Occupy Wall Street protests across the world have revived interest in sifting “good capitalism” from “bad capitalism”. Ever since the financial meltdown of 2008, proponents of market capitalism have been trying to find ways to re-legitimise their creed. Now they fear that a wave of global discontent might overwhelm the only economic system that really works.
Even those who concede that Wall Street’s operations need to be reformed tend to consider any challenge to “the market” as blasphemous. Besides, they add, it’s easy enough to grumble about the failings of markets but where’s the alternative?
This view is both ill-informed and desperately lacking in imagination.
Notice that the protesters’ rallying call is “occupy” not “demolish”. Their claim to represent the 99% is not merely about severe disparity of incomes and assets. It’s a metaphor for society struggling to reclaim both markets and governance.
That’s why the mere idea of occupying Wall Street evokes a visceral response in a wide range of people in far-flung corners of the world. Instinctively they know that markets are much older than capitalism. From weekly moving bazaars in remote tribal hamlets, to the road-side vendor in a metropolis and on to the glass and chrome environs of department stores – we all relish the joys of open exchange.
Since the beginning of civilisation bazaars have manifested our need to gather. They have been locations for conversations, not just about the freedom of exchange, but also the freedom to define purpose and evolve values that give meaning to life.
Above all, the proliferation of “occupy” gatherings across the US and across the world is a reminder about the role of civilisation-forming gathering places – from the chaupal in India; to the agora in ancient Greece; and even Wall Street of the 1780s where George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the USA.
A passionate street protest is not, in itself, obliged to offer detailed alternatives or even crisply coherent demands. But it may yet become a portal for more people to look closely at the many diverse ways in which people across the world are seeking to foster a market culture that is more socially and ethically embedded.
Those who want to tap into the tumultuous foment within the discipline of economics can find the more radical end at the website of Real-World Economics. This network, which originally called itself Post-Autistic Economics, is dedicated to “sanity, humanity, science” and challenges much of orthodox economics that has propped up the destructive elements of Wall Street culture.
Substantially closer to the mainstream is the George Soros-funded Institute for New Economic Thinking, which has created a platform for economists who have been left out in the cold because they challenge the free-market orthodoxy.
The New Economics Foundation in London has done substantial on-the-ground work on the mechanics and principles of economics and markets as if people mattered.
A wide variety of social activists and renegades from mainstream finance are deploying technology to create community-based currencies and explore if, and how, money could really serve life instead of becoming our master.
The Open Source and Free Software movement has overturned the most basic tenet of market capitalism – that win–lose competition combined with the lust for money profits is the only reliable mover of innovation and dynamic markets.
Yes, there is no single-thread narrative that leads us to a coherent alternative to Wall Street’s version of “the market”. That’s because what is needed in the 21st century is not a manifesto but a dispersed articulation of civilisational values. This requires patience with the pace at which social processes unfold. And, above all, an imagination that can visualise a market culture beyond greed and fear.
Rajni Bakshi is the author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: for a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear, soon to be published by Greenleaf Publishing.
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