American Idol or American Ideal?

Jordi Comas took the people’s mic last Friday night and led Occupy Lewisburg in an unlikely exercise he called “American Ideal.”  Offering five creative options for collective action, he then challenged the occupiers to propose their own ideas and compete in an activist “beauty contest.”

Groups of occupiers put their heads together and came up with some darlings.

“This is just a beauty contest,” Comas continued to emphasize, seemingly to no avail.  After two rounds of advocacy and voting, here is what our local occupiers came up with.

Joanne F. Henry spoke eloquently on behalf of an intergeneration collective of artists/performers who would periodically create a mobile Occupation by the Arts in response to community concerns.  Occupying an old school bus, the performers would travel to a specific local site in need of an Occupy event and create an artistic performance/installation to draw attention to the need.  By filming the artistic endeavor, the Art Bus would use various media platforms to generate awareness of the particular community issue.

“Artistic expression cuts though our thinking in a way that reading words on a page does not.  It lets us take in ideas we may otherwise brush away,” Joanne said.  “This community has such a wealth of performers. I would like to see our creations cross lines of gender, race and class to include everyone in the community and slip into many different media platforms.”

Stacy Richards shared her experience with an ongoing project in New Berlin to create energy independence at the community level.  The Community-Wide Energy Independence Project has focused for the past two years on reducing energy use through conserving energy.  The project is also exploring further energy reductions through renewable energy options such as solar PV, solar thermal and bio fuels. Financial models are being explored, including individual and community-owned renewable projects in which community members would be shareholders.

“The community is well on its way to reducing its energy consumption by 20% within three years through energy conservation in homes, churches and businesses.  They are poised to create a real alternative to fossil fuels,” Richards said. “I think we can really do this.”

Don Stechschulte offered his vision of community-based health care.

“The two most important question that determine your odds of recovering from illness, be it cancer, diabetes, HIV, are not medical.  Are you economically secure?  Do you like your job?  These are not questions that doctors are trained to ask,” Stechschulte explained.

A community health initiative would explore ways of providing economic security and meaningful employment as a means of improving community wellbeing on all levels.

“We need to take responsibility for peoples’ health and wellbeing in this community beyond the hospital and the doctor’s office and put it back in peoples lives,” Stechschulte concluded.

Kate Parker spoke on behalf of the idea of creating a Community Kitchen.

“We have it in our power, probably within this room, to feed our entire community if we want to.  Yes, it requires work to create a meal, but if you take the time and if you do it with love, you cannot only feed people’s bellies, but you can feed their hearts and souls and help them feel cared for.”

A number of occupiers spoke up in favor of this idea, connecting the idea of the kitchen to the creation of community meeting space, space for kids and parents, community education and outreach and space for the performing arts.

“It is an opportunity to spend time working together, which is something we also need to do, and when you care for people, when you offer them something with no expectations, they remember that and it creates a community bond,” Parker added.

The Community Kitchen ended up winning the title of the “American Ideal.”

“We have decided nothing,” Comas insisted.  “This is just a beauty contest, just an opportunity to generate ideas.”  And it was clear that, indeed, those present had begun to see possibilities of combining these ideas into the first sketch of a plan of action.

“We need to put a human face on the Occupy movement,” Margaret Moyer insisted, “and sharing a meal is an ideal way for people to see the real people behind this effort, and perhaps to begin to question the information they are getting on the news.”

“If you don’t like what you see on the news,” offered Steve Mitchell, drawing on the wisdom of earlier protests, “Go out and make your own news.”

It seems the seeds planted on Friday night at Occupy Cherry Alley may have already begun to take root.  If you would like to be part of the Occupy Lewisburg efforts to support the American Ideal, go to OccupyLewisburgPA on Facebook or contact me at kristjan@bucknell.edu.

Capitalism is the Enemy of Democracy

Originally published at Truthout.org

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment for #OWS to date is that the occupiers have managed to poke a hole in the legitimacy of neoliberal capitalism and its central claim that unregulated markets provide opportunity and freedom.   They have accomplish this feat in a surprising way, with their persistent presence, and with home made signs, signs that say things like, “If I had a lobbyist, I wouldn’t need this sign.” Occupy Wall St. has poked this hole by having the audacity simply to gather in public, in bold defiance of the police and to demonstrate, by their solidarity and cooperation, that a different world is possible.

 

Phil Rockstroh puts it this way: “the walls of the neoliberal prison are cracking…We are no longer isolated, enclosed in our alienation, imprisoned by a concretized sense of powerlessness; daylight is beginning to pierce the darkness of our desolate cells.”

At the core of this neoliberal ideology is a simple assertion – economic exchanges promote freedom because they are voluntary, and thus they only occur if both parties believe they will benefit.  Unregulated market exchanges thus allow individuals to engage with others in complex social arrangements without coercion, without impinging on individual liberty.  Government is needed, but only to define and enforce property rights, and to create and regulate the currency individuals need to undertake market exchanges.

 

Liberals, who argue for expanding government in order to regulate or oversee individual exchange, necessarily interrupt these free and voluntary agreements and therefore undermine individual liberty.  This view of markets underlies Reagan’s famous dictum: “Government is not the solution to the problem; Government is the problem.”  In this extreme libertarian view, capitalism is the champion of democracy, the champion of freedom.

 

The flaw in this neoliberal reasoning is not hard to see.  Ownership of wealth obviously confers power; it gives some individuals an upper hand in the ‘voluntary’ exchanges they make with others.  Lacking the means otherwise to support ourselves, most of us must hire out our ability to do work in exchange for wages.  We might do quite well if we are educated and talented, lucky or white, but even so, we ultimately produce more value than we are paid – that is, after all, the reason we are hired.  Wealth ownership thus gives an upper hand to employers in these voluntary exchanges.  The extra value we create flows steadily into the hands of wealth holders, and we don’t have a say over what it is used for.

 

This upper hand in these so-called voluntary exchanges provides an ongoing and increasing source of wealth accumulation that is self-reinforcing.  Money begets money.  That is after all what capital is, money advanced for the purpose of making more money.   Excluding people from having a say over what happens to the wealth we create is the first, and the most fundamental, way that any capitalist system undermines democracy.  We are fundamentally disenfranchised in the places we work.  Wealth owners control the levers of investment and thus the “needs” of capital trump those of workers when it comes to making decisions about what gets produced, how and for whom.

 

Beyond this, neoliberal capitalism goes further – it uses the value you and I create to enforce a virtual dictatorship-by-wealth in the political sphere.   The most obvious manifestation of this dictatorship-by-wealth is the unlimited corporate financing of our elected representatives.  But this financing is only the tip of the iceberg.  Not only must candidates pander to corporate interests to successfully raise the funds needed to run for office, once they are in office they are plied and courted with unrelenting advances designed to ensure that they do not do lose their focus and begin to think about something other that promoting a favorable business climate.

 

Even deeper in the subsoil of this treasonous takeover of our democracy is the ownership and influence over the main vehicle of public discourse, the news media.  The manufacture of consent is accomplished by narrowing the acceptable range of debate to the question of how best to support economic growth (read profits) and American imperialism (read war).   Where do the millions, or billions, that candidates raise end up?  Primarily this money ends up in the coffers of the corporate media – campaign advertising is the single most important source of revenue for the corporate media.

 

So it is an odd fact of American life, that capitalism is equated with democracy while at the same time acting as democracy’s most corrosive force.  But think about it, if capitalism really supported democracy, if it really welcomed open, honest, wide-ranging debate about the values and practices of corporations and their elected representatives, why would they be sending their police in with bats and pepper spray to prevent the free open exchange of ideas?  Why would they not be handing out microphones, providing open access to the airwaves, organizing televised debates?  If capitalism really were the champion of democracy, the Occupiers and their many allies would be celebrated.  Instead we are disdained.

 

The corporate elites fear and resist any questioning of their core beliefs because their ideas do not hold up to scrutiny and reasoned debate.  That’s how we all know – capitalism is the enemy of democracy.

 

But is there any alternative?  It is tempting to think that if we can only regulate capitalism effectively, we can harness its virtues and contain its vices.  In fact, there is some evidence to support this view.  The 99% were much better served in the post-war era in the United States and they continue to benefit from efforts to reign in capitalism’s excesses in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.  But these efforts to regulate are under constant attack, and a return to regulations is ultimately a brief inconvenience to the corporate elites.

 

As Richard Wolff and others have noted, as long as the value you and I create is credited to the owners of capital, these owners have both the means and, given their distorted values, the incentive to undermine and neutralize any effective regulation and oversight we attempt to impose.  Capital will continue to corrode democracy, as certainly as oxygen corrodes iron, as long as a few hold sway over investment and jobs and are committed to using the wealth that we generate to undermine the will of the people.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or you can have democracy; you cannot have both.”

 

Fortunately, a proven alternative to corporate capitalism already exists.  For over fifty years it has provided a practical example of how we can extend democracy to the workplace as a means of preserving democracy in our political lives.  The basic idea of this experiment is to address the root of the problem, to uncover the means by which capitalism undermines democracy, and to provide new institutional rules governing how we organize our economic lives.

 

Over fifty years ago, the Mondragon Cooperatives in northern Spain developed their poverty-stricken regional economy by developing worker-owned and managed cooperatives.  Co-ops place the ownership of wealth and the decisions concerning how wealth is invested in the hands of the people who produce the wealth.   These institutions recognize that the wealth generated by an enterprise is the result of the collective efforts of all, and that those most affected by the decisions of the enterprise, workers and community members, ought to have the principle say in what happens to the wealth, how it is distributed and the purposes to which it is put.

 

Many people argue that co-ops are impractical but this simple democratic principle rests at the heart of this highly successful, internationally competitive, stable and flourishing regional economy.  It is an economy based on democratic management, worker ownership and democratic oversight and it faces its own challenges, yes, but has certainly proven the lie that there is no alternative to corporate capitalism.  It shows that people, acting together, can use democratic principles to imbue their economic lives and their political lives with agency and meaning.

 

And this effort is spreading to America’s heartland.  The Evergreen cooperatives in Cleveland have successfully applied the principles of the Mondragon experiment to develop a successful urban development project.   As Gar Alperovitz argues, the linking of large anchor institutions with worker-owned enterprises offers a practical economic development strategy that is politically feasible in the context of our current economic crisis.

 

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that working people can do without their corporate bosses.  Quite a bit of time and energy has been spent trying to convince us that the idea that workers can manage themselves is preposterous.

Occupy Wall St. has provided the opening for us to consider, debate and discuss what has previously been off the table.  Economic democracy is not only possible, it is essential if we are to realize that peculiar American Dream of a government of, by and for the people.

So let’s not overlook the significance of what Occupy Wall St. is doing.  We need to step through the hole they have opened in the shiny façade of our glad-handled, Madison Avenue, faux democracy and take up the challenge of creating the real thing, right here and now, in this unlikely place we call America, as a means of reclaiming our own dignity, our own liberty and a livable world for those who come next.

 

 

Occupy Cherry Alley Interview with Mark Lawrence and Robin Jarrell

This interview highlights the importance of worker participation in corporate decision-making and the connection between Occupy Wall St. core principles and Christian values.  Robin Jarrell is rector at the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.

http://www.wkok.com/1070_WKOK/OTM.htm

 

Occupy Wall St.: Interview with David Kristjanson-Gural

Here is a link to a recent interview on WKOK with Mark Lawrence.

After you click on it, you will see a screen that says “no preview available.”  Never fear.  There should be a link in the upper left that says “download.”  You can download the file and listen to it on a computer, transfer it to an iPod or other mp3 player, burn in it on a disc and voila!  a good Chanukah or Xmas present.  Ask if you have problems.

https://docs.google.com/a/bucknell.edu/leaf?id=0B2lA_mBM6QWtZGMxNjg0OGYtNDEzYi00OGMzLWE2NDEtMTMxNTA2M2U0MzZi&hl=en_US

An Open Letter to Supporters of Occupy Lewisburg

Let me start by saying I get how difficult things are, and how busy we have all become.  I get how overwhelming it can be to just keep up.

Part of what we are fighting, what we’ve all agreed is the problem, is the way that we are being disabled by the 1%.  After all, if these folks had not conspired to rig the financial system in their favor, we would all have approximately 50% more income to use to help us meet our needs, and at least 20% more time.  That’s one extra workday a week, and, for many families, one extra income.

So our efforts to restore sanity and justice to a system gone mad are hobbled by the insanity and injustice of the system we are up against.  I get that.

I want you to know, too, I appreciate the efforts you are already making.  I know we are all, daily engaged in unseen and unrewarded efforts to help those near and dear to us, and, for some, just to meet our own needs.

Several of us have managed to go beyond our immediate friends and family and it is important to acknowledge the work these folks are doing.

  • Sam Pearson is working tirelessly on a number of fronts, the Local Action Network and the Sierra Club, among other things addressing the environmental threat from natural gas fracking,.
  • Charles Sackrey is working with OUE on opposing the proposed tire burning plant upwind of Lewisburg.
  • Jove Graham and Steva Stowell-Hardcastle and John Peeler and others are working to prevent the worst-case electoral scenario.
  • Barb Sundin, Charles Facka and Lexie Orr are working on electoral reform so we can vote with ballots not dollars.
  • Kathy Kristjanson-Gural is working to shore up community ties to help families in our community.
  • Cindy Peltier is working with CARE on racism.
  • Judy Peeler and others supporting the work of the Heiter Center to provide support for working families and their kids.
  • Pat Rock and others are working on a Clean Water Initiative.
  • Joe Manzi is promoting non-violence through the CNL;
  • Joe and Jackie Detelj, Johnny and Leah Tewks, Jen and Harvey Partica are helping to restore sanity to our food system.

Each of these people are working with many others, and many other organizations and individuals deserve mention.  Most are doing this work on top of paid jobs that also serve the community.

So, yes, I am going to ask us all to do more, but please know that I get how much we are already doing, privately and publicly.  And I get that what I am asking is completely unreasonable.

It’s a bit hard to wrap our minds around what is happening to us.  I think about Virginia Zimmerman’s comparison to the Elizabethan era explorers who first gazed out across the unbelievable expanse of the Grand Canyon.  They saw evidence of the true dimension of time, the incomprehensible scope of our past, and they simply had no conceptual framework to understand it.  They literally couldn’t see what was before them.  That was a moment like the one we are in now.

It makes perfect sense to be thrown off balance.  Our hearts are telling us something is true that our minds simply can’t comprehend.  Our minds are encountering truths that our hearts are just not willing to take in.  I get that too.

Here is the rub.  Our inaction is the only guarantee of our defeat.

This week, in Durban, South Africa, the representatives of the global poor are dashing themselves on the rocks of those who represent us, the nations of privilege, desperately hoping to get our representatives to see reason.  I listened to Apisai Ielemia, Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, whose nation will be entirely underwater in my lifetime, asking, in vain, only that we set and enforce a limit on what we are entitled to spew out into the air, the ocean of air on which we all depend.

The planet is warming and the polar ice caps are melting faster than even the most pessimistic scientists predicted.  That’s not just bad news for Tuvalu.  It means the storms we’ve seen this fall, storms that our neighbors in Bloomsburg are still recovering from, will become commonplace.  It means that we can no longer depend upon the weather patterns we require to grow our food.  We’ve seen the effects already on the bee populations, these unpaid, unsung heroes of the food system without which we would be hamstrung in our efforts to feed ourselves.

How many of us are already feeling the effects of this emergency?  How many have more friends sick or dead from cancers and other chronic ailments than they believed possible?  How many have seen their households striven by divorce or their children founder on the way to independence?  How many have already lost their jobs, our homes to this scandalous betrayal by our corporate elite?

So there is the problem.  We are all too busy, and feel too powerless, to undertake the collective actions we need to change our deadly course, but unless we change course, we will only become more embattled.

The only answer I can see is this:  We have to act together.   And we have to do it now.

We have to act on two fronts.  One is to interrupt business as usual in order to change the course we are on. This means challenging the priorities of the institutions we are part of and the institutions on which we depend. The longer we wait, the more serious the disruption to the planet and its people.  The other is to continue to maintain and extend a safety net for each other, to mitigate the harsh effects of this increasingly heartless system on our community.

So I know it seems that coming together on a monthly basis to hold signs and listen to each other seems futile.  But despair is the very glue that holds this immoral system together.  And the only thing that dissolves that glue is our unrelenting determination to show up – to show up against the odds, against the dictates of our unmanageable schedules, against the ongoing demands of our children, our jobs and our marriages.

And, I know it is counter-intuitive, we need to celebrate.  Yes, celebrate.  Because unless we find some joy in this most perilous moment that we inhabit, we will surely be pulled under by the tides of resignation.   We need to call on the better angels of our most resilient selves to laugh at the absurdity of the army arrayed before us, to weaken their hold on us through our ability to sing, to speak poetry, to enact on stage our refusal to be swallowed up.

We need to activate our most creative, most resilient selves in order to be able to imagine what we can do in the face of this deepening crisis.  We need to draw encouragement from what we see in each other, our faces that reflect back to us the knowledge that we can do this impossible thing.

That is the reason I am asking you to continue to lend your support to the Occupy Lewisburg gatherings.  That’s why I am asking you to come to Cherry Alley on Friday night.  Just show up once a month, on top of everything else you are doing, to lend your encouragement and support to others and, in turn, to gather strength of purpose and resolve to continue to insist that we can learn to live with each other with respect, in solidarity, and in mutual recognition of the enormity of what we are facing.

If you can’t make dinner, come after dinner.  Read the attached articles and think about what you would like us to all to take up. If you can’t come Friday, join us at the Post Office from noon to one on Saturday, bring your homemade sign, and share your abiding presence.

If you can’t make either, I get that, but please, somehow seek to make visible your continuing support for our courageous collective effort, the effort to create a world that makes sense for us, for the people of Tuvalu and for all those who come next.

In solidarity,

David Kristjanson-Gural

Occupy Cherry Alley!

For Immediate Release: Occupy Lewisburg Downsized

Early this morning official sources within the Mayor’s office confirmed that Occupy Lewisburg had been downsized. “We just can’t put this many protesters to good use,” Mayor Judy explained, “I mean, how much civil unrest can we handle with just a part-time staff? Really.”

The 300 strong supporters of Occupy Wall St. have not taken the downsizing sitting down. “Fine,” said organizer David Kristjanson-Gural, “Just fine. Be that way.” The organizing committee has proposed a new action that will involve, well, sitting down.

“Occupy Cherry Alley!” the rallying cry of the new, smaller, leaner occupying force, intends to take over the local café on December 9th, beginning at 6 pm.

“We will not be silenced,” Kim Daubman emphasized, “Except during the actual part where we eat.”

“The whole town was just getting to be too… roomy,” Robin Jarrell added.

“No progressive movement can sustain itself long, in the absence of art, humor and song,” rhymed David Kristjanson-Gural. “We hope people will come, express their views and support the movement, but not be too windy.”

To submit proposals for the open mic segment of the evening, contact kristjan@bucknell.edu

Tickets are $14 available in advance at, where else, Cherry Alley.

Oh, yes, Earl Pickens will perform. You don’t want to miss that.

Actual Useful Information:

Friday, December 9th, 6-10pm

Dinner: Indian (Chicken or Vegetarian) $14

Tea, Coffee and Dessert a la Carte, BYOB

Tickets available at Cherry Alley beginning Wednesday, Nov.30th. Seating is limited.

Open Mic:

During Dinner – Tell us what you envision for Occupy Lewisburg community

After Dinner – Skits, stories, songs, theatre, humor, express your views creatively.

Please let us know what you intend to contribute by emailing (kristjan@bucknell.edu) by Dec. 7th.

Earl Pickens will close out the evening with a fine solo performance.

Let’s Occupy Together

(Originally Posted Nov. 5th, 2011)

I’m not sure why the media are having such trouble figuring out the demands of Occupy Wall St.  Recently, a seven-year-old girl, Celia Cooley, went down to Zuccotti Park and, posing as a reporter, she asked people why they were there (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x12iOQYY0w8).  What they said was quite consistent and quite reasonable and quite comprehensible to this young girl.  They said: We want our democracy back.

Anyone who is confused about what the protesters want has probably been listening to too much corporate news.  Corporate news stations present themselves as trustworthy and unbiased, but they are owned by large multinational corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse, and these are the folks that are benefitting from the policies that the protesters decry.

These news outlets don’t want the message of Occupy Wall St. to be heard.  They don’t want the protesters portrayed as ordinary Americans who have been bilked of their savings and booted out of the middle class and who are justifiably demanding that things change. If you’ve been watching corporate news and you are confused, the first thing to do is to broaden your sources of information.  Go to the non-commercial news sites on the Internet and listen to the chorus of ordinary Americans who are saying very clearly what’s wrong and who are making sensible suggestions about how to go about fixing it.

Here is some of what you will learn.

The economic crisis did not start because suddenly poor people started taking out mortgages on homes they couldn’t afford to pay for.  It didn’t start because of some corporate bad apples. Think about it.  The job of a lender is to determine if a person is credit worthy.  The reason loans were given to people who couldn’t afford them was simply that banks no longer had an incentive to find out if people were credit worthy.  Why?  Because banks were permitted to sell the mortgages to other companies for a profit, rather than waiting to collect on the loan.  The big banks pushed loans on people because they were making profit, hand over fist, from selling these loans to investors.

Why were the investors buying bad mortgages? Because they were permitted to bundle them together with other loans to look like safe investments.  Why did these investments look safe, because the folks in the rating agencies, who were supposed to rate these investments, were not sufficiently regulated and worked in cahoots with the big banks.

The problem, in short, was not individual behavior; the problem was that the system was jury-rigged.  Corporate lobbyists took over Congress and rewrote the banking laws in their favor.  As long as home prices went up, banks made a killing.  When the music stopped, instead of taking their consequences, big banks got their insiders at the Fed and the Treasury Department in D.C. to bail them out.  Then they got their friends their in corporate media affiliates to point their fingers at the borrowers ( the ones who are now homeless) and at big government (for wasting taxpayer money).  Meanwhile, Wall St. banks go on their merry way, paying out bonus, rewarding failure, avoiding the consequences of their actions, and continuing to use our Congress as their personal playground.

That’s just wrong.  That’s why folks are on the streets.

If you are in the Tea Party, you probably believe many of the same things that Occupy Wall St. supporters believe.  People should play by the rules.  People should be punished when they do something wrong.  If you reward people for cheating, they are likely to continue to misbehave.  Like supporters of OWS, you probably believe that our government should be accountable to us, we the people, and that the government should not collude with powerful elites to deprive people of the right to a livelihood, or to kick them out of their homes.  You probably believe that government shouldn’t write laws that favor powerful interests in order to raise enough money to get re-elected.

I support Occupy Wall St.  You and I may have our differences, but I think we share a commitment to restoring the integrity of this democracy.  I think we can agree that when a government no longer is responsive to the desires of the citizens, that it is the responsibility of citizens to act together.  The government itself is not the problem; the problem is that the government has been taken over by wealthy elites who do not have our interests at heart.  It is time for us to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, Republican and Democrat, on the streets of this great country and take our democracy back.

Turn off the corporate news, talk to your fellow Americans, one by one, until you decide for yourself whether what I am saying is true.  That’s what Celia is doing.  There is no other test in a democracy but that of the ability of ideas to stand the test of evidence and reason.  The values that our forbearers fought and died for are at stake.  Nothing less.