First of all, so that we’re all on the same page, read this. Henry Blodget, CEO of Business Insider, published these charts, which give a very clear picture of why people are so angry about the economy. To summarize: corporate profits are at an all-time high, while wages (adjusted for inflation) are still lower than the early 1970s. In fact, the percentage of the GDP spent on wages is at an all-time low after decades of declines. Employment still hasn’t recovered since the crash of 2008, the number of people giving up on job searches is growing, as is the average length of unemployment. By standard measures of inequality, America scores lower than China and India. All of these figures have been common enough, but it’s really nice to see them all in one place. It’s also a lot better than what Blodget first had to say about the protesters.

I chose this link among the millions talking about these protests because it gives us glimpse inside the machine. We all know about the symptoms of the problem – poverty, unemployment, etc – but that offers no prescriptions. The dire plight of those in poverty has been used to justify every economic policy from Reaganomics to Leninism. We don’t just need to talk about how bad it is – we need to ask ourselves what’s happening that’s driving all of these numbers with such consistency. There’s lots of villains here – “corporate greed”, banks, the Federal Reserve, the government etc. Easy as those answers might be – they do very little to actually explain what the problem is.

So what is?

Our entire economic system. Call it capitalism if you like, or corporatism if that suits you better. Some like “neo-liberalism”. Plutocracy also works, and the term technocracy is becoming more applicable by the day. Whichever name you use, it’s clear that beyond the divisions in individual fortunes, competing corporations or even nation-states, lies a system which is far too consistent and inter-related to be a coincidence. Globalization has brought together all the worlds major powers for the purpose of un-ending profit, and despite all the petty feuds, it still manages to function like one massive machine.

Looking at the issue this way is important. It explains our colossal power structures without conspiracy theories about secret cabals of bankers ruling the world for centuries. What makes control by a secret society of bankers really all that much different from ordinary, run-of-the mill capitalism? Looking for someone to blame will only find us the most local and recent examples – it doesn’t really matter who’s in these positions of power. If they want to keep their job, they have to play along – that’s the genius of this system. It isn’t a question of “who”, it’s a question of “what”.

This system is not static. It has been growing and evolving for at least two centuries. The simple growth in scale and scope is clear enough – 3% yearly growth means doubling in size every 24 years – and very clearly matches what we’ve seen over those years. Equally important, though, is the growth in complexity. The explosive growth of bureaucracy in both the public and private spheres now demands an enormous flow of cash, resources and capital to support, leaving little for wages or production itself.

Why does bureaucracy grow in this way? Because powerful groups and institutions are always competing for dominance. Growth is a survival strategy, to avoid being taken over or pushed aside. Over time, a few do become dominant and grow much larger than the rest. As they grow, they must become more complex to maintain and reproduce central control over a wider area and population. That complexity takes the form of rigid and bureaucratic institutions designed to supervise us and act as intermediaries between ourselves and the system (in ways which, of course, suit the system).

More power, wealth and prestige clearly benefit the people in charge of these institutions, as well as the institutions themselves, but the benefits to us are dubious at best. Having larger and more distant institutions ruling us certainly doesn’t grant us any greater representation. It also isn’t any cheaper, at least for clients, as the efficiencies they create (like buying in bulk) are all too often spent on themselves.

While advertising, management and banking cost money and create jobs, they don’t actually add value to products. A carrot is still a carrot, regardless of how many billboards advertise it or how many managers watched it grow. The carrot in question will surely be expensive and may even be profitable, but it’s no use to starving millions. Many of our largest corporations no longer even manufacture their own goods – choosing to focus entirely on investments and “brand image”. This growing overhead cost puts pressure on all other prices associated with production – there’s less money to spend on wages or raw materials, and a strong drive to raise prices. From appliances to homes, we’ve witnessed some pretty impressive raises in prices over the last few decades, though clearly not in the costs of production.

At first, the growing distance between wages and prices seemed to be a boon. It boosted profit margins and forced families to work more to get by. Eventually it began forcing individuals and even nations deeply into debt, which made even more money since they could lend their profits back to us, at interest to buy more goods. Sooner or later, though, these debts catch up with us and we hit a wall as there’s just no more blood to squeeze from the stone and people can no longer afford to buy or borrow. This kind of rampant, disproportional and parasitic growth is never really sustainable, as any tumour can tell you.

Our economy has literally exploded since the 1970s, but since about that time, the amount given to wages froze, and even began to decline. The global economy opened up, we had a few digital revolutions, and stock market growth which blew away everything which came before it. This enormous influx of profits was spent finding ways to grow even larger fortunes, generally at the expense of workers and customers. The idea that wealth can grow without “trickling down” isn’t an anti-establishment fantasy – it’s been the dominant trend in nearly all economic data in many of our lifetimes.

Many people would suggest more government regulation to solve this problem. Given the sorry state of the European and Chinese economies at the moment, it seems fairly obvious that no form of state-based socialism – democratic or autocratic – is faring any better. The endless, ideologically driven debates about public versus private spending have sheltered the obvious answer – that these kinds of bureaucracies are just as ineffective, inefficient and petty whether they’re owned by billionaires or run by the government. The endless battle between the two has taken a horrendous toll on the rest of us, as each new set of regulations spawned whole new bureaucracies on each side, all eventually paid for by us.

This system needs to be looked at as a whole. Trying to isolate different sectors will only get us caught up in its circular and self-serving logic. Villainizing the bankers valorizes the government, and vice versa. Either approach takes half of the status quo for granted. Taking a more distant view, things come much more clearly into focus: the state and capitalists are intimately related, one issue Karl Marx and Adam Smith could totally agree on. The government exists to enforce property relations for private businesses, who exist to create enough commerce to fund the state. To both groups, the rest of us exist largely as a resource to be exploited, and a populace to be ruled.

Gathering in the streets and occupying parks isn’t a solution to this problem, but it’s a crucial step. It isn’t the signs we carry that are important, the statements we make to the press or the “demands” everyone’s so concerned about that matter – it’s the directly democratic process by which it’s all organized. That crucial aspect of these protests has been largely ignored, but is by far the most important. The ability of people who’ve never met before to assemble and self-organize into networks of occupations and protests spanning the globe is the true revolution here, and these encampments are only the first step.

Another world is undeniably possible. But before we can go about building it, we need to avoid that first crucial mistake of the current order. We can’t assume that any one person, group or platform is worth more than the input of the people involved. I’m not the 99% and neither are you – we all are. If we’re going to claim to speak on behalf of just about everybody, then we better make damned sure we’re actually offering them a chance at the mic, and not just grandstanding. A directly democratic world cannot be imposed by despots.

What might a directly democratic society and economy look like? Neighbourhood assemblies and their committees could take over many of the duties of local governments. Business and production could be run along co-operative and federated lines, for which there’s already many models, ranging from very small to very large businesses. The ghastly and grossly inefficient retail empires could fairly easily be replaced by consumer federations, collectively organizing bulk purchases directly from suppliers. These are a few vague options, but one aspect unites them. Their self-organizing nature eliminates the need for costly administrations and bureaucracies, and with them these motivations for exploitation and endless growth. While shouldering the burden of organization and capital on ourselves won’t be easy, especially at first, it isn’t as if we aren’t already paying for them with our working lives.

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