RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Occupy Close to Home

With winter on the way, and the Occupiers willingly or unwillingly pulling up stakes, it is tempting to dismiss them as insignificant: A blip on the radar, a small rebellion in the face of the relentless march of progress (meaning industrial takeover), a footnote in history.

But dismissing them would be wrong.

Even though their actions haven’t resulted in change, or even in a cogent statement of policy, they have learned what it will take. They’ll be meeting, reading, talking, tweeting, keeping track of each other through the long winter, and they’ll be occupying democracy the rest of their lives. And that’s what democracy looks like—informed occupiers keeping an eye on the people in charge. We can take almost any subject from the last century — atomic energy, religion, food, women’s rights, banking — study it for a bit and come away knowing that the people in charge have been the people that want to be in charge. Other than leadership from the most voracious, there’s no plan. This is shocking because it seems like there’s a plan, a model or formula we can depend on.

The pundits are always predicting that if you tweak this, you’ll get that. But those answers that come so glibly are just words. Phrases like, “too big to fail,” and “giving the consumer what she wants” — those are not laws. Rather, we can call them pretend laws. Nobody knows what “too big to fail” is and nobody knows what the consumer wants even if someone is darn good at convincing her she wants pink cameras.

But these pretend laws can change. We can change them. They’re not laws of physics. Which, by the way, is under scrutiny.

We can change, for example, the law of food from big corporations simply by buying food from our local farms and bakers. We can change — and many are changing — the law of big banks, where 5% of the banks hold 90% of America’s assets, simply by moving their accounts to credit unions.

One hundred years ago, women couldn’t vote in presidential elections. It took decades of commitment, trips to state capitols, marches, collections of signatures on petitions, to change the laws, but our great great grandmas finally got it done.

But now, you might argue, we’re stuck. We’ve forgotten how to change things, and the decks are stacked. We vote for the least evil rather than the greatest good. Everything from birth to death to war to love is in the hands of corporate sponsors and there are laws against taking it back. Even our retirement accounts are tied up with the health of the big corporations in those 401Ks and IRA accounts.

My banker, a smart fellow for sure, says that we can pull the economy back on track if we spend money. The problems with that are that (1) we don’t have money and (2) all the stuff we might buy is made in some place other than here, by hands other than our neighbors’. Everyone agrees that we need US jobs, but when we buy those pretty plates from China, the money goes to China rather than staying here. Still, the banker says, America’ economy is “consumer-driven,” and he says it without the merest sense of irony. Sure, he makes a little bit when we use our bank cards and he makes more when we take out a second mortgage.

So here comes Buy-Nothing Day, which is the day after Thanksgiving. For just one day a year we can disconnect. We can eat leftovers, wear old clothes, enjoy old jokes and use the stuff that’s lying around instead of getting new stuff. At my house, we play music and pull out the board games. Sometimes there’s a gathering in our book room, everyone silently reading. I’ll make a sign, “Occupy a book.”

Besides Buy-Nothing Day, there are things we can do to keep our dollars in the community, of course. Winter is here, it’s dark by 4:00, and we stave off the cold and dark by giving treats to those we love.

So, support a favorite non-profit or alternative media in the name of your dear one. Donate to a community radio station or give a subscription to The Progressive Populist. And, within a mile of your home, there are at least five entrepreneurs trying to start businesses. We can order our holiday cookies from the neighbor that uses local flour and honey. That will benefit the neighbor, the miller and the beekeeper. And we can buy our festive tablecloths from the quilter, jewelry from the artist, bowls from the potter. And the food for our table? God bless the farmer, and we know him by name.

So, maybe my banker has a point. We need to spend. And, when you buy from neighbors, you give three gifts: Money to the maker. A beautiful thing for your darling. And strength to your community.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2011

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