Tom Atlee: Drop-Out Economy Meets Twilight of Elites

Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee

“Dropout Economy” meets “Twilight of Elites” in OWS

Dear friends,

A number of commentators have noted the unusual gathering of liberal/green folks and conservative/libertarian folks that constitute the Occupy Wall Street movement. While admitting the movement has a long way to go to actually represent “the 99%” (e.g., From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy the Neighborhoods), its transpartisan membership is part of its appealing legitimacy as a “We the People” movement.

Along these lines, this morning I stumbled on a TIME article (below) from 20 months ago – “The Dropout Economy” by conservative columnist Reihan Salam. In light of OWS, and coming from a prominent conservative, it appears intriguingly prophetic in its appreciative description of emerging youth-led community-based alternative economics and culture.

The trend it describes helps explain and validate not only OWS but (1) the rapid emergence of widely varied local- and web-based economic innovations (which I am currently researching);(2) the community-resilience proposals that flourished during the Y2K community-preparedness movement of 1998-1999 which are lately resurgent in peak oil and climate change preparedness movements such as Transition Towns, and (3) the growing interest in green economics by community leaders and organizers in general. The fact that the localization movement spans a broad political spectrum – at least from our perhaps increasingly obsolete Left/Right perspective – seems to me a very important data point.

It sets my mind to wondering about the potential of the OWS movement: As Occupy sites begin to put down roots and develop their own micro-economies and micro-infrastructure, might they become seeds of a new way of life emerging from within the corrupted old institutions and practices that, in their more conspicuous political mode, they are protesting? And might the transpartisan nature of that development further erode the divide-and-conquer Left/Right polarization that so many of us still enthusiastically participate in?

Salam’s column was part of a March 2010 TIME issue on “10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years: A thinker’s guide to the most important trends of the new decade.” So I was intrigued by another trend-based prediction in the same issue – one that features the anti-elite message of the Occupy movement more than a year before the OWS showed up – “The Twilight of the Elites” by liberal Washington editor for THE NATION, Christopher Hayes.

Hayes writes, “In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society – whether it’s General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media – has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both. And at the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions… In exchange for their power, status and remuneration, they are supposed to make sure everything operates smoothly. But after a cascade of scandals and catastrophes, that implicit social contract lies in ruins, replaced by mass skepticism, contempt and disillusionment. In the wake of the implosion of nearly all sources of American authority, this new decade will have to be about reforming our institutions to reconstitute a more reliable and democratic form of authority.”

Hayes ends his article with this: “If there are heartening countertrends to the past decade of élite failure, they’re the tremendous outpouring of grass-roots activism across the political spectrum and the remarkable surge in institutional innovation, much of it facilitated by the Internet. In less than a decade, Wikipedia has completely overturned the internal logic of the Enlightenment-era encyclopedia by radically democratizing the process of its creation. Farmers’ markets have blossomed as a means of challenging and subverting the industrial food-distribution cartel. Charter schools have grown for the same reason; local school systems are no longer viewed as transparent and democratic. This, one hopes, is just the beginning. All these new institutions are inspired by a desire to democratize old, big oligarchic hierarchies and devolve power downward and outward. That’s our best hope in the decade to come.”

It is intriguing to contemplate the intersection of these two trends – and of certain conservative and liberal perspectives – in light of what is happening in and around Occupy Wall Street / Occupy Everything / Occupy Together. The spirit of our times is sending us a strong invitation to come together, and the Occupy movement may offer one significant way to do that.

Blessings on the Journey.

Coheartedly,
Tom