Fixing a broken economy

Occupy hasn’t disappeared, its spirit is alive and kicking in thousands of efforts to transform the economy. Let’s celebrate “New Economy Week.”

Eli Feghali
3 October 2013

Posters at Occupy Boston. Rachael Cerrotti/Demotix. All rights reserved.

“So what ever happened to Occupy?” If you were an Occupier, chances are you’ve had that question directed at you more than once. It might be frustrating, but it’s definitely worth answering. What took place in the fall of 2011 in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan and then in hundreds of communities around the world captured the imagination of millions. For a brief moment, it looked as though a popular movement might be able to shift the balance of power away from concentrated capital, and make progress in transforming a deeply corrupt global financial system. Few people believed the Occupy movement had serious revolutionary potential, but coming on the heel of mass uprisings across the Middle East, there was some reason for hope.

And then it was gone…or so the narrative goes.

When people ask me what happened to Occupy, I tell them that while the camps are gone and the name is history, the people who were involved are still hard at work. The problems that brought us together in the first place are only getting worse. People are still losing their homes. Wealth and income remain extremely concentrated in the hands of the ultra rich. Our political system is controlled by a small number of corporate oligarchs. All of this is still true two years later. But so is the fact that the Occupiers are still here, still resisting the system and building a new one, working with leaders in struggles for social, economic and environmental justice to create the foundations for the next popular “movement moment.”

The work I do now with the New Economy Coalition is certainly a continuation of the Occupy spirit. A project of the New Economics Institute, the Coalition is a growing group of more than 45 organizations working to promote strategies to create systemic change through building community wealth and democratizing power. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and working nationally, the Coalition is deeply engaged in addressing the issues of inequality and system failure that united so many people in 2011. It moves beyond examining the problems toward building concrete alternatives.

I got involved in Occupy Boston the day after the first major police action against that encampment. Like so many others, I dove in and committed myself to a community of strangers who soon became something like a family. We marched together. We built a tent city together. We cooked, cleaned, and slept outside together. We wrote press releases and re-wrote press releases. We got arrested and supported our friends when they did. We practiced and practiced and practiced direct democracy. We spent hundreds of hours speaking to visitors about our broken system and how we could fix it. We changed the national conversation on inequality. We truly believed another world is possible. And then we watched our new homes torn apart by mayors and police departments that didn’t understand why, after weeks and months, we were still there.

But even after all the Occupy encampments were violently removed by state and federal authorities, we didn’t stop. Maintaining the organizational framework of general assemblies and working groups ultimately didn’t work; over time, that structure and the Occupy brand lost its relevance for many people. But relationships and collaborations that began there have continued to grow. All across the country, former occupiers have plugged into ambitious, transformative projects that address the root causes of the same crises that inspired their involvement in Occupy.

In Minnesota for example, occupiers are addressing the foreclosure epidemic head-on by organizing with homeowners to build public support for their cases, and to pressure banks into negotiating in good faith. They call themselves Occupy Homes MN, and their movement to stop wrongful foreclosures and evictions continues to gain steam in other cities like Atlanta and Washington, DC, where thousands of victims of financial malfeasance are being removed from their homes.

In Vermont, an occupier campaigned for election to the Vermont Credit Union in order to transform the institution into a more democratically-accountable vehicle for community development. His successful campaign sparked a statewide dialogue on the role of credit unions in the community. In New York City, four worker-owned cooperatives emerged from relationships built in Zuccotti Park. While still in the early stages, these democratically-controlled companies serve as examples and inspiration for people who are seeking alternative business models that put workers and the community first.

These solutions-based strategies for addressing inequality, political corruption, and environmental crises have changed my life. They’ve inspired me to get involved in a movement to build decentralized, democratic economic institutions that prioritize the wellbeing of people, place, and the planet over profit. All across America, people are building parallel institutions that can become the foundation for a new kind of economy, institutions like the Bank of North Dakota, a public bank which has contributed over $300 million in equity to the state over the last decade, or the Evergreen Cooperatives, a network of green worker-owned companies in Cleveland that leverage the purchasing power of hospitals and universities to bring economic opportunity to low income communities. Although these institutions are still marginal compared to those they aim to replace, identifying and pursuing real alternatives can transform our collective imagination about the purpose of the economy and enable us to demand solutions for the systemic crises that we face.

The media coverage of these efforts is sparse and uneven, so one of the goals of the New Economy Coalition is to make this movement more visible. From October 12-18, we’re launching a week of action across the USA and Canada called “New Economy Week.” By highlighting the work of those engaged in building a new economy, we hope to initiate a national conversation on the need for deep changes in our economic and political systems. We also hope that campaigns like New Economy Week will raise the profile of grassroots efforts that are utilizing community wealth-building strategies to build the power for long-term social change.

Two years ago, I became involved in Occupy because I felt the crises we faced shared one root cause: a corrupt and broken system. I believed that if we came together to strike at that root, another world is possible. Today, because of my work at the New Economy Coalition, I have a better sense of what that world could look like. For that, I have Occupy to thank. The relationships I built and the experiences I enjoyed furnished a network and a systemic analysis that have allowed me to continue the work of building a just and sustainable society.

The challenges ahead are huge. Right now, the New Economy Coalition is building a new economy for which there is no roadmap. While there is a rich history of building power through the creation of parallel institutions in social movements, the work of crafting a unifying platform and an agenda for these strategies is largely uncharted territory. But with so many grassroots efforts emerging around the country, the time to try is now.

The system won’t change overnight, nor will it change after one more week – even a week dedicated to the New Economy. This is long-term work that requires continuous recalibration. Like Occupiers, we move forward not knowing exactly where our next step will lead, but trusting that if we travel with integrity then we can build the relationships and plant the seeds from which systemic transformations of society can grow.

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