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Seeds of Destruction

How capitalism sows the seeds of its demise

The Occupy Wall Street meme went viral in September 2011. People all over America assembled to oppose the astonishing Wall Street bailouts, which continued after emergency assistance to Main Street dried up. Street drama was electrifying. Looking back, history will show that Occupy was the beginning of a paradigm — shifting people’s reaction to the third structural crisis of American capitalism (after the depressions of 1893 and the 1930s). Both of these previous crises resulted in fundamental rewrites of the operating code of the American political operating system. The emergence of the Occupy movement marks the beginning of a rewrite of our political operating system.

I was drawn to the transparency and democratic process of Occupy Eugene and to its focus on the issue of corporate money in politics. I started attending general assemblies and soon found my way onto the Occupy Eugene Foreclosure Committee.

Dozens of distressed homeowners with no one else to turn to came to us and reported appalling fraud and predatory lending practices by their banks that had deceived and double-crossed people who’d fallen behind on mortgage payments. We could do little to actually resolve their problems, but we had some small victories, and we learned about what the banks were doing in a way that few others could, witnessing the devastation inflicted on homeowners through greed and often illegal practices. 

People’s lives were falling apart, and the people destroying them were receiving huge financial payouts and apparent immunity before the law. We shouldn’t have been surprised. What we were seeing was just American capitalism with its pants down.

The U.S. has evolved a political operating system that balances civic concerns of the public sphere and the commons against the power of the self-organizing market economy and private property. The basic operating code of the public sphere is outlined in our founding documents: equality, self-government and human rights, including free speech, the right to assembly and the right to trial by jury. These principles are ethically and morally based restrictions on the powers of government, operating codes written into our national operating system.

The prime code of the market, on the other hand, is profit. There is no morality associated with capitalism except that imposed on it by the state. Return on capital investment and private control of the money supply in service to empire are the corporate-sponsored operating codes behind our faltering, belligerent, unjust and environmentally self-destructive political operating system.

Twice previously, structural collapse forced American capitalism to fundamentally rewrite its operating code. We are in the midst of the third collapse.

Capitalism is about converting the commons into commodities, and it is almost infinitely flexible; it can turn almost anything into a commodity — including air and water. Mighty capitalism rules the world, but only in accordance with its internal operating code. If we want to change our operating system, we have to rewrite its code.

The depression of 1893 was resolved by creating the American empire and by giving control of the money supply to private bankers. Recovery from the Great Depression of the 1930s took direct government intervention in the economy through New Deal programs of economic relief, Social Security, the minimum wage and the rights of workers to form labor unions. Economic desperation has compelled us, after much suffering, conflict and debate, to rewrite our political operating code to include America as empire, a private debt-based money system, Social Security and the rights of labor. A similar code rewrite lies ahead. Will it be written secretly by corporations or will the voice of we the people be heard?

Advances in and misuses of computer technology triggered the present crisis. Emboldened by supercomputer-driven, sophisticated financial derivatives, bankers demanded and got deregulation of the financial industry. But capitalism, though immensely powerful, is a stupid beast, which needs protection from itself. With no internal conceptual limitations besides the drive to create profit, capitalism lacks the capacity to sustain the conditions that allow it to operate. Unregulated, it has once again engineered its own collapse and created the conditions that birthed Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Eugene.