Friday, October 28, 2011

What are the demands of the #Occupy Movement?

Richard Wilkinson, co-author of  Spirit Level, spoke at Bristol last Wednesday. His case is that the more unequal a society is, the more social problems it faces. There is a mass of evidence to back up this thesis, although as is to be expected, there is criticism from the usual quarters, the far right neo-con ideologists.

Hearing Richard again reawakened a question that has been gestating in my mind for many months -  why should it be that we are happier and healthier in a more equal society?

The answer may lie in our history. Homo "Sapiens" emerged roughly 200,000 years ago. The earliest known urban civilisation dates back to around 12,000 years ago, and development in the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilisation can be traced back 5000 years before present.

However, apart from the rise and fall of the occasional city-state, the majority of non-urbanised humans lived as tribes, and indeed, many at present still do live in tribal and village settings.  Homo "sapiens" has evolved to live in tribal groups. Only for about 2.5% of our time on earth have we built cities.

From Wikipedia;

Anthropologist Elman Service presented a system of classification for societies in all human cultures based on the evolution of social inequality and the role of the state. This system of classification contains four categories:
  1. Gatherer-hunter bands, which are generally egalitarian.
  2. Tribal societies in which there are some limited instances of social rank and prestige (see Chiefdom).
  3. Stratified tribal societies led by chieftains.
  4. Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments.

This has implications for human behaviour.  Tribal living is radically different from urban living. Note that at the most basic level, the group is egalitarian. The tribe lives by co-operation: the men co-operate in hunting or fishing, the women co-operate in gathering and cooking, and the children co-operate in caring for younger children.

Now, a thought experiment: imagine a tribal group that is functioning well, food is plentiful, life is good. Now imagine that they look to the horizon, and see a far larger, more powerful people approaching. This is a threat situation; adrenaline is released, and efforts (hopeless efforts) may be made to fight. The village is taken over by the more powerful tribe, who now have second class status. They have low status, low self esteem, and low self-determination. They live in an unequal society and economy. It is a stressful stimulation, and they can be expected to display social and physiological symptoms of stress.  Wilkinson and Pickett's research confirms this pattern.

So we have a plausible explanation for the case that inequality leads to social and even physiological dysfunction.  We are social animals designed for functioning in small social groups. We can adapt to urban living, but if that urban living is marred by gross inequality, things will not go well.

Now let us put the Occupy movement into that framework.

What we are seeing is the emergence of a kind of tribal living in the centre of 1,000 cities worldwide, as a spontaneous movement of people who fundamentally disagree with the way our society and economy is being run.

The movement is focussed on forming these strange camps in the middle of cities. There are several reasons for this.
First, as the anti-Iraq War demonstrations proved, Government and media can choose to ignore large peaceful demonstrations which disperse at tea-time.
They find it more difficult to ignore violent demonstrations, but the police can fairly easily out-violence even the most violent demonstration, and media can deconstruct and demonise violent demonstrations fairly easily. The Occupy movement is solving this problem by having a non-violent demonstration that does not go away.

So they form camps. And what happens in camps is that people learn co-operative living again. This happened in Tahrir Square, where people soon evolved consensus decision making, with all the talking and negotiation that is involved with that. They evolved the leaderless structure that is being replicated worldwide. True, social media help to propagate the model, but it is reasonable to suppose that we are witnessing a spontaneous recrudescence of egalitarian tribalism in response to the grotesque inhumanity of the Behemoth of the modern Corporate State.

This would explain the common complaint of the media - "The protesters won't say what they want, they just say they don't like the way things are".  Which is true to some extent. The formation camps, of functioning co-operative micro-economies in the centre of cities is to some extent a statement in practical terms of what the protesters want - a cooperative economy, the kind of society that humans are designed to live in.

As Marshall McLuhan said - The Medium is the Message.

The camps are in process of evolving an more detailed answer to the media's question - What do you want?

The camps are evolving a more detailed answer, but this will take time. There are not many economists in the camps, nor all that many academics, and it is unreasonable to expect people who spend much of their day deciding the best way of providing for their basic security to come up with an quick answer to the economic problems which are so baffling the world's top economists.

However, there is another group within the global society, the Green Parties of the world, who have been working on exactly the same problems of sustainability and equality for some thirty years. Greens cannot speak for the #Occupy movement - #OccupyWallStreet have made it very clear that they will resist any attempt to be co-opted - but the fact remains that the Green Party agenda is the answer that the journalists  say they are so desperate to hear.

The Green Party in England and Wales has the distinction of being the party that has spent the longest time excluded from the political process, and we have used that time to develop a massive (too massive) body of reformational aspirations in exactly the same leaderless way that the Occupy movement is setting out to do.

To spare my readers the task of wading through the Policies for a Sustainable Society, here is a condensed list of reforms designed to bring about a more equal, and therefore more happy and healthy society. It is not a complete list, nor is it all endorsed by the Green Party, let alone the #Occupy movement, but it is a start:

  1. Tax the rich. 
  2. Close all tax havens & loopholes, worldwide. 
  3. Quantitative Easing to go preferentially  to the Green Bank. 
  4. End the private banks' monopoly on issuing money through debt. 
  5. Rein in the corporations. 
  6. Regulate the money markets. 
  7. Impose a Tobin Tax on financial transactions, and earmark it for poverty projects.
  8. Question the credit ratings agencies. 
  9. Cap donations to political parties
  10. Impose limits on salary ratio of lowest/highest remuneration.
  11. Introduce a Green Wage Subsidy
  12. Cancel Trident and reduce military spending worldwide.
  13. Provide enough affordable housing
  14. Facilitate the development of local economies

So there we have it. Unequal societies are unhappy societies. The #Occupy movement is a physical expression of dissent, and a symbolic affirmation of the virtues of a more equal society. There are a set of alternatives to the abuse of the economy by the rich which have been developed, among others, by the Greens. If the journalists sincerely want answers to their question of  what the alternative is, they should look at the Green agenda.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm Bradley Winterton and knew you in Bristol in the 1970s. I remembered something you did in those days this week and included it in a book review I wrote. To see it send me an email to I hope you're flourishing (but can see from this that you are!)