The USA and the power of the people

Occupy Wallstreet = photo by Aaron Bauer

Occupy Wallstreet = photo by Aaron Bauer

America, like much of the world, has been through a rough few years. The rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements reveal a cry for radical change of the economic and political system. But how can New Economy – which revolves around economic and environmental sustainability rather than profit making – be established in a society that traditionally values self-madement, economic prosperity and independency?

The Tea Party and the Occupy movement, while very different in many ways, both stem from the same source: dissatisfaction with the economy and the larger social and political structures and values. And when topics of broad public concern are brought up the movements refer to the same set of values. Both belief in democracy, freedom, equality, opportunity, independence, and self-sufficiency.

How does adherence to such values affect the New Economy? A significant aspect of the New Economy is the acknowledgement of interdependence: our actions affect others, and we need others to survive and thrive. This idea contradicts the American value of independence. It is especially scary to imagine ourselves as interdependent when it appears that so much of humanity may not be trustworthy, and may in fact be harming us. When it appears that things like democracy, opportunity, and equality are waning within society, that provides more reason to escape.

The Myth of the American Dream

With so much coverage on the crisis, one may wonder where origins of the economic malaise lies. Firstly, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 ensued from the burst of the U.S. housing bubble in 2006 and the resulting subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. This demonstrated a larger problem of an out-of-control Wall Street and an unresponsive government.

The “too big to fail” industries gained bank and auto industry bailouts,  yet small businesses failed to see such aid. When

Pot luck in Cadilac, Michigan, one of America's 150 Transition Towns where people strive to create economical and environmental sustainability

Pot luck in Cadilac, Michigan, one of America’s 150 Transition Towns where people strive to create economical and environmental sustainability

combined with record-breaking banker and CEO bonuses, it paints a picture of a fundamentally unfair system with the average American helpless and unable to influence.

The American Dream mythology is much harder to sustain given the growing reality for increasing numbers of the population. The U.S. has one of the highest inequalities of wealth distribution of the developed nations, particularly when measuring income after taxes and benefits and looking at actual wealth and savings. While the U.S. Great Recession was declared over in 2009, the majority of GDP growth has gone to the top 1% (and a large portion of that to the top 0.01%). The current generation of young adults is the first American generation, according to vast array of studies, that will have less income, less wealth, and a shorter life span than their parents.

Do-it-yourself attitude
This raises another American value that makes this inequality so hard to acknowledge: Americans have high faith in capitalism and a free-acting market as an entity in its own right. They also have a strong work ethic stemming from the Protestant heritage that condemns laziness and can measure a person’s worth by their wealth. Such valuation is dependent upon a system where hard work appears to be rewarded. The economic crisis may then help raise questions about the current economic order and people need to find an alternative way to demonstrate their value.

So where do Americans turn to find greater security and self-worth? The rising trend of homesteading over the past few years demonstrates the pull of self-sufficiency, frugalness, a return to the land, control over resources and the production process, and environmentalism, all rolled into one.

There are countless blogs covering individual attempts to take back of piece of the production process of food and other goods. From urban rooftop gardens to rural farms, individuals are creating a direct role in the local production of food. Moreover, do-it-yourself blogs help to constitute the home: make your own clothes and furniture, create your own make-up and toiletries, hack your own home to add in utilities and gadgets, etc. The bloggers are often young mothers, focused on their ability to provide care for their family. These are seedlings of New Economic concerns regarding investing in relationships, but rarely go to the broader neighborhood or community level, whose support is needed in order to provide a high level of care and security.

All of these activities allow for personal control in an uncertain world. They are also hailed as a way to be thrifty in tough economic times, and a way to be independent from others. These efforts satisfy the growing concern towards quality of food, which ranges from distrust over GMOs, big agribusiness, and low levels of regulation around food supply in comparison with other developed nations. It also offers a new way to value oneself, based upon how “pure” one is, measured in terms of limited environmental impact, consuming organics, and general resourcefulness.

When fear becomes a guide

When the response goes towards the fear-end of the spectrum, we wind up with lifestyles like survivalism. This disengagement from society stems from a belief that the government and economy will collapse, disaster will occur, and we will be left to fend for ourselves. TV shows like Doomsday Preppers sensationalize the trend that can be found across the internet, in blogs and online suppliers. The completeness of self-sufficiency, with off-the-grid living and long-term food supplies, romanticizes an American prairie frontier past way of life. The rhetoric hits common themes within the same breath, from the natural state of man, evilness of government handouts, concern over medication and technology dependence, and patriotism. Essentially, the argument comes down to, ‘when the system fails, you will be on your own, and to survive on your own is patriotic.’

New optimism
While the outrage continues at many individual levels, there is a lack of certainty at what the popular action was able to obtain. Core members of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are still persevering, but the mass movement has essentially dissipated.

However, one can find American efforts that are attempting to work together to engage in new community economic models. On a community and business level, “agrihoods,” housing developments centered around a working farm, are cropping up. The U.S. has 150 Transition Towns, which make efforts to foster sustainable communities through community practices geared towards water and energy conservation and fostering sharing economies. Time Banking, where members provide and receive hours of help or service, has a membership of 181 communities, the overwhelming majority of which are in the U.S. Local alternative currencies, designed to keep money within the local economy, appear in many states.

How do we explain New Economy success that exists in the U.S.?
With low levels of government welfare and eroding community engagement, it is understandable that people turn to family units to provide care. The New Economy efforts must work to build these broader social networks within and between communities. Efforts such as time banks claim they build on the understanding that people naturally like to feel valued and to help others. They believe the key to success is a positive vision of the future, and a sense of empowerment to affect that change.

But they have a lot to overcome—even their members can feel guilt in not paying cash for a service. The stigma of welfare is very strong in the U.S., and is high in personal blame. Furthermore, this unease with alternative currency shows a strong devaluation in anything that is not assigned a dollar price. A strong mental shift is needed. Because the rhetoric of self-reliance is such a strong part of American vocabulary, it is important to have positive examples of broader community efforts from around the world to demonstrate the power that communities can possess to take an active role in influencing the shape of their world. Perhaps this can be a new direction for America to take to regain its optimism and confidence.

By Virginia Palm

One response to “The USA and the power of the people

  1. Pingback: Calls for change after the crisis |

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