by: Tara Ruttenberg
The day you discover that economic growth is not a vital requirement for sustaining socioeconomic development or contributing to the wellbeing of people around the world[i], it feels like a slap in the face, as if everyone in your life up until that day had been lying to you about everything. Your teachers, the news, politicians, the books you read in economics class, advertisements on TV, your colleagues, friends, parents and smart people you admire telling you “we need economic stimulus to revive economic growth so we can finally live happily ever after, and you can help by going out and shopping, supporting the economy and making your own life a little bit better by purchasing the newest gadget you don’t really need”: lying to you your entire life.
And when you learn further that economic growth is only necessary to service ‘usury’ (the fancy word for interest charged on loans)[ii] in a perpetual, never-ending cycle whereby money loses its intrinsic value as a convenient tool of market exchange and instead becomes synonymous with debt, chaining you to banks and creditors who survive and thrive on your hamster-wheel pursuit of a better life by convincing you to take out loans and use credit cards to pay for cars, college, a house for your family; and then encouraging you to take out more loans as start-up funds for your sure-thing money-maker entrepreneurial project to get ahead and help pay back all of the loans you’ve already taken out; and when your project fails because Walmart is selling it cheaper and you’re blaming yourself for all the mistakes you’ve made and now you’re further in debt with no hope for the future and contemplating a strategic suicide that looks like an accident so your family can at least cash in on your life insurance benefits…
When you’re THAT LOW and you learn that it’s actually not your fault, that the system is designed for you to fail, for you to be in debt always and forever in order to keep the system itself alive - when you learn all of that, you’re angry and you’re not sure at what or at whom, and your head is in your hands because you’re humiliated that you could have fallen for such an obvious Ponzi scheme, and your fist is in the air and you start blaming the powers that be, unsure of who or what they are, and you file bankruptcy and now you’re hiding any remaining cash you have in a mattress so they can’t steal anymore of it, and now your credit is shit and you’re not sure whether to care about that or not, and you find whatever job you can just to pay the bills and to maybe someday afford an iPhone because your kid needs it to fit in. And you hate your job and you hate your life, except for on the weekends when you can drink a few beers and watch the game on TV – the old TV you’ve had since the 90s, not the flatscreen you want, because you still can’t afford it. And then you feel pretty bad about yourself because everyone else has a flatscreen TV (don’t they?), and now you’re in the fridge popping open another beer and polishing off the Doritos.
The final blow comes when you become aware that you and your shitty job and the unemployment crisis and those skinny brown people dying in poverty all around the world are all caught up in this great big mess of a lie whereby the rich keep getting richer at the expense of the poor, and it’s not your fault that you work a dead-end job and it’s not actually poor people’s fault that they are poor; when you learn that the rich are rich BECAUSE the poor are poor and that the poor have to stay poor in order for the rich to stay rich (and indeed get richer), that’s when it all clicks and the whole thing comes together. You can no longer simply write off the world’s reality as Marxist fodder for crazy communists, because you see it and you live it and you feel it, and you are it. when you begin to acknowledge that the realities around you -- persistent unemployment, slave-labor conditions, and environmental destruction across the globe – are actually the manifestation of Marx’s theory on the reserve army of labor and the structurally required divisions between a reliable supply of cheap workers, unbridled access to land and resources, and an increasingly wealthy class of capital-owners as inherent to the fruition and functioning of the capitalist system; when you recognize that as a result, such poverty and environmental plundering have to exist in the capitalist system as innately structural to it in order for prices to stay low enough that you will buy Doritos even though they clog your arteries and make you fat, just so corporations can make money and get rich and contribute to economic growth; and when you remember that economic growth is only required to help the rich get richer and to service an ever-increasing amount of international debt and pay back the banks; quite reminiscent of your own endless debt cycle, with you as the recipient of a loan from a bank, with media and consumer culture convincing you to keep chasing the unattainable American dream so that your interest payments keep coming into the bank to keep it in business so it can lend to new borrowers to stimulate consumption as the means to fuel economic growth[iv] and so on and so forth until the end of time when you’re dead in your grave and your kids are dead in theirs and there aren’t even any more worms to eat your rotting flesh because not even the microorganisms of the planet have survived the global capitalist system’s social and environmental self-destruction; and when you finally feel like you’re going insane, worrying about worms eating your dead corpse, it is at that moment, that YOU GET IT.
And your mind is blown and your head is exploding with smoke coming out your ears and you just can’t stand it anymore – the sheer injustice of the system and its puppeteers getting away with murder – for WHAT? economic growth? Which you now know doesn’t have any real purpose other than servicing debt -- and as a result of it all you hate your life and people everywhere are starving and working themselves to death and the planet is dying – and you can’t just keep sitting idly by and letting these people and their system get away with it; and you see no choice but to put down the Doritos and finally do something about it. But what on Earth are you going to do? And who are YOU anyway to challenge the entire existence of reality and make your friends and families stop eating Doritos? Maybe they like Doritos; did you ever think of that? No matter how much you know, no one’s going to listen to you, especially now that you’re a Marxist (how’d that happen?) and they’re all going to laugh at you and call you a freak communist. Discouraged yet again, you go back to eating Doritos and numbing your mind to expensive commercials on TV.
Now you’re elbow deep in your second bag of Cool Ranch and you’re rubbing the chemical spices between your fingers, pondering your existential conundrum, when all of a sudden your eyes open wide and crumbs fall out of your gaping hole of a mouth and holy crap you’re having an epiphany! And it could not be clearer. The Doritos bag crashes to the floor dramatically, chips everywhere and you couldn’t care less, because it is in that moment that you realize you are not alone in your misery of awareness; that there are others who share your sense of helpless, powerless impotence of knowing too much and not knowing how to begin doing something about it. You’re smiling now because you know that this is happening all over the world; that people are waking up to the misery of their own mindless work-to-consume lifestyles, their monotonous, meaninglessly uninspired day-to-day existence working for the man just trying to make ends meet and feed their families. And just like you, they are increasingly less willing to keep doing it and more willing to step off the hamster wheel into the unknown. And now you’re excited because you recognize yourself for who and what you are – you are the global countermovement[v] – and you know you’re not alone and you also know you’ve already done the hardest part – waking up. You’re fully awake and ready to act on your own free will, and you haven’t felt like this in years, or maybe ever!
You’re doing laps around the block and the last Cool Ranch Dorito flake falls off your shirt, and now the neighbors are coming out of their houses to look at you – they have no idea what to make of you and you don’t even care – you are so free you don’t even care what they think of you. They go back inside because, quite frankly, they’re a little freaked out. But that doesn’t rain on your parade. Instead, you start feeling sad for them because you know they are still living in misery and you want to help them wake up and join you in the countermovement. So you start talking to them, and some of them slam the door in your face and don’t want to wake up because it’s easier not to, or they are scared because they can’t imagine a different future. You don’t fight back; you let them retreat into themselves until the time is right. You know you can’t make people see the light if they are unwilling to open their eyes. Others listen and nod their heads politely, perhaps interested but not ready to take the plunge; you know they will eventually come around, so you give them time and gentle encouragement – these are the ‘early adoptors’ who will be vital to the cause[vi]. The remaining few, however, are your new allies. They are the people who respond to what you share with hope and inspiration, expressing their own ideas of a new vision for the future. You know that you need to hold on to these ones tightly, they are your partners and innovators in the countermovement. And you’re talking about sustainability, eco-effectiveness[vii] and renewable energy and you’re planting community gardens and building cooperative neighborhood associations and businesses, and together, you are the vanguard of the countermovement’s new envisioned future. and you are doing it, and living it and breathing it and being it. a second ago you were numb in front of the TV and now you are alive and empowered to support humanity in its historic transition, and you drop to your knees in tears, shouting “I am the change I’ve been waiting for!"
While perhaps exaggerated in emotion and oversimplified in economics, this anecdote is a metaphor for the global awakening now at the core of organized resistance campaigns and grassroots community solutions that have come to define the global countermovement at odds with elite-led capitalist world dominance. As more individuals and social movements recognize and embrace our current historical moment as the waning of the modern ages and the start of something new, providing space for connection, dialogue, design and vision, the countermovement grows exponentially, gaining momentum toward critical mass in order to eventually tip the scales in favor of a new paradigm of living; a new Story of the People.[viii] Today, we are in the drafting stage of that new story, with local experiments in sustainable economic development and ecological effectiveness going far beyond the limited confines of market-oriented approaches to socioeconomic development and environmental conservation.
In an overt rejection of the capitalist world order and its codependent relationship with mainstream consumer culture, the countermovement connects these experiments with social movements embodying true reverence for Mother Earth and deep regard for social justice among all of humanity. While powerfully diverse in their many manifestations, the emerging global processes of awakening, re-envisioning and implementing innovative projects share a number of common threads, which conveniently provide an outline for the discussion to follow: 1) rejecting outdated systems by de-linking growth and wealth accumulation from development policy and social well-being; 2) developing and articulating local, regional, national and international frameworks for social, economic and environmental sustainability as alternative approaches within the new paradigm; 3) recognizing that the countermovement is defined by global civil society networks uniting for change and finding strength both in opposition to the status quo and in building new systems to make the old irrelevant; and 4) ‘doing utopia’: envisioning, designing and implementing sustainable projects across the globe that promote meaningful livelihoods, collective community values and a new economics to support human dignity and social well-being.
The next installment in this five part series will focus on the countermovement’s ‘wellbeing revolution’: de-linking growth and material accumulation from economic development policy and conceptualizations of social well-being.
[i] Easterlin et al. The happiness-income paradox revisited. PNAS, December 28, 2010, vol. 107, no. 52.
[ii] Eisenstein, Charles (2011). Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition. Berkeley, California: Evolver Editions. Ch. 6: The Economics of Usury, pp. 93-124.
[iii] Paul Grignon. Money as Debt. May 9, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K5_JE_gOys
[iv] Paul Grignon. Money as Debt. May 9, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K5_JE_gOys
[v] Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (New York: Picador, 2009): 108.
[vi] Taylor, G. (2008). Evolutions Edge, The Coming Collapse and Transformation of our World. Canada: New Society Publishers.
[vii] McDonough, W. and Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things. North Point Press.
[viii] Charles Eisenstein, “The Space Between Stories”. December 28, 2012. http://charleseisenstein.net/2013-the-space-between-stories/