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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 04, 2011

Responding to An Open Letter to #OccupyWallStreet

When the OWS people say 'we' they do not mean it in the sense of 'we who are camped out' but rather 'we' as in 'we who are not among the financial elite'. When they say 'we are the 99 percent' what they are saying is that there is a small group of people - the one percent - who own most of the economy, and then there's the rest of us.

The OWS people are the social equivalent of somebody running through the halls clanging on a lid and yelling that the building is on fire. He doesn't want everyone else to start clanging lids, he wants them to get out of the building. It's not a question of how much people 'support' him, he's sounding the alarm. When he says 'we are in danger' he means not simply the 'we' who are clanging on lids, but everybody in the building.

OWS isn't a political entity. It doesn't need your support. It's sounding an alarm. Whether you heed it is up to you, and you ar the one who will gain or suffer as a result of your actions. Not them.

Having said that, the numbers are quite stark and should be as convincing as a smoke-filled room to anyone. A very small percentage of the people own most of the economy. And while they have become exponentially richer over the years, the rest of us have lost ground. And moreover, these rich are acting in ways that will make the poorer even more so, by using up the environment, eroding political and economic rights, and entrenching corporate power.

OWS isn't about solutions. That said, when asked, a few things have been discussed. Among these:

- an end to corporate personhood, which would make corporate owners responsible for the debts (including, for example, pension plans that have simply 'evaporated') and legal liabilities (eg. the costs of environmental harm) caused by corporations. Because as it stands now, corporations constitute the archetypical 'tragedy of the commons', with nobody stepping forward to take responsibility for their excesses.

- a small tax - on the order of 0.04 percent - on financial transactions. This would on the one hand result in the financial community giving contributing *something* to government, and on the other hand would create a little bit of friction on financial transactions, making it much more difficult for huge investors to profit by holding national economies (such as Thailand in the 90s and Greece today) hostage.

Will these solve all the problems? Probably not. The OWS movement recognizes that we aren't facing problems that can be addressed by political rallies positing simplistic demands. We face much deeper issues created by the widespread intransigence of the business communities on social issues. We need to redefine our priorities as a society. As AdBusters magazine (which was a force behind the initial OWS protests) used to ask, "Is 'economic progress' destroying the planet?"

Right now we live in a society where this question cannot even be posed - advertisements run by AdBusters along these lines have been refused by national media, magazines, even transit services. The discourse is so skewed in the direction of economic realism, where the will of the financially elite is represented as some sort of immutable force - that we do not even have the capacity to discuss these issues, let alone resolve them. OWS is about changing that discourse - 'we are the 99 percent' is, at its heart, an exercise in reframing.

I've spent some of my time at OWS camps, but mostly my support has been from afar. I get no sense that anyone expects anything otherwise. What's more important is that I become a part of the dialogue. That I participate in the raising of these issues.

Because - as I see it - OWS is only one small part of a much larger movement. It is the movement made up of community groups and NGOs, trade associations, special interest groups, community co-ops, environmental groups, rights groups, online activists, artists' collectives, and more. The metasociety. The community of communities. If you've signed a petition to stop a dam, contributed some cans to a food bank, received a flyer from Amnesty, helped at a Medicins Sans Frontiers dinner, or any such activity, you've been touched by one of these groups.

When we say 'we are the 99 percent' we are also saying something about how we would like to be governed. Today, we have an elaborate architecture of government that exists mostly to transfer wealth from the 99 percent - that's us - and to the 1 percent. What we want is a form of government that doesn't do this - a form of government that is not only directly constituted of the people, but one that also works in direct support of the people. What that government will look like is undefined - trying to articulate it more clearly right now is premature.

But what what we do know - again - is that a simplistic measure will be insufficient. A program along the lines of 'tax the rich' will not succeed, and is not desirable, simply because it leaves in place the mechanisms of government designed to enrich the rich. And even if government itself were redesigned, it will be insufficient, because the rich have the means to supply purchase for themselves access to whatever levers of power remain. If we want our money and resources to help ourselves, we need a comprehensive rethinking of government. Not empty platitudes and slogans.

Again, though - this is not a matter of whether you believe OWS or support the cause. It is a matter of empirical fact as to whether or not your resources are flowing away from you and toward those who are already better off, or not. The most anyone can do is make you aware that your current involvement in society is enriching the rich while leaving you further and further behind. What you do about that, if anything, will no doubt be a matter of personal decision.

And that's probably the most important point. Though it is typically depicted as such, OWS is the opposite of a mass movement. There are no leaders who can be co-opted, no manifestos or doctrines that can be corrupted. It is a network of awareness coupled with the creation of an environment for personal engagement. The OWS camp in New York was a perfect example; if you saw my photos you'd see the meditating circle, the people banging on the drums, the people 'knitting for the 99 percent', the people contributing food and distributing resources, the people taking pictures, the people engaged in discussions and education sessions, and myriad other activities.

OWS is, at its heart, a change in the way we view social change and political action. It's a recognition that the placement of too much of anything - power, money, influence - into the hands of a few is ultimately damaging to society. It's an attempt to create enough social friction to make the accumulation of so much wealth and power unbearable to the few who possess it. And its an attempt to understand how we govern ourselves in the coming era after we have rejected the attempts of the rich and powerful to do our governing for us.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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