Last week I came across an announcement on Facebook that said, “Introducing: The Occupy Money Cooperative. #LetsCooperate.” At first, I’ll admit, I thought it was a poorly executed joke. Perhaps I’m projecting a little bit, since I’m one of those terrible people that still think occupy jokes puns are funny. (“Occupy toilets!”) Still thinking the link was from Occupy Lulz I clicked on it (maybe it would be funny…?) and was brought to a page that could have been mistaken for the Chase website. The cool blues and abstract shapes scream “financial institution” and the video still looks like it might come from a credit card company. All the distinguishing aesthetic features of finance are there. But this is definitely an Occupy venture, and a serious one at that. Why would a radical leftist movement try to make a bank?
“Bank” is technically (read: legally) not the right word. According to their FAQ page,
The Occupy Money Cooperative, Inc. is a cooperative that will offer access to low cost financial services. We will not take deposits or offer loans, or other such services offered by banks. The Occupy Card will be offered through a bank, and so will be FDIC insured.
OMC is a way to hold money without holding cash. It gives you access to all those things that require a debit card, (buying a cell phone, paying your energy bill, getting your paycheck direct-deposited) but without the exploitative business practices that fuel the cycle of poverty. Its a great idea, maybe one of the best ideas self-identifying Occupiers have had, but it certainly isn’t a brand new one.
Any movement, even if it seeks to radically alter that status quo, must decide how it is going to relate to the existing power structure. You might aim to reform “the system” through existing channels (lawsuits, petitions, etc) or you might opt for more unconventional, extra-legal forms of political self-expression. Occupy (for the most part) opted for the latter, issuing no formal demands and explicitly rejecting American political institutions as fundamentally corrupt or otherwise fatally flawed. This tactic is, by no means, unique to Occupy. As David Graeber writes in his latest book The Democracy Project:
“For most of human history, rejection has been more likely to take the form of flight, defection, and the creation of new communities than of revolutionary confrontation with the powers-that be. Of course, all this is much easier when there are distant hills to run away to and states that had difficulty extending their control over wide stretches of terrain.” (P. 189)
Global financial institutions are a difficult thing to defect from. They are as close to ubiquitous as any human-made organization can be. Despite the neoliberal rhetoric that claims capitalism is about deregulation and the clearing away of government, transnational trade requires a complex scaffold of planetary bureaucracies to function properly. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank exist to make the Earth compatible with high finance. Without these organizations there would be no mechanism that releases $5 billion when you move aluminum from one warehouse to another. From buying food to the War on Terror, global finance regimes are virtually inescapable.
Enter, The Occupy Money Cooperative. Pre-paid debit cards (or any banking, really) are probably the last thing most people would associate with anarchism, and yet the Occupy Money Cooperative is utilizing one of the best time-tested anarchist strategies: divestment. By offering a better alternative to traditional banking, Occupy makes it possible –maybe even desirable– to opt out of corporate banking while suffering minimal damage to one’s own ability to survive. It isn’t a total separation –one could even argue that defection from such an immense sociotechnical system is impossible– but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
For all the talk of “unplugging” and “digital detoxes”, there’s little mention of those sociotechnical systems that follow you against your will. Credit card company servers, healthcare bill collectors, and your landlord’s phone calls will keep coming no matter how much you need a break. As your social status moves to the margins, these sorts of non consensual digital augmentations get more frequent and more intimate. If you think putting up with Instagramed lunches in your news feed is obnoxious, imagine what its like when your food bill is the subject of national debate. Ever been arrested? Ever file for bankruptcy? These digital profiles can’t be deactivated. Debt collectors aren’t going to respect your “digital detox.”
The Occupy Money Cooperative lets individuals test the viability of a radically new society. Its like living your politics in reverse: It lets you try a new economic relation just to see how it feels. Does mutual cooperation and horizontal governance seem like a viable alternative to the abuses of corporate banking? Yes? Maybe you want to seek out and try this in other aspects of your life. Maybe even start something yourself. Start a tool library in your neighborhood. Or a community garden. Organizational forms that once seemed alien or impractical seem that much more realistic.
Scientists have to do something similar every time they propose a new theory or practice. Bruno Latour, in describing Pasteur’s anthrax experiments, said that scientists build theaters of proof to convince their peers of experimental conclusions. You have to provide a convincing scenario wherein the only explanation is your own: Whether you’re trying to prove that fungi come from spores or that mutual aid can replace the profit motive, the best arguments are ones that yield tangible results. They are self-evidently better answers because they do useful work. You make the case for anarchism by demonstrating how it solves a problem in your life better than capitalism ever could.
Science and anarchism have a strained relationship. Marxism and anarchism, in their early (or classical) stages sought to explain the social in the same way physics explained the material. Peter Kropotkin defined anarchism as “a world-concept based upon a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of nature–that is, including in it the life of human societies and their economic, political, and moral problems.” Post-anarchism, while not something that people may self-identify as or even know the definition of, characterizes much of today’s anarchist-inspired movements. Post-anarchy rejects the scientistic notions of classical anarchism in favor of the post-modern (that’s where the prefix comes from) critique that what we might have called objective and knowable is really just one culturally-situated interpretation.
The Occupy Money Cooperative represents post-anarchism in that it does not present itself as the people’s banking opportunity. It is a working demonstration of a solution to a particular problem, and presented in the “language” of its (for lack of a better word) competitors. The site uses the word “revolution” but not any more than an iPhone app might call itself revolutionary. It bills itself as a “financial service” not the only true and good way for liberated humans to exchange capital. Its a little more approachable, a little more recognizable as a potential part of your life. Anarchists have, for many years, described their work as “building a new society in the shell of the old.” A way to take the hollowed out, meaningless or alienating aspects of the world, and offering something alive, new, and welcoming. In a high finance-compatible world OMC offers a small shell (shell script?) wherein a slightly different society can grow. Its a small step. Its still fiat currency being exchanged for property rents and poisoned food but that’s what a post-anarchist critique looks like. Any single action is never the complete answer to a problem because no one has all the answers. To presume otherwise is to ignore situated and tacit knowledge, the sorts of esoteric and arcane thats-just-the-way-its-always-been-dones that fill our daily lives. The best projects though, and I think OMC does this well, let us see the cracks in the pavement: they clear the mental cobwebs and free up our imaginations to see more egalitarian and meaningful ways of organizing society.
UPDATE: After posting a story I usually set up a few Twitter searches to keep track of where the story goes and who’s reading it. Having done that I came across a lot of people tweeting this article by Suzahn Ebrahimian that came out last Sunday. While I stand by some of my analysis –mainly that it is a small step in a better direction that gets people thinking about other forms of organization– I agree with Ebrahimian when she says:
If any one can join in (and people will join, as OWS has an excellent upper hand in branding), then people will take their money out of their local credit unions and put it into the national Occupy Cooperative. I’m not one to stand behind the efforts of credit unions or any bank sponsored community development, but I am a bit confused as to how any communities can be helped locally by consolidating individual resources into a national, centralized blob.
I also should have done due diligence with some of the downright obvious details that should give one pause. For example, the card uses the Visa platform, which seems to sort of negate much of my “defection” points. Also, having looked back over the Board (which the web site says will “eventually” be replaced by voted-in members) there are former employees of Deuche Bank, Blackberry, and the Federal Reserve.
I apologize for not doing my due diligence in many aspects of my analysis, but am still interested in what sorts of new organizational configurations OMC inspires. Whether that be in league with, or in opposition to, the organization.
The Occupy Money Cooperative says that anyone that goes to the OMC through this link will be “credited” to me in the form of “Social Capital” but I’m still not totally clear who benefits from that system.