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Waking from a Long Slumber: Era of a New Democracy; Part III

In 2011 around the world, the silence was broken. From Tunisia to Cairo, from Rome to Madrid, those who had been voiceless began to speak. In the beginning of the global uprising was the word. Acts of refusal and resistance were their language. As people took to the streets and squares, waves of awakening crossed the Atlantic, becoming a verb that was unstoppable. “We Occupy!” At the epicenter of economic corruption and injustice, victims of the foreclosed American Dream began to fight back against the corporate powers that had stolen their dignity and future. The American Dialect Society named “Occupy” the word of the year for 2011. It had become a part of everyday language. Occupy was the movement infused by action rather than empty slogans.

In 2011 around the world, the silence was broken. From Tunisia to Cairo, from Rome to Madrid, those who had been voiceless began to speak. In the beginning of the global uprising was the word. Acts of refusal and resistance were their language. As people took to the streets and squares, waves of awakening crossed the Atlantic, becoming a verb that was unstoppable.

“We Occupy!” At the epicenter of economic corruption and injustice, victims of the foreclosed American Dream began to fight back against the corporate powers that had stolen their dignity and future. The American Dialect Society named “Occupy” the word of the year for 2011. It had become a part of everyday language. Occupy was the movement infused by action rather than empty slogans.

In town squares and plazas people began connecting with one another, unmediated by the syntax of hierarchy. By way of the General Assembly and its attendant consensus building, old top-down structures were being replaced with horizontal organizing. Occupy brought a pause in the drumbeat of conformity. For a moment, the official narrative was interrupted. People began reclaiming their own will to be fully present in creating new life through direct action.

Now in 2013, Occupy has become a thing of the past. The movement that many hoped would carry a vastly different future stumbled. Its passion and vitality seemed insufficient to overcome attacks from the corporate political order and complicity of the mainstream media.

In November 2011, police began evicting OWS camps across the country and this carved-out space was squashed. The police raid of Zuccotti Park destroyed a collection of about 5,500 books in the people’s library. Across the US, these budding decentralized models of governance were systematically snuffed out. After clearing of the encampments, many considered the movement to be dead. Where did the energy, hope and potential go? Was the geist of Occupy gone forever?

Once lit, the spirit of collaboration is not so easily put out. One cannot evict an idea whose time has come. From foreclosures and unemployment to massive debt, the deepening crisis and adversity continues to bring people together and make them stronger.

In response to the 2008 mortgage crisis, the US government bailed out the banks instead of homeowners. This trend was seen in many countries like Spain and Greece, with harsh austerity measures cutting vital social programs and burning individuals’ hard-earned savings, while keeping bankrupt mega-corporations in business. Spanish banks foreclosed on over 100,000 houses. Victims of the financial meltdown began fighting back by setting up homes in vacant buildings. Macarena, the district of Seville with the highest eviction-rate in the city, became what is known as Corrala Utopía, a network of previously vacant properties that were occupied by victims of the economic crisis. The claim of a basic right to housing began to spread. Italians also occupy buildings to demand housing for the poor. Students in London are creating their own housing co-ops to reduce the cost of living and gain independence from exploitative housing systems.

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In the US, Occupy Minneapolis provided another example of a collective effort to help those who were most vulnerable and taken advantage of by this massive fraud. People got together to help homeowners who were facing foreclosure to keep them from being evicted. They successfully negotiated loan adjustments and conducted sit-ins to occupy vacant homes for those who lost them.

In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, when institutions failed to respond to rescue needs, Occupy Sandy was launched and helped those affected by the disaster more effectively than the Red Cross.

From student loans to medical bills, debt has become a fundamental social issue. Offshoots of Occupy Wall Street found a way to creatively address this problem. They began a program called Strike Debt, a kind of “Rolling Jubilee“, a so-called “bailout of the people by the people”. The idea is based on the Biblical tradition of a jubilee year where all debts are canceled. As of the first week of March, Occupy raised enough money to abolish $11,236,570 of personal debt.

Back in 1999, those on the streets of Seattle chanted; “This is what democracy looks like!” They brought joy and creativity in their demand for a more equitable and just world. When “free speech zones” corralled the unfettered chorus into corners and peaceful demonstrations were met with violence, people linked arms to confront the militarized police. These linked arms symbolized solidarity and shared resistance. Now, the movement is going beyond mere protest and a powerful bond has been cultivated into new forms that are more enduring and transformative. This is seen in the rise of cooperative movements around the world.

Mutual aid and cooperation among fellow citizens is being translated into a fundamental shift in the workplace. Economist and professor Richard Wolff states that if we believe in the virtue of democracy, the place where adults spend most of their time – their work -needs to be organized democratically:

“All the workers, whatever they do inside an enterprise, have to be able to participate in collectively arriving at the decisions what, how, where to produce, and what to do with the profits in a democratic way… “

Here, the model of consensus and sharing practiced in Occupy was being inserted into the work place.

One example of this new business model originated in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Mondragon, a worker-owned business, became the first viable industrial cooperative. It was founded in 1956 after the Spanish Civil War. Now a half-century later, it has grown into a large operation with 85,000 workers in 120 independent cooperatives competing in the global economy. Mikel Lezamiz, director of Cooperative Dissemination at Mondragon, explained how, in addition to the humanized features of worker collaboration and governance, this unique cooperative also places emphasis on education and innovation. There are 14 research and development centers helping different sectors produce a variety of goods, developing their own technology independent from foreign control. The Mondragon experiment is one way that people are creating autonomous community. It shows how this worker-centered business model can meet the demands of large scale production and manufacturing traditionally carried out by corporations.

This model is now being replicated in the US with Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives. Taking inspiration from Mondragon, they transform workers into owners, creating a healthy economy and workplace that empowers individuals. Mark Dworkin along with his documentary partner Melissa Young directed a film “Shift Change” that follows the evolution of the cooperative movement. He described Evergreen Cooperatives as a great example of “business, labor, local government and civic foundations working together to re-develop their region”.

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Cooperatives are thriving around the world. The United Nations General Assembly called 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. In Europe, in 2012 36,000 new jobs were created by Italian cooperatives. Within the US, there are over 300 worker-owned cooperatives across various industries, from grocery stores to manufacturing. Political economist and historian Gar Alperovitz paidclose attention to the development of cooperatives in the US. He pointed to worker-owned cooperatives as a path toward true democracy never seen before. In his film, “The Next American Revolution“, he explained how we are entering into an era of the prehistory of the next American revolution and how community-based cooperatives are a real alternative to both traditional centralized capitalism and socialism.

Direct participation in management, along with the trend toward peer-to peer connection is a clean break from the centralized control of corporate capitalism practiced through bottom-line decisions on one hand and on the other, the insidiously bureaucratic nature of a centralized state economy like that implemented by the Soviet Union. In a cooperatively run business, workers control how the business operates. Unlike conventional corporate business models, where decisions concerning investment allocation and organization are made by a small board, cooperatives allow everyone to participate in all-important decision-making processes.

With high unemployment, heavy debt and dysfunctional growth ushered in with the current financial crisis, the shareholder-driven limited liability corporation model is being questioned and more people are looking for an alternative. Over the last three decades, as large corporations become global, unions began to lose the power of collective bargaining. Corporations could simply ship their manufacturing overseas for cheap labor exploitation. Workers in America and Europe were abandoned. The power of collective imagination carried through the cooperative movement is changing the preconceived view of work as a commodity or a tool in a top-down profit orientation and is generating a new balancing power for the worker radically different than the one traditionally claimed by labor unions.

Perhaps when people are pushed to the edge, they begin to discover their own power and realize they had wings all along and don’t need permission to fly. Instead of asking for small concessions from a system that does not treat them as equals, all they have to do is spread their wings and create their own models. By bargaining with corporations, one still accepts the legitimacy of that illegitimate authority.

A defiant refusal to obey the imposed hierarchy and instead act as if one is already free is creating a different kind of union where workers no longer need to bargain, but can directly connect with their own creativity and passion to manifest their unique gifts. Cooperative movements are generating real collective power. Without needing to directly confront centralized structures, creative networks are quietly opening up and creating space for direct democracy to transform their communities and lives.

Latin America, the Hidden Vein of Democracy

The path to an alternative to neoliberal capitalism is already being paved. When it comes to solidarity and direct action, the West can learn from Latin American communities and countries. In 2001, Argentina experienced the devastation of IMF policies that led to severe austerity and economic meltdown. Bank accounts were frozen, locking people out of their life savings. Factories were abandoned as corporate crooks took the profits and ran.

In this national crisis, it was not government policy that got the country out of the mess. Editor ofNew Internationalist Magazine Wayne Ellwood argued that what saved the Argentinian people from this financial meltdown were co-operatives powered by people’s will and active participation. During the massive capital flight, workers formed co-ops, occupied the factories and began to run them by themselves. These enterprising cooperatives emerged without implanted leadership or hierarchy and it became a lifeline that helped these people and their society survive the crisis.

The same spirit of cooperation has been sustaining a flow of change throughout South America. Venezuela under Chávez’ “21st Century Socialism” went through a remarkable transformation. Chávez nationalized the oil industry and initiated social programs that support everyday people. As a result, the country’s poverty rate dropped. Chávez’ efforts have been ignored or lied about by the US corporate media. Mainstream pundits and politicians criticized Chávez for the country’s social programs by attacking his personality and demonizing him as if he had been a crazy dictator. In secret US cables published by WikiLeaks, the US government’s attempts to destabilize Chávez’ government were laid out for the world to see. Even after Chavez death, the mainstream media smeared him and tried to discount the countries’ remarkable transformation. These age-old tactics have been used against many political dissidents and public figures that challenge or shun US imperialism, including the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

What were these changes happening in Venezuela that the US media ignored? Venezuelan-American attorney Eva Golinger acknowledged Chávez’ accomplishments, showing how he “opened the door…. and took that road to transforming Latin America forever…”. After Chávez came into power, the apathy that had permeated the country was lifted and people began to care. Aijaz Ahmad in Frontline outlined Chavez’ efforts that resulted in turning the country into one of the more equitable societies in the world. He wrote about how Chávez experimented with some of the most remarkable forms of direct democracy by setting up worker-owned factories, cooperatives and communal councils that function as a bridge between the central state and local communities.

This shift of power is something the Western corporate media doesn’t want us to know about. Any emerging participatory democracy is a direct threat to the American model of domination and corporate-led exploitative capitalism. The mainstream media has relentlessly worked to demonize Chávez and other leaders to undermine their appeal. Fundamentally, the real target of these intense attacks is a way of life vastly different from that promoted through the corporatized illusion of the American dream, which in reality is the pursuit of material excess, greed and competition. Chávez spoke about the virtues of his people and put forward a different vision of success:

“The poor in Venezuela carry on being poor, yes. I always say that we don’t want to be rich. Our aim is not material wealth. It is to live with dignity, of course to come out of poverty, and to come out of extreme poverty above all. And to live, to live with dignity, this is the objective. Not to become millionaires, the American way of life. No, that is stupid”.

He dared to dream of building communities based on sharing and human caring. This created enemies who maligned him. Yet at the same time, his example inspired countless others. Now after his death, this dream outside of the neoliberal framework continues to be fought and lived in many Latin American countries. In neighboring Bolivia, President Morales shunned the United States Agency for International Development – USAID. He accused them of using international assistance agencies for political destabilization. An historic bill that grants all of nature equal rights has recently passed in Bolivia. As the Western legal system is subverted by the intrusion of corporate personhood, this Law of Mother Earth honors the rights of nature and living beings. Through people firmly grounding themselves with their own power and refusing to be seduced and be uprooted, a hidden vein of true democracy is beginning to thrive.

Declaring Independence

Throughout history, when a majority of a populace who had been treated as ignorant and powerless finally refused to allow the abuse to continue, they would break the rules imposed by the elites. Whether it is royalty, a dictatorial power or bankers plundering the weak and vulnerable, people often revolted and fought to bring change. Such acts of spontaneous and unmediated mass movement are called revolution. Revolution is different than reform. It is not cosmetic alteration, such as changing elected officials or policies. Instead, revolution demands a fundamental shift in the social and political structures themselves.

What marks a revolution is the awakening of a large population within society to its structural decadence and corruption and the consequent creation of a new social contract. This realization is often translated into a declaration that demands independence from the past and severs ties to the old structures and ways of life. This fuels and guides the energy of the masses into imagining an alternative future.

Politicians and corporate media focus on riots and violence and may portray that as revolution. They attempt to scare and distract people from looking into the deeper causes of world strife. Now a non-violent revolution is quietly taking place around the world. One such call for independence from the global financial elite came first from an island near Greenland. Rising above the ashes of the near-total collapse of their financial system from rapacious bankers, non-violent dissent in Iceland transformed the country.

In 2008, this small country had the third largest banking and economic crash. People didn’t bow down to the government. They rose up and put the criminal bankers in jail. They forced the government to resign and began to crowd-source their Constitution. This radical act of putting bankers behind bars was carried out peacefully. Yet, due to mainstream media silence, this remains generally unknown. Even though it was reported that the crowd-sourced Constitution was killed by Parliament, the process inspired people to start imagining their visions of a future and to participate in the process of realizing them in spite of political obstacles. Despite the fact that Iceland’s peaceful revolution was censored by the mainstream media in the US, this change from the margins can serve as a model for the rest of the world by showing what we can do by using the Internet as a democratic tool.

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As government corruption becomes more insidious around the globe, more people are looking for a way to get off the grid of the system. People are transferring their money from commercial banks to local credit unions. With the Occupy movement in 2011, activists called for a Bank Transfer Day and encouraged people to break ties with too-big profit-centered banks. Colleen Kimmet, a Vancouver based journalist highlighted the Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (Vancity)’s approach to community development. She described how the local Credit Union increased funds to help local start up businesses by offering loans and financing. Kimmet pointed out the differences between credit unions and banks. Unlike corporate banks, credit unions are cooperatives owned and controlled within their community and are set up to serve their members.

Along with publicly owned credit unions, new nonprofit and decentralized currency models are emerging; money that is not centrally controlled and can be kept fluid and moving. Two years ago, Bitcoin was introduced as an alternative currency, with its market recently crossing the billion-dollar mark. Bitcoin is also expanding into the economy with more businesses accepting it as payment method, becoming the best performing currency worldwide. There is evena Hollywood movie entirely financed by Bitcoin.

Rick Falkyinge, the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party wrote that Bitcoin’s real potential is in bringing change into the fundamental operation of society, possibly more than even the Internet did. He pointed outthat Bitcoin’s revolutionary concept is in its immunity to central bank control:

“The difference between Bitcoin and all other such tokens of value that have been invented over the years is that nobody is in control of the money supply, and nobody is in control of the money flow. This means that nobody can start the printing presses to eradicate your savings, and nobody can seize or see your wealth or income. You can think of it as an open-source currency compared to proprietary, state-issued currencies”.

In short, people can transfer and exchange money to one another around the world directly with no transaction fees and with much more privacy. Bitcoin is a way of declaring independence from corporations, governments and central banks. It enables those who wish to break free from the centralized control of the monetary flow. As Falkyinge noted, this makes this new digital currency truly revolutionary. Max Kaiser, host of The Kaiser Report tweeted: “Bitcoin is a pro-spiracy. It rewards cooperation. It’s an assault on the conspiracy of banksters and the divisive Fed and Wall St./City”. He described Bitcoin as the only independent, non-manipulated currency and called this digital money a currency of resistance. He noted it is “immune from government stupidity”, such as confiscation of gold and devaluing of paper currency.

The idea of government simply taking one’s hard earned money is not just ungrounded fear. Recently in Cyprus, a small island in the Mediterranean, the people faced massive systemic fraud by a banking cartel working with the European Central Banks. Attempts were made to take money directly out of bank accounts. Plans for direct confiscation of customers deposits indicates the reality of the situation. With such crises, cashless currency like Bitcoin as a means of preserving wealth is gaining wider public appeal.

Recently, Bitcoin has been going through wild swings and instability in its market with system overloads and DDoS attacks. The weakness of the exchange system was criticized. Yet, this may be revealing Bitcoin’s potential and signaling fear from the current dominant structure of financial system that is trying to keep business as usual. As often happens with any effective political dissent from the margins, this crowd sourced currency is a threat to the system.

Writer Simon Wood outlined Bitcoin’s potential as a democratizing force:

“The recent crash may scare away some of the get-rich-quick types but that is a good thing. One need not put significant money into Bitcoin; it is enough to demonstrate support for the concept by creating a small account and helping to build up something that might one day be a globally significant economic system based on fairness, privacy and security. The most important thing is a sincere belief in the philosophy of Bitcoin, not a short-sighted and base desire for material gain”.

With this decentralized platform, combined with privacy and security, Bitcoin has the potential for creating a truly democratic economic infrastructure for a new world. The idea of jubilee practiced by the Strike Debt movement to cancel all debts may not even be necessary if everyone simply walks away from the old system based on debt, government payoffs and speculation. The more that people simply choose social agreements based on peer respect and mutual aid, the more the unmediated network of voluntary association will expand. This creates structures that honor those who want to build on more humanistic values of sharing and a gift economy. As a result, the old debt-based monetary system could become irrelevant and the burgeoning indentured debt system may just dissolve as the public’s faith in centralized fiat currency crumbles.

An Era of New Democracy

“We are not looking at another version of what we know. It is not a new twist, a bend in a familiar path. It is something new and radical.” A Mapuche activist Gustavo Esteva saw the beginning of a new era. He continued “…the new world will be built with hope, joy and celebration, through the discipline which is learned through their own order of autonomy. Only then, through organic discipline woven from below by their own will, is it possible to propose the elimination of coercive power and authority, the condition in which a hierarchical position is used to impose action”.

Decentralized citizen-led networks around the world are reorganizing social structures. When one makes a place for ones own power that lies deep within, a new society is possible where everyone can participate in its making. Only then shall people create governments for the people and of the people that work through their direct engagement. Such forms of governance had a name all along. Poet Langston Hughes once said: “Democracy will not come today, this year nor ever through compromise and fear …”

Democracy is an idea that has long existed. Many fought for, defended and cherished it. Through rising movements from below, people are now beginning to experience the true potential in the word ‘Democracy’. Perhaps we are coming to realize that we don’t actually know the true meaning of the word and are only beginning to learn how to manifest it.

Just as with the spirit that sparked Occupy, Democracy is not a noun. It is not a fixed idea. It remains a verb, as with all revolutionary social movements. It is constantly moving and being created anew. Democracy is not so much a particular social structure, but the awakening of one who acts as a subject and determines his or her own course of action. Collective actions of people become a stream of democracy; an ever-changing and evolving process created through each person’s direct participation.

From rising cooperatives to new currencies, creative insurgencies are transforming the cry of oppression and suffering into lyrics of human possibility. The light shines in the darkness and those who have been in darkness can now see the source. Waking up from a long slumber, this generation is beginning to speak. We are the People. We are the Democracy that we create. With a collective heart that governs the world, we can open the door to an era of new democracy.

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