As I write, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement continues and has spread to cities from Portland, Maine to Santa Barbara to Philadelphia. The demonstrators seem to be mostly young people who see little future for themselves in the “new normal” economy. They have been criticized for having no agenda and no specific demands or program, but that is hardly surprising. The ugly truth is that no one has a program to improve our economy. Despite what some of my colleagues may say to the contrary, Keynesian economics can work for a while, but we have been relying on Keynesian stopgap measures for 80 years now, and the limits are in sight. The anti-Keynesians have no answers except to wait for a miracle. The “policy ineffectiveness proposition” is central to their thinking; and top-down socialism has failed even more comprehensively than capitalism has. At least the occupiers have their eyes open.
The two things the occupiers seem to agree on are that corporate money should be taken out of politics and that bankers should be held accountable for the decline of our economy. These things could be done. There are two methods that might work. One is to contest elections and take control of the legislature, but this is precisely one of the corrupting institutions that the occupiers distrust. The second is to form a revolutionary party and take control of the government by violence. This seems even more foreign to the consensus-seeking ethos of the occupiers, and that is to their credit since the record of revolutionary dictatorships in the 20th century is far from encouraging. Further, both of these methods can fail, and most revolutionary movements in fact have. Also, where jobs are concerned, what would a revolutionary government do? Top-down socialism again?
I have twice said “top-down socialism.” Is there such a thing as bottom-up socialism? In a sense, there is. For more than 150 years, cooperative organizations have run their economic enterprises on a basis of equality and open membership. A cooperative is a membership organization that runs (and usually owns) a business, with membership open to employees (worker cooperatives) or customers (consumer cooperatives, mutual financial organizations and farmer cooperatives) or, in a few cases, both. Ownership is not a basis for membership, although there may be a fee for becoming a member. Many of these organizations have been successful in improving the lives of their members and have existed for generations. You may have done business with a cooperative without even knowing it — if you have eaten an Idaho potato or bought some Fagor kitchen equipment to cook it. National federations of cooperatives are affiliated with a section of the United Nations, the International Cooperative Alliance, which has a website at http://www.ica.coop/al-ica. The United Nations have declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives.
Cooperatives pursue the interests of their members, employees or customers, on the basis of one vote per member. For some of the occupiers, this may give greed too much role, but there is a long history of voluntary communes organized around ethical ideals. Some of them have existed for decades and improved the lives of their members, and, in at least one case, created a country. What all of these successful examples of “socialism from the bottom up” have in common is that they were formed by people who shared a vision of a different kind of community, who were confident that it could succeed for their mutual benefit, and who entered mutually into their association without any stimulus or guidance from the government.
What does all of this have to do with the Wall Street occupation? What is missing from the occupation is missing from our society as a whole: a vision that offers real hope for a better future. But a workable vision will not come without careful, critical thought and study. Perhaps cooperation is a start toward that vision. Maybe it’s time for them to work it out for themselves.
Roger McCain is a professor of economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.