Rethinking Activism in Times of Turmoil

Talk at Appalachian Peace & Justice Network Annual Meeting; June 9, 2009; Athens, Ohio

There’s a part of the human species that craves predictability. Order. Routine.

While we behave not quite as rigidly as some of our fellow animal earthlings that are genetically coded to perform certain actions in specific places at particular times of the year, homo sapiens nevertheless love their life patterns — at work, in school, with families and friends, engaged in their communities.

We activists too have our own comfort zones. Issues or concerns we’ve become accustomed to working on based on what we know, who else is involved (both friend and foe), and how we’ve acted to bring about the changes we seek.

Many have their issue niches…or silos. Stopping this war or that weapon system. Creating universal health care or affordable housing. Protecting a particular river or animal species. Boycotting a certain food product or article of clothing. Advancing the rights of a certain group of people.

We’ve become near experts both in the breadth and depth of whatever issue we take on. We know the history of the problem, significant leaders in our field both locally and globally both past and present, current legislation related to the issue, grassroots campaigns and initiatives, alternatives (both micro and macro), what forces exist in opposition, and the latest articles, books, websites and blogs connected to the issue.

Many have been at it for years if not decades — some on the very same issue. Others have switched issues based on changed interests, evolution of understanding, or other factors – substituting one issue for another and becoming near experts again by drilling down in the theoretical, technical, political, social, philosophical and/or spiritual dimension.

Some of the work is very impressive – especially considering the circumstances and context. There have been real accomplishments which have been all the more impressive given our few resources, little credibility in mainstream society, virtually no access to people in power, no formal schooling in the issue or problem we address. and competing demands on our time as few activists are financially compensated for their deeds. In fact, the victories are often astonishing given these and other impediments.

I have personally been fortunate as an activist. This is my job, my career over the past 26 years. I began by focusing on nuclear weapons. Then nuclear freeze. Military spending. Economic conversion. Macro social and economic alternatives. Housing and local economic development. Leadership development. Campaign finance reform. Corporate abuses. NAFTA/WTO/bilateral trade agreements. Wars and occupation in any number of countries (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Bosnia, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Grenada, Columbia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan)…not to mention the Cold War with Russia and China. Toxics (IEL), Privatization. Bank bailout.

What I’ve come to realize from my own activist evolution is that the solution to our issues or problems, as diverse as they may be, is basically the same – expanding the authentic right to decide. We as people, as citizens, simply do not possess real authority to influence the decisions that ultimately affect our lives, families, communities, or the natural world. What used to be democratic spaces, places and arena are now privatized/corporatized. The commons are being enclosed.

We the people are not at the table when health care policies are decided or reformed. We’re not involved in energy policies, in agricultural policies, in trade agreements, in foreign policy decisions, in federal budget priority considerations, in financial regulatory decisions.

Noted Australian academic and activist Alex Carey explained the 3 most important 20th century developments: “The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.’

Giant business corporations are the deciders – not you or me. The very few who run them make governing decisions. They influence public opinion through the press. They determine what candidates are electable through campaign contributions/investments. They influence public officials and judges. They buy, rent, lease, retain elected officials. They write laws. They influence the regulatory process. And of course they have literal domination over jobs and economy under the guise of “The Market” and sacred “Invisible Hand.” They consolidate wealth and power so their directors and managers can dictate their values upon communities, the nation, the earth.

Corporate directors and managers have long defined how people live, what people do. As Richard Grossman says, “Sometimes, they take their paychecks from their corporations, sometimes, from our governments. For generations, they’ve been writing our laws, propagandizing our children, dictating policy, plundering the planet. To gain such power, they long ago got Congress, federal judges and state legislatures to wrap their corporate bodies in the Constitution of the United States. To bestow upon their corporate “fictions” the authority to govern.”

Armed with “freedom of speech,” “due process,” “equal protection of the law,” the “commerce clause,” “the contracts clause,” and other constitutional powers, corporate directors and managers have been wielding the law to deny people’s most fundamental human rights.

This power and authority is a usurpation of citizen self-governance. It’s a violation of We the People who fought a war for independence.

No subset of business corporations may be more powerful than financial corporations – those who create and control the flow of the vast amount of money in our nation.

Amshel Rothschild, patriarch of the family, once said “Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes its laws.”

The truth is that financial corporations, namely the banks, control the creation of 95% of our nation’s money.

Their ability to create money out of thin air and charge and receive interest has caused the indebtedness of people, nation states and even other business corporation that produce real goods and services. (The same process occurs by the IMF/World Bank and their loans to Third World countries who demand as conditions “structural adjustments” which impoverish people and privatize/corporatize public assets. The global economic crisis has provided the pretext to confuse, coerce, consolidate, and concentrate. It has forced many individuals and groups to focus on simply survival.

Banking corporations seeks to maximize profits – not necessarily to invest in anything of real value. Their wild and bizarre speculative ventures are largely responsible for the global financial crisis.

Financial corporations who received federal TARP funds invested $114 million in contributions and lobbying along in 2008 alone. These same recipients received $275 billion in TARP funds. That’s a 258,449% return on their investment.

Now Preseident Obama’s “Car Czar” wants to grab pension funds of GM and use them to pay off JP Morgan and Citibank. That’s illegal.

But the global economic crisis also provides enormous opportunities. It focuses attention on the inherent unsustainability of our economic system – and the undemocratic nature of our societal institutions. It provides a moment to raise questions and are most of the time never acknowledged, let alone discussed, never mind challenged.

What are the solutions : democratizationa and municipalization

1. Short term legislation / judicial
– No more public funds to banks. Financial institutions have already received $8.5 trillion. The Obama administration requested another $250 billion as a “placeholder” in next year’s federal budget.
– Enforce the Prompt Corrective Action Law which would nationalize banks
– Revoke corporate charters and certificates of authority

2. Local alternatives
– Credit unions
– Worker owned banks
– Local currencies

3. Long term social change
– Enact the American Monetary Act which would allow only the government to print money – not financial corporations.
– Overturn Santa Clara v Southern Pacific Supreme Court decision –permitting corporations to be legally defined as “persons”
– Overturn Buckley v Valeo Supreme Court decision — equating money with free speech

Unless we acquire the right to decide and profoundly democratize society in general (beginning with money) all the issues we care will simply never be realized. We will never possess the power.

Democratization is a unifying issue. It can connect issues and constituencies. It can break us free from the silos that activists often find themselves within.

Thoreau said, “There are a 1000 hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

Let us strike at the root rather than simply hack at the branches of the lack of democracy.

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