The 99%

The Occupy movement reminds us all how Indigenous cultures have practised democracy throughout history, writes Vandana Shiva.

On 15 May 2011, young people occupied the squares of the cities in Spain. They called themselves los indignados – ‘the indignant’. I met them in Madrid, where I was attending the meeting of the scientific committee that advises the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Their declaration states: “Who are we? We are the people; we have come here freely as volunteers. Why are we here? We are here because we want a new society that gives more priority to life than to economic interest.”

In the US, the ongoing Occupy movement uses the slogan “We are the 99%”. This people’s protest, inspired by the Arab Spring, is directed against unequal distribution of wealth; the 99% here refers to “the difference in wealth between the top 1% and all the remaining citizens of the United States”.

The fact that they were supported by action around the world when they were due to be evicted from Wall Street last October demonstrates that people everywhere are fed up with the current system. They are fed up with the power of corporations. They are fed up with the destruction of democracy and people’s rights.

They refuse to give their consent to the practice of bailing out the banks by squeezing people of their lives and livelihoods. The contest, as “the 99%” describe it, is between life and economic interests, between people and corporations, between democracy and economic dictatorship. The organising style of the people’s movements worldwide is based on the deepest and the most direct democracy. This is self-organisation. This is how life and democracy should and can work. This is what Mahatma Gandhi called swaraj.

Used to hierarchy and domination, those from the established system do not understand the horizontal organising and call these movements ‘leaderless’. But Gandhi once said: “Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance, but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.

Therefore, the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle, but will give strength to all within and will derive its own strength from it.”

The general assemblies in cities around the world are living examples of these “ever expanding, never ascending” oceanic circles. When everyone has to be included in decision-making, consensus is the only way. This is how Indigenous cultures have practised democracy throughout history. Future generations are reconnecting to this ancient tradition of shaping real freedom and are recognising that corporate rule has displaced democracy.

People’s representatives have mutated into corporate representatives, and democracy has reached its democratic limits. From being “of the people, by the people, for the people”, it has become “of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations”. Money drives elections, and money runs governments.

Gandhi identified “modern civilisation” as the real cause of loss of freedom: “Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word ‘civilisation’. Its true test lies in the fact that people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life… Civilisation seeks to increase bodily comforts and it fails miserably even in doing so… This civilisation is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed.”

This, I believe, is at the heart of Gandhi’s foresight. The ecological crisis, which is a result of the intense resource-appetite and pollution caused by industrialisation, is the most important aspect of the self-destruction of civilisation. Industrialisation is based on fossil fuels, and fossil-fuel civilisation has given us climate chaos and is now threatening us with climate catastrophe. It has also given us unemployment.

The new movements of the future generations are movements of the excluded who have been deprived of every right – political, economic and social. They have nothing to lose but their disposability and dispensability. In spite of being the victims of brutal injustice and exclusion, the people in these new movements are deeply committed to nonviolence. Occupy is in fact a reclaiming of the commons.

This is what Mahatma Gandhi called swaraj

The park is the physical commons in every town. Today the parks are places for announcing to Wall Street, to the banks, to our governments, that the 99% is withdrawing its consent from the present disorder that has pushed millions to homelessness, joblessness and hunger.

Freedom in our times has been sold as “free market democracy”. “Free markets” mean freedom for corporations to exploit whomever and whatever they wish, wherever they wish and however they wish. It means the end of freedom for people and Nature everywhere. “Free market democracy” is in fact an oxymoron that has deluded us into believing that deregulation of corporations means freedom for us. Just as the illusion of growth and the fiction of finance have made the economy volatile and unpredictable, the fiction of the corporation as a legal person has replaced citizens and made society unstable and non-sustainable; humans as Earth citizens with duties and rights have been replaced by corporations with no duties to either the Earth or society but only seemingly limitless rights to exploit both the Earth and people.

Corporations have been assigned legal personhood, and corporate rights – premised on maximisation of profits – are now extinguishing the rights of the Earth, and the rights of people to the Earth’s gifts and resources. The new movements understand this. And that is why they are indignant and are occupying the political and economic spaces to create a living democracy with people and the Earth at the centre – instead of corporations and greed.


This article is printed with permission from Resurgence Magazine, UK

Vandana Shiva


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