Thursday, October 18, 2012

Occupy is a seed: Dr. Betsy Taylor's talk from the Lexington Occupy Anniversary

Betsy Taylor gave an impassioned speech at the celebration of the anniversary of Occupy in Lexington a few weeks or so ago. I asked her if I could share her speech, and she agreed. Here, anyway, are some of her notes for the talk:

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Some people have asked me recently  “What happened to Occupy?”

Here's what I say:  I say – 12 months ago, 10 months ago, 8 months ago – Occupy was a flower, a beautiful, astonishing flower that sprang up – when almost noone thought it could grow – out of the hard, cold ground of these Hard Times we are in...

But now, now I say Occupy is a seed.  And, I say to them – only fools underestimate a seed. Many inside the Occupy movement are discouraged, some outside the Occupy movement are mocking – they say 'has Occupy died?'.

Last year, I believe, the work of Occupy was to show itself, to express very powerful truths about what democracy is, to witness to the terrible destructiveness of our current system.  When I would arrive at this site last year, it was like walking into a miracle – a beautiful garden that had sprung up out of nowhere. 

But, there are stages in revolutions.  And, living flowers must turn into seeds to grow & thrive & spread (look out 1% this is our expansion phase!).

Now I have a question for you – when a seed is under the ground, can you see it? 

But, I ask you, when a seed is under the ground, is it weak?

I heard something both true and beautiful last weekend, at a reading at Joseph Beth by author Janisse Ray.  She said “there is no despair in a seed!”  It's when a seed is invisible, that it is doing it's most important, its most potent, its most precious, its most unique work. 

Now, I admit, this can be scary.  The seed's journey underground is a dangerous time.  It can die.  For those who are cultivating & loving a seed, BUT ABOVE GROUND, it is easy to lose hope, to get cynical.  All that suffering you did in the bitter cold & downpours of rain, round the clock, in tents, for days & nights & months – last year?  What came of it?  Well, it does makes one worry – because when a seed is underground there IS nothing to see!


But, if one has turned from a flower to a seed – what should one be doing to make sure one grows back and multiplies – what are the POLITICAL tasks of the ripening seed?

What are the three big secrets to the successful seed?

1.    Water – nourishment.  Feed yourself emotionally & intellectually.  Don't burn out.  Start reading groups.  Read history.  Read political economy.  Spend time with your family & friends.

2.   Soil – finding the right place to put down roots. 

3.   Timing – when come back out from underground

To answer these last two challenges – I believe we face the greatest dangers & confusions.  We know our economic & political systems are rotten almost to their core.  But, how do we know when we're making basic, revolutionary change to fix these systems, and when we are merely tinkering with reforms that will consume our time.  Mere reform is the same as walking north on a south bound train.

In the seed-time of Occupy – I believe that we should be obsessed with this question. 

I'm wrestling hard with this question.  What is keeping me sane is a crucial insight into the American economy which comes from the great radical, democratic Populist movements of the 1870s thro 1900s.  They distinguished between two levels of the US economy.

·         On one level was the level of direct producers & reproducers – people who actually made things & cared for things & people.  Small farmers, homemakers, neighborly social work & mutual care societies, artisans, skilled crafts.  This level was where Adam Smith ideas of free markets & private ownership & voluntary do-gooderism would mostly work just fine.  It's an economic & civic system that fits with deep cultural values in America, of liberty AND neighborliness and care for others

·         the second level is what some used to call the Cooperative Commonwealth – those are things like banks, roads, trains, education, water, and, now energy and health and military.  These are areas of work & caring – where free markets do not work well.  These are things that provide infrastructure & support to the first level.  They are natural commons (like air and water – that shouldn't be privately owned because everyone depends on them) or public goods & services (the COMMONWEALTH) to which there should be universal access.

 The horror of the 20th century is that this second level – the level of the Commonwealth – became dominated by two systems that became more & more undemocratic:

·         huge & ever more monopolistic corporations dominate first energy (especially oil & coal) and transport (especially railroads)  sectors – bankrolling a very sophisticated & bogus campaign to claim constitutional rights – so they could dominate over small businesses

·         other public services & goods – like environmental commons & health – became dominated by a top-down bureaucratic govt regulatory apparatus.  The Far Right has been very successful in nurturing legitimate anger at top-down govt bureaucracy – turning that old 19th democratic Populist energy into reactionary Far Right so-called populism

In the last several decades these two anti-democratic forces have merged into a corporate state.  The large corporations have captured much of the regulatory agencies – banking, environment, health.  Especially since about the 1980s, corporate investment capital has fallen into a self-destructive pattern of increasing profits through mechanization, and outsourcing jobs through globalization – creating fewer & fewer jobs.  This means that globally we have a jobs crisis that will just get worse & worse.  There are structural reasons why the American Dream is dying – our corporate-dominated is now an inherently job-shedding economy.

But, even more dangerously, corporate monopolies are shifting from profit-making at the first level – the level where things are actually made & sold.  They are increasingly trying to burrow into the Cooperative Commonwealth – to make profits from privatizing health, military, education, even govt clerical work, etc.

The good news is that this new corporate-dominated global economy is incredibly fragile & ineffective.  At some point, if the 1% stops creating jobs, they will not be able to con the 99%.

It is Mother Nature who always bats last.  And, climate change is already starting to force limits.  As droughts spread, we are going to HAVE to change our agriculture and water systems.

All around the world, people are developing wonderful, creative new ways to organize that second level – the level of the Cooperative Commonwealth.

In southwest Va, there is a terrific organization called  Rail Solution doing grassroots organizing for a new passenger / freight railroad from Harrisburg PA, looping around central Appalachia – that could provide the infrastructure for a non-corporate, small scale, sustainable farming & small manufacturing regional economy.  This is exactly the democratic system for long term planning of the Commonwealth that Populists were HOPING that we could start a century ago.

We should all study the public bank of North Dakota – which provides a model for profit generating, democratically controlled financial system.

In this seed-time of Occupy – if we all keep studying these new experiments in reclaiming the COOPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH, I believe, that when THE TIME IS RIGHT – we can emerge with effective & tested new ideas for democratic reorganization of the commanding heights of our political economy.

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