But to succeed, the movement must broaden its reach and develop a coherent alternative to the centre-right dominance of Europe. At its core, such an alternative must be both equitable and sustainable.
With the coming of 2012 we are entering the fifth year of a crisis which will have a lasting effect on the rich north. These various crises of ecology, economy and social issues do not amount to a small crisis, a mere passing cold, but a rupture that was set in motion by decades of a neo-liberal redistribution of wealth to the upper classes, by individualism based on consumption and policies that undermine solidarity. In the future things will be different – and if we do nothing, others will decide the shape of the new world.
For one thing, there are the hardliners of a Brussels consensus promoting austerity even though this is obviously leading to an economic abyss. Furthermore authoritarian national right wing governments have recently been gaining ground. In spite of different conceptions concerning the importance of the European institutions in this restructuring both share the same view of the future: there will not be enough to go round, there will be no more room in the boat and as a consequence the cost of the crisis will have to be borne by the lazy, the unemployed, the poor – and in the case of the right wing also by dissidents, members of other ethnic groups and those living outside the fortress of Europe. As a result the welfare state and with it a middle-class society will be killed off. Both take no account of the fact that right into the 1970s Portugal, Spain and Greece were dictatorships – and that social divisions provide the most fertile breeding ground for authoritarianism.
One should be critical of this model of exclusion from ethical points of view as it denies a growing number of Europeans the human right to equal participation in social life. Paradoxically not even the goals they set themselves will be reached in this way. For example over the past two decades private and public debt has steadily risen. Europe has lagged behind the rest of the world in economic growth and the importance of the continent in the world has diminished. And we are not even talking about the social and ecological cost of this policy of privatisation, liberalisation and enrichment.
Social Upheaval That Reaches Right into the Heart of Society
This situation gave rise to the Occupy movement starting with Wall Street while at the same time the occupation of public places became a form of resistance in different parts of the Mediterranean states – from Athens to Israel and Spain. Of particular significance was the symbolism of the occupation of the park in New York as here for the first time a new solution was proclaimed: We are the 99 per cent, in other words nearly everybody. We, the vast majority, are paying the price for a robbery unparalleled in the history of mankind by a minority of the wealthy who are profiting from the regulation of the financial markets just as they did from the bank bailouts after 2008. The middle and lower classes on the other hand are bearing the brunt through stagnating wages, higher purchase and income taxes and reduced public services.
Anyone seeing the pictures of the often elegantly dressed demonstrators in New York or the well-turned out middle class children in Israel and Madrid will have realised that the social upheavals have reached right into the heart of society. The old idea of a homogenous majority which through a sense of moral responsibility has to care for those on the fringes of society facing the highest risk of poverty fails to recognise just how serious the situation is. Paternalism for those at the bottom of society was not the motto of the Occupy movement; on the contrary the new “We” is based on a concept of solidarity, not simply altruistic concern for others but striving for a world that is good for others as well as for me, in other words a world in which everyone can enjoy a good life.
This is the great contribution of the Occupy movement. But at the same time the limitations of this movement soon became apparent and these are always the limitations of creative, spontaneous political movement – a flash in the pan which fizzles out in the absence of any organisation. Thus at the end of last year more or less repressive evictions were carried out and order restored at least from a physical point of view.
Spontaneous initiatives on the streets and in the squares are a source of inspiration but at the same time there is a need for broad alliances and a pluralistic movement comprising public institutions, trade unions, political parties, NGOs and many dedicated individuals who join in initiating a search movement as to how the model of exclusion can be disempowered and the foundations of a cohesive, democratic and sustainable society strengthened. This search movement must be open, include everyone and foster dialogue. The aim should be to improve a common understanding of justice and human rights in which there is no place for right wing, anti-Semitic anti-capitalism. A criticism of capitalism must always be at least on a par with Karl Marx, who was always aware of the merits of capitalism as a means of creating wealth and encouraging individual freedom. As early as 150 years ago, Marx pin-pointed the failure of capitalism in its inability to allow everyone to benefit from the achievements of modern technologies.
Today we are aware that in addition to inequality which has systematically increased due to neo-liberal policies, individual consumer culture and the resulting ecological limitations that are becoming ever more acute are the problem areas of capitalism. We therefore need a common vision of how a good life is possible for everyone beyond consumerism and the increasing concentration of power in politics and business.
Not Just a Fair Society, but a Sustainable One
At the same time it is necessary to devise a strategy as to how power relations and structures can be modified so that the interests of the 99 per cent are safeguarded. An example of this would be initiatives for fairer taxation. It would also be necessary to clarify quite practical questions: What part does a discerning civil society play in dealing with the radicalisation of neo-liberal politics in Europe? What roles do elections and direct democracy play in the shifting of power relations?
If spontaneous occupations are not to remain a flash in the pan we need an alternative model to the exclusion strategy of the right, one of a good life for everyone; a model that is based equally on the ethical conviction of equality for all people as well as the essential desire to make use of the creativity and innovation of all in order for poverty, climate wars and violence to become a thing of the past. However, to enable everyone to enjoy a good life we need limits on those few whose wealth and power must be reduced to acceptable levels that are compatible within the social context. Herein lies the political and strategic contribution of the Occupy movement. It is a question of a new kind of quality of life without any exclusion, a creative search movement for prudent economic activity and a society of mutual concern for others – for everyone, with socially guaranteed safety nets and politically negotiated upper limits on the use of resources.
This article first appeared in the 03/2012 issue of the “Nachrichten und Stellungnahme der Kath. Sozialakademie Österreichs” (News and Opinions of the Catholic Social Academy of Austria”.