of society.

Yet we have found that people identify and value commons experiences in their own life as well as in the stories of their families, communities, and country. The commons is an imaginable (even if largely forgotten) reality, not just a theoretical concept. A reawakening of our ability to embrace a com¬mons perspective seems possible.

To explore the potential of a commons paradigm means not just formulating policies and programs, but excavating our feelings and recollections. Remembering is the first step in locating missing information that we can use to discover a new story about how we can live and thrive. As is often said, we cannot return to the past, but we can appropriate it, recover it, and use it to shape a new direction for the future.

Challenging the Old Story

Before any new commons paradigm can emerge, we must understand what the old market paradigm tells us about what’s possible and what’s not. Even though we don’t often think about the old story that runs through our heads, it keeps a remarkably firm grip on our overall thinking in the following ways:

  • Our value is determined by economic status. Hope for the future is tied to making more money to buy more goods and services.

  • It’s natural that there are big winners and sorry losers in society. The winners have earned their wealth, fair and square. If you have not lived up to your expectations, the fault is largely yours.

  • We are all on our own. Competition is the only efficient, rational way to run a society, so don’t expect much help in getting ahead. You can make it if you try.

  • Lower-income people have mostly themselves to blame. Watch out for them; they want what you have but aren’t willing to work for it.

  • Government intervention in the economy tends to reward the undeserving, thereby weakening the entire society.

  • Infinite economic growth is the measure of a strong economy.

  • Economic health is more important than environmental health.

  • Frugality and conservation are old-fashioned virtues that are not really important to our future.

  • This old story keeps us isolated, ashamed, fearful, and most important silent. We don’t connect with others to discover common solutions to our problems. We feel powerless, unable to challenge the way things are or join with others to make change.

Discovering the New Story

Slowly but persistently a whole constellation of ideas associated with the commons is taking root among small groups around the world. In all of this we see the birth of a new story to guide us into the future, which can be partly summarized in the following points.

  • We are better people, more caring and sharing than how the old market paradigm defines us.

  • In most ways, the market-based society failed to deliver on its promises. Even those “winners” who amassed wealth did not generally experience a sense of happiness or fulfillment. They continued to need more and more stuff. And the rest of us were left feeling anxious, exhausted, insecure, and disconnected from each other to various degrees.

  • The old economic story is not the natural order of the universe. We can work together to create an economy that looks out for everyone, bringing us to¬gether rather than driving us apart. We can feel secure without working long hours, doing meaningless work, and seeing poorer people as a threat.

  • Both government and the market can make positive contributions to our lives, if they operate in ways that boost rather than deplete the commons.

  • Nearly everyone can play a valuable role in society, and no one should be cast out from the economy or forced to live in poverty.

  • The measures necessary to restore our natural environment and save the planet will actually strengthen our communi¬ties and enhance our lives rather than diminish them.

  • There is enough to go around. Sufficiency, not wealth, is the opposite of poverty.

  • There are many valuable assets that belong to us all, and they should be used in a sustainable way to create an equitable world.

Tapping into People’s Deep Yearnings

A brighter commons future, however, is in no way assured. The radical acceleration of privatization has diminished the number and quality of commons experiences in people’s lives. And as their real-life connections to the commons decline, so does the ability to even think in terms of the commons and to believe that it amounts to anything relevant in the twenty-first century.

Still, as the commons erodes in the world today, it continues to rise up within us as a yearning—an unmet need for deeper connection with the people and natural world that sustain us, a persistent call from the deep recesses of our consciousness saying that life means more than buying and selling.

Rabbi Irwin Kula describes this as a universal human trait. “Our yearnings generate life. Desire animates. We are urged to go for it, to seek answers to our deepest questions. When we uncover our deepest longings, life yields illumination and happiness. Far from being a burden, our yearnings become a path to blessing.”