Mental Breakdown of a Nation

Three waves of revolt

Where do we aim our fists to strike a death blow to capitalism's body?
ALBERT IAN / RP

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Where do we aim our fists to strike a death blow to capitalism's body?

Muscles and Heart

The traditional Marxist answer, embraced by insurrectionaries from Bakunin to Occupy, is to hit the processes of production by going on strike. The total worker’s strike is the dream, once hauntingly imagined by socialist novelist Jack London, of the scales overturned: the rich starving in their mansions while the workers sit idle. The strike strikes at the heart and muscles of capitalism by threatening the system with the paralyzing withdrawal of our collective labor. But the transformations wrought by post-industrial capitalism, combined with decades of organizing for a grand defection that never materializes, have tattered the strike’s proud flag. The last generation to pull it off was the heroes of 1968, who instigated the first-ever wildcat general strike before flaring out.

Brains and Mind

A newer answer urges us to end economic bondage by abolishing debt. Debt, this argument goes, is modern day slavery. Unrepayable debts shackle most of us to the manic-depressive cycles of capitalism, while a decreasing number of men grow increasingly rich. Accordingly, two post-Occupy tactics make debt the bullseye. First is the debt-strike tactic, like the student loan debtors who collectively refuse to repay their loans. Second is the movement to strike debt, like the recently launched Rolling Jubilee. This project, conceived by Adbusters in 2009 and pulled off by a maverick affinity group of Zuccottis in 2012, buys distressed debt for pennies on the dollar – and then forgives it. Like the traditional strike, both angles of debt resistance target the system of production, now epitomized by Goldman Sachs rather than Ford. But such tactics also, as Friedrich Nietzsche and more recently David Graeber have argued, undermine the powerful social and moral bonds that enmesh us in the system. Anti-debt activism thus strikes simultaneously at the material and the ideological: at capitalism’s brains as well as its mind.

Lifeblood and Soul

Between old and new, a startling third answer emerges from Silvio Gesell, a rediscovered anarchist economist from the early 20th century. Gesell urges us to aim the death blow at money – at its immaterial, immortal status. In all financial systems since ancient times, money has been granted the magical and exclusive right never to grow old. And when money is deified in this way, it will always result in economic depression. The rich hoard while the poor starve … money grows scarce, people spend less, workers can’t find jobs because possessing immortal money in a bank is always and in every way preferable to possessing material goods in a warehouse. So why not secularize money? Cast it out of heaven, return it to the mortal realm!

At the peak of the first Great Depression, a hard-hit small town in Austria did just that. Modeled on Gesell’s proposal, each bill of Wörgl’s currency lost 1% of its value every month. Now that there was a powerful incentive to spend locally and quickly, the town experienced an economic miracle: within months Wörgl was thriving, unemployment was nonexistent, and major development projects were paid for and completed. When over 200 communities moved to introduce their own Wörgl-style currencies, Austria’s central bank declared the Gesellian currencies illegal and a threat to the authority of the State. Deprived of its magic money, Wörgl fell back into economic depression and unemployment.

Today, more than seventy years after Wörgl’s experiment, Gesell’s idea for a demurrage currency – a money that loses value with time – is coming back into vogue. Influential economist Bernard Lietaer, author of The Future of Money: Beyond Greed and Scarcity, proposes a global demurrage currency called the “terra”. On the web, internet renegades are developing the Gesell-inspired Freicoin, a digital money based on Bitcoin. And in Bavaria, Germany, financial insurrectionaries have launched the chiemgauer, a bill that loses 2% of its value each quarter and has been hailed as the most successful local currency in the world. These bold new initiatives target the circulatory system of capitalism, draining its lifeblood and its very immortal soul.

So shall we strike the muscles, the mind, or the lifeblood of capitalism … or all three at once? Rekindling the wildcat strike, abolishing debt, and dethroning money, the last god of Western civilization – these could be the triple waves of a tsunami that flattens capitalism for good.

- Micah White and Chiara Ricciardone

Comments on the article “Three waves of revolt”

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Barry D

The Transition Town Movement has been introducing its own currency. Totnes in south-west England where it all began, has introduced the Totnes pound: http://www.transitiontowntotnes.org/groups/reconomybusinessnetwork/totnes-pound/

Anonymous

Boycotts are ineffective when occur in small proportions. And campaigns like "Buy Nothing Day" don't serve to combat the industry, but made just for people who can see the futility of consumism: almost no one, unfortunately.

Anonymous

Create inflation to curb saving and increase spending, and borrow lots of money that you won't repay? Undermining social and moral bonds? I'm sorry, but to me this sounds like mainstream pre-2008 disaster capitalism. The Nietzsche reference just makes it even more right-wing.

Anonymous

The "local currency" isn't a way to fight against capitalism. Any kind of money will do just the opposite: will maintain it.

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